The evacuation of Suvla Bay, 1915

Allfree, Geoffrey S, 1889-1918 :[The evacuation of Suvla Bay. The burning of a million pounds worth of stores; last lighter coming away as dawn broke] 1915. Watercolour, 250 x 355 mm. ATL Ref: A-176-003Allfree, Geoffrey S, 1889-1918 :[The evacuation of Suvla Bay. The burning of a million pounds worth of stores; last lighter coming away as dawn broke] 1915. Watercolour, 250 x 355 mm. ATL Ref: A-176-003

One of the most striking images of war in the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library is this watercolour by British artist Geoffrey Allfree, depicting the evacuation of Suvla Bay in December 1915. The evacuation of Anzac and Suvla had been ordered on 22 November 1915 and took place between 15 and 20 December. HMS Cornwallis covered the evacuation, firing thousands of rounds of 6-inch and 12-inch shells at Turkish positions. She was the last large ship to leave Suvla Bay. The ship in Allfree’s watercolour is likely to be the Cornwallis. Press reports filed in London on 31 December appeared days later in New Zealand newspapers, describing in vivid terms how the evacuating troops set fire to enormous quantities of bully beef, biscuits and other stores they were forced to abandon. Descriptions also mention the unusually calm weather. ‘During the last two hours of the night,’ wrote one correspondent, ‘huge waves of flame reddened the sky and sea for miles around, and columns of thick black smoke towered hundreds of feet into the windless air’. Unlike other aspects of the Gallipoli Campaign the evacuation was carried out with great efficiency and comparatively few casualties among the evacuating forces.

According to a note on the back of the watercolour, probably written by Allfree’s widow before she donated the work to the Turnbull Library in 1964, the painting was made ‘on the spot’.

In April 1916 the Otago Witness published a Supplement edition on ‘The Evacuation of the Dardanelles’ which included a photograph of the Cornwallis firing on Turkish positions during the operation. Though taken in daylight the photograph bears a strong resemblance to Allfree’s watercolour, and corroborates the accuracy of his spectacular vision of the scene. The Otago Witness pages can be seen on Papers Past: Otago Witness (Supplement), 5 April 1916, p. 41.

Lieutenant Geoffrey Stephen Allfree (1889-1918) was the son of an Oxford-educated vicar and grew up in Kent. After secondary school he entered the merchant navy, but later enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he developed a high level of competence as a draughtsman and painter. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he entered the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. It was not until after Allfree’s service at Gallipoli that he was made an official war artist, so the three watercolour images of Gallipoli scenes by Allfree that are in the Turnbull Library were never part of Britain’s official war art collection, and his widow was able to donate them to the Turnbull Library, in his memory. 14 art works by Allfree depicting various naval and military subjects are in the collections of Britain’s Imperial War Museums, together with a fine black and white portrait of Allfree.

In the last year of the War Allfree was given command of a group of navy motor launches. On 29 September 1918 his vessels were attempting to shelter from hurricane-force winds near St Ives on the Cornish coast. Allfree’s boat was blown onto a rock and exploded when its depth charges detonated on impact. There was only one survivor; Allfree’s body was never recovered. He was 29.

HMS Cornwallis was sunk by German torpedoes near Malta in January 1917. Fifteen lives were lost but the majority of the crew managed to get off the ship before it sank.

Lieutenant Geoffrey Stephen Allfree. © IWM (HU 120774)Lieutenant Geoffrey Stephen Allfree © IWM (HU 120774)

By Oliver Stead

Oliver is Curator Drawings Paintings & Prints at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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