Think Piece – The Last Man

Kim PhillipsBy the time the decision was made to evacuate the allied troops from Gallipoli, more than 40,000 allied servicemen had been killed. Final figures recorded were 21,000 from Britain, 9790 from France, 8140 Australians, 2430 New Zealanders,1350 from India and 49 from Newfoundland. Add the Turkish losses – estimated to be more than 86,000 – and the figure is staggering.

Despite these terrible losses over the eight months of the campaign, it is remarkable that over 11 nights, from 8 to 20 December 1915, around 41,000* ANZAC’s were safely evacuated from Anzac and Suvla Bays, ending the ill-fated confrontation that had taken so many.The evacuation from Gallipoli, was regarded as one of the most successful operations of the campaign; with barely a life lost.

Many of the men wanted to be among the last to leave. One of them was Sergeant Harry Laughlan Bowser, 661, a member of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, Headquarters staff.

Harry had arrived at Gallipoli with the Light Horse on 12 May, and on 25 May was temporarily transferred to Australian Divisional Headquarters staff. On 1 August he was promoted to Lance Corporal and transferred to the Postal Service. He was again promoted on 22 August, this time to Sergeant. The next day he was transferred to ANZAC Headquarters and on 22 November was again promoted; this time to Staff Sergeant.

Writing to his mother of the landing, Harry said “Scores met their death as a result of disobeying orders, and proceeding further than they were told; but, in the opinion of men in a position to judge, thoroughly disciplined troops would have failed where the wild, reckless, go-as-you-please Australians succeeded.”

Harry spent seven months at Gallipoli carrying out his duties with Headquarters staff. At Anzac no place was safe or out of range of the enemy. Everyone was in constant danger all the time – that was the way of life.

On 13 November, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the British Army, stepped ashore at Gallipoli to see for himself just what the situation was. A few weeks earlier General Sir Ian Hamilton had been replaced by General Sir Charles Munro as Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, who was more concerned with consolidating the allied effort on the Western Front than continue what he saw as the futile campaign on Gallipoli.  Two days later Kitchener recommended to the British War Cabinet that Gallipoli be evacuated.

On November 21 severe storms hit the peninsula. The men had to face heavy rains, which culminated in a full blown blizzard on 27 and 28 November. Many hundreds died from exposure. Due to the extreme cold conditions, more than 5,000 were suffering from frostbite, and another 5,000 needed urgent medical treatment.

Finally the British War Cabinet accepted Kitchener’s recommendation and decided the evacuation would proceed. The detailed plan was devised by an Australian, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brudenell White. White’s plan involved elaborate deception operations such as the so-called ‘silent stunts’ of late November, where no artillery fire or sniping was to occur from the Anzac lines.

The first of the barges loaded with men left on 13 December. On 15 December outward mail was stopped and the postal service disbanded. Harry chose to remain on Gallipoli. Several weeks earlier he had been told by his officers that he should leave the Peninsula for a change to give his health a chance to improve; but Harry had insisted on staying.

Sunday 19 December was a mild day, a light drizzle of rain fell – the air and the seas were calm. During the morning the Turks had launched a heavy and prolonged bombardment at Anzac Beach. It was most likely the cause of the wound that Harry received. He was taken to the hospital ship Dunluce Castle, but the gunshot wound to his abdomen and chest was fatal. He died on the way to Mudros and was buried at sea in a service performed by Chaplain A Maxwell.

A newspaper report stated that Harry had been “killed by a shell as he was leaving Anzac Beach on the last day of the evacuation … and that, had he lived ten minutes longer he would have been away in the boats”.  A sad coincidence for Harry’s mother was that her son had died on the 11th anniversary of his father’s death.

Australians who died at Gallipoli came from all walks of life, and from all age groups. They had many, many differing reasons for being there. Their overriding desire seemed to be to help their mates when they needed it. Their lives, and their deaths, didn’t seem to matter if a mate needed help. There were saints and sinners among the men, but the standard they set for self-sacrifice is one we should continue to admire and strive to emulate.

Visit the Spirits of Gallipoli website. 

*Figures vary between 90,000 and 105,000 for the number of allied troops evacuated from Gallipoli. Of this number the Anzac garrison consisted of approximately 41 000 who were evacuated over three phases from 8 December, with the final ANZACs departing on 20 December. Source:  Department of Veterans Affairs

Kim has an abiding interest in genealogy. She is vice president of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society (AJGS) and has served on the Committee since 1998. She is also on the committee of the Ryde District Historical Society (Sydney, New South Wales) and has given presentations at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies held in Jerusalem in 2004 and Washington DC in 2011.  Kim has also given many presentations about Gallipoli, following an interest which began after she visited there in 2000. She has photographed every Australian headstone and memorial on the peninsula. The culmination of her 15 years of research was recently published in her book (& CD) The Spirits of Gallipoli, A Centenary of Anzacs. Amongst the individual stories of 100 Australian servicemen is a comprehensive list recording the names of the 7,249 Australians who are buried, or commemorated, at Gallipoli.