Exactly one hundred years ago, on 16th June 1915, Nottinghamshire lad Jack Oscroft was killed at Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula.
In the grand scheme of things his death was unremarkable. Despite the modern day hyper-focus on the admittedly significant and stirring Anzac contribution to the Gallipoli campaign, the largest numbers of allied combatants on the peninsula came from Britain. Estimates vary a little, but virtually all sources agree that the numbers of British dead of the Dardanelles alone exceeded the combined total of Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Newfoundland and French battle deaths.
The total number of British soldiers killed was around 30,000 (out of a total death toll on all sides of over 100,000). I have made the point in my previous blog about Holocaust Tourism that, in the face of such mind-bogglingly huge numbers (and the Gallipoli toll was nowhere near the scale of the Holocaust), individual stories tend to become invisible. Each casualty becomes a number lost in the dense and shocking fog of statistics… and the singular personal story behind it is left behind where it died in the bloody earth.
I first learned about Jack from my Grandmother (he was the brother of my Great Great Grandmother Emma Davis née Oscroft) and I can remember having my curiosity stirred as a child by the very exotic sounding word ‘Dardanelles’ … what on earth were the Dardanelles? I can clearly recall that question burning in my mind. Later on I was able to research his life and feel some connection to him but, his living relatives aside, to everyone else Jack remained just one of those sad statistics.
So now, on the centenary of his death, it feels like the right time to change all of that. It is the moment to shine a light on Jack’s life and to raise him up from the dust of Helles and from amidst the other tens of thousands of faceless dead of the Gallipoli Campaign.
When looking back at Jack’s story, it is striking, from a modern day viewpoint at least, that tragedy stalked his life from early on…
He was born on 14th November 1881 in Redhill, at the edge of the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire. Jack’s parents William (a chimney sweep) and Louisa had already lost two children in infancy by then and a further daughter, Julia, succumbed to bronchitis when Jack was 8 years old. Even before Jack was born, in 1877, Louisa had spent a few months in the Lunatic Asylum at Sneinton on the edge of Nottingham. She was committed again the year after Julia’s death for a period lasting 7 months. However, her release was all too brief and she returned to the Asylum on 19th June 1891. This time Louisa did not come out and tuberculosis eventually ended her life in the County Lunatic Asylum at Saxondale in 1906. The following year Jack’s eldest sister, Grace, took her own life by hanging herself in the pantry of her house at the age of 36, apparently in fear that she had inherited her mother’s illness.
By then Jack had been married to Mary Agnes Bowley for a couple of years and they were living in The Meadows area of Nottingham. They too had lost a child in infancy, a boy called James, during a short-lived residency in Pogmoor, Barnsley, where Jack held a job at the brick works. The next few years were restless ones where Jack and Aggie moved home a number of times and Jack tried his hand at several different occupations. Two more children, Leonard and Eileen Blanche, also arrived. Tragedy, however, was again waiting in the wings ready to take the stage and scarlet fever took away Leonard in 1908, aged just 3 years old. Between then and the outbreak of war, another son, Wilfred, was born in 1910 and Jack’s father, William, passed away in 1912. In the years leading up to the war Jack worked as a Corn Merchant’s drayman and then a waggoner, latterly at Old Park Farm in Wollaton.
The Gallipoli campaign was to be the backdrop to the final tragic act of Jack’s life. The origins of the campaign and the folly that it became are well documented elsewhere (I would recommend L.A. Carlyon’s book as a starting point). Jack’s own journey from the fields and byways of the English Midlands to the shores of Turkey, began unwittingly, when he answered his country’s call to arms in Nottingham. On 8th September 1914 he signed up, not with the local regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, but with the Northumberland Fusiliers. If joining a Northumbrian regiment wasn’t the norm in Nottingham, then two days later he did something even more surprising, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve instead.
We’ll never know what methods of persuasion it took for Jack to sign up; if indeed he needed persuading. The RNVR was more usually associated with men from the great seaports on the Clyde, or the Mersey, or the Tyne… not usually farm men from Trentside. On 3rd November 1914 he was added to the muster of ‘C’ Company of the Royal Naval Division’s Anson Battalion. Jack didn’t know it at the time, but the RND was to have the misfortune of becoming part of the force assembled for the assault on the Dardenelles. In another twist of fate these men, held in reserve to serve the Royal Navy, were transformed into into soldiers to fight in a land war.
And so it was that on 7th February 1915 Jack and his comrades marched out of Blandford Camp in North Dorset on their way, via Avonmouth, to Port Said in Egypt. Just two months later, on 25th April, they were aboard ships amassing on the sparkling Aegean Sea, poised for a full scale seaborne assault on the Ottoman Empire . It is likely that Jack was part of the force that landed at X-Beach on the western side of the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula. If so, he was lucky. X-Beach was largely undefended… unlike V and W beaches to the south, where the main element of the British force landed. With Turkish gun batteries lying in wait up on the high ground above them, these beaches became a bloodbath.
The original plan was for a rapid advance up the peninsular and onto Constantinople, but instead the disastrous and bloody landings set the tone for what was to come. The Anson Battalion regrouped to participate in more failed assaults and skirmishes in the following weeks and months. In between they suffered from the unbearable heat, lice, dysentery (“the Gallipoli trots”) and an endless plague of flies. The insects were fat from feeding on the corpses lying unburied on the battlefield and they covered everything in sight, including the food the soldiers ate. But Jack survived all of this too.
In early June the Anson Battalion was pulled back into a rest camp at Seddulbahir, near the fort which stands at the tip of the peninsula, where the depleted force was re-organised and they took stock of kit and stores. Jack’s peacetime occupation meant that he had been allocated a role in the transport section. He was assigned the job of unloading stores and water from W and X beaches and transporting them to the camp using wagons and mules. Whilst he toiled, plans were drawn up to take the battalion off the peninsula for further rest and recuperation on the nearby island of Imbros.
Jack never made it.
The commander of the newly reorganised ‘C’ company, K. R. Dundas, wrote in his dairy on 16th June 1915:
“Last night was quiet, but all this a.m. they have been shelling our camp… The Turks are dropping their new terror round us, the one from Asia that arrives without warning & explodes with a scream. It is a big gun, probably a 9.2 inch. One has just fallen and killed two of our transport men”.
Dundas was to lose his own life later in the campaign. The battalion war diary simply records that “2 men of Transport Section killed by shell 16/5/15”.
Jack was 33 years and 7 months old. There was nothing left of him to bury. Back home he left a 6 year old daughter and a 4 year old son who barely had chance to know him.
He is commemorated now on the memorial that stands at the tip of the Helles peninsula looking out across the Aegean Sea. In 2012 my aunt visited the spot to pay her respects and I did the same the following year. Because it was out of reach for the family he left behind, we are likely to be the only relatives to have ever made the 2000 mile trip in the century since his death.
There may seem to be a dark symmetry to the fact that a life full of tragedy and loss ended in the way it did. However, in the cold, harsh world in which he lived, Jack was just an ordinary working man striving through adversity to make a living and to do what he could to feed his young family. When his country needed him, he did his duty and stepped forward to answer the call. Like so many other casualties of the Great War, though, his reward was a glory-less and futile death. The greatest sacrifice he could have made became nothing more than a statistic of an escapade that was, ultimately, an embarrassment to the British Government.
Jack’s children may have been young enough to come through the enormity of his loss unscathed, but Aggie was hit hard. Despite re-marrying she carried Jack’s loss with her. She might not have known the words of Mustafa Kemal – the founding father of modern Turkey and better known now under the name Atatürk – which were addressed to the mothers of the allied soldiers who fell at Gallipoli. Had she been aware, however, then she may have taken some comfort from knowing that Jack’s sacrifice was at least acknowledged and embraced in a far away land:
“Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their loves…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country so rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they are our sons as well”.
Jack Oscroft was partly an inspiration for my novel The Man Who Found Treasure.
The excerpt from the war diary of the Hon. K. R. Dundas is taken from ‘The Jack Clegg Memorial Database of Royal Naval Division Casualties of the Great War’ compiled by Jack Marshall and available at http://www.ancestry.co.uk. The official war diary of the Anson Battalion for the period from 10th June to 20th October 1915 is available at the National Archives under reference WO 95/4291 and now also at http://www.ancestry.co.uk .
The words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are taken from an inscription at the Turkish Martyrs Memorial on Hisarlık Hill overlooking Morto Bay, Gallipoli.