Gallipoli – A Wigan Man’s Eastern Journey

This blog post was written by Hilary Baker, and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.

My grandfather, William (Bill) Bentley was a man from Wigan who joined the South Lancashire Regiment and who ended up fighting at Gallipoli.

He was an older married man, aged 34, with a young family and had previously served with the Cheshire Regiment in 1901. He was one of the first to sign up at the outbreak of war in August 1914. Signing up with the South Lancashire Regiment in Wigan, presumably at the Drill Hall – if anyone knows for sure where the recruitment took place I would love to know – his first year was spent at training camps with the South Lancs and his first action indicated in his discharge papers was with his ‘war service battalion’ at Gallipoli; in August 1915 he was sent in as part of a wave of reinforcements.

His actual war records were amongst those destroyed by the Second World War bomb on Somerset House in London. So I have had to find out what might have happened by using regimental diaries and books about both the Gallipoli and the Mesopotamia campaigns.

His discharge papers record him starting in the South Lancs and being transferred at various points to other regiments such as the Manchesters and the Northumberland Fusiliers. This was presumably because they needed reinforcements due to depletion of numbers because of casualties.

The family stories tell of him being wounded at Gallipoli, shot through the mouth during a face to face encounter with a Turkish soldier. I guess he must have been charging and yelling at the same time as soldiers are still trained to do today. The bullet passed through his mouth and out behind the ear. He said he lay wounded on the battlefield for three days until he was found and brought back for medical treatment by VAD’s (Red Cross Volunteers). It seems amazing to me that the Red Cross was present at Gallipolli but they are on record as being there. My dad still remembers sitting on his knee as a child and playing with the hole at the back of his ear

Gallipoli is not often featured in First World War commemorations, much more emphasis is put upon France and the terrible conditions there, but it must be said that Gallipoli was equally terrible because of the lack of water. The heat in summer was appalling and the cold in winter equally so. The horses had thicker blankets than the men! The drinking water had to be brought in by ship from Egypt and on many occasions could only be had by boiling and filtering the sea water around them which was sometimes full of bodies and red with blood.

Fred Holcroft’s excellent book, ‘Just Like Hell’, is an invaluable source of information with a special emphasis on Wiganers at Gallipoli. It was there that I read of Clement Atlee’s role as Captain in charge of the South Lancs men and I have often wondered what effect his admiration for those plucky little Lancashire men had on his vision of a fairer world when he became leader of the Labour party. I should say that my grandfather was a forge man by trade and very strong, yet only five feet, two inches tall. Just like many of his mining compatriots they were mostly small men but great in spirit and courage.

Thanks to the ANZAC presence at Gallipolli, it has not been quietly forgotten about as I am sure the British Government of the time would have liked it to have been. But the input of the Lancashire soldiers is not quite so well remembered as was brought home to me when I was able to visit Gallipoli a few years ago and had to quietly remind our guide that not only the ANZACs fought and died here but also many others of various nationalities, including the Lancashire regiments, Sikhs, Gurkhas and French Colonial troops.

Out of the total of 410,000 troops who served, there were 205,000 casualties; one in two. 33,000 of these were ANZACs and 47,000 were French. Let us not forget the Turks who suffered equally in the defence of their homeland. In popular memory it was the ANZAC’s campaign but in reality it involved many others who paid an equally high price for this misguided campaign which ended in terrible failure for a variety of reasons.

Recorded in the South Lancs Regimental History, ‘The three 6th Lancashire Battalions landed at Suvla in August to open a second beachhead on the peninsula and it was here that, on the 8th, in their first major battle the 6th  South Lancashires, with 1/6th Gurkhas, captured Hill ‘Q’ on the crest-line of the vital Sari Bair ridge. This success, which could have resulted in victory on Gallipoli, was not exploited or even supported and eventual retirement was inevitable. Fierce fighting followed in which the three 6th Battalions were overwhelmed and almost wiped out, losing in all 41 officers and around 1,500 men.’

I suspect this is where my Grandad was shot.

It truly was just like hell. Gallipoli might have been hell but then Mesopotamia was to follow and that was even worse in terms of climate, lack of supplies and a grave lack of medical equipment and personnel. My Grandad then fought his way all the way up through Mesopotamia from Basra in the south to Baghdad and on northwards, battling the Turks all the way to the Caspian Sea. His war did not finish until 1919.

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