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.

Drilling for Nonsense.

Funny how Ridley Scott ended up remaking ‘Alien vs Predator’…

 

A colleague (who clearly thought there was something in it) recently told me of a fringe theory regarding supposed high-tech drilling and stone shaping techniques used on the sarcophagus inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I hadn’t heard this one before, but then the whole ‘Ancient Aliens’ thing has never much appealed to me (unlike Egyptian archaeology itself, which at one stage I was going to study at University). It turns out that he was talking about the work of Christopher Dunn, who is another of these intelligent, qualified people who drinks the Kool-Aid on a subject entirely outwith their own experience and expertise. Among other things (such as the pyramid itself being a power plant!) Dunn believes that the high rate of rotation noted by archaeologist Flinders Petrie (an inch of cutting in half a turn of the drill) requires that the holes must have been drilled using ultrasonic drilling – a 20th century technique. You can read his theories here and here. This kind of detail is great for alt-history types because most of us aren’t engineers, and we aren’t archaeologists either, making this kind of historical/technical explanation superficially quite plausible to the layperson (my colleague is a forensic scientist and certainly not gullible). The problem is that Dunn is not familiar with the actual equipment used, nor how it was used. It’s like an automotive engineer trying to recreate how a chariot was designed, or even an aeronautical engineer professing to understand the biomechanics and evolution of flight in ancient birds – some aspects will map across time and areas of study, but many won’t, and unlike chariots and fossil birds, the evidence for exactly this type of ancient drill system is absent. It makes no sense, in the absence of evidence, to leap to fantastical theories. It’s the old meme from Ancient Aliens; ‘I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens’. Petrie himself inferred that this required simply a heavy load on top of the drill, and that including a suitable abrasive, such a speed of cutting is far from impossible. It’s not helpful to equate these huge hand-powered drills to modern electrically-powered equivalents, and the fact that other engineers that he’s shown or told about this have been equally nonplussed means nothing. I have shown precision hand-made antique firearms with sharp corners and convoluted shapes to modern gunsmiths and makers who have ‘grown up’ using modern tools, and they have been utterly amazed, because although the end result might be similar to what they’ve done in the past, the means of getting there was totally outside their own experience. It’s essentially one big argument from incredulity.

The actual academic literature on the subject (which Dunn has not contributed to, incidentally) is well represented by these two articles, neither of which tackle the ‘Ancient Aliens’ (or time-travel, or whatever fanciful) explanation implied by Dunn, but rather look at the methods available at the time and the microscopic evidence left by whatever method was actually used. Tl;dr is that whilst we don’t know precisely how the Ancient Egyptians did their stone drilling, it involved a hand-powered drill (probably tubular and using a copper bit) and an abrasive compound/slurry. This, not ultrasonic equipment, which by the way, they had no means of powering, designing, or building (and isn’t represented in any artwork, texts, or archaeological find, is how these holes were drilled and what left the characteristic parallel lines. Nothing about the lines being close together necessitates any unreasonably high rate of rotation, and fragments of corundum abrasive in similar drill holes offers direct counter evidence to the ultrasonic claim. As to the precision corners evident in things like stone sarcophagi, I have never understood why this is somehow evidence of super-advanced technology. As this page shows, the Ancient Egyptians had tools with which to judge angles and the cheap labour, artisanal skills, and time necessary to cut angles and radii by hand with simple tools. Again, instead of marvelling at such accomplishments and putting them down to aliens, time travel, parallel dimensions or whatever, we should focus on trying to recreate the ingenuity that was able to pull off such feats. It’s funny – when it comes to outstanding past technology we look for some supernatural explanation, but with other human endeavours like great art, we don’t. This *is*sometimes done in fiction – super creative people in ‘A Discovery of Witches’ are revealed to be ‘daemons’; a totally different species. Strangely, I find that almost as disappointing as this ancient aliens BS.

 

Doggone Dogon.

I was reminded today of the myth that a certain African tribe (the Dogon) were privy to special astronomical knowledge that could only have been conveyed to them by aliens. The best debunk I’ve seen of this is on a site that I wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it on – well done to the author. Absolutely nothing I could add.  There’s also a summary and a letters page of sorts on Skepdic.

The tl;dr is that it’s likely that the Dogon had taken on board new information about the star in question (Sirius) from prior western visitors. Rather than aliens.