The Vanished Battalion

Many people in Norfolk and further afield will have heard about the ‘Vanished Battalion’ or the ‘Lost Sandringhams’. The story goes that the ‘Sandringham Battalion’ of the Norfolk Regiment went into battle in Turkey in August 1915 and promptly disappeared, possibly in some supernatural manner, with no sign afterwards of casualties, survivors or dead bodies to be found.

There have been various accounts of this event over the years, in news reports, books, a TV drama and now on internet sites. Some repeat the mythical version but others are the result of deeper research, and present a much more likely version of what happened.

Sandringham House, 2014

Sandringham House, 2014

The first correction to make is that the soldiers concerned were the First Fifth Battalion, which originated as a Territorial battalion, recruited throughout North Norfolk. The Sandringham Company came from the Royal Estate, but was merged with another Company early in 1915 to form the King’s Company, which was one of the 4 companies that made up the battalion at that time.

According to Ben Johnson in his article ‘The Lost Sandringhams

‘One minute the men, led by their commanding officer, Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, were charging bravely against the Turkish enemy. The next they had disappeared. Their bodies were never found. There were no survivors. They did not turn up as prisoners of war.’

They simply vanished.

Image from the Daily Mail archive

Image from the Daily Mail archive

General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief in Gallipoli, appeared as puzzled as everyone else. He reported ‘there happened a very mysterious thing’. Explaining that during the attack, the Norfolks had drawn somewhat ahead of the rest of the British line. He went on ‘The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken.‘ But Colonel Beauchamp with 16 officers and 250 men, ‘still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before him.’

‘Among these ardent souls was part of a fine company enlisted from the King’s Sandringham estates. Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight and sound. Not one of them ever came back.’

The full report, Sir Ian Hamilton’s 3rd Gallipoli Despatch, is reproduced on an  amazingly comprehensive website, The Long, Long Trail, which aims to be ‘All about the soldiers, units, regiments and battles of the British Army of the First World War, and how to research and understand them’. Find it here: Hamilton Despatch

Image taken from the Getty website

Image taken from the Getty website

Another contributor to historic-uk.com is Steve Smith, author of a book on the history of Worstead and Westwick’s war memorial and war dead. See Steve’s article here.

He notes that “the local papers initially reported the loss of 5th Norfolk officers on 28th August 1915 and accounts from men who were there were published soon after, especially in the Yarmouth Mercury and the Lynn News.

These newspapers can be consulted at Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn Libraries respectively. He also reports that

“When the 50th Anniversary of Gallipoli came round in 1965, references to the Sandringham Company, Battalion and Regiment first started to emerge when three New Zealand veterans claimed to have seen a British regiment marching up a sunken road to be swallowed up in a cloud.”

Nigel McCrery gives his version of the story in his book All the King’s Men, which is available to borrow from Norfolk Libraries.

All the King's Men

The TV drama, starring David Jason, was based on the book for which the author consulted royal archives during his research.

The Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum website  offers a succinct summary of events, stating that

“on the 12th August 1915, the Battalion was part of an attack on Turkish positions inland from Suvla Bay. They received conflicting orders and advanced beyond the point where they could be supported by other troops. They were surrounded and suffered extremely heavy losses. Their unmarked graves were found in 1919. Despite the facts being published immediately after the war, the fate of the 1/5th battalion has given rise to all kinds of wild speculation and myths.”

The story of the Sandringhams is truly poignant, and perhaps a good example of the saying about the first casualty of war being truth. My hunt for the author of this phrase only led me to discover that there doesn’t seem to be a definitive attribution, but I did find an article that summarises the beginning of the Gallipoli story and the part that the ANZAC troops played in it, and discusses the omission or misrepresentation of the facts by journalists, politicians and military leaders, see it here.

Clare A – Local Studies Librarian, Norwich.

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Taking your work home with you!

Work can follow you to the most surprising of places –  just before Christmas we went to visit some family in Berkshire and the topic of World War One came up.  A photo had been unearthed of my husband’s grandfather in a uniform, mounted on a horse with a date of 1913 written on the back.

LH Beard

Another relative said that the smartly attired gentleman in question had been part of the Berkshire Yeomanry and that she thought he’d served in Egypt during the war.  This piqued my curiosity hugely and I thought this was the ideal time to make use of the wonderful Norfolk resource “A Guide to researching First World War Military Family History” and free access to the Ancestry.com websites through Norfolk’s Libraries.

record office book

As I knew very little about the gentleman, Louis Henry Beard, I started at the very beginning and located him on the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses and established his date and place of birth.

After this I turned to the military records held on Ancestry and this is where I encountered my first problem as there were no records for a Louis Henry Beard anywhere, although there was a Lewis Henry Beard listed with all the other details being correct.  Sadly many WW1 records were destroyed during WW2 and all I had to work from on line were the Medal and Service Award Rolls.

On talking over with an archive specialist at one of the free “Ask the NRO” sessions held at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library we decided that this was probably going to be him but that until further records are either published on line or discovered in family members house we cannot be more than 95% certain that this is the right man.

As so many of the details were correct I decided that I would assume that this was the right L H Beard and look into his war service some more.  Although he was a Berkshire man the records available show him as finishing the war with the Household Cavalry to which he’d transferred from the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

Looking at the history of the Berkshire and Staffordshire Yeomanry records that are available to access on line it would appear that the two regiments served in the same fields of war and were present at Gallipoli and later on in Egypt and other locations in the Middle East – which links back nicely to family recollections of Egyptian service.  Further research has shown that the Yeomanry divisions merged and were renamed frequently which could explain his movement from the Berkshire Regiment to the Household Cavalry.

I found an invaluable site The Long, Long Trail dedicated to the British Army from 1914-18 which gave me detailed accounts of the movements of both the Staffordshire and Berkshire Yeomanry’s.  Further investigation on line lead me to the Berkshire Family History Society webpage where the account of the regiment’s time at Gallipoli – with only 50 men still fit for service by the end of the campaign – sounds horrific and would show that L H Beard was either very lucky to survive and be transferred to the Staffordshires or very lucky to be serving with them by this point.

The records that I have found on line have let me see that L H Beard served throughout the war. His Medal Card shows he was awarded the 1914-15 Star (showing he was a member of the armed services prior to conscription) and that he left England on 21st April 1915 and returned on 17th April 1919 – almost exactly 4 years of service abroad.  Sadly at present we have no idea if he had any home leave in this period.

I know that next time I visit I am going to have to ask the family if they have any other memorabilia or information for me to investigate and I am now tempted to contact the National Archives and see if I can get copies of the Regimental Diaries and explore more about their movements and to see how L H Beard ended up with the Staffordshire’s.

Louis Henry Beard came back from the war and returned home to Hungerford where he lived a full life, dying only in 1961. The Beards are an old Hungerford family and Louis Henry took over his father’s coal business as well as taking an active part in town life. Many of his direct descendants still live in the town today.