Monday, 27 April 2015

Gallipoli: A Personal Story

My maternal Grandad, Lance corporal Wilfred Mack of the 5th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment, was badly wounded at Gallipoli in August 1915, shot several times in the leg (as kids we were always told seven bullets) during the futile attack on Suvla Cove. Gallipoli is rightly remembered for the terrible and heroic sacrifice of ANZAC troops — memorialised by Peter Weir's excellent film, Gallipoli — but I'm glad the centenary has given the Tommies their due, too. It is also a reminder that this was truly a World War, troops drawn from all over, with not all the action confined to the Western Front.

Stirred by the 1960s anti-war movement, the tendency has been to subscribe to the "Lions Led By Donkeys" version of hostilities, latterly known as the Blackadder school of thought. Undoubtedly there is truth in this, though for me it's too facile a judgement to lay upon all of the action — especially if you do your reading, and especially if you look at the ratio of officer casualties. That said, the Gallipoli campaign, of which Churchill was an architect, certainly fits the bill as a grossly ill-conceived Whitehall project. This was the D-Day landing of its time, yet was executed with what seems criminally scant attention paid to very deadly detail. Eight months of fighting, 250,000 Allied casualties. Enough said.

Some years later, a myth grew up about the 5th Battalion, Norfolks. In a sort of Levantine version of the Angle of Mons, extrapolated from some descriptive newspaper accounts, the men were supposed to have charged the Turkish positions, with 200-plus simply disappearing into a strange mist, never to be seen again (in some outlandish recent versions they were abducted by aliens). Yet another drama, a TV one this time, All The King's Men, promulgated the myth of the "Vanished", skewing the story with suggestion that the Battalion was drawn exclusively from the royal staff of the Sandringham Estate. (The pals' brigades were actually recruited from all over the county. My grandfather was a smallholder, born nr. Holt, lived the rest of his life in Sheringham.) For me the whole thing is rather disrespectful and ignores what seems almost certainly to have happened, especially when, after the war, they found many of the remains shovelled into a ditch.

From what I can remember him saying, and from what my mum tells me, they charged the Turks (records show they got 800yds behind the lines and regrouped, confused and lost, at a farmhouse) before machine guns took their toll. It would account for the number of bullets Grandad copped. These were raw, untried troops, remember. He was 19 at the time. From what can be gleaned from his recounting, in the chaos and carnage, people running all over the place, the survivors took cover in the shell holes of No Man's Land till darkness fell — though not without Grandad seeing his best mate's head being blown off right next to him and with a lifetime of nightmares to show for it. Eventually he crawled back.

Grandad died in 1981 when I was in my teens, before I really gained appreciation of what he'd been through (due to my dad's National Service stories and the paternal side's own multiple representation in WW2, it tended to get eclipsed). He was a man of few words, his accent so strong — back then broad Norfolk was a different language — it was difficult to make out a lot of what he said anyway. But I do remember him talking about docking at Marseilles and, later on, continuing the fight against the Ottomans in Palestine, which would have brought him under the supreme command of Lawrence of Arabia.

Grandparents Wilfred and Louisa went on to have eight children, all girls, one of which being my mum. With the maternal family name facing extinction, too, we thought it only fitting to name our own son Mack.

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