The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919
Chapter V. — The Evacuation
The evacuation of the Peninsula had long been urged by a section of English critics and their press: but the first definite sign that the War Council was contemplating withdrawing the Expeditionary Force from there, came in the form of a telegram from Lord Kitchener to Sir Ian Hamilton, on October 11th, 1915. In this, Lord Kitchener asked for an estimate of the losses which would be involved in an evacuation of the Peninsula. To quote Sir Ian's own words:—"On the 12th October I replied in terms showing that such a step was to me unthinkable."* He stated that the probable loss was estimated at fifty per cent; but as Mr. Nevinson points out, "No estimate could be anything but a guess, as all depended on incalculable weather and incalculable Turks."
|(a)||To report, on the military situation on the Peninsula.|
|(b)||To express an opinion whether on purely military grounds the Peninsula should be evacuated, or another attempt made to carry it.|
|(c)||To state what he considered to be the number of troops that would be required,
* Naval and Military Despatches, Part IV., p. 47.
General Monro arrived at Gallipoli on October 30th; and his report to the War Council left no room for doubt that he considered evacuation to be urgently required. In particular, he reported that:—"The positions occupied by our troops presented a military situation unique in history. The mere fringe of the coast-line had been secured. The beaches and piers upon which they depended for all requirements in personnel and material were exposed to registered and observed artillery fire. Our entrenchments were dominated almost throughout by the Turks. The possible artillery positions were insufficient and defective. The force, in short, held a line possessing every possible military defect. The position was without depth, the communications were insecure and dependent on the weather. No means existed for the concealment and deployment of fresh troops destined for the offensive—whilst the Turks enjoyed full powers of observation, abundant artillery positions, and they had been given the time to supplement the natural advantages which the position presented by all the devices at the disposal of the field engineer."* He also laid stress upon the exhaustion of the garrison, caused by the lack of rest areas out of range of fire, and their sufferings from disease; and stated that the heavy casualties had caused many units to be short of competent officers.
On receiving this report, the War Council sent Lord Kitchener out to visit the Peninsula, and he left England on November 5th. He was no advocate of evacuation; for apart from the difficulty and risk of the operation, he recognised how serious a blow it would deal to British prestige in the East. He had time to pay only a flying visit to the Peninsula, and was at Anzac on November 13th, but not in the New Zealand trenches.
His return to England by way of Salonika and Italy delayed his report to the War Council; so that it was not till December 8th that General Birdwood received orders to proceed with the evacuation of Anzac and Suvla. These orders had been anticipated by General Monro, who now commanded the whole of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces, and who towards the end of November had directed General Birdwood, in command at Gallipoli, to perfect a scheme for evacuation, so that no time should be wasted.
|(1)||The withdrawal of all troops, animals, and supplies not required for a defensive winter campaign, as opposed to an offensive one.|
|(2)||The withdrawal of all troops, guns, animals, and supplies, except the bare minimum required to hold the trenches, in the event of the weather becoming so bad as to interfere temporarily with the evacuation.|
|(3)||The final stage, in which the troops on shore should be embarked with all possible speed, abandoning the guns, animals, and stores which had been kept on shore for the use of the final garrison.|
The first stage had actually been in progress before the orders of December 8th were issued: as far as the New Zealand Infantry Brigade was concerned, the only effect of this stage was the retention at Alexandria of reinforcements, which would otherwise have arrived at the Peninsula about the end of November. In this brigade, therefore, matters went on as usual. The Canterbury Battalion remained at Cheshire Ridge, where the building of dugouts continued, and wire was erected in front of some of the trenches.page 77
It was not till December 12th that it was guessed in the battalion that evacuation was to take place at an early date: the publication on the 9th of a Divisional Order directing special precautions to be taken against spies, and the stoppage of outward mails on the 13th, tended to support these guesses, Consequently, when orders came on the 13th that the whole of the Otago Battalion, together with the Maoris attached to the other battalions, and the brigade band and other details, were to leave for a "rest" at Mudros, there were few who did not understand that these troops would not return to the Peninsula. Owing to shortage of transport, this party did not get away till the night of the 14th/15th.
The departure of the Otago Battalion made necessary a redistribution of the sector held by the New Zealand Infantry Brigade; and the 1st Company took over the additional part of the front line allotted to the Canterbury Battalion (on the right of the sector already held by the battalion), with its right flank in the left post of the Apex. Each of the four companies now had some of its own men in the firing-trenches. A small advance party from the battalion left for Mudros on the 15th.
Divisional orders issued on December 15th laid down that the final stage of evacuation would be divided into two nights, and that all but two thousand of the New Zealand and Australian Division would leave the first night. The number of troops from the New Zealand Infantry Brigade to be embarked on the first night was laid down by Division as 741, and 800 of the brigade were left for the final night. The corresponding figures compiled from the brigade states are 555 and 801. The first night of the final stage was originally ordered to be the 17th/18th, but on the 17th the operations were postponed for a day.
Meanwhile, every precaution had been taken to ensure that, to the Turks' eyes, life behind our lines was absolutely normal. For some time before any of the guns were removed, a new system of firing them had been adopted, by which the enemy became accustomed to long intervals of silence. The troops who remained were ordered to show themselves and to move about freely, the usual number of periscopes showed above the parapets, and the diminished garrisons of the trenches were page 78 kept busy discharging rifles from various points, so as to maintain the normal rate of fire.
The night of December 17th/18th saw the departure of the 2nd and 12th Companies, the former embarking at 10.30 p.m. and the latter at midnight. There remained now only the 1st and 13th Companies (reduced in strength to about 270 in all) to hold the battalion front; but that night and the following day passed quietly.
As on the previous day, the troops were divided for the purposes of embarkation into three parties—"A," "B," and "C." Shortly after 5 p.m., the "A" party, consisting of ninety-four of all ranks, drawn in equal numbers from the two companies, left for the beach; and with them went all the machine-guns except one. The "B" party, of a hundred and twenty-nine of all ranks, left at 8.45 p.m. There was now left the "C" party of about forty picked officers and men, under Major H. Stewart, to hold the battalion front, and to keep up the appearance of normal conditions.
To quote the report of the General Officer Commanding the Division on the evacuation:—"To give an appearance of numbers to the "C" parties to assist their withdrawal and to hinder the enemy should he endeavour to follow up quickly, various devices were adopted. The men moved rapidly but quietly up and down the trenches, and fired shots from the various points from which fire was usually delivered. To continue fire after the last men had left the trenches, rifles were fixed at loopholes, with an arrangement which fired them after a certain interval of time. The essential of this arrangement was either a tin full of water which leaked, or a time fuse which burnt through a string, and in both cases released a weight which pulled the trigger. Trip wires which withdrew the pins from Mills' bombs, bombs concealed in discarded blankets; wire gates to be dropped in communication trenches and other similar devices were prepared. Everything that could be of use to the enemy was as far as possible removed, destroyed, or buried."
After the departure of the "B" party, the "C" party had been told off in fours along the whole of the firing trench; and at 1.50 a.m. on the 20th, the men numbered "one" (i.e. every page 79 fourth man along the line) left for the beach, taking with them the remaining machine gun. Ten minutes later the line was further thinned by the departure of the "number threes": each of the men remaining was now holding double the frontage he had held before 1.50 a.m. Major Stewart and the remaining party left the trenches at 2.15 a.m., closed the gap in the entanglement at the head of Salzi Beit Dere, and made their way to the beach.
The time given to this party to reach the pier had been reduced to the absolute minimum, and it had to move at a trot to arrive in time. Passing through the "keep," or inner line round the piers, held by Australian troops under the command of Colonel J. Paton, of the 2nd Australian Division, the "C" party arrived without casualties at the beach. There it joined the "C" parties from the rest of the brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Young, who was in command of all the brigade rear parties. As the Canterbury "C" party left the front line, the Turks could be heard putting up wire entanglements, and clearly had no suspicion of what was going on. But when the party reached the beach, they could see Turkish flares going up in quite unusual numbers. The "C" party was not kept waiting long before its members embarked on lighters, from which they were transferred to warships—the majority to H.M.S. Heroic, though a few under Lieutenant Gray were put on board another vessel.
This was the last party of the Canterbury Battalion to leave Anzac: the names of the officers were Lieutenant-Colonel R. Young, Major H. Stewart, Captain F. N. Johns (medical officer), Lieutenants A. D. Stitt, D. P. Fraser, D. A. Dron, A. L. Gray, and A. R. Curtis (machine-gun officer); but the names of the thirty-seven other ranks (all except three or four of whom belonged to the 13th Company) are not on record. Before dawn the remaining troops of the Corps had been safely embarked, save for a few stragglers who were picked up by the navy early in the morning.
The following is a summary of the casualties of the Canterbury Regiment, as shown in the official casualty lists, for the period between the formation of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and May 14th, 1916 (inclusive). The writer is aware that it differs from the official summary, but after discovering the discrepancy, has checked his figures very carefully, and found no reason to alter them.
|Killed in Action||7||203|
|Died of Wounds||5||93|
|Died of Disease||2||43|
|Died from Unknown Cause||2||24|
|Died from Other Causes||5|
* Includes no doubt a certain number who subsequently died.