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The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919

Chapter XI Of the Last Six Weeks and of the Evacuation

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Chapter XI Of the Last Six Weeks and of the Evacuation

Now snowflakes thickly falling in the winter breeze
Have clothed alike the hard unbending ilex
And the grey drooping branches of the olive trees,
Transmuting into silver all the lead.
And in between the winding lines in No-Man's-Land,
Have swiftly covered with a glittering shroud
The unburied dead.

In the intervening six weeks Anzac had changed very much for the better. The dreadful heat of the summer months was gone and there was a touch of keenness in the air. Most of the flies were dead. One plague was over. The lice however hung on with indomitable tenacity. They had flourished in the heat of summer and now they multiplied exceedingly in the cold of winter. Much work had been done. Trenches everywhere had been improved, communication saps dug, and about the beach rows of relatively good bivvies had been constructed. Anzac had all the appearance of being a "good home." The most extraordinary change however was a physiological one. Men found that they could look a tin of bully beef in the face again! Many of them had never thought to do so, and yet within twenty-page 109four hours of the return there were those who were actually asking for more.

The success of Mackensen in his offensive against Serbia had opened up a clear road from Berlin to Baghdad. The Turks had been seriously embarrassed to obtain sufficient supplies of munitions. Their troubles were now at an end and from the great Austrian factories came heavy howitzers and supplies of shell. On the second day back the enemy planted one hundred and thirty big high explosives in Chailak Dere. Far away there was a muffled report, then for several seconds the great shell could be heard climbing up and up above the mass of Sari Bair with a sound rather like heavy locomotive struggling up a steep incline. When it reached its point of clevation the projectile seemed to hang for a second then turn. The puffing roar changed to a diabolic bloodcurdling scream, as the shell fell with ever-increasing acceleration to strike the hard ground as if it had struck a stone road. Almost at once it exploded with a smashing, tearing explosion, practically unmuffled by soft earth. They did no particular harm on this occasion for after the first few bursts everyone in the vicinity got well away from the danger zone but the Dere rapidly lost attractiveness for all those whose duty led them to go up and down in it.

The menace of these guns and still more the fear of the imaginary monsters that were to come caused a great epidemic of funk-hole digging. The stiff clay faces were splendidly suited for cutting tunnels, and serious attention was devoted to this kind of page 110work. It was of course still an open question as to whether or not an attempt might be made to hang on through the winter and attack again in the spring.

The view from the hills was a glorious one. Every morning Imbros and Samothrace emerged from the morning mists and every evening the sun set in splendour behind them. On the left and far below the plain of Suvla stretched from the Outpost to the Chocolate Hills and Anafarta. To the front and on the right ran the ragged spurs of Hill 971.

"On the shining level of the sea, cruisers and destroyers were ceaselessly on the move. There is a great fascination in watching a destroyer on patrol duty. There is no beauty about her, no colour; she is drab, long and lean from one point of view— broad, low and squat from another. On a moonlight night she is a dark line barely visible. Night and day she never ceases to move. Always there is the ceaseless, tireless moving, the keen look out, the instant readiness to strike. She has the range of every trench and landmark to the yard. A Turkish machine-gun has been pestering Chailak Dere. It is thought that the Turk and his gun are concealed behind yonder screen of bushes. Rifles and machineguns cannot shift him. The shore batteries do not command the spot.

"Word goes out to the grey, weather-stained watcher on the laughing blue sea. She drifts backward and forward so easily, so slowly, so lazily as though every iron muscle was relaxed; as though nothing mattered; as though the day was too fine and the sea too smooth to do anything but drift. page 111But of a sudden there is a flash, a wisp of brown and white smoke, the ear-splitting bang of the 4.7, a burst up on the hillside, and one more Turkish machine-gun has become scrap iron and some more of the faithful have passed from war to the Garden of Paradise and the dark-eyed houris. Kismet! The destroyer drifts up and down so quietly, so easily, with such a lazy grace. She may not speak all day long, but always she is ready. The eyes of the watch are fixed upon the brown hillsides and the men in the long, narrow trenches know that the vigil never tires and will never fail……

"There are other craft to be seen. Sometimes a monitor creeps out from Imbros Harbour. She has a great 14-inch gun in her bow, and when she comes out there is something to justify the thunder tones in which she speaks. Perhaps the enemy are dragging a gun into position. As the ox-team toils patiently along the rough road from Bulair, there is a rumbling in the air gradually growing nearer, a thud as the projectile buries itself in the earth, a rending explosion and then men, machinery, bushes, rocks, debris rise slowly in the air, hang for a moment, while a pall of smoke rises covering all from sight. The smoke clears. The watcher from Rhododendron can perceive no change; but the Skoda gun, brought with such toil down the Danube, will never fire a shot."—2/A.R.

On the afternoon of 13 November a naval launch ran up to the little wharf at Walker's Ridge and a group of staff officers disembarked and commenced to walk up the mule track. General Birdwood was page 112well known to the majority, but it was the tall figure in the centre that attracted the attention of all. It was Earl Kitchener, whose exploits in the Sudan and South Africa had made him the hero of the Empire at a time when most of the Anzac men were schoolboys. It was the legend of his name, the masterful compulsion of his, "Your King and country need you!" that had done more than anything else to rally the British people at the beginning of the war. The splendour of the myth was as yet scarcely dimmed in the eyes of the rank and file. They saw in him the authentic Great Man—the captain of their race—the hero. The Earl was speedily recognized, and word of his coming flew round like wildfire. The English and the Indians struggled rapidly into appropriate clothing and fell in at attention, standing stiffly and saluting correctly as the field-marshal passed by. The Indians especially were greatly moved. The New Zealanders and Australians, however, came just as they were. Some had their hats on, some had none. Some were in shirt sleeves and some in the assorted raiment of three or four different units. Those who were smoking went on smoking; those with their hands in their pockets kept them there. No one saluted. The crowd pressed in more closely and took snaps of the famous soldier under his very nose. Often he could hardly move so dense was the throng. Yet, there was no disrespect. A man met men. The man recognized the qualities of the men, and the men saw in him the leadership, the steadfastness of purpose, and the inspiration which had rallied a whole people to arms. So Kitchener passed on his way.

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The air had had a nip in it for some time, and one morning men woke to find the ground everywhere covered with snow. Many New Zealanders had never seen snow before except high up on the tops or distant mountains—on Ruapehu or Egmont or the Southern Alps. Long slopes that had gleamed yellow in the sun, were shrouded with the mantle of white. The bushes were outlined in silver tracery. The frozen ground was hard as iron. The air was cold, the water was cold. For three whole days many men felt not the slightest inclination to be clean, or only very mildly so, when the sun shone with mild warmth at midday.

The despised bully beef was now at a premium. Stout eaters could now dispose of a couple of tinfuls plus assorted extras. Fat bacon had become a delicacy greatly sought after; even Huntly and Palmer's paving-stones were in great demand. The days of scanty clothing were gone.

Men no longer wandered about in identity disks, indecent apparel and wide smiles, but wrapped themselves up in as many layers of clothing as they could by any means come by. Fortunate was he whose mother, sisters and sweethearts sent many balaclavas, scarves and socks; still more fortunate was he who could salvage all these things from the careless.

On the high slopes of Rhododendron and the Apex the snow disappeared slowly. Amongst the New Zealanders there were practically no cases of frostbite. Lower down, however, on the Suvla flat, the trenches were flooded out by the melting snow. Men unable to move and take proper precautions were page 114frost-bitten. Those who had to stand for considerable periods in the wet and mud developed trench feet; among some of the English and Gurkhas there were as many casualties as in a great battle. For three days there was one long procession of Tommies and Indians being carried out for evacuation.

Meanwhile Sir Ian Hamilton had been relieved of his command and ordered to report to London. His urgent representations, that heavy reinforcements should be rushed out and that victory should be forced through before winter came, were overruled, and a decision to evacuate the Dardanelles was reached.

The most elaborate precautions were taken to mystify and mislead the enemy. On one occasion there was a complete silence extending over two whole days during which no shot was fired from the Anzac position. New trenches were dug, positions were sandbagged, new wire put out. A great show was made of landing more men. Guns were moved round, and fired from new positions so that the enemy might think that the artillery was being strengthened. Rumours of a great new attack were put round. Kitchener himself was to land with a whole new army and was to attack in overwhelming strength on Christmas Day.

All this time preparations for the evacuation were proceeding steadily. Practically every man who reported sick was promptly dispatched to the hospital ships—no matter how slight his ailment. The stores on the beach were opened for free distribution and luxuries such as tinned fish and milk were to be had page 115for the asking. Something was wrong when quartermasters suddenly became generous. On 12 December many guns were got away, and on the following night about one quarter of the men were safely embarked. They were supposed to be going to Imbros for a rest. During the next three days destruction went on apace. Jars of rum were smashed, tins of milk punctured with bayonets, ammunition buried or thrown into the sea, the piles of clothing and the stacks of food soaked with petrol. On the 16th a special order from the Army Corps Commander informed all ranks that evacuation had been decided upon. The feeling amongst both officers and men was bitter in the extreme.

"I am no lion-heart, but I would sooner go over the ridge in frontal assault with all its chances of death with honour than do this thing." "How it did go to our hearts after all we had gone through—how we had slaved and fought—fought and slaved again. … It was hard to be told we must give it up."

But there was nothing else for it, and so preparations went ahead. More men and guns were sent off. On the night of Saturday the 19th half of all the remaining men were got away. There were still enough men in the line to hold it against attack, although there were no reserves in case the attack was repeated. The Sunday passed quietly. The remainder were divided into three parties, A, B, and C. The A party were to leave at 6 p.m. If then all was quiet the B party were to leave at 9 p.m.; and C the last small covering party at two o'clock in the morning. It was generally expected among the men that page 116while the A party might reach the beach in safety, B party would have to fight off heavy attacks and that C party would certainly be cut off and exterminated.

The men of this party were looked upon as being those who would die for the army. Scores of men begged for a place in this little band. Main Body men who had been right through the adventure demanded a place of right; others begged and cajoled and even attempted to bribe. Everything that could be done they did to secure a place in this fellowship of sacrifice. None expected them to come through alive—they, least of all, had any hope of life. It was a supreme act, made without fuss or show of emotion in a manner typically New Zealand.

At nine o'clock on the Monday morning the Turks commenced to shell Rhododendron with high explosive shells. Their ranging was very accurate, and shell after shell burst fair in the trench line, and if the line had not been so thinly occupied the casualties must have been considerable. The day passed quietly. At six o'clock the A party commenced to move down toward the sea. There were few men in the trenches now, and if the Turk had been so minded he could have carried them with one determined rush. The next three hours were perfectly quiet. Nine o'clock came and the second party fell in and moved away, while the rear guard stood to arms in the quiet, deserted trenches, and waited for the sudden shout, the rush of Turks, the last bitter struggle, and then death to whom they had given themselves that their friends might go free.

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The Mounteds came down the Aghyl Dere and the Infantry down Chailak. The Dere had never been so quiet before. Scarcely a bullet fell in places where, on any other night, they would have been falling like the heavy slow drops that precede a thunder shower. In the brilliant moonlight every familiar feature showed clearly out, the angles, the bends, the bracken, the scrub and the graves of men. There were so many of these marked with rough crosses of boxwood—pencil marked. So many sleep on the bloody, bitter slopes of Sari Bair; so many beneath the frowning Outpost Hill; so many by the margin of the blue Aegean. These men elevated the Cross. They blazed a great trail. The long file of men passed by the graves of their dead with no spoken word, but with a reverence that needed no words. The lighters were ready. In half an hour all were aboard.

At two o'clock the rearguard withdrew. Just before the time was up a shout ran along the Turkish lines. Surely the enemy were coming now? They must have seen the transports in the moonlight, and the boats moving to and fro between the ships and the shore. The rearguard "stood to" ready to die like men. The slow minutes ticked past. They had offered themselves, but the offering was not taken. Nevertheless their heroism is not lessened. In their turn the rearguard also came down from the high places. The great wire gates were closed behind them. They came with quietness to the level of the sea. The lighters moved out from the shore. For a while the dark mass of Sari Bair stood out page 118clear against the sky. The outline slowly vanished. When it was but a dim shape there rose a glow of fire.

It was the last of Anzac.

We cannot guess how goodness springs
From the black tempest's breath,
Nor scan the birth of gentler things
In these red bursts of death.

We only know from good and great,
Nothing but good can flow,
That where the cedar crashed so straight
No crooked tree shall grow.

That from their ruin a taller pride
Not for these eyes to see,
May clothe one day the valley side
Non nobis Domine.