I’m a bit late publishing this as I have been rather poorly, not that there is any set timetable for blogs. This is a review of Peter Hart’s new publication and in the circumstances of the delayed timing of my review, there is a certain irony in the title of the book. Evacuation – ‘nuff said!
Despite the grimness of war, a Peter Hart book is always a pleasure to read and this one is no different. Evacuation showcases his easily accessible style of writing, which also incorporates lots of first hand testimony and primary evidence. If I said it was a comprehensive assessment of the evacuation of the allied forces from the Dardanelles peninsular there would probably be someone who would contradict me, but it’s more than detailed enough for me to grasp the narrative.
I believe that this book could be a stand alone read for someone who had no real previous knowledge of the five acts of the Gallipoli tragedy before the sixth – the evacuation. Hart briefly reminds us of those five previous acts: conception, the abortive naval operations, the botched 25th April 1915 landings, the Helles battles and the Anzac breakout accompanied by new Suvla landings.
Turning to the evacuation itself, Hart explains how this also took place in stages over a period of two months, December 1915 into January 1916, and we get an initial flavour of this in the Preface. However, the following chapters take us through the journey of why an evacuation became necessary and how, after lots of to and fro, it became a reality. We read of the conflicting opinions as to whether it was actually necessary and of the inevitable prevarication, hubris, jockeying, but also informed assessment, of those in authority responsible for the decision making and the process. Hart explains how some of those people involved, from the humblest infantryman upwards, were reluctant to be seen to run away or leave behind chums consigned to the soil of the peninsula. We learn how certain naval commanders were convinced that another naval operation could be launched and the straits forced. However, having initially indulged in a fit of petulance when overruled, they fully committed to getting the evacuation done.
Having got to the point where a definite decision was made we learn about the nitty-gritty of how it was accomplished; subsequent chapters inform on the differences of opinion on how to do it followed those of the actual need to do it! We learn about the challenges of the winter weather, sea conditions and difficulties of logistics; all three to be influenced by luck, good or bad, as much as anything else. However, the best possible staff work was undertaken to try and mitigate all contingencies. The biggest challenge faced by the allies was keeping plans and movements secret from the Turks because even perfect conditions would not be much good if the Turks had knowledge of an evacuation.
Hart draws us into the practicalities of the operations; the fine balance of keeping enough stores and animals until evacuation took place and destruction of anything that could not be evacuated but would be useful to the enemy; the sad inevitableness of the destruction of many horses and mules; the ingenious strategies and new gadgets invented to fool the Turks into thinking trenches remained full of their enemy’s soldiers; blunders, mishaps and improvisations galore along the way.
We learn about the conditions the men had to endure in the final days and hours; there is also an account of continuing unpleasantness after leaving the beaches, being transported by crowded lighters.
Hart explains all this using accounts from all groups of participants, in terms of rank, branch of service, military, naval, political and nationality (including Turks). As always, he incorporates humour where appropriate; camaraderie and humour being a big factor in how men got through what is put in front of them to try and overcome.
We know the multiple evacuations were a success, nevertheless Hart builds a tension throughout to hold the reader’s attention and I always wanted to keep on reading. Indeed, it is a book I will return to.
For those of us who aspire to be excellent authors it is a small comfort to record that even those that are produce typos. There were two that I spotted; one being too insignificant to mention; one of major significance and too embarrassing to mention! I believe the latter has been corrected for later print runs, but maybe you’d like to buy the book and try and spot it yourself. But hey! There are plenty of good reasons for reading this excellent account of the allies’ only success in the Gallipoli campaign – the Evacuation. I commend Peter Hart’s book to you.