We can't let 2015 go without another visit to the Anzacs. We would find them today a century ago on a Greek island, hardly believing they had just been evacuated from that living hell not far away. Their Christmas Day would have been bitter-sweet. Bitter because they had left so many mates back there in graves, sweet because, against every man's expectations, he was alive.
The evacuation was the only successful phase of the Gallipoli campaign and it is remarkable to read about it now. For eight months the Anzacs had been clinging to a small pocket of the peninsula, just a couple of low ridges, constantly under shelling and rifle fire from higher ground. To survive against overwhelming odds they had to maintain a barrage of fire from their forward trenches. How in hell could they leave?
The War Cabinet had come to the decision in November as winter set in. Ever since the failure of the August offensive, when the Kiwis had briefly gained Chunuk Bair, it had become evident the Allies were not going to get a breakthrough in the Dardanelles. Lord Kitchener gave the order on November 4 for an evacuation plan to be prepared with utmost secrecy.
It went into action on December 15, just last week if you will.
Commanding officers were not given the plan until the day before, though the troops had suspected something was up. The supplies on the beach were no longer being rationed and rumours had circulated that equipment was being dumped at sea. On the 15th they were told they would be taken off over two nights, beginning that night.
On the first night, two parties would be taken from the beach to waiting ships, the second night there would be three parties, the first would be taken off at 6.30pm, the second at 10.30pm and the last would not leave their post until 2am.
"If necessary," writes Chris Pugsley in Gallipoli , The New Zealand Story, the last party would stay and cover the evacuation of the remaining troops. Enough said.
Pugsley records that, "Men in all the battalions demanded the right to be in the last party. Companies volunteered to a man. Those who missed out lodged complaints with their officers." No one, he writes, wanted to go. One soldier said, "Well, sir, I hope our poor pals who lie all around us sleep soundly and do not stir in discontent as we go filing away from them forever."
They visited the graves one last time, repaired headstones and marked the plots with stones. Down on the beach the horses were being shot. The soldiers not on the front line were encouraged to move about and help themselves to the liquor supplies, which many did. It is hard to believe the Turks did not suspect what was happening but legend has it they did not. The Anzacs famously rigged up rifles with a water-drip trigger mechanism as the numbers in the forward trenches thinned out.
The second night was December 19, last Saturday. One soldier in the second party described the scene: "The night was very still, scarcely a shot was fired and near us no bullets fell. In the brilliant moonlight every familiar feature showed clearly, the bends, the bracken, the forsaken bivouacs, the graves ... "
At 2am the final party, the rear guard, moved down, carrying machine guns, pulling wire barricades across the communication trenches as they went.
They emerged on to the beach, lined up on the pier, were checked on to the lighters and taken out to the ships. Not a man was lost.
They were taken back to Mudros Harbour where they were safe but probably not sound. The shelling and bullets would haunt many for life. In their diaries the evacuation felt like failure. Sitting around at Mudros they could not have imagined their campaign would ever be regarded as anything more than a failure. Public attention in Europe had long since shifted back to the Western Front.
In Australia and New Zealand the numbers they had lost in the Dardanelles and the numbers who had returned wounded and shell-shocked told their own story - or rather didn't tell it, didn't want to talk about it.
I wish they could have seen their centenary.