As the winter of 1915 approached in the Dardanelles, it was clear that Allied troops had set out to achieve the impossible.
Battle-hardened Ottoman troops, desperate to defend their homeland, had fought fiercely from the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign. Under the effective command of Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who later became the first president of Turkey, Ottoman forces defeated all Allied attempts to conquer the peninsula’s high ground.
Dogged determination on both sides resulted in horrific casualties. By the time all Allied forces had withdrawn from Gallipoli in January 1916, 120,000 British, 27,000 French, and 28,000 Australians had died, were wounded, evacuated sick and taken prisoner of war. The New Zealanders lost over 7,000, the Indians 4,000, and the small Newfoundland contingent 142. The Ottomans suffered over 174,000 casualties in just eight months of fighting.
Lemnos, December 1915: Members of the 1st Australian Divisional Signal Company opening Christmas billies and reading letters from home soon after the evacuation from Gallipoli.
The British War Secretary, Field Marshall Lord Horatio Kitchener, visited the Gallipoli battlefield in mid-November where he witnessed first-hand the wretched conditions. Adding misery upon misery, open trenches left soldiers unprotected from the soaking, freezing weather. One hellish storm resulted in the deaths of some 300 hundred British troops who succumbed to illness and more than 16,000 were said to have suffered frostbite and exposure.
Kitchener endorsed a recommendation that the Allies evacuate the Gallipoli peninsula – a complex operation which would require the evacuation of more than 93,000 troops and 5,000 animals along with vast quantities of artillery, ammunition and stores. Despite these challenges, the evacuation was one of the very few Allied successes of the entire campaign.
At Anzac Cove, 40,000 men were evacuated under the cover of darkness over a series of consecutive nights, with the final group departing for their transport ships on the 19/20 December. They did everything possible to deceive the enemy that the front line was still being manned.
Miraculously, not a single soldier was killed. Brigadier General Cyril Brudenell White oversaw the evacuation at Anzac Cove – his brilliant plan ran without incident, thankfully aided by a lull in the weather and relatively calm seas.
Instead of facing the immeasurable menace of rifle and machine-gun fire, a rain of grenades and artillery bombardments, some Australian and New Zealand troops celebrated Christmas on the nearby Aegean island of Lemnos, while others spent Christmas in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
Tempered by the sadness of leaving the dead in ground occupied by the enemy, Christmas billies full of gifts and ‘comforts’ from a number of civilian patriotic organisations in Australia went some way to improve their sorrow. “Luxuries” to cheer the men included tobacco, razor blades, socks, writing paper and a pencil, as well as cake, sauces, pickles, tinned fruit, cocoa, coffee and biscuits. These were all fond reminders of home.
The festive respite was short-lived. Many that survived the terrors of Gallipoli spent the following months reorganising and training in Egypt in preparation for their eventual transfer to the Western Front. Having lost 28,000 men in eight months of fighting on Gallipoli, they came close to losing that number in just eight weeks in France.
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