Jour­ney­ing in his grand­fa­ther’s foot­steps at Gal­lipoli

Chris Wilt­shire vis­its the bat­tle­field where, 100 years ago, the life of young sol­dier Bert Wilt­shire hung by a thread af­ter he was cut down by a bay­o­net

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - GLOBE TROTTING -

THERE’S some cor­ner of a for­eign field that will al­ways be close to my heart. It’s a parched piece of scrub­land, lit­tered with fir cones, over­look­ing a glo­ri­ous turquoise bay, and just about as far re­moved from the stereo­typ­i­cal images of the mud-laden First World War as you could pos­si­bly get.

And yet it was here, on the scorch­ing banks of the Dardanelles Strait in north­ern Turkey, al­most a hun­dred years ago to the day, that my grand­fa­ther – and in­deed my very ex­is­tence – hung by the most del­i­cate of threads.

Fight­ing along­side the Glouces­ter 7th bat­tal­ion in the ill-fated Gal­lipoli cam­paign, Al­bert Wilt­shire – known to all as Bert, was cut down by a Turk­ish bay­o­net in hand-to-hand com­bat and left for dead.

Just days ear­lier he had been “blown sky-high by a mor­tar shell”, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter sent to his brother, Gra­ham, but this time, there seemed no hope for him.

Bert lay in­jured with a gap­ing wound to his side and didn’t move.

He had sur­vived the open­ing skir­mishes of the Great War at Mons and Le Cateau in France in Au­gust 1914 as part of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, but it looked as though his num­ber was up.

How­ever, 24 hours af­ter the battle, as the or­der­lies were pick­ing up the dead, one of them no­ticed Bert’s eyes flicker and sum­moned for help.

The Turk­ish Mon­u­ment in Gal­lipoli Mirac­u­lously, he was still alive.

It took him months to re­cover but, although only 5ft 3in tall, Bert was as tough as the old boots he used to re­pair as a cob­bler, and he re­joined the army in Bagh­dad and Salonica. He was one of very few Tom­mies from the orig­i­nal army to have sur­vived the Great War. He was my hero.

Like many of the vet­er­ans, Bert suf­fered from the ef­fects of shell shock and mus­tard gas andd slipped away while I was still in short trousers.

Now, 40 years on, I felt it my duty to re­trace his steps, to make e some sense of the sac­ri­fice of the 56,000 Al­lies (and al­most iden­ti­cal num­ber of Turks), who never came home. I wanted to pic­ture where he had fought and to be able to tell my chil­dren, and per­haps grand­chil­dren, about it.

Many re­gard Gal­lipoli as the An­zac (Aus­tralian and New Zealand Army Corps) War, in mem­ory of the Aus­tralian and New Zealand sol­diers who valiantly fought there over eight har­row­ing months. Per­haps it is be­cause they com­mem­o­rate the fallen on An­zac Day just as we Bri­tish do on Ar­mistice Day in Novem­ber, or the fact that they re­named one of the scenes of in­tense fight­ing An­zac Cove.

Nev­er­the­less, 34,000 Tom­mies died there com­pared to 11,000 Aus­tralian and New Zealan­ders, with 10,000 French and 2,000 In­di­ans also among the dead. The to­tal num­ber of Al­lies in­jured ex­ceeded 120,000, with many suf­fer­ing ter­ri­bly from dysen­tery and en­teric fever.

The Al­lies wanted con­trol of the nar­row and strate­gi­cally im­por­tant Dardanelles stretch of wa­ter that dis­sects for­mer Con­stantino­ple – now Istanbul – so that they could get sup­plies through to their ally, Rus­sia. They also wanted to pro­voke Turkey i in­tot j joiningi i th the war so thatth tG Ger­many would be forced to di­vert troops there from the West­ern Front.

Un­for­tu­nately, a com­bi­na­tion of poor lead­er­ship, res­o­lute Turk­ish de­fences and un­der-re­sourced armies proved their un­do­ing and they were forced to con­cede de­feat.

Our tour party to the Gal­lipoli penin­sula – a four-hour coach jour­ney from the cen­tre of bustling Istanbul – is dom­i­nated by An­tipodeans.

Re­fresh­ingly, there are four twen­tysome­things in the group want­ing to pay their re­spects. None of them have an old rel­a­tive to hon­our, but sim­ply feel the need to be there.

One of the more worldly-wise Aussies in our party, San­dra, from Mel­bourne, tells me in hushed tones that many feel it’s their rite of pas­sage.

As we reach An­zac Cove, ex­cited chat­ter quickly gives way to hushed re­flec­tion. The story goes that a ship car­ry­ing Aussie sol­diers missed its land­ing spot Cape Helles, be­cause of high winds and cur­rent, and pitched up at a beach sev­eral miles away.

Un­der the cover of dark­ness, dozens of sol­diers tried to make their way up the im­pos­si­bly steep bank to con­front the en­emy and were mowed down by ma­chine gun fire.

Wave af­ter wave of sol­diers tried to

Chris Wilt­shire at An­zac Cove in Gal­lipoli reach the sum­mit be­fore fi­nally get­ting a foothold and dig­ging in.

Stand­ing on the wa­ter’s edge in the mid­day sun, with the lack of bird­song adding to the melan­cholic mood, I look up and a chill goes through me. An ex­pe­ri­enced climber would have strug­gled to scale the peak, never mind sol­diers with all their kit.

A lone fe­male voice sums up all our feel­ings when she splut­ters in her Aussie drawl: “Deeeearr God, they didn’t stand a chaaance.”

It is lit­tle sur­prise there has been mu­tual re­spect be­tween Turk­ish and Aus­tralian/Kiwi sol­diers ever since.

More than 650 of the fallen are buried at the im­mac­u­late Lone Pine Ceme­tery, on the hill over­look­ing the bay, with more at other sites ev­ery few hun­dred me­tres or so. The Bri­tish are mainly hon­oured at the huge Cape Helles Me­mo­rial, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, while tow­er­ing bronze mon­u­ments pay homage to the Turk­ish sol­diers.

And across the wa­ter at Canakkale, on the Asian side of Turkey, rem­nants from the bat­tles are re­spect­fully laid out in out­door and in­door mu­se­ums.

The night be­fore the tour, I’d booked into the beach­side Iris Ho­tel, a few miles from Canakkale, and watched, with an icy beer in hand, as young­sters from Australia, Turkey, Ger­many and the UK min­gled freely on colour­ful windsurfers and kite­boards on a beau­ti­ful, breezy, sun-kissed au­tumn evening.

I just wish my grand­fa­ther and some of his brave pals had been there to see it so that I could raise a toast and thank them.

They may have lost the battle, but their ef­forts were, ul­ti­mately, oh so worth it.

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