The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 218th installment in the series.  

January 8, 1916: Allies Complete Gallipoli Evacuation

The New Year brought long-awaited relief to tens of thousands of Allied troops finally evacuated from Gallipoli. After the Allied positions at Suvla Bay and ANZAC cove were abandoned in late December, on January 8 to 9, 1916 the evacuation was completed by the withdrawal of the remaining troops from Cape Hellas, on the tip of the peninsula. 

The few weeks between the first and second evacuations were eventful ones, as low-grade trench warfare continued unabated around Cape Hellas, with the usual routine of sniping and shelling claiming a steady stream of victims on both sides. Owen William Steele, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, wrote matter-of-factly about these losses in his diary entry on December 30, 1915, describing his unit’s shift on labor fatigue under the enemy guns:

We all got out before dinner but unfortunately the Turks shelled us very heavily. We went out in parties of 20 at five minutes interval, but after a while the Turks saw us with the result the shells were soon falling all about us. We then divided our parties of four at 100 yds interval. One shell, though it landed 30 yds away got the whole of one of my parties of four. My orderly, Thos. Cook, was one of them, he was wounded in the left leg & left arm, – our mess cook was another, he got it in the stomach, – another got a leg wound, and another a splinter in the heel. I went to the Hospital this evening to see them and they were all happy and feeling no pain, except poor Geo. Simms, our mess cook, who died about 3 o.’c. 

For those who managed to survive the final weeks on Gallipoli, January 8, 1916 was a time for celebration—provided, of course, they didn’t get killed on the way out. Having been hoodwinked during the first evacuation, the Turks were waiting vigilantly for the second one to begin, hoping to inflict some parting casualties on the withdrawing British and French troops. Then there was the danger of the Allies’ own “scorched earth” policy, involving the destruction of any supplies that couldn’t be moved in order to deny them to the enemy. Steele recalled the final moments, as timed explosives detonated while the boats prepared to pull away from shore:

… before we had even untied from the wharf, the first magazine went off with a very heavy explosion. A great volume of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air, debris of all kinds went everywhere, and as we were only a hundred yards away from it some came our way. It did no damage beyond breaking one man’s arm in three places... By now there were fires everywhere, and it was really a wonderful sight… The sky was also well lit up by the fires at V. & X. beaches… 

Next the evacuated troops had to survive a long journey through rough seas to the nearby Greek islands of Imbros and Mudros, their first destination. This was a considerable challenge for smaller boats trying to cross the stormy Aegean Sea in mid-winter (in fact heavy winds caused the piers at Cape Hellas to collapse twice on January 8, complicating the effort even further). In his diary entry the next day Steele described the rough conditions: 

Unfortunately for our sight-seeing desires, we were all ordered to get below, for it was very windy indeed, and the sea was beginning to wash over the lighter… This lighter, which was all that its name implies was handled very playfully by the sea all the way over and instead of taking 2 hrs, the time of the normal trip, we took 5 hrs. not reaching there until 9 a.m. 

For those who survived these last travails, the Gallipoli campaign was finally over. The scale of the ill-fated venture to capture the Turkish straits had been enormous, as was its cost. Over half a million Allied troops served on the peninsula over the course of the eight-month campaign, including 79,000 French troops, 20,000 Australians, and 14,000 New Zealanders, who faced off against around 350,000 Turks at various times. 

The Allies suffered a total of around 250,000 casualties, including 44,150 killed, 97,397 wounded, and well over a hundred thousand casualties due to diseases including typhus and cholera, which exacted a terrible toll on both sides. The Ottoman Empire also suffered at least a quarter of a million casualties, including 86,692 killed and 164,617 wounded, and thousands of sick.

The disaster at Gallipoli played a key role in the formation of national identities separate from Britain in Australia and New Zealand, which suffered huge losses in proportional terms, considering their small populations; many soldiers and civilians held incompetent British commanders responsible for these losses, adding to their feelings of separation and difference. Today April 25, the day of the initial landings, is observed as “ANZAC Day” in both countries. 

Gallipoli was also a foundational event in the creation of modern Turkey on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. It demonstrated beyond a doubt that a distinct Turkish national identity had emerged within the medieval empire, with an emotional pull strong enough to convince tens of thousands of young men to fight and die in order to protect the Turkish heartland. Gallipoli also provided the stage for the rise of Mustafa Kemal, who won fame for his bravery and tenacity in the desperate battles of 1915, and after further victories would be honored as Atatürk, or “Father of the Turks.” 

From Peninsula to Pyramids

The troops withdrawn from Gallipoli by the Allies were sent to a wide range of destinations. Many were simply transferred to the new Allied expeditionary force occupying the northern Greek city of Salonika—the legacy of a failed attempt to help Serbia during the final conquest of the country by the Central Powers, which they later maintained to apply pressure to Bulgaria. Others headed to the Western Front, while some were deployed to Mesopotamia, where the British were frantically organizing an effort to relieve the army under Charles Townshend besieged at Kut.

However some lucky soldiers got a (relatively) pleasant assignment – garrisoning Egypt and guarding the Suez Canal (above, Australians in Egypt). While they still faced the inescapable threat of disease, and a new Turkish offensive against the canal was brewing, for the time being this meant access to luxuries which had been distinctly lacking in Gallipoli, including fresh food, abundant water for bathing, sightseeing expeditions to the pyramids, and leave in exotic Alexandria and Cairo, with the associated possibilities of female companionship (below, Maori troops from New Zealand in Egypt).

Egypt’s beauty certainly made a big impression on the Allied troops after the squalor of Gallipoli. One British soldier, William Ewing, recalled sunrise and sunset in the desert west of the Suez Canal:

One could never tire of the arresting beauty of dawn and evening, as the sun rises over and sets behind the desert hills, with never a cloud in all the sky. Peculiarly delicate are the tints of violet, pink, pinkish purple, saffron, and pearl, over which the eye passes to the deep azure above. Suddenly they vanish as the sun leaps into the sky, glorious in his splendor, flooding the world with golden light.

Ewing also left a striking description of their tent encampment not far from the canal, which had a beauty all its own, at least at night:

The canvas city spread around to north, south, east, and west, with wide open spaces that served as parade grounds… When the sun sets, darkness descends swiftly upon us. On moonless nights, a change, as if wrought by enchantment, passes over the camp. The light within transforms each tent into a luminous pyramid, clean cut against the superincumbent gloom. Gathered in groups and squares and thrown out in lines, one could imagine them as gigantic Chinese lamps picking out the borders and pathways in a maze of fairy gardens.

Ewing also left his impressions of the canal itself, including the strange scene of ships passing through the desert (above, Australian troops bathing in the canal):

The world’s great waterway through the desert – a pathway of silver across the brown flats – is always an impressive sight, especially at night. Gigantic ocean liners with flaming search-lights show up picturesquely through the shadows; yet do they seem strangely out of place amid the barren waste, like monsters of the deep strayed from their element.

See the previous installment or all entries.