The Irish at Gallipoli – Episode 6: Evacuation and Aftermath

The failure at huge cost to break out of the positions held since April led to a decision to abandon the campaign and evacuate the peninsula. This was done from late December 1915 to early January 1916 without loss of life.

Dr Jeff Kildea

The Irish at Gallipoli is a six-part podcast series recorded by Dr Jeff Kildea who was Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014. Dr Kildea was also the Chief Investigator on the Irish Anzacs Project which has made available to researchers and the public a database of the approximately 6500 Irish-born members of the Australian Imperial Force who served in the First World War. The Irish Anzacs Project was made possible through the generous support of the Global Irish Studies Centre of the University of New South Wales; the invaluable partnership of UCD; and a grant from the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Programme. Click here to access the database.

Episode 6 – Evacuation and Aftermath

The battles for Scimitar Hill and Hill 60 marked the end of British attempts to advance in the Suvla area. As elsewhere on the Gallipoli peninsula stalemate set in. The remnants of the 10th (Irish) Division were withdrawn at the end of September 1915 and sent to Salonika to fight the Bulgarians. The failure at huge cost to break out of the positions held since April led to a decision to abandon the campaign and evacuate the peninsula. This was done from late December 1915 to early January 1916 without loss of life. The failed Gallipoli campaign had an impact on the emerging nations of Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. For the antipodeans, it was the dawning of their sense of nationhood. For the Irish, however, it was the start of nationalist Ireland’s loss of faith in the belief that support for Britain in the war would ensure home rule. This episode looks at the evacuation and then examines how in post-independence Ireland memory of the campaign and the part which Irish troops played in it faded and was lost until recent years when a new wave of publications has begun to revive that memory for the Ireland of today.

In the last two episodes we looked at the August offensive and the battles in which Irish troops took part, firstly those at Anzac, during which the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division fought alongside the Australians and New Zealanders, and then at Suvla, where the 30th and 31st Brigades of the 10th Division as well as the three Irish battalions of the 29th Division, were among the British forces trying to extend the allies tenuous hold on the Gallipoli peninsula.

As we have seen, the battles for Scimitar Hill and Hill 60, in which the Irish were involved, marked the end of British attempts to advance at Suvla. As elsewhere on the Gallipoli peninsula the opposing forces had fought themselves to a standstill after suffering and inflicting huge losses. The 10th Division, in particular, had suffered severely. When the 29th Brigade had landed at Anzac Cove on 6 August, each of its battalions had a strength of about 25 officers and 750 other ranks. But the battles to seize the heights of the Sari Bair range exacted a heavy toll: there the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles lost 21 officers and 354 other ranks; the 6th Battalion Leinster Regiment lost 11 officers and 250 other ranks; and the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers lost 8 officers and 105 other ranks. The Rangers suffered further losses at Hill 60. When finally withdrawn the battalion numbered just 164 men.

Reduced to under effective strength, the units of the 29th Brigade at Anzac were employed mostly in work parties until 29 September, when they marched down to the shore and, with their compatriots of the 30th and 31st Brigades from Suvla, boarded ships for Lemnos.

Moved by the sight of his men filing down to the beach, Major Bryan Cooper of the 5th Connaught Rangers wrote:

We had passed that way less than two months before, but going in the opposite direction full of high hopes. Now we were leaving the Peninsula … our work unfinished and the Turks still in possession of the Narrows. Nor was it possible to help thinking of the friends lying in narrow graves on the scrub-covered hillside or covered by the debris of filled-in trenches, whom we seemed to be abandoning. Yet though there was sorrow at departing there was no despondency.

Summing up the campaign he added with a tinge of bitterness:

The 10th Division had been shattered, the work of a year had been destroyed in a week, and nothing material had been gained.

Among Anzacs and Irishmen there was a mutual respect following their shared experience. The old hands among the Australians and New Zealanders who fought alongside the Irish at Anzac Cove had no grounds to doubt their courage. They well understood the difficulties confronting them. Private John Turnbull, a veteran of the 8th Australian Battalion wrote in his diary:

We do not blame the Kitch Army too much for their failure. Considering they came straight from home here. They were not acclimatised. The heat, no training to rush these hills, and water beat them.

In 1916 Lieutenant Colonel Jourdain, the commanding officer of the 5th Connaught Rangers, recounted how in November 1915 a party of Australian soldiers who had been evacuated wounded to England met John Redmond MP, leader of the Irish National Party, while visiting the House of Commons and expressed to him their ‘highest admiration for the fighting qualities of the Irish soldiers. One charge by the Connaught Rangers was, they said, the finest thing they had seen in the war’. Fifteen years later, Jourdain told the British Official Historian:

I must say I liked soldiering with the A. & NZ Division, they were delightful to serve with – they remember all this even now in Australia, and they look back with much pleasure to those days in August 1915 – when they were with us in Gallipoli.

The 10th (Irish) Division’s reprieve was brief, for in December 1915 it was sent to Salonika to fight the Bulgarians who, sensing the way the war was then going, had allied themselves with Turkey. The Irishmen’s experiences in that theatre would prove no more uplifting than their brief but tragic sojourn at Gallipoli. In September 1917 the division was transferred to Palestine, where it fought alongside the Australian Light Horse in battles such as Beersheba and in the capture of Jerusalem. During its time there the Irish component was steadily diluted due to declining enlistments until by the end of the war it was effectively an Indian division.

For the Anzacs, the Gallipoli campaign ended in December 1915 when the troops in the northern sector were evacuated in what proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign. Despite Commander in Chief Sir Ian Hamilton’s fear that up to one half of the force could be lost during the evacuation, not one man was killed and only two were slightly wounded. If as much planning and preparation had gone into some of the battles, the outcome of the campaign might have been different.

The Helles evacuation was similarly successful. On the nights of 7 and 8 January 1916, the 29th Division along with the rest of the allied force was evacuated from Helles and all its units returned to Egypt. On 25 February orders were received to move to France. The division arrived at Marseilles in March, from where it was transported by train to the battlefields of northern France. The Division served on the Western Front for the remainder of the war, though the Irish battalions did not always remain with it, being allocated from time to time to other formations.

Gallipoli was a severe defeat for the military forces of the British Empire, and was to have a profound effect on its emerging nations. Anzacs and Irishmen both came away from the peninsula convinced they had been mucked about and butchered by the incompetence of the British generals. Irish nationalist MP John Dillon referred in the House of Commons to British officers ‘who had led our regiments at Suvla … and who hurled them to death on the slopes of those hills which they would have carried, and which would have enabled them to get to Constantinople had they been decently led’. Unionist leaders were also critical, with Edward Carson telling Parliament that Gallipoli ‘hung around our necks like a millstone’.

For Australians and New Zealanders, eager to impress the mother country of their worthiness, Gallipoli, despite the cost, had a salutary effect on the nation-building process without rupturing relations with the British Empire. In contrast, nationalist Irishmen, who sought to impress no-one as they wanted to become not a nation so much as ‘a nation once again’, were not so forgiving. Separatist nationalists, who were opposed to the war, exploited the Dardanelles fiasco to whip up anti-British sentiment, while moderate nationalists began to lose faith in the idea that supporting Britain in the war would assure home rule, leading to a decline in recruiting, particularly as the Coalition government formed in May 1915 included unionists, such as Edward Carson, who were implacably opposed to home rule.

For some it was Gallipoli rather than the Easter Rising of 1916 that marked ‘the moment their feelings towards the British began to turn’. In her 1919 memoirs, Katharine Tynan, Irish poet and novelist, wrote:

So many of our friends had gone out in the 10th Division to perish at Suvla. For the first time came bitterness, for we felt that their lives had been thrown away and that their heroism had gone unrecognised.

Today, Gallipoli is well remembered in Australia and New Zealand. For those countries the Gallipoli campaign is widely regarded as the dawning of their sense of nationhood. So strongly do Australians and New Zealanders identify with Gallipoli that many of them believe they were the only ones there, apart from the Turks, of course. Some would be aware that British troops were there, but few would know that they included men from Irish regiments, and fewer still that many of those Irishmen fought alongside the Anzacs in battles such as Second Krithia, Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair and Hill 60, and at iconic places such as Quinn’s Post, or that on the first day of the campaign more Irishmen were killed at the landing beaches than Anzacs, or that, over all, more Irishmen died there than New Zealanders.

But it is not only antipodeans who have forgotten the part played by the Irish; the collective amnesia extends to the Irish themselves. Soon after the campaign ended and for a few years thereafter a number of books did appear, recounting the exploits of the Irish at Gallipoli, including books by popular writers, such as S Parnell Kerr’s What the Irish Regiments Have Done, and Michael MacDonagh’s The Irish at the Front, both of which appeared in 1916. In the same year Lt Col Jourdain privately published an account of the 5th Connaught Rangers’ service from the start of the war to the end of the Gallipoli campaign. The following year Henry Hanna published a book on D Company of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – the so called “Pals” – at Suvla Bay and in 1918 Major Bryan Cooper published an account of the 10th Division at Gallipoli. In the early post-war years regimental histories were published including books relating to the Connaught Rangers, Dublin Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rifles. But thereafter little followed and memory of the campaign faded.

From the 1990s, however, memory of Gallipoli began to revive with a new wave of books dealing with the Irish in the First World War that included sections on Gallipoli, such as those by Tom Johnstone, Myles Dungan and Keith Jeffery. In addition, Bryan Cooper’s history of the 10th Division was republished in 1993. Since then two more books on the 10th Division have appeared, one by Philip Orr in 2006, specifically on Gallipoli, and another by Stephen Sandford in 2014.

The decade of commemorations has stimulated the publication of a range of books and articles on the war in general and on the Dardanelles campaign in particular, such that there is now a substantial and growing corpus of literature on the Irish at Gallipoli. Moreover, it is notable that, unlike the more general regimental and divisional histories, some recent works have sharpened the focus to specific aspects of the campaign, such as Philip Lecane’s book on the landing at V Beach on 25 April 1915, evidencing the increasing sophistication of Irish historiography concerning Gallipoli.

Nevertheless, the Gallipoli campaign is yet to penetrate the popular consciousness in Ireland. And with that in mind this series of podcasts aims to increase awareness of the significant contribution of the Irish at Gallipoli.

Image: Members of the Australian Historical Mission and a Turkish officer at Hill 60, February 1919. The Historical Mission, led by official historian Charles Bean, had returned to Gallipoli to survey and report on the battlefield. Bean’s account of the mission, Gallipoli Mission, was published in 1948. [AWM G01904]