Silent Night

100 years ago in the early hours of 20 December 1915 the last party of New Zealand men left Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. The campaign was over.

A painted notice to assist the evacuation of Anzac Cove, December 1915. Photograph by Norman Henry Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-23.digital)

A painted notice to assist the evacuation of Anzac Cove, December 1915. Photograph by Norman Henry Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-23.digital)

For those of us who worked on the exhibition, Gallipoli: The scale of our war, the stories of the Anzacs’ tenuous presence there from April to December 1915 are indelible. For me, listening to archive recordings of veterans recalling their experiences brought that time into vivid focus. Their first-hand accounts are compelling in their honesty and brevity. In the exhibition their voices tell the realities of landing and digging in, the burial truce, surviving daily life, the battle for Chunuk Bair and poignantly, the conflicting emotions aroused by the decision to evacuate.

A kitchen in the snow, November 1915. Photograph by Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean. Australian War Memorial (G01263)

A kitchen in the snow, November 1915. Photograph by Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean. Australian War Memorial (G01263)

November’s harsh winter snowstorms forced the Allies’ decision to evacuate. But for many Anzac soldiers it wasn’t easy to leave Gallipoli.

A soldier stands by a cemetery at Anzac cove before departing. The large cross at the right has five names on it. Photograph by Norman Henry Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-19.digital)

A soldier stands by a cemetery at Anzac cove before departing. The large cross at the right has five names on it. Photograph by Norman Henry Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-19.digital)

Under the cover of darkness the evacuation of Anzac began on 15 December, and 36,000 troops were shipped out over four nights. By 19 December, only 3,000 Anzac troops remained. From early evening they were to leave silently in 3 groups.

The operation went without a hitch. Veterans describe a beautiful moonlit night and an echoing silence in the trenches.

Stories of the evacuation are told in the penultimate section of the exhibition, ‘Saying Goodbye’. Archive photographs are edited with veterans’ audio recordings sourced from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s World War I Oral History Archive and Nga Taonga Sound & Vision, the New Zealand Archive of Film, Television and Sound. The soundscape in this section becomes a haunting background to the veteran’s voices. Listen to these extracts from the soundscape as you read a transcript of the edited veterans’ accounts in ‘Saying Goodbye’:

The thing I remember most about Gallipoli was the snowstorm that came on 26 November.

The men we were supposed to relieve had not gone. The result was there was no room for us in their bivvies.  We stood in the snow all night.

Rugged up in warm greatcoats, two unidentified Australian soldiers stand in the snow outsidea dugout on Gallipoli, circa November 1915. Photographer unknown. Australian War Memorial (C00783)

Rugged up in warm greatcoats, two unidentified Australian soldiers stand in the snow outsidea dugout on Gallipoli, circa November 1915. Photographer unknown. Australian War Memorial (C00783)

I’ve never felt as cold in my life as I did then. I can well remember being on guard in the trenches and you had to keep marking time the whole time to keep my feet warm. 

Frostbite.  It’s a hell of a thing.

One chap lost a leg. Another had both legs taken off at the knees.

It got to the stalemate where we knew you were fighting a hopeless battle.

That was when they decided they couldn’t hold Gallipoli through the winter.

When the word came round that we were going to leave Gallipoli the men would simply not believe it, and they were the most despondent men you’ve ever seen.

We didn’t like the idea of evacuating but we knew it was a hopeless sort of a job.

For days there was hardly a joke cracked in the trenches.  It was such a shock. The idea of giving up and going away and leaving their cobbers, their dead pals, after all that had been done.

First night, we sent of two guns and the second night we sent another two guns and early in the evening on the third night we sent off another two and then we had one gun left at the very last.

They’d have dripping water coming out of those tins and when it got to a certain level it would fire a gun.

We were running up and down the trenches popping a rifle over the edge and pulling the trigger every twelve yards or so to make the Turks think there were people still there.

Beautiful moonlit night. Just like daylight.

 I got down off my perch at a quarter past two on the night of the evacuation and I moved down the trench. It was empty.

 The engineers of course were tasked with the job of setting up the mines which were charged with all the explosives that we could possibly muster.  It was the engineers’ job to press the button and blow them up as they stepped into their boat.

 I was on the last rowing boat that rowed out to the troop ship and as soon as we got on board, that ship and others opened fire on the great stores of food that were on the beach.

 I think we were away two days before the Turks knew we’d gone.

A path marked with stones, used during the final nights of evacuation from Anzac Cove, December 1915. Photograph by Norman Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-25.digital)

A path marked with stones, used during the final nights of evacuation from Anzac Cove, December 1915. Photograph by Norman Prior. Wairarapa Archives (11-72/4-2-25.digital)

 

 

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