12th December, 1915
Like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky has come the stupendous and paralyzing news that, after all, the Allied War Council has decided that the best and wisest course is to evacuate the Peninsula, and secret orders to carry out that operation have just reached up here. The secret is known so far to only a small handful of men, but there is no harm in my writing about it to-day because it will be many days before this letter can be posted, and where it will be posted I do not yet know. Already we have stopped the further arrival of stores, mails, reinforcements, munitions, etc. It would be impossible later on to remember all the details, so I am going to write a short note in diary form each day, or at a few days’ interval. The first thing to do is to secure as great a measure of secrecy as possible. The operation of withdrawal is going to be every bit as critical and dangerous an enterprise as the first landing, and if the Turks were to get the slightest inkling of what was intended, it would mean the sacrifice of some men, and vast quantities of munitions and stores. At a conference of Commanders it was decided to put a bluff, that owing to the severe weather conditions it is intended to form a winter rest camp at Imbros, and take the Brigades and Battalions there by turns. In this way we shall be able in two or three stages to remove about two-thirds of totally army, leaving the remaining third to man the defences very lightly, and then finally to make a bolt for the beach in the dead of night, and into boats which will be waiting.
It is, of course, an absolutely critical scheme which may come off quite successfully or may end in a frightful disaster. But orders, I need not say I feel very unhappy. Being bound to secrecy, I can take none of my Staff or C.O’s into my confidence, I am almost frightened to contemplate the howl of rage and disappointment there will be when the men find out what is afoot, and how they have been fooled, and I am wondering what Australia will think at the desertion of her 6,000 dead, and her 20,000 other casualties.
13th December, 1915
The move has already commenced. To-night the whole of the 15th Battalion, and about 100 of odds and ends are being taken off the barges. I am sending with them all the invaluable Brigade records and a portion of my own baggage. I am wondering where and when I shall ever see the latter again. Owing to withdrawals in other parts of the line, I have also had to take over an extended length of front, so that I have now three Battalions in the front line and no Brigade Reserve at all. Yet I feel the utmost confidence in the sticking it out, no matter what happens. Of course it is my intention, if left a free hand, to be the last man of the Brigade ashore, and to see everybody safely off, but Sir A H Russell has told me to-day that, as I am second in command of the Division, he will very likely decide for me to get away with the second last quotas, so I can supervise the concentration of the Division at whatever place we are going to, which I presume is Imbros for the time being. It is very gratifying to find how very smoothly the move of the 15th Battalion was carried out. They packed up the whole of their belongings and impedimenta and disappeared into the night at two hours’ notice.
14th December, 1915
About 600 of the 4th Brigade with all their impedimenta got safely away last night, although there was a half-moon. I do not think the enemy could suspect any activities out at sea because for months all our moves both inwards and outwards have been at night. To-day we are engaged in making away with all kinds of stores, grenade bombs, picks, shovels, sandbags, food supplies, ordinary gear and everything else which we shall probably be unable to handle. The great problem will be to get away our heavy guns, they will have to be left till the last, because we must keep them in action until the last possible moment. I am now engaged in drawing up my plans for the rear guard action of the Brigade which it will have to fight at the very last. I have selected the 13th and 16th Battalions (i.e the pick of them) for this duty. All the rest of my personal baggage and papers are packed ready for removal at short notice.
15th December, 1915
It is curious and interesting to watch the machine unwind itself as methodically and systematically as it was originally wound up. The supply of fresh meat and bread stopped a couple of days ago, and as reserves of these are being used up, we are all going steadily back to an emergency diet of hard biscuits and bully beef. All inward mail stopped yesterday, and all the postal organisation has been disbanded. Defaulters and men undergoing field punishment were released and returned to their Units yesterday, and to-day the whole organisation of the Provost Marshall will be dissolved, Military Police withdrawn, and men will rejoin their Battalions. All men on detached duty, such as Cooks, Clerks, Telephonists, etc, loaned or borrowed from other units are being released and sent back to their own commands. From to-day the daily mule train of supplies will stop, and the organisation will be disbanded, after that it will be a case of fetching and carrying by hand, as we had to do in the first two or three weeks. Already fewer and fewer people can take off their clothes at night, and little by little news, bulletins and other comforts and solaces of our semi-civilization, gathered together after many months of effort and planning, are disappearing one by one each day. My Field Hospital is packing up and flits to-day after that it is good bye to small medical comforts which a visit of inspection to a hospital always seemed to materialize. Supply of firewood stopped yesterday, and with it collective cooking, so the men’s camp mess tins are in evidence, and each man is again preparing his own food. Although the move is still officially a secret, the men would be fools indeed if they have not already guessed what is in the wind. Yet if you asked them, not a man would pretend that he suspected anything, and all ranks go about their day’s work as if we were able to stay here till the end of the war.
15th December, 1915 (later)
A further long conference of Brigadiers is just over. The actual date of the beginning of the move is not yet settled. It may be tomorrow or not for a week or more. All depends upon weather and upon the state of moon. Today there was a N.E. wind and the sea has come up very rough, making it extremely difficult to load baggage. The loading and landing Officers today declared we must all be prepared for the eventuality that all the remainder of our baggage will have to be abandoned. This means that we shall be able to take away only what we can carry in our hands or on our backs. It may mean the sacrifice of all our clothes, and everything else that money can replace, and I am getting to work to make up into small handy parcels such things as my letter, papers and special articles of value. It was decided today that I am not to go away in advance at which I am very glad, because I want to be the last man of the Brigade to leave, hope it will turn out so. To show how completely all arrangements are being made I will instance one detail which I sincerely hope will not prove necessary. At a suitable place we have established a Casualty Clearing Station to accommodate 1,200 patients with a full staff of Doctors, Dressers and hospital gear. In case there is any heavy fighting during the final stages of the re-embarkation all casualties will as far as possible be brought to this Station and left there. The Medical Officers and personal in charge will of course have to stay too, so they have been provided with interpreters and a dispatch addressed to the enemy Commander, calling upon him to carry into effect the provisions of the Geneva Convention, as regards taking over wounded and Red Cross personnel and administering the same. I have every confidence that in such an eventuality the Turks will play the game.
16th December, 1915
The day passed quite uneventfully. We managed to get some baggage off today, as the wind has dropped and the sea is calmer. The total strength at Anzac has in the last four days been reduced from 45,500 to 20,000 and we still continue to hold the line against at least 170,000 Turks (10 Divisions) until the second last day, and on the very last day we shall have only 10,000. Everything is working out, so far, most smoothly. It has been tentatively arranged to carry out the two final stages on the 18th and 19th, but a final decision will depend upon the weather prospects. I have now hopes that I shall be able to get away my most valuable belongings. Today for the first time I took my Staff and Commanding Officers into my confidence and explained to them the outlines of the general scheme, and particular role each would have to play. The rest of the day I spent in preparing a complete draft of my final orders.
17th December, 1915
In view of the steadiness of the barometer and generally favorable conditions, it has now been decided to carry out the operation of the re-embarkation tomorrow and Sunday. Today, therefore, we had our Final Divisional Conference, and took mutual farewells of each other. General Birdwood himself came over from Imbros and specially picked my Lines for a visit. He went along my whole Line and shook hands with all Officers, and expressed the hope that many of them would come through alive. I have already sent off about 800 of the Brigade and tomorrow McGlinn goes with another 800, and on the last night I take the remaining 825. These I have divided into three groups: - First 400, Second 255, last of all 170 moving respectively at 6pm, 10pm and 2am. The last 170 or ”Die Hards“ have been chosen from the most gallant and capable men in the Brigade. Even these will not leave the trenches in a bunch, but a few of the most daring men who are good athletes will remain in the front trenches, and keep up a fire for another 10 minutes, and then will make for the beach at best possible speed. I am myself going, as ordered, with the first group of the last 170 as by that time the die will be cast, and I can do no good by waiting for the last handful. The men, while very sad at having to give up the ground which has cost Australia so dear, are all very keen, and I am quite sure that not a man in the Brigade will move from his post, no matter what happens, until the exact moment arranged for him to do so. It has been worrying me to think that if we get clear away, even without much loss, the enemy will nevertheless represent the incident as a great victory for them even to the extent of alleging that – ”There has been a great fight and that they have driven us into the sea with heavy losses and many prisoners.“ Such news would travel to Berlin and then to America, and would perhaps slip to Australia via Vancouver so I made it my special business to explain my apprehension to General Birdwood, and he has promised me that as soon as possible after the completion of the operation, he will himself cable Australia and New Zealand in order to allay public anxiety as to the welfare of the Army Corps. I sincerely hope this little plan will come off successfully, and that the Australian public will take no notice of reports from enemy sources, and wait for authentic reports from us.
18th December, 1915
Everything is going smoothly. The enemy is exceptionally quiet. A final Conference today with my Staff and C.O’s. Lt. Col McGlinn left for the beach at 3.30 to make arrangements in advance, for my quota of 800 which is leaving today commencing at 9 O’Clock. This evening Col Palmer my best Typewriting Clerk was hit in the leg while I was talking to him outside the Brigade Office by a stray bullet which passed clean through his calf missing the bone. This happened only an hour ago. The signal traffic has been exceptionally heavy today, all sorts of communication being done by field telegraph instead of by letter carried by messengers. We have worked out a very clever device for firing off a rifle automatically at any pre-determined time after the device is started. It is done by allowing a tin to slowly fill with water until it overbalances, falls and jerks a string which fires the rifle. I have had 10 rifles fixed in this way which will fire off respectively 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes afterwards. In this way the enemy will think we are still in the trenches after we have got over a mile away.
The last party of the first night has embarked safely. I have just had a note from McGlinn sent back by one of my Police. ”All O.K. Dined with M.L.O (Military Landing Officer), curried chicken washed down with Burgunday, everybody feeding out of my hand.“ The real meaning of the message was that McGlinn had succeeded in getting off the last of our personal baggage, and that all Troops have so far got away without loss. This now leaves me with just what I stand in and only Locke, Firth (my Signal Officer) and two Signallers, and two Police, a Brigadier H.Q. and 800 men holding my front of over a mile. Everything is normal, just the usual sniping and occasional bombs, and burst of machine gun fire. If we get through tonight I feel sure all will be well. My bed tonight will be a heap of old sand bags. As to the ”Die Hard“ a list has been drawn up and the names of each of the last 170 Officers and men showing for each man the exact time that he has to leave the front trenches and exactly what he has to do, whether to carry a machine gun or its tripod, or its belts, or to throw a bomb, or to start an automatic rifle, or to light a fuse which will blow up a gun-cotton mine, or to complete a previously prepared barbed wire entanglement on a track which might be used by the enemy. Everyone of these 170 Officers and men has been given a card containing all these particulars, so far as they apply to himself, and the exact route by which he is to reach the beach. All this means organisation and makes all the difference between success and failure. I think now, I had better try and get a couple of hours’ sleep, as everything seems normal and not more than the usual noise for this time of night.
Noon, 19th December, 1915
The last day on Gallipoli. Last night’s move passed off smoothly and without incident, everything satisfactory and well ahead of time. The weather today is absolutely perfect for our purposes, perfectly calm air and sea, cloudy, foggy and dull with a very light misty drizzle so that everything in the distance is dull and blurred. During this morning the Turks treated us to a prolonged and heavy bombardment of the beaches, but it was not intense enough to indicate that they had any suspicion, it is probably only the usual morning ”hate“, but they are a little angrier than usual.
8 O’clock pm
Everything is going swimmingly and without a hitch. By this time the A. Parties of tonight will have got off, and at this present moment there are not more than 5,000 Troops in the whole of Anzac thinly holding the front line against 170,000 of the enemy. If the Turks only knew. This afternoon the fleet carried out a most terrific bombardment at Helles in order to suggest the idea that we were contemplating an attack. It is clear bright moonlight, but icy cold. One of our planes is buzzing overhead, mainly to keep any enterprising enemy plane from trying to be curious and see what is going on. The next hour or two will be decisive. The B Parties start at 9:30 and then there will be only a small handful left, but we shall have succeeded in withdrawing the great bulk of the Army Corps without any loss, a wonderful piece of organisation beyond any doubt. If it succeeds it will be due to the splendid preparation on the part of the leaders and splendid and intelligent obedience on the part of the men.
Entering Mudros Harbour 20th December, 4am
The last hours on Gallipoli were tense and exciting in the extreme. About 9 my last Patrol came in and reported that they could plainly hear the Turks digging and putting out wire on Hackney Wick and Green Knoll, two points at which my lines have been pushed very close to theirs. This meant that so far they suspected nothing. The last hours passed wearily. Every crack bomb explosion might have been the beginning of a general attach all along the line. By 10 o’clock our final numbers had been reduced to 170 in the Brigade ie 600 in the whole New Zealand and Australian Division and about 1,500 in the whole Army Corps, spread along a front of over 8 miles. This meant that if at any point along this great line the Turks had discovered the withdrawal of the garrison, and if only a few of our men had given way and allowed our lines to be penetrated, the whole of this last 1,500 would have had a very hard fight of it, and many would have left their bones in Gallipoli. As it was, the final withdrawal commenced at 1:35 am, then the balance of machine guns and 30 men came out, and at 1:55 am my last man left his foremost position, leaving only the automatic devices working.
All other Brigades and Divisions were similarly timed according to their distance from the embarking piers of which we had four. Down dozens of little gullies leading back from the front lines came little gangs of six to a dozen men and last (in every case an Officer) closing the gully with a previously prepared frame of barbed wire, or lighting a fuse which an hour later would fire a mine which would wreck a ”sap“ or tunnel by which the enemy could follow. All these little columns of men kept joining up like so many rivulets which flow into the main stream, and so at last they coalesced into four continuous lines, one from South, two from East and one (that is ours) from North. There was no check, no halting, no haste or running, just a steady silent tramp in single file without lights or smoking, and every yard brought us nearer to safety. The head of the four marching lines reached the Brighton, Anzac, Howitzer and North beaches almost at the same time so well had everything been timed, and so well had all kept to the prescribed pace of three miles per hour, and then without check each line marched like so many ghostly figures in the dim light in single file on to the allotted jetty, the sound of marching feet having been deadened by laying a floor of sand-bags, and so on to motor barges (beetles we call them) each holding 400. On to these Generals, Staff Officers, Gunners and Privates all packed up promiscuously and quietly, there was a short pause to make sure that no one had been left on shore, not a sound could be heard on the shore except the throb of the ”beetles“ engines and on the distant hills the spasmodic rifle shots of the enemy discharged at our empty trenches. Then the landing and loading staff, chiefly Naval Officers, stepped aboard. ”Let go all over“ ”Right away“ was the last order, and slowly we moved out, just before the barge at Anzac Pier cast off, the engineer on shore joined the terminals of an electric battery, and thereby fired three enormous gun cotton mines, which, with a terrific explosion, blew up Russell’s Top, which was the Knoll at the head of the Western Branch of Monash Valley, and which, though we could never drive the Turks off it, we had succeeded in tunneling under. With the Knoll a couple of hundred Turks must have gone up into the air, but nothing could be seen except a volcano of dust. Instantly a most terrific tornado of rifle and machine gun fire burst forth along the whole length of Sari Bair, showing that the Turks, far from suspecting our real manoeuvre, had been actually expecting an attack of which they took the firing of the mine to the first signal. Thus dramatically with the bullets (aimed at our trenches high up on the slopes of the range) whistling harmlessly overhead, we drew off in the light of the full moon, mercifully screened by a thin mist, and so ended the story of the Anzacs at Gallipoli. We had succeeded in withdrawing 45,000 men, also mules, guns, stores, provisions and transports to the value of several million pounds without a single casualty and without allowing the enemy to entertain the slightest suspicion. It was a most brilliant conception, and will, I am sure, rank as the greatest joke in the whole range of Military History. Arrived at last on the little transport ”Arran“ and packing closely on her two decks and her little cabins and her little saloon, officers and men of both Army and Navy, from upwards of fifty different units, who had not seen or heard of each other since the days of the war training in Egypt, or since leaving the Homeland. The strain being over, the re-action came, wild and hilarious greetings, mutual felicitations and hearty hand shakes all round. The steamer got underway from Lemnos, the sights and sound of Gallipoli dropped back into the past. Gradually the ship’s company worn out with the want of sleep and the tremendous strain of the closing hours fell asleep in all sorts of alley-ways and on hatches. I got a bunk in the pantry-man’s cabin, but found myself quite unable to sleep so decided to write down my impressions while they were fresh. It is now 6:30am and we are just dropping anchor in the outer anchorage of Mudros Harbor and a new day breaking.
6:pm East Mudros, December 20th, 1915
There is little to add to the history – Brig. General Johnston (Chief of our artillery) has just landed from on board a destroyer to direct Naval fire in case we had been attacked. He relates that at 9 o’clock this morning and again at 12 noon the Turks opened a furious bombardment on our empty trenches, particularly at Lone Pine, The Apex, and Hill 60 (the last two being the ends of my portion of the line) so up till then they had not discovered our departure even though our destroyers had amused themselves all the morning shelling our beaches and hospitals (which have been left standing) with incendiary shells, so as to burn up the debris of wreckage which we had created, and deprive the Turks of anything of possible value to them.
This is the end of the story of Gallipoli, so far as the Army Corps is concerned, and now we turn our energies to gathering up our details from all over the Island, to sorting out Units, forming camps, refitting and standing by the next orders. What they will be no one knows. May be Helles or Salonika, or France or Cairo or the Canal.