With the arrival of Teyze Jan at the beginning of the week, we kicked off the family history part of our trip to Turkey. Helen’s grandfather (Jan’s father), Sergeant Maurice Delpratt was captured on the Gallipoli Peninsula and spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war working on the Berlin to Baghdad railway in the remote Taurus Mountains near the southern Syrian border.
We will be visiting many of the places where he was held – a journey of around 1,500 kms across Turkey.
But we start in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was in 1915. What is now the University of Istanbul was the Turkish Ministry of War; and it was here that prisoners were brought for processing. They came up from the battlefields probably in boats returning to Istanbul, and were marched over the Galata Bridge and through the city streets, to the prison at the Ministry of War.
Teyze Jan had only two days in Istanbul, so on the first day we combined a visit to Sultanahmet (the justifiably famous blue mosque) with a stroll through the Grand Bazaar to the university campus. We passed through the same stately gates that the prisoners would have passed through in 1915. While we were sitting in the shade of the trees in the inner courtyard, the midday call to prayer began from the beautiful Suleymaniye mosque nearby.
We thought about those anxious men, feeling ashamed at their capture and apprehensive about what was about to happen, hearing such a foreign and spine-tingling sound from their cells.
The other place in Istanbul that is part of Maurice Delpratt’s war is Haydarpaşa Railway Station. Another graceful edifice, this building was a gift from the German Kaiser to the Sultan and was an important part of the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.
It was opened just before the war and sits on the Asian side of the Bosphorus with its own dinky ferry station. It was here that Maurice and the other prisoners were loaded onto the train in July 1915 to take them to prison camps in central Turkey for the remainder of the war.
The train was headed to Afyonkarahissar in central Turkey, which was a major distribution point for prisoners to other camps around Turkey. On the way, the train was shelled by a British submarine. Maurice later wrote in a letter home, “But quite the most fearsome moments of that eventful time, were some we spent in a stationery train, close to the Gulf of Isnet [now Iznik]. A submarine opened fire on the train and we spent an anxious half hour, trying to hide from one another, a very hearty desire to dive under the seats. At Angora [now Ankara] a few months afterwards I met the huge West countryman who served the gun. He was Hooper of E7 and now keeps a watch in the compressor room at Tasch Durmas [as a fellow prisoner in the Taurus Mountains].”
Our next stop is the Gallipoli Peninsula, where both Maurice Delpratt and John’s grandfather, Ernest Strambini served.