When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

Britain attempted a bold strategy early in the first World War: Knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by defeating it at home, restricting the number of troops that the Central Powers could muster on the eastern and western fronts. It was a gamble that, if successful, could have seen the initial landing of five divisions knock an empire out of the war and reduce enemy forces by millions of troops.

Unfortunately for the UK, the strategy failed, leaving leadership to decide between reinforcing the Gallipoli Peninsula or evacuating the more than 80,000 troops strung along the front under the fire of Turkish guns.


When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

The original invasion in February, 1915, had become quickly bogged down in the peninsula’s sharp terrain of ridges and valleys, and a stalemate starting in August poured fuel on the fires of calls for evacuation. On October 11, London asked Sir Ian Hamilton, the operation’s commander, what he thought his losses in an evacuation would be.

He responded that he would lose 50 percent — over 40,000 men.

When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

Luckily, London had a general who had recently returned from France that was in better standing at that moment. By October 16, just five days later, Hamilton was out and Sir Charles Munro was headed to the front.

Munro was in favor of an evacuation of Gallipoli because he knew how badly reinforcements were needed in France. Sending any more troops to fight the Ottoman Empire would mean further shortages in France while an evacuation would allow for tens of thousands of more troops to head where many leaders thought they were more badly needed.

What Munro saw in his tours of the three major troop concentrations cemented his position. All three beachheads, Helles, Anzac, and Suvla, were deemed too tough to defend. Meanwhile, the Turks were winning the logistics war and now had 315,000 troops with increasing access to heavy artillery against Munro’s 134,000 men. Munro recommended a complete withdrawal.

When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

Troops move supplies off of the beaches of Gallipoli.

London disagreed, ordering Helles to be defended while troops pulled out of Anzac and Suvla.

The task of planning the withdrawal fell to Australian Brig. Gen. Brudenell White. His proposal, soon adopted, called for a three-stage evacuation that focused on maintaining appearances for as long as possible.

“It is upon the existence of perfectly normal conditions,” White said, “that I rely for success.”

In phase one, nonessential personnel would slowly pull back to the ships at night under absolute quiet. At the front, defenders would remain silent until Ottoman patrols wandered close to see what was going on, then the defenders would open up with machine guns, rifles, and whatever else was at hand.

When Britain secretly saved 83,000 men from likely death, capture

The drip rifle allowed troops to hide their withdrawal.

Meanwhile, during the day, groups of men were ordered to light extra campfires, to march in pre-determined patterns, and to move from ships to shore like they were newly arriving reinforcements. Starting December 8, these men acted like “Groundhog Day” characters, repeating all their actions like clockwork to give the impression that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

This allowed the British and their allies to get the number of evacuees down to roughly 40,000 troops.

Phase two, which began December 15, included all the same subterfuge as phase one, but even essential personnel and supplies were moved to the shore and evacuated, once again under the cover of night. To maintain the impression of full manning and operations, stacks of boxed supplies were emptied from the inside out, leaving hollowed out squares of bandages, ammo, and other materiel. The last remaining defenders continued to fire their weapons in massive bursts at any Ottomans who got too close.

Finally, phase three was a two-night evacuation of the last defenders from the last hours of December 18 to 4 a.m. on December 20. To take some of the heat off of the barely-manned defenses at Suvla and Anzac, troops from Helles launched a series of attacks and feints.

To further mask the withdrawal, the final defenders to pull out of positions would leave “drip rifles,” weapons positioned at firing positions with two tins of water and a candle positioned so that they would fire a few minutes after the soldier departed, giving the impression that the men were still in the trenches.

As for the men on the beaches, they miraculously escaped with almost no loss of life. White’s tricks were so successful that the Ottomans basically treated the situation like it was “winter quarters,” where both sides hunker down for limited contact until the weather improves.

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