DAN TEHAN | Herald Sun | 24 April 2016
Not many Australians know the Anzac commander whom General Sir John Monash dubbed “far and away the ablest soldier Australia had ever turned out”.
But the story of Cyril Brudenell White should be one of the great Anzac legends.
When British commander Lord Kitchener inspected Gallipoli in November 1915, he took two days to complete his assessment of the likely success of the Anzac campaign.
With a failed August offensive that saw thousands of Australians killed, a bitter winter approaching, and an increasingly entrenched Turkish force, he knew the chances were dim. His recommendation was retreat.
It was expected that as many as half the Anzacs at Gallipoli might die in an evacuation. The task of minimising this number and planning a successful retreat fell to Cyril Brudenell White.
Brudenell White’s talents as a soldier and master of logistics were acknowledged by his peers, so much so that only the Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin’s intervention prevented him from being lost to the British Army.
When he returned to Australia, he helped form and establish the modern Australian Army.
His skill at planning and detail made him invaluable from the beginning of the First World War.
After Kitchener’s recommendation, he turned his mind to the evacuation of more than 93,000 troops, 200 guns and 5000 animals. It was the equivalent of moving the city of Rockhampton or Launceston without anyone noticing.
As one soldier wrote watching the spectacle: “My goodness, if the Turks don’t see all this as it goes along they must be blind.”
But the plan Brudenell White devised played off the nature of trench warfare — that opposing forces are always out of sight behind cover. He wrote at the time: “It is upon the existence of perfectly normal conditions that I rely for success.”
The plan was to create the illusion that nothing had changed and that the Anzacs were merely preparing for a long winter at Gallipoli.
“Silent stunts’’, where the Anzacs would cease all artillery and gunfire for a period, were implemented to get the Turks accustomed to thinking silence didn’t mean the Anzacs had left.
In the evacuation, Brudenell White’s first concern was the safe withdrawal of the men. He fought hard against other commanders who looked to save material or supplies.
Between early December and the final days of the evacuation, Brudenell White drew down the remaining forces to just 20,000 men.
As the troops began to realise they were going to be leaving fallen mates behind, many spent time tidying graves and paying their last respects.
With Christmas approaching and the evacuation a secret, many men left Gallipoli before their Christmas packages arrived. It was one of the few times when troops noted that there was more food, drink and tobacco than they knew what to do with.
In the final two days, thousands of men were smuggled off the peninsula with precision. All the while the illusion of normalcy continued.
As part of the effort, resourceful Australian Lance Corporal William Scurry came up with the “drip rifle’’, which used a water drip system to pull the trigger of an unmanned rifle. Placing these rifles on the edge of the trenches gave the impression that they were still manned, with Anzacs inside them still firing.
White admitted enormous anxiety in waiting for the plan to end: “For days, I could feel nothing but the thump of my heart against my ribs … nor did I think my peace of mind would ever return.”
At 4.10am on December 20, Colonel John Paton waited by the boats for 10 minutes to collect any Anzacs who might have gone astray. A soldier with him records the last moments: “… And then we stand in once more to the pier and hail it with a megaphone. But there is no answer, Anzac is deserted now. The only Australians left there are in the little graveyards in the gullies and on the beach.”
When the last boat left, more than 8700 men had died at Gallipoli. On the first day, over 2000 were killed. On the last, not a single one thanks to Brudenell White’s plan.
Brudenell White continued his successful career in the Australian Army and, after the war, in the public service until he retired to Victoria in 1928.
When needed again in 1940, Brudenell White came out of retirement to serve as the Chief of General Staff for the Army.
Sadly, only a few months later, Brudenell White was killed along with three Cabinet ministers when their plane crashed near Fairbairn airfield in Canberra.
As the mastermind of the evacuation of Gallipoli, Brudenell White saved thousands of Australian lives. What could have been the military disaster to cap off a disastrous campaign instead was a brilliant tactical victory.