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The first night at Anzac

The first night at Anzac

Less than 24 hours after the landing, the Gallipoli expedition leader Sir Ian Hamilton was sound asleep in his cabin aboard the warship Queen Elizabeth. Both the British and the Anzac landings had been brutal as thousands died.

At Cape Helles, the British had faced slaughter trying to get ashore. At Anzac, the unexpectedly steep and wild terrain, poorly mapped and by nightfall well-defended, had left the men perched precariously on a tenuous foothold.

Just before 10pm, the Anzac commander General Sir William Birdwood went ashore to meet his two highest-ranking officers, Australian Major General William Bridges, and General Sir Alexander Godley. They advised him to evacuate the Anzacs.

Birdwood sent a note to Queen Elizabeth, where Sir Ian Hamilton was roused from his bed at midnight to read the message.
‘Both my divisional generals and brigadiers have represented to me that they fear their men are thoroughly demoralised by shrapnel fire to which they have been subjected all day after exhaustion and gallant work in the morning.

‘Numbers have dribbled back from the firing line and cannot be collected in this difficult country. Even New Zealand Brigade which has only recently been engaged lost heavily and is to some extent demoralised.

‘If troops are subjected to shellfire again tomorrow morning there is likely to be a fiasco, as I have no fresh troops with which to replace those in the firing line. I know my representation is most serious, but if we are to re-embark it must be at once.’

A tense meeting of expedition leaders aboard the ship considered the unthinkable. Evacuation would take two to three days and losses would be heavy.

The meeting was interrupted by news of a signal from the Australian submarine AE2: It had threaded through the minefields and Narrows of the Dardanelles, the first Allied vessel to reach the Sea of Marmara, and had sunk a ship.

Hamilton seized on the news as evidence that the land assault should hang in and try to advance. He sent a message to shore telling of the AE2 exploit.

He assured the Anzac leaders that the British forces, despite heavy losses, would start moving north from Cape Helles the next day to join with the Anzacs in capturing the western bank of the Dardanelles, freeing the British Navy to sail into the Sea of Marmar and attack Constantinople. ‘You have got through the difficult businesses, now you have only to dig, dig, dig until you are safe.’

The British never broke through from Cape Helles. At Anzac, the Australians and New Zealanders digested the message and started referring to themselves ironically as ‘Diggers.’ Before the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the New Zealanders were referring to themselves as ‘Kiwis’ to differentiate themselves from the Australians.