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2nd December 1916

This is an episode set in a Prisoner of War camp at Bahce in central Turkey.

 

Our characters are starved and beaten while working as rail-laying and tunnelling labourers on the tunnels through the Amanus mountains for the Berlin-Baghdad railway.

 

Their torment began a year ago when they were besieged in Kut and then starved out after five months. 13,000 British and Indian soldiers were then marched 1000 miles to the camps. Three fifths of the British and one third of the Indians were to die in captivity – respectively worse or equivalent to deaths in WW2 Japanese POW camps.

 

If you feel you've never heard of this story, you are the result of deliberate British government policy. There were prisoner trades during the war, and any returned Allied soldiers were ordered to stay quiet because there was a fear the truth would affect morale. This is pure wind: a more widespread outcry would have helped shame Turkey into treating the men better. As it was, one of the few lifelines to the outside world were infrequent visits from members of the American Embassy, who as a neutral power tried to negotiate Red Cross and Crescent access, until they too entered the war and the role was taken on by the Dutch.

 

Close source study led to this episode of TOMMIES breaking two hitherto unknown stories. The first is the use of the bastinado as a punishment. This is beating with whips or sticks on the soles of the feet, legendarily excruciating, and because it required a special piece of equipment from which to suspend the prisoner, was surely a more calculated piece of brutality than we have previously seen in WW2 Sunday afternoon POW movies. And the second, the purpose to which the bastinado was most often put, the softening up of young prisoners who did not want to have sex with senior Turkish officers or in some cases commandants.    

 

It took me some time to hit the motherlode on this and other topics as archive.org has many memoirs but they are mainly by officers. The kicker was THE OTHER RANKS OF KUT by PW Long, which does exactly what it says on the tin, it is the voice and experiences of the ordinary soldier who sent into captivity.

 

The basic sources were the same as for our previous Mespot episodes: THE NEGLECTED WAR by Barker, CHITRAL CHARLIE by Nash, WHEN GOD MADE HELL by Townshend, and the OX AND BUCKS Regimental History (which I am very fond of because they deal with the stories of the other ranks before they deal with the officers). Then there was the blood'n'guts of THE SIEGE by Russell Braddon.

 

This latter is always going to be an interesting take because Braddon was a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2 and therefore has a telling perspective. There's another book on POW life I can recommend - A CROWD IS NOT COMPANY by Robert Kee. Although it is WW2 and a much more standard POW-in-Germany book, I did a lot of work a few years ago on a POW screenplay and this was easily the best work on the psychology of prisoners, and full of surprises.

 

THE HISTORICAL RECORD OF THE 110th MAHARATTA LIGHT INFANTRY (you can read it at the IWM Library, many thanks to them while I am here) helped me sort out the days and dates of the different units, races and castes. For all this segregation, the Maharatta diary does mention some men of 2nd Norfolks being present (and another source puts 1/4 Hampshires there too, but I'm afraid I've temporarily mislaid that). The Maharatta's were at modern-day Bahce, which you can find on Google Earth or at 37°11'47.48"N, 36°34'19.25"E. If you scout around a bit you can see the railway tunnels by looking at railway lines suddenly disappearing.  

 

Although some officers escaped from Turkish captivity I couldn't find a ranker who made it back to British lines. That was until I got the article from FIBIS (Families in British India Society) about Trumpeter Inwood by Rosemary Reardon, a first class piece of research, especially when she thoughtfully dissects the tempting notion he might have also had a guerrilla career similar to TE Lawrence's. Many thanks to her and to Mrs Luci Martin St Valery, the FIBIS Membership Secretary who got me a hard copy of the issue 32, Autumn 2014 when I think they'd sold the whole run.