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Why December 20th is the real Anzac Day

By Simon Caterson - posted Friday, 18 December 2009

At 4.10am on December 20, 1916, Lieutenant Colonel John Paton became the very last ANZAC to leave Gallipoli. His departure brought to an end one of the most remarkable deceptions in military history. Indeed the greatest Australian hoax of all - measured purely in humanitarian terms of lives saved, if not ingenuity - is the one concocted in order to enable the safe evacuation of the troops at Gallipoli.

Australians, it seems to me, may have ANZAC Day back to front. The sadness that April 25 brings every year produces a funerary mood that seems incongruous for a day often taken to commemorate the birth of the nation; but aside from national spirit there’s something to celebrate about defeat at Gallipoli - though it’s an aspect of the campaign that tends to get downplayed in the innumerable books about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

Notwithstanding the significance of the landing date, which marked the beginning of a military operation whose flawed planning originated in London and led to the deaths of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, to say nothing of the huge casualties sustained by troops of other nations (about 500,000 men were committed to the Dardanelles offensive by the Allies, about half of them became casualties - including more than 7,000 Australians who died, and the number of Turkish casualties was even higher), another, much more positive anniversary can be celebrated on December 20.


The evacuation of Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay was, like the invasion, authorised by the imperial leadership in London where much discussion revolved around the political consequences of leaving - as if these could be weighed against the slaughter taking place. On October 20 British general Sir Charles Monro took command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force after the failure of the Suvla landing; on the strength of one day’s inspection of the area he immediately recommended the withdrawal of Allied forces. With the exception of the Anzacs, Monro wrote, “the troops on the peninsula are not equal to sustained effort, owing to inexperienced officers, the want of training of the men and the depleted condition of many of the units”. He estimated that evacuation would entail about 40,000 casualties.

British Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, sent to give a second opinion, reluctantly agreed, describing the Gallipoli peninsula as “an awful place”.

According to Winston Churchill, who had initially proposed the Dardanelles operation and was later blamed for its failure, Monro simply gave up. In his memoirs Churchill refers to abandonment rather than evacuation and describes Monro as “an officer of quick decision. He came, he saw, he capitulated.” By contrast British historian Basil Liddell Hart praises Monro's action as “a remarkable example of prompt decision”. Either way we now know the decision to evacuate enabled thousands of Australian lives to be saved.

In contrast to the rest of the Gallipoli campaign, the evacuation was organised by Australians for the benefit of their own soldiers who, if they had stayed for the winter, would most likely have followed their mates to a freezing, muddy grave. Moreover, historians agree the evacuation produced no casualties to speak of: incredible though it may seem more than 40,000 troops were evacuated without the enemy knowing what was happening. Indeed, the Turkish commanders, led by Liman von Sanders, believed troops were being reinforced, not removed. On the last night the final 20,000 men left the battlefield undetected by an enemy who was close by and better positioned on the narrow peninsula. Could the fact that the leaving of Gallipoli is so often underplayed or overlooked today be a consequence of the success of the original deception?

National leaders remember and mourn the fallen each year, but if the Gallipoli campaign had been an unmitigated disaster - like, say, the fall of Singapore in 1942 - it would never have come to occupy the central place it does in Australian legend. When news of the evacuation was made public the Melbourne Argus predicted, on December 22, 1915, that “the name of Gallipoli will never spell failure in Australian ears”.

In the event it was perfect weather, as well as planning and discipline, that enabled the evacuation to proceed without strife. Civil engineer and colonel in the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade at Gallipoli John Monash described, in a letter, the conditions on December 19 as “perfectly calm air and sea, cloudy, foggy and dull with a very light misty drizzle so that everything in the distance is dull and blurred”. But the details of the evacuation plan were also subtle and ingenious.


The staff officer largely responsible for this, according to official Australian war historian CEW Bean, was Brigadier-General Brudenell White, the son of Irish immigrants, White was born in 1876 at St Arnaud, Victoria, and grew up in rural Queensland. Bean described him as “the greatest man I have known. In no other was genius so quickly and so clearly evident.”

After secret discussions at the highest level the evacuation of Anzac Cove was formally approved by the British on December 7, though the Anzacs had already put their evacuation plans in motion more than a week earlier. White organised a series of feints designed to maintain an appearance of a full-strength and permanent military presence, while steadily removing soldiers by ship under cover of dark. A key strategy was the early reduction of noise. A so-called silent stunt was staged, involving a period of absolute quiet to get the Turks used to such an occurrence - boardwalks were covered with torn-up blankets, sandbags worn over boots and trenches covered with soft soil.

The thinning out of troops was arranged as precisely as possible, with thorough rehearsal and careful timing so there was no apparent diminution in fighting strength. Other methods used have since become part of the Gallipoli legend: the famous cricket match on Shell Green, which the Australian Test team under Steve Waugh re-enacted for the cameras a few years ago, was organised to convince Turkish observers that the Anzacs were there for the long haul. But perhaps the best known symbol of the Gallipoli evacuation hoax is the rifle equipped with a time-delay trigger (a tin slowly filling with water until it tipped), which according to Bean was invented by a Lance-Corporal Scurry of the 7th Battalion - though as historian Peter Stanley points out in Quinn’s Post, “the real success was attributable to the less glamorous movement tables and watches used by staff officers who devised and directed the evacuation”.

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About the Author

Simon Caterson is a freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade).

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