Let us, at last, talk evacuation. The men on the ground have been preparing for it since General Monro recommended it; all they needed was the official approval from London. Let’s now, with some relief, talk about how it’s going to be done, rather than whether it’s going to be done.
General Monro was presented with two competing plans to decide on. The first one was solidly traditional, along the lines of any other kind of withdrawal. It primarily came from the staff of IX Corps at Suvla Bay and was based around a fighting withdrawal from the Anafarta Plain in stages to two positions on either side of the now-wet Salt Lake in front of the Suvla beach itself, followed by a final withdrawal. It’s simple and based on sound military sense.
But it also has significant flaws. Crucially, it lacks any element of surprise. The Ottomans can’t possibly fail to notice what’s going on, and direct all their artillery, including their new toys, onto the well-ranged rear trenches and the exposed beaches. And in any case, the position at ANZAC Cove needs to be evacuated immediately. They aren’t far enough inland to perform a staged withdrawal. When they go, they go for good. Monro himself, thinking along similar lines, has estimated casualties of 30% to 40%
With this in mind, the ANZACs’ chief of staff, General White, has developed an entirely different plan, and it’s this plan that has been officially adopted. The MEF is going to try to sell the world’s biggest dummy to their opponents. They will leave absolutely no sign that an evacuation is in progress until after the last man has left the beaches. It’s a risk, but not as big of one as it might appear to be.
The worst-case scenario is that the evacuation will be discovered and the Ottomans will attack, causing horrendous casualties, right? The IX Corps plan pretty much assumes that that will happen as standard and does nothing to mitigate it. The ANZAC plan at least affords them the possibility that they might just get out of things scot-free; and if they don’t, they just end up with what was going to happen anyway, happening.
The evacuation is now well underway. Everything that can be taken off easily is now gone. This is the time for making hard decisions about exactly how much food and ammunition can be taken away, and how much must be left behind. Of course, it’s one thing to know “we’ll probably get the word to leave”, and knowing it for certain. The MEF has been forced to provision itself against staying into January or February, just in case. Now many of those supplies will have to be abandoned. Some of the Australians have been doing some rather clever thinking. Here’s CSM William Burrows of the 16th South & West Australians.
All available ammunition and bombs were collected. These were buried and on a cross stuck into the ground was the following inscription: ‘To the Memory of Private Bullet. RIP.’ That was to prevent the Turks from becoming inquisitive and digging up the ammunition and bombs!
There’s another problem. Surely the Ottomans will notice something amiss if all the enemy’s guns stop firing at once? This too has been considered. Orders have come down to enforce regular “silent periods” of many hours’ duration, during which nobody is to fire anything (or, if in one of the front-line trenches that’s within easy earshot of the enemy, make any noise at all). Weapons will only be fired to repel an enemy attack. Captain Basil Holmes of the 17th NSW Battalion reports from Quinn’s Post on the effectiveness of this.
The Turks did send a patrol across the 15–20 yards to look into our trenches to see whether we were still there or not, as we had suddenly stopped replying to any of their bombs. They were very suspicious, they came over and one brave Turk jumped down into a part of the trench at Quinn’s Post. There was no one in it and he started to walk along the trench.
He hadn’t gone far, no distance at all, when there was a lead off the trench and one of our fellows just shoved the bayonet into him and killed him. No shots were fired. There were four or five other fellows on the bank and they realised that something had happened, that we were there and they headed back to their own trench and left this dead body with us.
The Ottomans soon lose their taste for inquisitive patrolling at night, and a critical victory has been won. How desperately frustrating that it should be in the service of leaving. However, if there’s one thing that British Empire military history shows, from Corunna to Dunkirk, it’s that retiring from a tricky spot that they have no right to escape from is one thing you can usually count on them to do properly. (Offer not valid in Afghanistan.)
The next day, December 10, at many places along the front line, the soldiers had to come out of their trenches so as not to drown. The Germans had to do the same. We therefore had the singular spectacle of two enemy armies facing each other without firing a shot. Our common sufferings brought our hearts together, melted the hatreds, nurtured sympathy between strangers and adversaries. Those who deny it are ignoring human psychology.
Frenchmen and Germans looked at each other, and saw that they were all men, no different from one another. They smiled, exchanged comments; hands reached out and grasped; we shared tobacco, a canteen of coffee or pinard. If only we spoke the same language! A huge devil of a German stood up on a mound and gave a speech, which only the Germans could understand word for word, but everyone knew what it meant, because he smashed his rifle on a tree stump, breaking it into two in a gesture of anger.
Applause broke out on both sides, and the “Internationale” was sung. Well, if only you had been there, mad kings, bloody generals, fanatical ministers, jingoistic journalists, rear-echelon patriots, to contemplate this sublime spectacle!
There is far, far more to the story of ordinary soldiers and fraternisation, truces, and defiance of strict military authority than just one day at Christmas in 1914. Barthas continues his thought.
Who knows – maybe one day in this corner of Artois they will raise a monument to commemorate this spirit of fraternity among men who shared a horror of war and who were forced to kill each other against their wills.
It’s not often that I get to write a thought in this blog that I’d describe as unequivocally “happy”. Satisfying, sure. Funny, often. Bittersweet, all the time. But here’s something to make us all happy.
After nearly thirty-five years of intermittent attempts, Louis Barthas’s wish has now come true. Work on the monument to fraternity between “enemy” soldiers began last summer. It’s now complete, and it’s been built in the proper place, the village of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the very corner of Artois where Barthas was stationed 100 years ago today. There’s an event being put on to commemorate its completion and discuss Barthas’s life in a few days’ time, which his grandchildren will be attending.
By the way, I’ve been able to see that paragraph in Barthas’s original French. The man seems to have been constitutionally incapable of resisting a good pun. In English, he speaks of commemorating a “spirit of fraternity”. However, it’s worth considering his exact phrase, which was was “élan de fraternité”. Can this possibly be a coincidence? Surely this is his small effort to reclaim, with humour, that word “élan” from the grasp of the officers and the attack-at-all-costs theorists. May the monument preserve this spirit for ever.
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