World War I History – August – December 1915
Dunedin RSA Choir Subscriber Concert
17 November 2015 Huia Ockwell
I gratefully acknowledge the writing of Damien Fenton, Glyn Harper, Colin Townsend and poet Alfred Edward Housman.
The August 1915 battles fought by New Zealand's Anzac forces on and around Chunuk Bair and Hill 60 had effectively destroyed the New Zealand Infantry Brigade and four New Zealand Mounted Rifles Regiments.
The exhausted dirty ragged survivors were evacuated to Lemnos Island in mid-September to recover and rebuild.
They returned to Anzac Cove on the 9th of November, just as the cold rain, icy wind and first snowfall of winter arrived. Frostbite and hypothermia were now added to their epidemic proportions of dysentery, other debilitating stomach complaints, and skin ailments.
In October events in Greece and the Balkans changed Anglo-French strategy. Mediterranean Expeditionary Force Commander Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton was denied more reinforcements from Europe and relieved of command. His replacement assessed the situation on the Gallipoli Peninsula as hopeless and recommended evacuation. Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener concurred.
To make matters worse, the Berlin-Baghdad Railway had now been opened, enabling the Ottoman Empire to bring heavy artillery onto the Gallipoli Peninsula.
On 22 November-100 years ago next Sunday-the British ordered evacuation. Elaborate deception measures were devised and put in place.
The 36,000 Anzac troops shipped out over five nights in mid-December. The operation was meticulously planned, well controlled and flawlessly executed. There were next to no casualties.
On 22 December 1915, Trooper Jack Martyn of the Otago Mounted Rifles wrote to his mother: Here are a few extracts:
'... Dear Mother, wild rumours started that there was an evacuation contemplated, but I took no heed of these at first'.
'Men sent to the base at Anzac came back laden with fish, milk, Jam, clothing etc... Hard to obtain previously'.
'Artillery shipped off... Thursday last we were told that all troops were leaving'.
'My goodness Mother, how it did go to our hearts... how we had slaved and fought, sizzled in the heat, been tortured by flies and thirst and later nearly frozen to death. It was so hard to be told we must give up'.
'... It really grieved us to know we were leaving our dead comrades behind'.
'What would the people of New Zealand think of us for it is far harder to screw one's courage up for running away, than it is to face an attack...'.
'Leaving Anzac was to be a very ticklish operation, but with skill and some luck should be carried out successfully'.
Jack Martin did survive the war and died in 1967. Historians are grateful to his family for making his letter available.
The defeat certainly shaped New Zealand and Australia:
'the high casualty rate and the eventual failure of the Dardanelles Campaign served only to enhance its sanctity in the mind of the New Zealand public'.
“Here dead lie we, because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.’