The end of Gallipoli :: 100 years today

4 Posted by - 20 December 2015 - Feature stories

 As we commemorate the centenary of Gallipoli , it is equally important to remember the end of the campaign on 20 December, writes historian Vecihi (John) Basarin.

It was a cold, misty but still night on 20 December 1915. The Turkish sentries in their trenches just north of The Nek peered into the darkness towards the Anzacs and beyond. They were trying to keep warm by moving about. Sergeant Mehmet woke up and started walking towards the front line trenches to inspect the sentries.

There were rumours that there would be another major attack by the enemy as many ships were noticed coming and going at night. But the sergeant’s mind was occupied with the news from his village Sefali, located about a five-hour walk from the battle zone, brought by an elderly farmer named Mustafa. Since most of the Turkish soldiers could not read or write, it was up to people like Mustafa to go around the village, collecting news and stories before walking to the front where he would find his fellow villagers and relay the information.

Sergeant Mehmet had left behind his first-born son who was only three months old; now apparently he was walking. The sergeant was happy about this, but not happy to learn that there were hardly any young able-bodied men left in the village, leaving the hard work of agriculture to be undertaken mainly by the women.

The war was without pity. He had seen much carnage since the enemy had landed on 25 April. As he got closer to the front trenches, we can only imagine that he found himself praying that his wife, son and village would be safe in the future. He knew that this was the last line of defence against the enemy who was trying to capture Istanbul, the beloved capital of the Ottoman Empire. That would mean the end of the Turkish way of life, culture and, of course, its religion. Like the soldiers and officers around him, Sergeant Mehmet felt this threat in his heart and was prepared to sacrifice everything to stop it happening.

About 3.30am, at The Nek under the Turkish trenches, an almighty explosion shook the ground all the way to Anzac Cove. Two more mines followed. The explosion’s brilliant glare could be seen miles away and it blew so much earth that two big craters were formed. Many hundreds of Turkish soldiers were wounded and more than 70 were killed — including Sergeant Mehmet.

The Anzac evacuation

As per normal practice, the expectation was for the Anzacs to rush and capture the craters. So, nearby Turkish units were ordered to shoot with all their weapons and oppose the Anzac onslaught. Charles Bean, the official Australian historian on the front, records the timing:

3.35 — Firing still heavy right to the extreme right. Beachy [a cannon] burst a shell over Artillery Road.

5.00 — Turks still firing. No one ashore. Machine-gun going every now and then.

Then the attacking Turkish soldiers realised that there were no troops on the other side in the Anzac trenches. The Australians and New Zealanders had gone.

 

Australian soldiers in the support trenches on Pope's Hill, Gallipoli Peninsula. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, ID C02699.

Australian soldiers in the support trenches on Pope’s Hill, Gallipoli Peninsula. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, ID C02699.

 

The Anzac evacuation was one of the most successful operations of the campaign. Known as the ‘Silence Ruse’, the evacuation was orchestrated by Brigadier Brudenell White, who was born in St Arnaud in western Victoria.

When it became clear to the war cabinet in London that Gallipoli was an unwinnable proposition, the decision was made to leave quietly. The winter was approaching fast, large Austrian trench mortars with a range of six kilometres had started arriving on the Turkish side, which would leave no place safe for the Anzacs, and importantly, it was clear that the tenacity and resolve of the Turks, defending their homeland, was impossible to break.

So, quietly they went. There were over 35,000 Anzac troops on 8 December, yet they all sailed away group by group each night until, in the early hours of the 20th, none were left. Despite predictions of large casualties, there were only two casualties during this operation.

The Anzacs left behind thousands of their mates, mostly in unmarked graves. The Christmas waiting for them on the island of Lemnos would be bitter. Meanwhile, the Turks — who lost 10 times as many as the Australian side — would begin the grieving process for so many who perished. Peace, with its silence and serenity, had at last arrived in the Anzac sector on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The battle for the heights of Gallipoli had lasted nearly nine months, beginning with a surprise landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April, and finishing with a surprise departure on 20 December 1915. We all commemorate the landing, which was in fact the invasion of a country and the start of the carnage, but few acknowledge the end of hostilities as we do each year for Remembrance Day on 11 November.

At a ceremony to mark the 99th anniversary of the 20 December evacuation, organised by the not-for-profit organisation, Friends of Gallipoli Inc, the late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser stressed the importance of the beginning of peace at Gallipoli. He appeared alongside the Turkish Consul-General Mehmet Küçüksakalli and the newly appointed Victorian Minister for Veterans, John Eren, whose grandfather fought at Gallipoli on the Turkish side. They laid wreaths to the fallen from both sides.

 

An Australian soldier gives a drink to a fallen Turkish soldier. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H98.103/2843.

An Australian soldier gives a drink to a fallen Turkish soldier. Courtesy State Library of Victoria, ID H98.103/2843.

 

Friends of Gallipoli wishes to make a contribution to the Australian Anzac calendar, by acknowledging the peace at the end of the war in Gallipoli through symbolic events such as the ones held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney. It is hoped that celebration of the beginning of peace, and commemoration of all the soldiers who fell on both sides of the conflict at Gallipoli, will be marked across Australia and New Zealand in the future on 20 December.

If you visit Gallipoli today, you can see a small memorial dedicated to Sergeant Mehmet and his soldiers. The craters, near the Nek, remind us of this last action before peace came to the Anzac sector.

Dr Vecihi (John) Basarin is a Research Fellow at Deakin University and Chairman of the Friends of Gallipoli (friendsofgallipoli.org). He regularly leads tours to Turkey and Gallipoli.

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