Troop Drawdown.

Posted on Tue 07/15/2008 by



I have a healthy attitude of cynicism towards ‘most’ television news reporters. They are there to read the news stories that scroll across the autocue in front of them. They do this with a confidence that is supposed to give us the impression that they actually know what they are talking about when it comes to that subject, but the real extent of their knowledge ends with end of the scrolling of that story. They are there to look good as news presenters, to confidently read the story, and if required, then to ‘throw’ to an in the field journalist who will then also read his part with the confidence that also looks like he or she knows what they are talking about. They then proceed to ask the real expert what might seem hard hitting questions. The whole story then gets edited for a 30 second media bite that will make the news reader and the field journalist look good. Sometimes context gets lost or misinterpreted, so that at a later point that 30 second bite can be used when that context IS misinterpreted, thus generating a further story, making the original reporting journalist and news reader look good at the expense of the expert.

What made me think of this was a link to a story that a good friend I have in California sent me. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have found new friends, and windows to the bigger picture open up. My friend sends me links and I send him some. Because the US is so much bigger than Australia, there are more good links for him to send me than I might send to him. Life in Australia can be fairly insular, and stories on our ‘online’ news media are sometimes skewed to include an Australian viewpoint. My friend sends me stories from the vast media outlets in the US. I just include that media outlet’s home page into ‘my favourites’, and each day I scan them quickly for anything interesting. I have numerous US outlets that he has sent me links to, so it’s just a quick daily scan for anything new that either might not have broken yet in Australia, or might not get included in reports in this Country.

This story on the US ABC News outlet came to my attention and I watched the short clip from the news report. It deals with our beloved ‘Barry’, and his election promise to withdraw US troops from Iraq, or as it is so eloquently put, to ‘draw down’ the troops. The news reader read the story and then crossed to an ‘In Country’ journalist who then asked the relevant question of the General, as if that General was actually going to detail what was going to happen.
Man, just what do they take us for? Of course he’s not going to tell what is going to happen.
The ‘presumptive Democratic nominee’ (don’t you just those flowery terms) wants to draw down the troops at a rate of One Brigade per month, and this will effectively take 16 months. Man, at that rate, it’ll make the Berlin airlift look like an Oshkosh fly in.

Okay, so that’s out of the way then. The story might have been worthy of a slot on the newscast, but what it actually did was to make me think back. I can’t help thinking of that old adage from Santayana.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That in mind I’d like to tell you a little story from the pages of history that has some relevance to this story.

Earlier in the year I posted two pieces about ANZAC Day here in Australia, the same as your Memorial Day there in the US, but the Australian version. This is the day we remember our fallen in all Wars. We chose this day, April 25th  specifically because that was the date of the first landing at Gallipoli on the Peninsula in the Dardanelles in Turkey. It was when untried Australian troops stood up on their own and fought under an Australian flag and not that of the English. That landing at 4.15AM on that fateful morning is when Australia became noticed.

Gallipoli Peninsula. Map from the Australian War Memorial. Click on image to open in larger window.

The campaign was an ill fated attempt to open up a sea route through the Dardanelles narrows and on to Constantinople, (now Istanbul) to supply the Russians who were fighting on our side against the Germans. Turkey defended the Peninsula in a famed campaign. After seven months, the campaign had bogged down somewhat and it seemed to be an actual stalemate.
One night in November, a Turk cheekily tossed a note over his parapet and into the Australian lines. This was a fairly easy thing to do as the fighting soldiers were only separated by twenty yards.
The note read, ‘We can’t advance. You can’t advance. What are you going to do?’
You know, the usual banter between troops actually at the sharp end.
This opinion was also felt at the top of that food chain, and the Generals were looking for a way out. A strategic withdrawal was planned, a ‘drawdown’ if you must.

Here’s how it actually went, not the plan, but that actual withdrawal.
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood had this task.
Remove 80,000 troops from the battlefield, along with 200 artillery pieces, 2000 vehicles, 5000 horses and mules along with all the associated equipment. This is 1915 remember, so those vehicles would be wagons and carts etc., with maybe a few of those heavy trucks, hence the large number of horses and mules. All these removed from the field in boats and barges.
Sounds pretty easy eh! Yeah! Right!

Incidentally, that number of 80,000 troops in the field in this instance is half the size of the force currently in Iraq.

This task had to be done at night, and the task had to be accomplished so effectively, that spotters during the day from the Turkish side had to notice no difference at all.
There were actually three battlefields, the main one where the British were at Cape Helles, the Australian and New Zealand ANZAC force from the beach at Ari Burnu, now forever called ANZAC Cove, and at the ill fated second front at Suvla Bay.
This was an actual shooting war.
Get this.
That withdrawal was carried out over three consecutive nights, and the only injury was a sprained ankle.
No planes to airlift the troops from an airfield. Just walk to the beach with your pack and all you could carry, and in the dark, then get on the rowboats and row out to the troop ships anchored off shore. Troops separated from the shooting enemy not twenty yards away. Just quietly walk away. Those troops remaining during daylight hours of days two and three had one job. Rifles were set up over the parapets mounted on wooden rigs. Attached to the trigger was a string connected to a tin. Water dripped from small water bottles into the tins. When the weight became heavy enough, it overcame spring tension and pulled the trigger, firing the single shot bolt action rifles, no self loading carbines for these guys. Those remaining then had to go around, cocking the rifle and setting up the tins and dripping water again. During daylight hours, those remaining troops all had to stay put where they were like nothing had changed from normal daytime operations. Soldiers on the beach at ANZAC Cove out of reach of the Turk guns and snipers but still visible had to act like normal, swimming, bathing, eating, and resting away from the front line trenches.
On the morning after that third night, each night under a full moon, the Turks found silence bar a couple of strategic demolitions, and the odd rifle shot with stronger spring tension than some.

Three nights. 80,000 men out of an actual shooting war. Three nights.
The cost of that ill fated seven month campaign. 40,000 men died on the Allied side while Turk losses were put at 85,000. The injured amounted to 140,000 on the Allied side.
Of that total, Australia lost 8,700 men killed.
Those survivors went from Gallipoli to the trenches of the Somme. Out of the fat and into the fire.
That one day is revered in Australian psyche, the 25th April 1915, the day of the initial landing.

This is an enduring legend from the past, where 80,000 men were pulled out of a shooting war in THREE NIGHTS.

The term ’embedded journalists’ might seem to be a new one, but there was a famed Australian reporter from that battlefield, one who wrote the original definitive story of the campaign from an Australian viewpoint. His name was Charles Bean. He landed early in the campaign, and stayed till the last. As a reporter, he was actually recommended for the Military Cross, our second highest award for valor, but because he was a civilian, he was ineligible and this was downgraded to ‘A Mention In Dispatches.’ He was also later badly wounded, but rather than be transported to a hospital ship offshore, he stayed ashore and had the wound treated in a medical outpost, recovering with other wounded men on the beach. There was no such thing as instantaneous reports from the battlefields in those days so his reports often took weeks to be posted in newspapers.

I know this might sound cynical, but I can’t help thinking that if there had been instantaneous reporting from that battlefield, this ingenious plan would never have got further than an after dinner thought bubble.