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"A Most Extraordinary Performance"

by Jennifer Horsfield

On Tuesday 17th December a cricket match will be played at Reid oval, in the shadow of the War Memorial, between the "Tuggranong Twisters" and Department of Veterans Affairs. The "Tuggranong Twisters" was the name of the team founded by CEW Bean while he was living at Tuggeranong Homestead during the 1920's, engaged in writing the official history of the First World War. A recreational pitch was built at Tuggeranong in April 1921, and Bean and his war history team became a force to be reckoned with on the local cricket scene, with regular matches against Queanbeyan, Michelago and other local teams. The name has recently been revived by a band of cricket enthusiasts who have formed the Tuggeranong Homestead Heritage Cricket Society, and who have played matches both on Bean's original pitch at Tuggeranong, and at other venues round Canberra. The twilight game on Tuesday 17th, which is bound to be an enjoyable affair for all involved, also has a wider significance: it's a reminder of another cricket match that took place exactly 87 years ago, on the beach at Gallipoli.

On Friday 17th December 1915, the commanding officer of the Seventh Light Horse Regiment, Lt-Col George Macarthur Onslow, arranged a cricket match on "Shell Green". There was a certain black humour attached to this name. It had been the only level cultivated patch of ground on Anzac at the time of the landing (it was a cotton field), and it became the site of the Headquarters of the Second Light Horse Brigade under Brigadier General Granville Ryrie. His dugout, surrounded by sandbags, occupied the edge of the "green", and the firing line lay just beyond. It didn't take long for the constant passage of heavily laden men, donkeys and gun carriages, to trample the ground bare. At one edge lay a cemetery, established for the dead of the 9th Battalion, though as the campaign dragged on other regiments filled up all the available burial ground, with rough white crosses made out of abandoned shell caps or stones laid out on the burial mounds. Shell Green had a splendid position overlooking the sea, but was also the target throughout the campaign of constant Turkish sniping and gunfire.

The Anzacs were notoriously fatalistic about, (or indifferent to) the threats posed by Turkish snipers. They would swim every day at the beach even though numbers continued to be killed and wounded by shrapnel and gunfire; and the level ground provided an irresistible opportunity for improvised cricket matches. Granville Ryrie wrote in a letter to his wife, about cricket played at the Green: "when shells whistled by we pretended to field them".

As a cricket match by normal standards this particular match on 17th December would probably be judged a failure, as it had to be abandoned half-way through when the shellfire became too hazardous. But it succeeded as part of a much bigger "game"; an extraordinary ruse to trick the Turks into believing that it was "business as usual" while in fact, over the space of the next two days, over 40 000 men were silently and safely evacuated from Anzac and Suvla.

By December 1915, the British High Command had made the decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign, conceding that it had been a costly failure. The Turks were still entrenched on the heights of the Peninsula; Allied shipping had not succeeded in penetrating the Dardanelles, and the losses to Allied troops had been enormous. Now, winter was settling in, making further stalemate and trench warfare a certainty, and the stormy seas would make evacuation of the wounded impossible. Furthermore, Britain, believing that the main theatre of war lay in France, wanted to concentrate the Allied forces on the Western Front.

The plans for the evacuation at Anzac Cove and at Suvla, to the north, had to be carried out under a cloak of absolute secrecy, as the Turks were in a superior position for attack, and could have annihilated the straggling remnants of an army discovered in escaping. CEW Bean, writing in the Reveille magazine in 1932, reflected:

"There were few who did not believe that the abandonment of Anzac would be a deadly operation. (We) pictured the boats pushing off crowded with men into whom Turkish machine-gunners were pumping their bullets; barges swamped and overturning, lifeboats riddled and waterlogged".

Sir Ian Hamilton, British Commander-in -Chief, estimated that "half the total force" would be casualties of the operation. Yet from the moment the scheme was known, the officers of every unit were besieged with men wishing to be in the last party to leave the peninsula.

No doubt the men's feelings about leaving, were mixed. Along with profound relief at their escape was a sense of grief and guilt; they hated leaving their dead mates. Had it all been for nothing, the lost lives? Bean wrote: "For days after the breaking of the news there were never absent from the cemeteries, men erecting new crosses or tidying up the grave of a friend. 'I hope' said one of them to General Birdwood on the final day, pointing to a little cemetery, 'I hope they won't hear us marching down…'"

Extraordinary steps had to be taken to ensure that the Turks remained unaware of the evacuation plans. Throughout the early weeks of December, parties of officers and men continued to carry gear and ammunition across Shell Green in full view of the Turks, as though they were planning new points of attack (then they'd slip back through the trenches they'd dug). Even General Ryrie was seen struggling manfully with an empty tin on his shoulder. Men were seen throwing up earth over the trenches as though they were deepening them and digging in for the winter.

The evacuation plans were kept secret from the troops as long as possible; preliminary evacuation of troops in the early days of December was explained as a lightening of the garrison in preparation for winter on the peninsula.

December 18th and 19th were fixed upon as the final days, with evacuation to take place in 3 stages, under cover of night.

All embarkations were to be made in absolute silence; there was to be no smoking or striking of matches; and all rum and other alcohol in possession of the troops was destroyed, because of the extreme risk of cheering or noisy relief from the men as they withdrew. In the positions closest to the enemy, like Lone Pine, torn-up blankets were laid on the floor of the trenches to muffle sound, and the men wrapped cloth round their boots before they moved off. After the first and second parties had departed without incident, "C" the rear-guard, were left to hold the line. In the Second Light Horse area, approximately 100 men would for 5 hours do the job normally allotted to 1500. No greatcoats or blankets had been retained, and the frozen air chilled the watchers during these hours of restricted movement.

At points all along the line, time guns and bombs had been set to go on firing for up to two hours after the last parties had left. They were set in two ways: some with water dripping into a tin tied to the trigger; others by slow burning fuses. Ryrie wrote to his wife: "We couldn't help laughing over it, and the old Turk must have been very angry when he found how he had been tricked, and some Generals and people would get the sack for letting us get away so simply".

In a triumph of planning and organisation, all the men were evacuated safely onto the waiting boats, which carried the troops to Lemnos and thence back to Egypt. The Turks showed no suspicion of the withdrawal, and it wasn't until early on the morning of the 20th, that the whole Turkish garrison was startled by a huge explosion of mines at the Nek. These mines had been set to be fired after the last of the garrison was clear, and were intended to stop the enemy from pursuing the retiring forces. Once the Turks found the trenches deserted all along the line, an order was given for all divisions to attack. So three hours after the last of the Anzac troops had embarked- when the transports carrying them were already out of sight- men and officers on the warships which remained off the shore, observed Turkish shrapnel burst all over the old Anzac line. Bean notes: " Here and there, both at Suvla and at Anzac, men or officers had left in their dugouts a meal ready prepared for an enemy for whom many of them entertained a chivalrous regard".

Granville Ryrie wrote to his wife as they sailed back to Egypt: "One man arrived just in time for the last boat, exhausted and hatless. He had been posted as listener on a tunnel, and after waiting there for seven hours he thought there must be something wrong. On coming out he found himself alone, holding the line against the whole of the Turkish army.

It was the most extraordinary performance. Two huge armies, only 20, 30, 50 yards apart in a lot of places- that one could slip away without the other knowing!"

CEW Bean , looking back on the war, reflected on the way that strip of land had etched itself into the nation's consciousness:

"It is seventeen years since the Australian and New Zealand - and British and Indian- forces left Anzac, seventeen years since we said goodbye to that square mile or two of gravelly cliff and sand-patch and scrubby hillside, those smells of burnt fat and burnt tin, of dusty paths and fly-inhabited latrines which, with the hospital ship in the bay and the stacks of boxes on the beach, and the peck, peck of rifles echoing about the precipitous gullies..were part of the life of Australia and New Zealand".

You might like to spare a thought for the players on that earlier patch of ground , who, if they survived, still had three long years of warfare ahead of them before they were to sail back home.

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