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New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18

The Evacuation

page 96

The Evacuation.

On October 16th Sir Ian Hamilton was recalled to London, in order, as he was informed on his arrival, that the Government might have the opportunity of obtaining a "fresh, unbiassed opinion, from a responsible commander, upon the question of early evacuation." This was the first of the series of events which led to the evacuation of the Peninsula; but at the time its significance was not understood by the soldiers, to whom nothing was made known of the reason which lay behind the Commander-in-Chief's recall. His successor, General Sir Charles Munro, did not arrive at Gallipoli until the end of the month, and during the interval command of the Forces was temporarily held by General Birdwood. The visit to Anzac on November 13th of Lord Kitchener created a sensation in the trenches through which the famous soldier passed, and raised a perfect welter of picturesque conjecture, and set many rumours afloat, regarding his visit and its probable consequences. Lord Kitchener proceeded to the observing station of the 2nd Battery, from where he was afforded a comprehensive view of the Anzac country. Within a few hours he had left Anzac, and was proceeding up the coast to Suvla.

Before the decision to evacuate had been actually taken, preparations towards that end were quietly begun, and so successfully was the real aim hidden that for a long while it was completely unknown to the soldiers themselves. In order to accustom the enemy to such a thing, and so lessen the risk of raising his suspicions, a period of silence of forty-eight hours was ordered at the end of November. Not a shot was fired during this period, and all work that would be apparent to the enemy ceased. Whatever he may have thought the Turk made no move, but his trenches were seen to be strongly manned on the first morning that normal activity was resumed, and they were accordingly treated to a brisk bombardment from six batteries, shooting being good and effective in its results. That evening the 54th Division, whose front had been covered by the New Zealand Artillery since the close of the August fighting, was withdrawn. Before leaving the page break
The Tragedy of Ypres The ruins of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral

The Tragedy of Ypres The ruins of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral

page break page 97Peninsula, the Divisional Commander, General Inglefield, sent the following message to Colonel Johnston:—"On leaving Anzac I wish to thank you very heartily for your cordial cooperation and assistance, and for the effective help your guns have always afforded us." On December 8th, General Birdwood, now commanding the Dardanelles army, was directed to proceed with the evacuation of Anzac and Suvla at once. Detailed plans for such a step had already been perfected, and immediately the whole prepared machinery was set in motion. The decision to evacuate could not long be withheld from the soldiers. The rapid embarkation, night after night, of surplus stores and animals, and the gradual reduction of the force to the bare limits of safety could suggest only one conclusion. Consequently the order issued on December 16th announcing the impending event did not create any sudden surprise in the minds of the majority, but came rather as a confirmation of strong suspicion. The decision was received with mingled feelings in which it would be difficult to say whether regret or relief was uppermost. Everyone felt bitterly the relinquishment of the hallowed ground on which so many of their comrades had sacrificed their lives, and lay, many of them, still unburied; but they viewed with relief the close of a struggle whose continuance under existing conditions could only result in useless sacrifice.

On the day on which the first detachments left the Peninsula, there arrived a large quantity of canteen stores, which had been purchased for the artillery by an officer who had been sent to Imbros some time previously. It was a bitter reflection that these stores of provisions, which the batteries had had no opportunity of buying for eight months, should arrive on the eve of their departure. The stores could not be taken away by units, so a certain amount of them were sold by auction, and the remainder were destroyed so that they might be of no use to the enemy.

The evacuation of the New Zealand Field Artillery, and the other batteries attached to the Division, extended over little more than a week. Orders to evacuate the guns were issued on December 10th, and the evacuation began the following night, when one section of guns from each New Zealand page 98Battery was sent away. In many cases the guns had to be manhandled for a considerable distance, across trenches and broken ground, before they could be got on to ground where they could be limbered up and taken to the beach by the teams, but these difficulties were made light of in the determination that the New Zealand Brigades should leave none of their guns behind when Anzac was evacuated. By the 12th seven 18prs. had been embarked, as well as six 5in. howitzers, three 6in. howitzers, and two 4in. guns. On the nights of December 13th and 14th three more 18prs. were evacuated, as well as all the guns of the 6th (howitzer) Battery. On the 15th three 4.5in. howitzers and two 18prs. were evacuated, three more howitzers on the 16th, and one 18pr. on the night of the 17th. By December 18th only two of the New Zealand guns remained—one gun of the 1st Battery and one of the 3rd Battery. These were finally evacuated shortly before midnight on the last night, December 19th. The 1st Battery had only two guns to embark, the others having been knocked out prior to the evacuation.

The number of guns withdrawn from the Peninsula during the evacuation totalled fifty-three, of which number twelve were evacuated during the last two nights. Two guns attached to the Division were destroyed. These were a 5in. howitzer in Australia Valley, and one 3pr. Hotchkiss gun in the Aghyl Dere. Both were blown up an hour or two before the evacuation was completed. Eight ammunition wagons were also left behind, and four horses, which had been ordered to be destroyed, but were turned loose at the last moment. Any ammunition that remained was buried or thrown into the sea.

The final stages of the evacuation were carried out with methodical quietness, and exactly according to the time-table which had been laid down. It was a trying and anxious time for the whole Army Corps, but for none so much as the small garrison which held Anzac during the last twenty-four hours, and whose lives may be literally said to have hung by a thread. Everything possible was done in order to create the appearance of normal activity, and even to encourage the enemy in the belief that fresh troops were being landed by night. The page 99three thousand men who held the Division's sector during the 19th of December were divided into three parties—A., B.. and C., which were to embark in that order. The embarkation of A. and B. parties proceeded without a hitch once night had fallen on the 19th, and by 11.25 p.m. had been completed. There was a considerable interval before the men of C. party began to withdraw, as it was necessary that their movement should synchronise with the withdrawal of the troops of No. 4 Section and of the 9th Corps at Suvla. In the meantime men moved rapidly but quietly up and down the trenches, and fired shots from the various points from which fire was usually delivered. Various devices were also employed by which fixed rifles were discharged after the last men had begun to make their way down to the beach. Exactly at the appointed time the remainder of the rearguard left the trenches and made their way in the darkness down the silent, deserted deres to the pier, where the lighters waited to take them out to the ships in the Bay. By 3.40 a.m. the evacaution had been completed, and the Turk was left in sole possession of Anzac and Suvla. At dawn the enemy commenced shelling the trenches at Anzac, but the men who had lately occupied them were at that time disembarking at Mudros, ninety miles away.

Thus ended the ill-starred Gallipoli campaign, in which the soldiers of New Zealand had tasted at once the thrill of victory and the bitterness of disappointment. They had faced all the changing fortunes of the campaign with determination and unflinching courage, and if final victory had not been theirs they at least had done all that was humanly possible to achieve it. The task of the Artillery had been one of peculiar difficulty; enough has already been said of the terrible nature of the country in which the guns were fought, and of the incessant anxieties caused by the meagre and uncertain ammunition supply. That the New Zealand batteries achieved so much in face of this combination of adverse circumstances, and that they indubitably earned the confidence and gratitude of the soldiers whom they supported must for all time stand to the credit of the men who fought the guns on Gallipoli, and to the honour of the Field Artillery of New Zealand.