The Delpratt war

ImageIn the early hours of 20th May 1915, Sergeant Maurice George Delpratt, 5th Light Horse Regiment, waited with his fellow soldiers aboard the minesweeping trawler Clacton, to be landed at Gallipoli.  A few days before, he had sent home a postcard, bought in Cairo where they had been stationed since February. “Just off to _____. Everyone glad to be allowed to avenge the brave chaps of the 9th and 15th Battalions. Extraordinary activity and bustle – short notice. Very well and glad to be joining Bert. You have just heard no doubt of the tragedy and heroism of 9th and 15th all Queenslanders. Fondest love to you all. Maurice. Hope this gets to you.”

Later, he remembers that night waiting to land, “… we anchored off Ari Burnu and wondered what it would really be like when we mixed with it.Clacton cut There was fresh wonder in the morning when we saw white puffs of bursting shrapnel enfilading the beach and through it all Australians bathing and walking about apparently unconcerned and unharmed… I remember how we ate our bully and biscuit when we heard we would not land that day and how we lost appetite at dinner time because we were told to get ready to go off at 2 o’clock…”.

Just over five weeks later in the afternoon of the 28th June, in the chaos of an attack on the Balkan Gun Pits which included the Australians being shelled by their British comrades, Maurice was captured behind enemy lines. He was about to become a footnote in history. Literally. Charles Bean, in volume 2 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 included a footnote on page 299, “The prisoner, Sgt. M.G. Delpratt… had been sent by Col. Harris with an urgent message bidding Midgley to retire, but missed the troops, whom Midgley had already withdrawn, and on reaching the Balkan Pits found them empty. He was there seen by the Australian machine-gunners, who mistook him for one of the enemy, and by their fire cut off his retreat. While he was in this position two Turks and a German sergeant crept to the pit from the other direction and captured him”.

He was initially listed as missing, and the family was informed that he was presumed dead.

extract war diaries Delpratt missing

Extract from the unit’s war diary of 1 July 1915 listing Maurice, at the bottom of list, as one of the missing. (Australian War Memorial)

He was held as a prisoner of war until December 1918, spending most of the time in a camp called Hadji-Kiri (Hacikiri) up in the Taurus Mountains of central Turkey. The prisoners worked on the tunnels for the railway being built by the Germans from Berlin to Baghdad.

Maurice wrote many letters home during his captivity, mostly to his eldest sister Nell. About 200 pieces of this  correspondence were kept by the family and was recently handed to the State Library of Queensland.

The first official letter sent from him in Constantinople advising his family of his capture was dated 12 July 1915 but did not reach family in Australia until many months later.

281157v000r001

“It was bad soldiering on my part to get within the enemy’s advanced lines but I know you will understand it is not lack of courage makes a man do that.”

The P.O.W experience

After capture on the Gallipol battlefield, Maurice was transported to Constantinople where he was formally interrogated and, like all prisoners, was required to make a statement to the Turkish authorities.

Turkish prison camps_Map_sm

Turkish WW1 prison camps

Piecing together the various accounts of that time it appears that in those first months Maurice was moved around from camp to camp and, along with his fellow prisoners, endured some very difficult conditions. From his capture at the end of May 1915 until the beginning of February the following year when he arrived in the Taurus Mountains in central Turkey, he was moved from Constantinople to Afyonkarahissar, Angora, Kiangheri and back to Angora.

In characteristic understatement Maurice wrote, “The trip from Constantinople to Afion-Kara-Hissar took us two days and a great part of it was through wonderful and beautiful scenery – though there were naturally circumstances that made appreciation difficult”.

The train in which the prisoners were travelling came under British fire. “But quite the most fearsome moments of that eventful time, were some we spent in a stationery train, close to the Gulf of Isnet [Izmit?]. 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 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.”

Kianghiri card Jan 16The three day march in October 1915 from Angora over the hills to Kiangheri in the north was particularly hard. Other accounts from the time mention that many of them only had old thin slippers to walk in, and the sick were carried by the less sick. The prisoners did the return march back to Angora a few months later in January in bitter conditions of snow and wind and mud. Again with typical restraint, Maurice merely comments in one of his later letters, “…never wish again to be without, like sad days at Kiangheri…”.

At Afion, Maurice met John H. Wheat,  a torpedoman on the Australian submarine A.E.2. The submarine was struck by German torpedos and slowly sank in the Sea of Marmora on 30 April 1915. All hands were able to get on deck and surrendered. Wheat’s diary of that time and his time as a prisoner is held by The Mitchell Library in NSW. The two men stayed in contact throughout their captivity.

John H. Wheat on the Baghdad Railway

pic hadji Kiri station (Wheat)

Hadji-kiri Station

“We arrived at the village or town of Belemedik on 1st day of February 1916. This was our first introduction to the renowned Bagdad Railway which proved to be our destination. Here I had better give a brief note on the importance of the Bagdad Railway to the enemy, especially of the narrow gauge part with which I was more immediately concerned. It had a broad gauge down to the town of Gelebek  on the Bagdad side of the Taurus Mts. Then began 12 miles of narrow gauge over and through the mountains and it passed the 12 tunnels until it reached Belemedik on the south side of the Mountains. All the munitions, produce etc. had to be unloaded and reloaded at these 2 stopping places changing from the broad to narrow gauge lines. 
A German Engineering Company had been working on the Taurus Mt., part of the 5 years previous to the outbreak of war, when the work here ceased. However early in 1916 when the enemy saw the extent of fighting on the Palestine Suez Canal and Mesopotamia fronts, this section became of vital importance for the conveyance of war munitions expeditiously. The only other route was by means of a motor transport on the rough mt. Roads from Bozardi Bazardjik to tarsus a town of Biblical fame. This was the only Pass through Taurus Mts. and it was along this tedious track that the crusaders journeyed of old. The Germans immediately increased the number of workers to 30, 000 made up of chiefly prisoners Greek, Armenians, Turks, unfit for military duty. The work was pushed through so quickly than in the 12 months between February 1916-17 more progress had been made than in the previous 5 years. Early in 1917 the average traffic was 8 trains per day carrying munitions to the different fighting fronts. This 12 miles of narrow gauge in the mts. has been changed to the broad gauge about six weeks before the Armistice was signed.

Generally speaking for the 1st six months Feb-July of this work say up to time of my first attempted escape Augt. 1916 the German Company treated the prisoners fairly well, because food was cheap and the supply adequate. But when the number of prisoners increased, food became scarce and the sick became more numerous. Then conditions altered, and we suffered accordingly, being animals of burden only. The works on the narrow gauge were very self-contained and complete cement works; a power station with four machines; large air drills etc. When Bulgaria came in against us vast quantities of material were easily obtained from Germany through Bulgaria.

As the different batches of Prisoners came to Belededik they were given jobs according to their previous occupation as far as possible, wood-getting, loading the wagons, navvying, wheeling heavy loads of stone, tunnelling etc. The work was very hard; the hours long. 10 per day: pay 1/4 to 2/-, huts only were supplied. Food had to be purchased out of the pay received.

When things got going properly the prisoners were divided into 3 shifts so that the work never stopped. Their chief duties being making the light gauge, handling munitions etc., during the day time and during the night making preparations to alter the Railway to the broad gauge. Many prisoners especially the weak and wounded preferred the night shift in the tunnels because there were no fleas and they escaped the intense heat. “

Maurice described his work, “I am in charge of eight men emptying ballast wagons as they come from the tunnel…all persons directly connected with tunnel, work on an eight hour shift – 3 shifts working round the 24 hours. Our job has its vicissitudes. I must now be fully qualified as a speaker on workman’s rights and I can do it in 3 languages – disconnected English, violent Turkish and excited gesticulation”.

Though he couldn’t know he was to be there for another three years, Maurice wrote, “We are paid here and keep ourselves and are  much better off than before.”

Longing for news

Maurice wrote letters every week of his captivity at Hadji-Kiri, to the full limit of the correspondence allowance. Most of this went via the Red Cross in Switzerland. In response he received many letters and parcels from home to the point that if any prisoner received a large amount of mail it was known as a ‘Delpratt mail’.

red cross badge 1918 “The A.B.R.C.S. [Australian British Red Cross Society] parcels are beautifully packed and always arrive in good order. And, something which is most necessary, besides a cloth label sewn on the sacking, they have the name and address stencilled in large letters on the strong sacking which is strongly sewn. They contain just the things we want – we have had an anxious eye on our stock of tea before they came and one need never worry about breakfast if there is a little jam or butter about. We are humble in knowing what useless nuisances we are but proud that we are of those same people who make such sacrifices for us…

We have developed funny little turns of speech to express our gratitude. Yesterday a New Zealander raised his mug of café-au-lait and got off ‘we think of those who thought of us’”. Aug 1917

Croissant rouge card to berne“In the lot that came along on the 14th Capt Jones had 3 parcels, his first since he was besieged at Kut-el-Amara. He said opening them produced the same pleasant excitement he had when he undid his wedding presents. Our own sort of pleasure in tearing off wrappers is, I think, more like the joy of kids at a Christmas tree; though of course I haven’t opened wedding presents for myself. Our parcels thank goodness run on different lines to Xmas stockings which don’t carry tea and sugar, condensed milk, jam, cheese, tinned beef.”  Feb 1917

Malaria  The first summer at Belemedik and Hadji-Kiri saw terrible fever sweep the camps. Maurice’s letters from that time regularly ask for chlorodyne, quinine and insect powder. He talks in his letters about having fever, but always reassures the family that he is well. It is not until the following year that he comments, “…I now have a a decent sized box of medicines and plenty of quinine. What a difference these things would have made last year. I am convinced many of the men who died would not have been cheated of their home-coming if only we could have laid our hands on a supply of quinine. Small and occasional does have no effect on the germ.” An English doctor, Captain Jones and a German sister  arrived towards the end of 1916, and in 1917 he comments, ” It is such a contrast to last year’s scandals when things happened which none of us can forget.”

Maurice Delpratt, third from the left in the front, at Hadji-Kiri 1917.

Delpratt in POW group picture

“We were officially photographed on Sunday. There were only five British in our group. Pearson had gone to Belemedik and two of our party are in hospital.” Aug 1917

Note: The spelling of Turkish place names varies widely in the accounts of the time, and also some have been officially changed since then. As far as we can tell:

Current name Names used in historical accounts
Istanbul Constantinople
Afyon Afyonkarahissar, Afyon
Çankiri Kiangheri, Changri, Kengre
Ankara Angora
Hacikiri Hadji Kiri
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