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Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918

Chapter VII — The Beginning of the End.

page 71

Chapter VII.

The Beginning of the End.

The close of the August Offensive witnessed the gradual development of a series of events which were to have a pronounced bearing on the prosecution of the Gallipoli Campaign. While the defences and rear and lateral communications of the new front were being improved and extended and a comprehensive scheme of mining developed, the trend of events elsewhere was such as to give rise to a feeling of uneasy apprehension as to the general situation. The entrance of Bulgaria into the war on the side of the Central Powers, the desperate straits to which Serbia was reduced, and the vacillation of Greece, all threatened far-reaching consequences. It was, for example, perfectly clear that more artillery and more ammunition would be made available for Turkish operations on Gallipoli; and the anticipated employment by the enemy of heavy artillery on a grand scale called for the strengthening of defensive works and communication trenches and the deepening and expanding of the existing system of dug-outs to an extent beyond anything previously adopted or thought of. Again, while the weather up to the middle of October had remained fairly settled, there were unmistakeable indications of the approach of winter, with its violent snow storms and fierce blasts sweeping in from the Ægean Sea. Wasted frames were unable to withstand the wholesale sickness which now gripped the garrison; and there was apparently no source of supply that could be drawn upon to appreciably replace the losses caused by the evacuations which followed. The most urgent requests made by the Commander-in-Chief for reinforcements could not be complied with; and it became apparent that the demands of the Gallipoli Campaign were to be subordinated to those of the Western Front. This, it would seem, was the first phase of the developments which pointed to the beginning of the end.

page 72

On October 11th Sir Ian Hamilton was cabled to from England and requested to give an estimate of the losses which would be involved in an evacuation of the Peninsula. On the following day he replied in terms which showed that he regarded such a step as unthinkable. Four days later he received a cable recalling him to London for the reason, as he was subsequently informed, that His Majesty's Government desired an independent opinion from a responsible commander upon the question of an early evacuation. In accordance with this decision General Sir Ian Hamilton relinquished his post as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and, bidding farewell to the "ever-victorious Australians and New Zealanders," departed for England.

General Sir C. C. Monro, the new Commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, arrived at Imbros towards the end of October, and from there proceeded to the Gallipoli Peninsula to investigate the situation, and to express an opinion as to whether on purely military grounds the positions should be evacuated, or another attempt made; and if so the number of troops that would be required. The impressions which he gathered are summarised in the following statement: "The positions occupied by our troops presented a military problem 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 fact, held a line possessing every possible 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 and abundant artillery positions; and they had been given time to supplement the natural advantages which the position presented by all the devices at the disposal of the field engineer." In face of these and other arguments, "irrefutable in their conclusions," General Monro was convinced that complete evacuation was the onlypage 73 wise course to pursue. A visit from Lord Kitchener followed, and the decision to evacuate the Peninsula was apparently then confirmed.

On November 24th orders were received that a period of 48 hours' silence was to be observed, and that no firing was to take place except in case of actual attack by the enemy. This inactivity was faithfully observed; and on the evening of the 26th it was ordered that the policy of silence should be continued until midnight on November 27th. The reasons advanced for the observance of this period of silence were that it was reported that the Turks believed that the Anzac position was about to be evacuated, and that the ruse adopted would induce him to attack; but whatever the real object aimed at, it must have influenced the success of the critical events now pending.

During the closing days of November a blizzard of exceptional severity swept over the Peninsula. The country was covered with a mantle of snow, the outlook generally becoming more repellant and less hopeful as the days dragged their slow length along; while the heavy seas racing before the gale that beat the coast made wreckage of the piers and of the barges moored there. Hard frosts and days and nights of intense cold followed. With the commencement of the blizzard, two companies of the Battalion were at the Apex, one at No. 1 Post and one at No. 2 Post, and two companies in reserve in the Chailak Dere, and with the scanty clothing available and the lack of adequate shelter, they suffered severely. The period of frost was succeeded by a general thaw, and the occupants of the lower areas in particular fared badly; while the recognised tracks and routes became practically impassable. Exceedingly bad as the position was, the high ground of Anzac, with its more effective drainage, had saved the garrison from the disaster which overtook the troops of the 9th Corps on the low levels of Suvla. There in many places water rose to the height of the parapet; and despite the greatest efforts to meet effectively the terrible conditions existing, there were recorded 200 deaths from exposure, while over 10,000 sick were evacuated during the opening days of December. Hard contact with the biting blasts of winter, together with the mountainous seas which raged along the desolate coast andpage 74 threatened the landing and consequent maintenance of supplies, created misgiving among the garrison at Anzac, and gave rise to depressing thoughts envisioning an ugly outlook if the present was to be taken as the forerunner of even worse conditions both on land and sea.