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
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.