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13 November 1915 – Facts On The Ground

A launch approaches North Beach today at Anzac Cove, making landfall just after 1:40 PM. The man who steps onto the narrow beachhead, piled high with stores and crowded with activity, is instantly recognized, and so a throng of soldiers spontaneously forms around Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, Minister of War and national hero. He has come to inspect the situation at Gallipoli in person, touring as far as a front line post just thirty yards from the Turkish foe (see above) and throughout a ‘safe zone’ lying under constant view from enemy positions on the heights. Kitchener has seen all the maps, heard all the arguments, read all the proposed timetables, and understands the stakes, but only now upon being inside the Anzac landing zone for two hours does he personally sense the oppressive claustrophobia which has led to calls for withdrawal since the first day of landings in force.

Contrary to popular mythology, the Great War is extremely dangerous for generals, who are killed and disabled with unprecedented frequency. While taking the real personal risk of inspecting the beaches at Cape Helles, Anzac Cove, and Suvla Bay, Kitchener comes to terms with his innate resistance to the notion of abandoning such hard-won territory, for the facts on the ground cannot be denied when he sees them with his own eyes.

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Kitchener shaking hands with General Maurice Bailloud, who became the commander of the French contingent at Cape Helles when his predecessor was evacuated as a casualty. Birdwood stands directly behind Kitchener

Tactically, the beachhead is unfit to support the kind of Western Front-style attack necessary to break the Turkish line, as a great deal of heavy artillery would need to be brought in and sited to provide plunging fire that can break trenches. Turkish mortars powerful enough to destroy a sap have arrived in recent weeks, harassing and killing allied soldiers without answer; Kitchener’s War Office rejected such designs, and their belated production has not reached the Dardanelles. Like the embarrassment of superior Turkish hand grenades, this unexpected material advantage is a demoralizing demonstration of the dangerous contempt with which the entire expedition was launched.

Even if he could spare the reinforcements needed to complete the conquest of Çanakkale, Kitchener cannot guarantee their supplies. The little logistical infrastructure that exists will not admit ships in stormy winter weather, and lies vulnerable to storms — a concern that is conclusively made real four days later when a strong gale smashes the temporary piers at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove. The onset of the season makes a decision urgent, yet he still procrastinates until the 22nd of November, when he finally cables the War Cabinet in Paris to recommend withdrawal from the Gallipoli beachheads.

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Kitchener, followed by Birdwood, inspecting the trenches at Suvla Bay. Via the Australian War Museum

Even after Kitchener’s tortured process, a political decision must still be made based on his recommendation. Britain and France have invested a great deal in the expedition and are loathe to walk away from it, a clear example of the sunk-cost fallacy’s influence in human behavior. Nevertheless, before the end of November a deception plan is put into place, including ‘silent stunts’ where the allied troops condition the Turks to expect hours-long periods of no sniping or shellfire. Such signs and portents are erected as to make the Turks believe the invaders are preparing to winter over. An irregular schedule of harassing fire will continue until the last possible minute, giving the enemy no warning that the front lines are emptied out. More than ninety thousand men, two hundred artillery guns, and some five thousand mules and horses must be embarked, along with a mountain of crated supplies.

But winter is faster than human consensus, and a disaster of logistical indecision withholds winter clothing until after the first snow. During a bad two-day storm that begins with thunder and freezing rain and ends in a blizzard, cold weather injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia account for sixteen thousand casualties, including 280 deaths. For them, the delayed withdrawal has been an additional disaster.

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An Australian 18-pounder gun crew during the thunderstorm-turned-snowstorm on 27-28 November