War history: Is truth the first casualty of war?

Frank Beck, second from the left

Frank Beck, second from the left - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

Mike Peters last week concluded the story of the siege of Kut-al-Amarah. Here, Galloway’s resident military historian examines an East Anglian myth born in 1915.

Norfolk officers, at a troubled time

Norfolk officers, at a troubled time - Credit: Archant

The British and Indian troops who surrendered to the Ottoman Turks faced a grim time in captivity. Many would never see their homeland again. Those who survived captivity emerged in poor physical state, and many never regained their health. Their story would not emerge until long after the armistice of 1918.

This lack of information was not uncommon. Away from the main arena of the Western Front, speculation, rumour and myth were rife. Unscrupulous elements of the press were not averse to fuelling speculation with unfounded stories. It was against this backdrop that many of the myths of the First World War were born that still abound today.

Wars have always generated myths, half-truths and legends. During the battle of Gettysburg an apparition of George Washington was said to have appeared to confederate troops, causing them to retreat and give the Union a victory. In 1914, during the retreat from Mons, an “angel” or English bowmen from Agincourt were said to have appeared on the battlefield, lifting the spirits of exhausted British troops.

One of the biggest myths of the First World War is rooted in East Anglia. Our story is centred on one of the Territorial Force battalions of the Norfolk Regiment. The first to proceed to war were the 1/4th Battalion and the 1/5th Battalion, who would serve together at Gallipoli.

King Edward VII was desperate to find out what was happening to the men from the Sandringham estate

King Edward VII was desperate to find out what was happening to the men from the Sandringham estate - Credit: IAN BURT

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On the formation of the Territorial Army in 1908, at the request of King Edward VII, men from the royal estate at Sandringham formed their own company. It was known as Sandringham Company until 1915, when it merged with ‘C’ Company ? whereupon it became known as The King’s Company. The rest of the battalion was drawn from across Norfolk.

Locally raised, the territorials worked together and played together. The rank structure of C Company was close to the hierarchy the men were used to when going about their daily lives out of uniform. It made sense for the king’s land agent, Captain Frank Beck, to become the company commander, together with his two nephews as officers. The estate workers, footmen, grooms, gardeners and labourers would form a body of senior and junior ranks.

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After training at Colchester and Bury St Edmunds, the 1/5th Battalion embarked the luxury liner Aquitania on July 30, 1915, bound for the Dardanelles, landing at Suvla Bay on August 10. Men entered a hostile environment of unbearable temperatures by day and freezing temperatures at night. Troops succumbed to disease and dysentery. Obtaining water was a problem and men were reduced to two pints every three days.

On August 12 the 1/5th Battalion were ordered to attack. However, their orders were unclear and confusing. Some thought the plan was to clear away the enemy’s forward positions in preparation for the main assault. Others believed their target was the village of Anafarta Saga, on the ridge ahead of them.

Captain Frank Beck

Captain Frank Beck - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

On the afternoon of August 12 the 54th (East Anglian) Division was ordered to advance. It was decided to send the 163rd brigade, of whom the 5th Norfolks were a part, forward to clear the area of any enemy outposts and to establish itself. This would let the main attacking force advance onto the ridge the next morning.

The orders were to clear snipers out of the scrub, advance to align with the neighbouring 53rd Division, fill the gap between it on the right and the 10th Division on the left, and dig in for the night.

In command of the 1/5th Norfolks was Colonel Sir H Beauchamp, with Captain Beck leading The King’s Company. Beck was 54 years old – he did not need to fight – but a desire to look after his men and a promise to their loved ones that he would bring them home safely meant he would lead his men in the attack.

After a 45-minute naval bombardment, the advance started at 4.45pm. Directly, the 1/5th Norfolk received an order to change direction half right. The 8th Hants did not receive this order and consequently a gap was formed between the battalions, which increased as the advance proceeded. The brigade at once encountered serious resistance: from heavy machine-gun fire from the left and shrapnel on the right. The British advance halted on the left but the Norfolks on the right pushed forward. Men were mixed up and communication began breaking down.

What happened to the battalion is described in Sir Ian Hamilton’s despatch:

“The 1/5th Norfolk were on the right of the line and found themselves for a moment less strongly opposed than the rest of the brigade. Against the yielding forces of the enemy Colonel Sir H Beauchamp, a bold, self-confident officer, eagerly pressed forward, followed by the best part of the battalion.

“The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken. At this stage many men were wounded, or grew exhausted with thirst. These found their way back to camp during the night. But the Colonel, with sixteen officers and 250 men, still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before them... Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight or sound. Not one of them ever came back.”

Hamilton’s words were written in response to requests for information from the royal household. Under pressure to appease the monarch, he gave birth to one of the enduring myths of the war.

You can find out next week what actually happened to the King’s Company and men of the 1/5th Norfolk Battalion.

Galloway have a fully-guided day excursion to the Western Front on Friday, May 13. Visit their website to find out more.You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles and battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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