The Disappearing Norfolks

The 1999 BBC TV movie about this incident. No UFOs here, but claims of Turkish war crimes.

Another military myth has come to my attention, and I’m not sure how I’ve never heard of it before. Supposedly, during the Gallipoli campaign, on 12 August 1915, a battalion (the 1/5) of the Norfolk Regiment of the British army vanished into thin air, with implications of paranormal intervention. There are various accounts online but few get into the origins of the tale and of these I can only wholeheartedly recommend this summary and debunking on the NZ Skeptics website. It was written by Ian C. McGibbon, a proper historian, based in New Zealand where the story originated and where the relevant archival material resides. Needless to say I am a big fan of scepticism combined with actual scholarly research. This is a must-read, being both concise and accurate. It also includes the original source of the claim.

To this I should add the official regimental history by F. Loraine Petre which includes (vol. II, 1925) an account of the battle from the regimental war diary. This is available here and constitutes the ‘official story’, which is pretty much an ‘open and shut’ case by 1919. Most of the missing men were in fact found, and there were in fact survivors, contrary to the initial report. Some of their insight is included in this article from the Imperial War Museum’s Philip Dutton. Needless to say, no mention of otherworldly goings-on in these sources. Dutton traces the origin of the fascination with the incident, and the claim that none of the unit “ever came back” to Sir Ian Hamilton’s rather sensationalist despatch of 11 December 1915. In fact, an investigation four years later found many of the dead, who had been dispersed in a figurative and literal ‘fog of war’ and effectively destroyed by the enemy. Dutton also points out that other units also ‘disappeared’ at that time, in the sense that if a unit is wiped out with few or no witnesses, they have effectively vanished (until such time as evidence of what happened can be found). To focus on this one unit is misleading. He also includes onward references to other no doubt reliable accounts that I have not been able to read myself. It’s clear that the incident has been debunked repeatedly

I also came across this article by Paul Begg (of Ripperology fame). Writing in the 1980s-90s partwork magazine ‘The Unexplained’, Begg pays lip service to the believer by leaving things slightly more open but (like McGibbon) pretty much tears the myth apart. Sure, we don’t know exactly what happened to all of the soldiers in the unit in question, but this sort of thing was not uncommon at the time (and indeed other times and places in military history). Begg also makes some mistakes, and is taken to task by none other than McGibbon in a letter to the editor that follows the article. Still, the two men agree that Reichardt was simply a confused old man (with no disrespect intended by me; I am certain that at his age I will also be one) lured into the burgeoning UFOlogy movement. His testimony doesn’t even agree with his own regiment’s war diary. As McGibbon points out, “His memory can hardly be regarded as infallible: he had forgotten which unit he was in, and he was a trooper not a sapper!”

Further undermining this story (for me, at least) is that there were no supernatural claims made at the time regarding this incident. When the proverbial case was closed in 1919, people were apparently satisfied of a mundane explanation. This is surprising given the period existence of the Angel of Mons myth, and the underlying spread of Spiritualism. Had there been any suspicion at the time of gods, ghosts, or other paranormal agents, we might expect some evidence of this. Instead, it wasn’t until 50 years after the fact that several New Zealand Army veterans cooked up a story of a magical descending ‘loaf-shaped’ cloud that the soldiers supposedly walked into and vanished. If something truly unusual had been witnessed by multiple soldiers, we’d expect there to be some record of it. It would have been a boon to the Spiritualists and the print media alike. Speaking of Spiritualists, I assumed that the intent of the soldiers making this claim was (albeit belatedly) akin to that behind the (provably fictional) Angel of Mons story; to invoke some sort religious salvation, and that the story had been latched onto by UFO loons. However, McGibbon’s research suggests that this myth was instead born of the UFOlogy movement from the start, making it a late-20th century parallel to/reflection of the Angel.

As a postscript, I should address claims of Ottoman executions. These originate with Nigel McCrery’s 1992 book The Vanished Battalion, republished later as ‘All the King’s Men: one of the greatest mysteries of the First World War finally solved’ (you can borrow it from the Internet Archive). This states (pp. 115-116) that a veteran by the name of Gordon Parker had written to The Gallipolian (the magazine of the Gallipoli Society) that the investigator, Reverend Pierrepoint Edwards had told him that “every man he had found had been shot in the head.” Contrary to the Wikipedia article’s suggestion that the book only implies a war crime and it’s the 1999 TV movie based upon it that cements the claim, the book is in fact very clear on this point and that Pierrepoint Edwards withheld the information in order to spare the families. McCrery tries to support the claim by implying that the Turks rarely took prisoners; he states that “Of the 5,000 men who were lost in the 1st Australian Division only one man was taken prisoner-of-war…” and also (p. 90) that a Pte Alfred Pearson of the Lynn Company of the 5th Norfolks reported seeing Lt. Pattrick and Sergeant Beart taken prisoner, yet neither was ever heard of again. I can find nothing to support either of these claims, and it’s unclear what exactly McCrery is talking about in the former case. Certainly the Division suffered many more casualties than just 5,000 in the course of the war. In any case, the experience of that division is hardly relevant to the incident in question. An acknowledgment in the book to a ‘J.G. Parker’ suggests that McCrery may have been told this by a descendant of Gordon Parker, but who knows. McCrery also mentions (pp. 118-119) Private Arthur Webber of the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks, who supposedly witnessed the massacre whilst (like Pearson) lying wounded on the battlefield. Webber told his sister-in-law (who told the story as part of the 1991 [not 1992 as McCrery states] BBC2 documentary ‘All The King’s Men’) that he was himself bayoneted by a Turkish solder, only to be saved by an attendant German officer. This information came from Webber’s sister-in-law, and so is inherently more reliable, being second-hand rather than third. However, there remains no physical evidence of the claimed war crime, and it does not feature in any scholarly history (Dutton also dismisses it). It’s certainly more plausible than the UFO claim, but remains unproven and subject to all of the usual difficulties of oral testimony.

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