The author of this book, John Still, was an officer in the 6th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment and was part of the imaginative, but ultimately disastrous, amphibious assault on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelle’s as part of the Middle Eastern Campaign in 1915 which was intended to initiate the fall of Germany’s ally, the ailing Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill, then First Sea Lord, had a penchant for devising unusual military initiatives and the consequences of this unfortunate brainchild were fated to chillingly revisit him in the Second World War during the Anzio landings in Italy. The experiences of the soldiers on the ground in both episodes also proved remarkably similar. Far from storming ashore to launch themselves in a rapid advance, they found themselves virtual prisoners within a confined beachhead where every attack of the invaders was poorly coordinated and doomed to failure from the outset. So it was that Still and his Yorkshire men were doomed to failure as they tried to achieve their objective both without support and hours after the time originally allotted to them. The outcome was predictable with appalling loss of life and capture and incarceration for the few survivors which included the author of this account. There followed a long journey into captivity followed by years as prisoners of the Turks. How Still and his comrades survived an ordeal that cost so many British soldiers their lives through neglect, poor or non-existent medical care, over work and starvation makes engrossing reading. This book was originally entitled A Prisoner in Turkey.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Some of the adventures that had landed prisoners at Angora have been briefly described. Let me give a few of those that had brought others to Afion. The first I must mention is that of an Australian observer, for it tells of a very gallant deed performed by one of our enemies, and even the bitterness of war should not be allowed to obscure glorious deeds. In December one of our aeroplanes crashed into the sea about a mile, more or less, from the coast of the Gallipoli peninsula held by the Turks. The pilot sank, but the observer was buoyed up by his life-saving waistcoat until he lost consciousness in the bitterly cold water. When he came to his senses again he found himself ashore, a prisoner, and he was told that a German officer had swum out and brought him in: swum out into that December sea to save an enemy.<br>
Let that stand to the credit of Germany, and the other story I shall tell to the discredit of Turkey. It is the tale of Joe, a sturdy Yorkshire sailor man, a naval reserve officer, who was sent into a bay on the southern coast of Anatolia in command of a boat. They hoped to locate a submarine base, but they were ambushed instead. Joe was hit in the neck by a great lump of a Snyder bullet, which had first passed through the side of the boat. The survivors were captured, and Joe, who rode as a sailor, travelled many painful miles on horseback. He was operated on in the most primitive fashion, by being held down by soldiers while a Turkish doctor lugged the bullet by main force from its lodging place at the base of his jaw. Finally he reached the civilised town of Smyrna, and was there confined in the local war office, a large building facing one of the main streets.<br>
Just below his window was the window of the office used by the commandant of the place. For three days and nights Joe was not allowed out of that room for any purpose whatsoever. There was no convenience of any sort in the room, but all his demands to be allowed out, even for five minutes, were met by a fixed bayonet. Still, there was the window, and Joe was a clean person. Eventually the high and mighty person in the room below complained, and his complaint brought Joe’s sufferings to an end. It is disgusting to write of these things, but captivity among a disgusting people is a disgusting fact. Why should white books and blue books have the monopoly?<br>
In the last week of March we had exciting news. The skipper and two other naval officers had gone. They simply got out of their windows at night, rendezvoused on the hillside, and struck for the coast. They had made ample preparation in the way of training, and they carried enough food to last them for two weeks. The skipper was in the French house, and he had not told them his plan, so they were taken by complete surprise. But they rose to the occasion like men, and showed the greatest skill in leading the Turks gently away from the scent. We all thought them jolly good sportsmen. So successfully was the escape concealed, and so lax were the guards, that it was four days before the Turks discovered that they were three prisoners short. Even then they could not believe it. They looked in the beds and under them, and called plaintively in odd corners, hoping the whole thing was a joke. It was only the letter to the commandant which had been left behind that finally convinced them. Then there was the devil to pay.<br>
In Turkey it was not the guards that kept the prisoners in, but the country. Guards there were in plenty, but they were often lax and until this escape there were no regular roll calls. But the country is a terrifically hard place to get out of. To begin with, it is no easy matter to find one’s way through mountains with only a small-scale map. I doubt if the country has ever been properly surveyed. Then there is the language difficulty and the cutthroat character of the inhabitants.
Water, too, is scarce, and food unobtainable. And the size of the country is vastly greater than most people seem to imagine. Asia Minor is roughly 600 miles long and 400 miles broad: a larger country than Spain. And it had no frontier which abutted upon friendly country nearer than the Caucasus, an almost hopeless journey to attempt. East there are the Taurus mountains, and beyond them desert, so that direction is out of the question. North, west, and south there is the sea. And our information was that very few boats were likely to be available. So that even when a party overcame the great difficulties of the land journey, and reached the coast, there was always a very strong probability of their having to give themselves up to get food.<br>
Two days after this escape had taken place, and two days before the Turks discovered it, a new party of prisoners arrived in Afion. It was hard luck that they should have come at such a time, for they were very worn and required good treatment. There were a few men and about nine officers, all from the Mesopotamian front. They had been taken at different times, and had joined up on the way. It was always the prisoners from the Mesopotamian front who had the worst time on the journey. For, in those days, the Bagdad railway stopped short hundreds of miles from the fighting line, and prisoners had to make the awful desert marches as best they could. Six of these had come down out of the sky, and two had been taken in a stranded barge during the retreat of the 6th Division to Kut-el-Amara. Each had his separate adventure and wonderful escape.<br>
In few places in the world can so varied a body of adventurers have been gathered as there were at Afion then. We had British, French, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Black Sea Greeks, Jews, and Russian Italians, besides all sorts of obscure Baltic and Eastern European people. The Roumanians and Serbs did not come until later. There were men who had dropped from the heavens, and men who had risen out from the depths of the sea; men from the Dardanelles, from Mesopotamia, from the Sinai Peninsula, and from the plain of Troy. Later on, we had additions from Persia, Palestine, and the Caucasus. Between us we had seen and wandered over most of Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and the Southern Seas; and we spoke most of the tongues of the earth, and some others. Had we combined, we might have written a pretty good guide book to the world; its hills and its heavens, its cities and its wide spaces; and we would have puzzled the builders of Babel.