So how much preparation is enough for a quest into the unknown – for a search for the holy grail of crumbling POW sites from World War I, in a country we don’t know, in a language we don’t speak?
It was time for our first real foray off the beaten tourist track, off into central Turkey and the town of Afyonkarahisar.
Many searches on Google; some interaction with The Great War Forum; some small extracts and a few photos from books written by POWs; a little material from the Australian War Memorial and National Archives; an old map found on the internet; and some descriptions and dates from Helen’s grandfather’s letters – will that be enough?
Though important as a transport hub for western and central Turkey, and a key site for some of the country’s historical struggles, Afyonkarahisar is a city where few foreign tourists go.
The opium poppies (afyon) are strictly controlled these days, and while the fortress (hisar) on the big black (kara) rock is interesting, most would only pass through Afyon on their way to somewhere else.
We had a different agenda since Afyon’s location made it an important hub in World War I, including as one of the main centres for the holding and distribution of Allied prisoners. In fact Helen’s grandfather, Sgt Maurice Delpratt was held twice in Afyon, first for two months in 1915 as the Turks decided what to do with the POWs, and then briefly on his way home as the Armistice approached.
By the time we got to Afyon, we were beginning to joke about our journey becoming more and more like the search for the Road to the Tate Modern [see earlier post]. Our driver Rafet’s principal navigational aid was hailing passersby and asking the way. The next day we really did expect to be on our mythical Road, since we were planning to rely totally on our sketchy information as to where the POWs had been almost a hundred years earlier.
We had tried to assure Rafet that we could do this on our own, on foot, but this seemed too big a risk to him, and we soon found ourselves being guided around Afyon by his local friend Zeki. Zeki and Rafet had both lived in Germany, and our communication became a bastard mix of German, English and Turkish, assisted only by our pocket phrase book.
A visit to the Archelogical Museum to talk to a possible contact proved fruitless, since Ahmet Bey was out on a dig. However the Museum did have an amazing array of Roman and Byzantine antiquitities found in the local area. Then followed visits to Ulu Camii, a stunning (and rare) timber-interior mosque complete with a gaggle of gorgeous school girls awaiting a lesson; an historic hamam (bath house); and finally a Mevlevi (Dervish) Museum.
All these places were really interesting, but as we were being ushered into an office at the Mevlevi Museum (complete with Ottoman divans), we began to worry about how long it would take us to get back to our POW quest.
We took tea, and then our host, Hasan Özpunar, went to his computer and began projecting historical images of Afyon onto the wall – fascinating, but we were still keen to return to our search. Then we started seeing images of Afyon in World War I, moving soon to images of POWs. Astoundingly, thanks to Zeki, we had stumbled across Afyon’s resident military historian, and Director of their local historical association and museum, Aytam.
Hasan Bey didn’t speak English either, but he had amassed an amazing collection of information from all over the world relating to Afon’s key role in WWI for both the Turkish military, and for Allied POWs. We were able to show him our modest collection about Afyon on Helen’s iPad, and then struck gold when we found Helen’s grandfather’s name in one of Hasan’s publications about POWs (though he was listed as Maurice Delprott, not Delpratt).
Hasan Bey then personally escorted us on a wonderful tour around the Old Town. We saw all the sites we had come to search for, and a few more we hadn’t known about. We walked the dusty streets of the Old Armenian Quarter where the POWs were photographed.
We saw the large local houses, where the officers were held. Apparently the houses had been occupied by Armenian families, but had been forcibly vacated as part of the Turkish-Armenian conflict.
And finally we came to the ruins of the Old Armenian Church, mentioned specifically in Maurice’s letters and in most POW accounts as one of the two main prisons for enlisted men.
It was very moving for us as we gazed down on the ruins of the church, and recalled Maurice’s description of the final day of his captivity:
“… one day the town-crier announced the signing of the armistice and we all went mad. Within 5 minutes some Scotsman of the Lowland Field Coy had a large Union Jack floating from the tower of the Armenian Church in which we were living, and the camp broke through the scared guards and marched into the bazaars…” (Port Said, 3-12-18)
We walked on to a charming tea house with a small museum above, reflecting Afyon life in the early 20th century. To thank our trio of guides, we then headed off to lunch at a restaurant they recommended, serving delicious regional dishes. This included a serving of Afyon’s speciality kaymak (clotted cream), which we had first tried in Istanbul. The cake and cream is called Kaymakli Ekmek Kadayif, and was our second of three serves of the delectable kaymak eaten that day.
Next stop was the former Medrese (seminary), currently under restoration. This was the other main POW prison for enlisted men, and probably where Maurice was first held in Afyon and wrote his early letters home.
“Dear Family, I find it very hard to write a letter of four lines and have spent much time studying the mosque opposite and the recruits camped there…” (Afion-Hara-Kissaar, Turkey-in-Asia, 18-9-15)
Our guides were clearly keen for us to go to yet another place, but we couldn’t quite grasp what it was. With the help of our barely adequate phrase book, it appeared that Hasan Bey was taking us to a “small conference” with “the President” at the “government centre”. We presumed we were going to see something to do with POW records, but we were in fact going to meet Hasan’s big boss.
In one of the strangest of many strange moments during our travels in Turkey, we found ourselves sitting in the office of the Başkan (Mayor) of Afyon. And as is often the case with politicians, we were waiting – and waiting for quite a long time.
Once again with no English, and the interpreter (his brother) unavailable, the meeting with the Mayor was awkward and short, but he asked us to wait while he went off to kiss some babies or turn some sods. Before too long, the interpreter’s colleague, a Professor in English, arrived to fill the void and get some proper understanding of our quest, but the waiting continued.
The Başkan finally returned, but now with the media in tow – three TV cameras and a photographer. We didn’t think that the story of the visit of some descendants of a WWI POW warranted national and regional media, but the Mayor is from the AKP, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s party, and when they call, the media comes.
The interviews – Jan & Helen, then Hasan, and then the Mayor – were long and done in series, with lengthy translations for J & H.
According to our new friend (and Gallipoli guide) in Eceabt, Bill Sellars, the story made it to national TV. It was of course a jumble of misspellings and poor translations and outright mistakes, but it was “news” nonetheless.
After our brush with fame, and the presentation of some traditional handicrafts from the Başkan, our last stop was the old Afyon train station where the POWs had arrived and departed several times.
When we arrived at the now-disused station, we found that we had still not escaped the surreal nature of our day. Two of the TV cameras had followed us to get some location shots, and a bridal party was using the old building for their photo shot, but at least that was the end of the adventure.
On reflection, we were astounded that we had achieved so much in one day, and with so little concrete information. We also could not help but feel that the Old Armenian Quarter hadn’t changed that much since the prisoners from Gallipoli had passed through.
At the end of this exceptional day, we were certain of three things –
Lack of language or detailed research is no barrier to a righteous cause;
We were definitely on the Road to the Tate Modern;
And we really needed a drink!