What Happened to the 5th Norfolks in 1915?

On Tuesday 3rd October we’re really pleased to be welcoming historian and battlefield guide Steve Smith back to the Norwich Millennium Library for another of his great talks:

Steve will be talking about, and debunking, the myths that surround the alleged disappearance of the 5th Norfolks on 12th August 1915.

The event starts at 7pm and will last about an hour, tickets are £2 and can be booked by calling 01603 774703 or emailing millennium.lib@norfolk.gov.uk.

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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.