A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A "Paranormal" Legend from Gallipoli: The Lost Sandringhams

Ever since the History Channel dropped history for Ancient Aliens and UFOs, The Learning Channel changed to TLC and started hunting Bigfoot and ghosts, and even the Travel Channel started visiting haunted houses, the "Paranormal" is big business on TV and (need I say) the Internet. So who am I (other than an actual, real, trained, historian) to demur?

If you search online for "Lost Sandringhams" or "Lost Battalion Gallipoli," you will quickly begin to encounter a story that goes something like this (my paraphrase of the usual version: the full original account is quoted later in this post):
At Gallipoli on August 12, 1914 an entire British battalion advanced against the Turkish lines to take a strategic hill. As their comrades behind them watched, a mysterious haze or fog closed in over the battalion. When it lifted they were nowhere to be seen. They were never seen again, and could not be accounted for by the Turkish authorities after the war; their fate is an unsolved mystery.
Cue the Twilight Zone theme.

This has, with some variation, become a favorite of the paranormal crowd, and, of course, the UFO buffs have suggested a mass alien abduction. What else could it be? Some websites even refer to a "Lost Regiment." (More on British Army formations in WWI later.)

Well, a British Army unit did march into oblivion 100 years ago today at Gallipoli, and its fate remained a mystery for the duration of the war. Not a man returned. But there are some flaws in the tale as usually told:
  1. It wasn't a battalion (over 1,000 men). The missing men were about a company in strength, part of the 1/5 Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. At most 266 officers and men disappeared, though others give smaller numbers. Official casualties for the day from the 1/5 were 16 officers and 141 men.
  2. The "mist" or "fog" was first reported in 1965 on the 50th anniversary of the battle.
  3. The primary witness to the "fog" got the date wrong by more than two weeks and also got the battalion's designation wrong and the location wrong. But even though he didn't tell the story until 1965, believers assume his account was otherwise accurate.
  4. Oh, and the "fate is still unknown" part: after the war a mass grave was found of soldiers with at least 122 men with badges from the Norfolk Regiment from which the missing men came. One captain's watch was located in Turkey and returned to the family after the war.
Other than that, the UFO theory seems pretty solid, except that when the abductees come out of the alien ship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Sandringhams weren't among them.

Let's return to reality-based history now.

The term "Sandringhams" originates from the special circumstance that a great many of the men in the lost company were raised from the Royal Sandringham Estates, which by World War I were the property of Queen Mother Alexandra, widow of King Edward VII and mother of the reigning King George V.

The 1/5 Battalion (or just 5th Battalion) of the Norfolk Regiment had begun as a Territorial force that trained part time. The battalion was largely raised from the southern part of the county, with "E" Company recruited from Sandringham, and with Queen Alexandra taking a particular interest in the unit.

Captain Frank Beck
Watchers of Downton Abbey (or for my generation, of Upstairs/Downstairs) will not be surprised to learn that in recruiting from the Estate, the Gentry provided the officers, the senior staff (butlers, gamekeepers, etc.) the NCOs, and the lesser employees the "Other Ranks." Queen Alexandra's Land Agent, Frank Reginald Beck, became the Company's Captain. Though Beck was 54 years old by the time of Gallipoli, he had volunteered for overseas service with his company.

In February 1915, however, Company E was merged with Company C (King's), as this account and others point out,  so strictly speaking there was no longer a "Sandringham Company" as such. In fact, of the 16 officers and 141 men lost that day, it is said that only Beck and 16 others were actually from Sandringham, further complicating the "Lost Sandringhams" myth.

The 1/5 Battalion as a whole was commanded by Colonel Sir Horace George Proctor-Beauchamp, Sixth Baronet of Langley. Despite his wonderful double-barreled name, Proctor-Beauchamp was a cavalryman who had never commanded infantry. The fact that the battalion commander would also die in the battle may account for the popularity of the idea of a "Lost Battalion."

The 1/5 had only arrived at Suvla Bay on the 10th, as a reinforcement of the original landings on August 6-7. On August 12, the 1/5 was ordered to advance in company with other battalions of the 163 Brigade, 54th Division, IX Corps  against a position known as Kuchuk Anafarta Ova. Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp was given local command by the Brigade Commander to lead his own  battalion along with the 1/8 Hants [Hampshires], 1/5 Suffolks and 1/4 Norfolks.

Things apparently went wrong quickly. The 1/5 managed to move out ahead of the supporting battalions to their left and were separated and isolated. Rather than fall back and realign the Brigade, Proctor-Beauchamp kept advancing. Some troops reached a sunken road and came within range of a Turkish machine-gun. One witness who survived spoke of Proctor-Beauchamp waving his cane and shouting "Hound them out, boys!" He was not seen again.

But the whole 1/5 Norfolks did not vanish; a few hundred men at most did. Surviving officers withdrew the rest to their own lines. But the presence of Captain Beck, King George V's land agent at Sandringham, and the personal interest of Queen Mother Alexandra drew attention to the uncertainty about the fate of the lost men.

Adding to the myth was the fact that the overall commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, would write in 1916 that "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." That is the origin of the number of 266 missing, still far short of a "Lost Battalion," as a British Battalion at the time was over 1,000 men. (And certainly not a "Lost Regiment," since a British Regiment, unlike its American namesake at the time, was not a combat formation but a historical/honorary identification that, in wartime, could consist of any number of Battalions stationed in different theaters or colonial outposts.)

And as noted earlier the number 266 was not final. Official lists of casualties vary (16 officers and 141 men; 11 officers and 151 men) but those actually unaccounted for seem to be somewhere in the 160 range. At least one officer reportedly ended up as a POW in Constantinople; some men filtered back to the lines.
Norfolks' Regimental Badge
And the "never seen again" part: As this web post by a student of the unit quotes, the Battalion chaplain, Rev. Pierrepont Edwards, reported finding them in 1919:
‘We have found the 5th Norfolks – there were 180 in all; 122 Norfolk and a few Hants and Suffolks with 2/4th Cheshires. We could only identify two – Privates Barnaby and Carter. They were scattered over an area of about one square mile, at a distance of at least 800 yards behind the Turkish front line. Many of them had evidently been killed in a farm, as a local Turk, who owns the place, told us that when he came back he found the farm covered with the decomposing bodies of British soldiers, which he threw into a small ravine. The whole thing quite bears out the original theory that they did not go very far on, but got mopped up one by one, all except the ones who got into the farm.’
Frank Beck's watch fob was reportedly located in Turkey and returned to the family.

It seems fairly clear that the men were cut off and cut down in their isolated position. Without the Royal Sandringham cachet, they would be just one more unit sent into the meat-grinders of the Great War.  The mysteries of 1915 seemed mostly cleared up by 1919.

End of reality-based history. Cue Twilight Zone theme and return to fantasy.

Then in 1965, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, things got weird. A New Zealand vet named Frederick Reichardt attended a UFO meeting and told a tale; later he provided a written version signed by several other veterans. The fullest version I can find is taken from the NZ Skeptics website:

Gallipoli, August 28, 1915.

The following is an account of a strange incident that happened on the above date, in the morning, during the severest and final days of fighting, which took place at Hill 60, Suvla Bay, ANZAC.
The day broke clear, without a cloud in sight, as any beautiful Mediterranean day could be expected to be. The exception, however, was a number of perhaps six or eight “loaf of bread” shaped clouds — all shaped exactly alike — which were hovering over “Hill 60″. It was noticed that in spite of a four or five mile an hour breeze from the south, these clouds did not alter their position in any shape or form, nor did they drift away under the influence of the breeze. They were hovering at an elevation of about 60 degrees as seen from our observation point 500 ft. up. Also stationary and resting on the ground right underneath this group of clouds was a similar cloud in shape, measuring about 800 ft. in length, 200 ft. in height and 200 ft. in width. This cloud was absolutely dense, almost solid looking in structure, and positioned about 14 to 18 chains from the fighting, in British held territory. All this was observed by 22 men of No 3 section of No 1 Field Company NZE, including myself, from our trenches on Rhododendron Spur, approximately 2,500 yards southwest of the cloud on the ground. Our vantage point was overlooking “Hill 60″ by about 300 ft. As it turned out later, this singular cloud was straddling a dry creek bed or sunken road and we had a perfect view of the cloud’s sides and ends as it rested on the ground. Its colour was a light grey, as was the colour of the other clouds.
A British regiment, the First Fourth Norfolk, of several hundred men, was then noticed marching up this sunken road or creek towards “Hill 60″. However, when they arrived at this cloud, they marched straight into it, with no hesitation, but no one ever came out to deploy and fight at “Hill 60″. About an hour later, after the last of the file had disappeared into it, this cloud very unobtrusively lifted off the ground and, like any fog or cloud would, rose slowly until it joined the other similar clouds which were mentioned at the beginning of this account. On viewing them again, they all looked alike as “peas in a pod”. All this time, the group of clouds had been hovering in the same place, but as soon as the singular “ground” cloud had risen to their level, they all moved away northwards, ie, towards Thrace. In a matter of about three quarters of an hour, they had all disappeared from view.
The Regiment mentioned is posted as “missing” or “wiped out” and on Turkey surrendering in 1918, the first thing Britain demanded of Turkey was the return of this regiment. Turkey replied that she neither captured this regiment, nor made contact with it, and did not know that it existed. A British regiment in 1914-18 consisted of any number between 800 and 4000 men. Those who observed this incident vouch for the fact that Turkey never captured that regiment nor made contact with it.
We, the undersigned, although late in time, that is at the 50th Jubilee of the ANZAC landing, declare that the above described incident is true in every word. Signed by witnesses: 4/165 Sapper F Reichart, Matata, Bay of Plenty, 13/416 Sapper R Newnes, 157 King St, Cambridge, JL Newman, 73 Freyberg St, Otumoetai, Tauranga.
And a postscript:
The above described incident was observed by 22 men of No 3 section of 1st Div. Coy. NZE. And others, including myself, from our trenches on Rhododendron Spur, a distance of about 2500 yards. From this vantage point about 5,000 ft up we had a perfect view including both sides and ends of the cloud as it rested on the ground. (Owing to the elevation of the observers.)
A complete statement of this incident as given here is included in one of the official histories of the Gallipoli campaign. Also incorporated are descriptions of the disappearance of a British platoon in the fighting in the Sudan about 1898, under similar circumstances, and the mysterious disappearance of a company (could have been British Engineers) during the fighting on the North West Frontier of India and Afganistan [sic]. This happened in the Khyber Pass area. On search parties being sent out to investigate the disappearance of both these units, it was found that the tracks ended suddenly, the footmarks all pointing straight ahead, but nothing beyond, sideways or backwards. The above description of the disappearance of troops on Gallipoli is absolutely correct as I witnessed the event, and the other two events I have read about, contained in one of the history books of which I cannot give the name, but which contains full description of all three incidents. (signed) F Reichardt
Now, 50 years after the fact, we have this strange account. He places the event on August 28 and says the Battalion was the 1/4 Norfolks, when we have seen that it was August 12 and the 1/5 Norfolks. He makes it a Regiment, "of between 800 and 4000 men," (incorrect anyway) not even a Battalion, let alone just a few hundred men. Oh, and they weren't attacking Hill 60 (a real place at Suvla) either. He says it is included in "one of the official histories of the Gallipoli campaign." It isn't in the British, Australian, or New Zealand official histories and I doubt he read Turkish. and said the Turks had never heard of the unit. The references to Sudan and Afghanistan raise more questions than they answer; but little about this statement argues for the credibility of the account. (Also if the transcription is accurate his own name is spelled two different ways.)

The NZ Skeptics analysis suggests that the story may confuse elements of the 1/5 Norfolks' disaster with an attack made on Scimitar Hill (near Hill 60) by the 29th Sherwood Foresters on August 21. They did not "disappear," but did take heavy losses fighting in an evening mist (though the Reichardt account says it was morning). So perhaps some  trick of memory is at work here, especially if the witness was already a UFO believer.

But Reichardt's story, however improbable, has fueled a cottage industry among the paranormal,  UFO, and historical mysteries genres, few of whom take the time to look at the factual basis, however small, for the "Lost Battalion." You are of course free to search them out if you wish, but I hope this post makes the history as clear as we can make it through the fog of war.


Anonymous said...

That's exactly the same thing that happened to the WMD in Iraq in 2003. An erie coincidence? Or evidence that they walk among us?

JJ Pasha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Looks like the previous post was abducted. No doubt by aliens.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

The author, not I, removed the comment. I don't know why; I thought it relevant but won't restore it unless he.she chooses to do so.

Mr. Johnson said...

Is this an unintended confession that you are not of this earth?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Wat gave me away?