Island lost a whole generation

By John Medland

Friday, February 14, 2014


Island lost a whole generation

The Lancashire Fusiliers ready to "go over the top" at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.

WIGHT LIVING AUGUST 2014 will see the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.

The First World War was the greatest human disaster in the Island’s history. What made it more acute was that the casualties were concentrated among one gender and one generation, they were almost all young men.

It was a war like no other in the scale of military casualties. Of the roughly 50 million men who saw active service, some ten million were killed, ten million captured and 20 million wounded.

Many of the one in five who demobilised unscathed carried the scars of acute mental illness, little understood at the time.

Islanders served in all units of the British armed forces, on land, at sea and in the air. What is poignant is that there were also specialised Island units.

The Island’s cavalry militia or "yeomanry" were sent to the Western Front in Belgium and France in 1914. Most had to fight as infantry as there was little for mounted cavalry in trench warfare. In March 1918, Major General Jack Seely led the Canadian Cavalry Brigade on his Island-bred warhorse Warrior, in the last great cavalry attack of the war.

The horses belonging to those yeomanry went to Egypt to be worked alongside the Island’s militia infantry and artillery in the invasion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

On the afternoon of August 12, 1915, the Princess Beatrice IW Rifles first saw action. Their brigade was ordered to enlarge the landing bridgehead at Sulva Bay in the Gallipoli campaign. The Turks were waiting with artillery, machine guns and determined troops armed with Mauser repeater rifles.

The bugler announcing the charge was the first to fall, shot in the neck. The rest of the battalion was cut to pieces.

Of the 800 men, more than 300 were killed or missing by the time the survivors crawled back to their starting lines.

Thirty-two men from Newport alone died that afternoon, four of them from tiny Orchard Street. By the time the battalion was withdrawn from Gallipoli, in December 1915, fewer than 200 men, weakened by dysentery, were still in the ranks.

In 1914, the militia volunteers who manned the five howitzers of the 5th Hampshire Battery were sent to Poona to become part of the Sixth Division of the Indian army. The division landed at Basra, 15,000 strong, and spent the next two years fighting its way towards Baghdad.

In November 1915, the division was decisively defeated at the two-day Battle of Cetisphon. A third of the troops were killed or wounded. The infantry and artillery retreated a hundred miles to Kut-el-Amara. There, 15,759 troops and 6,000 civilians were besieged for five months.

When General Townshend surrendered, the wounded were sent downriver. This left 12,300 prisoners. The officers, including the doctors, were separated from their men, who were stripped of their boots, belts and clothes by their impoverished Turkish captors. By the time they left Baghdad some 3,450 had perished.

The surviving Islanders, with the rest of the division, were sent on a death march into Anatolia, where if they survived, they were put to work as forced labour for the rest of the war. Around them the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in starvation and genocide.

In the 1920s, a few survivors made it back home. As they had surrendered they were officially dishonoured and the War Office did not even attempt to record the dead and missing.

The memorials in Freshwater and Newport Drill Halls recall 75 men whose remains still lie somewhere in the Middle East.

During the postwar occupation of Iraq, a British officer retrieved the last of the 5th Battery’s gun carriages, blown up at the surrender. This enigmatic war sculpture now sits in the corner of the bar of the Freshwater Memorial Hall.

The fate of the IW Rifles was little better. Drafts of volunteers brought them back up to active strength in Egypt. On April 19, 1917, the battalion was committed to the Second Battle of Gaza. They were in the second wave of a direct daylight attack across open ground by 30,000 British troops. 20,000 Turkish troops held well-prepared defences, with 98 machine guns and more than 100 cannon. By that evening, of the 800 Island soldiers who had "gone over the top", there were just 92 men left standing. The battalion had been wiped out a second time.

On the war memorials maintained by our town and parish councils every name was originally remembered as someone’s son, brother, uncle, husband, father or sweetheart. Now the fading names are becoming an anonymous list. It may be true that "they do not grow old as we grow old" but do we individually "still remember them"?

Each name on each war memorial has a story to tell. There are vast reserves of information held on individuals and their units in the Imperial War Museum in London. The IW County Records Office allows people to research the lost and how they related to the Island’s families.

The names of 2,172 lost Islanders are inscribed into the walls of the Chapel of St Nicholas in Carisbrooke Castle. This is a legacy of Princess Beatrice when she was Governor of the Island. She herself lost a son on the Western Front.

Appropriately enough, Carisbrooke Castle Museum, is leading the efforts to co-ordinate the Island’s efforts at remembering. is the starting point for a Heritage Lottery bid to recall the human effect of the war.

Another Heritage Lottery application is being prepared for town and parish councils to fund memorial orchards involving local groups.

There is currently an excellent exhibition, running until February 26, of aerial photographs of the Western Front at the Dimbola museum at Freshwater Bay.

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