A Brief History
August 12, 1915 marks the date of a story – which is not actually just a simple story – which tells of the vanishing of a group of British soldiers during the now infamous Gallipoli campaign, during World War One. Most say that the 5th Norfolk Battalion vanished into thin air. Other versions of this legend say that the soldiers actually walked into thick mist and were then swallowed up, without a single trace. Ever since the men of Sandringham have vanished, theories have been created, as well as a lot of controversies. Naturally, all of those discussing these matters are just trying to find out what actually happened – did those people, in fact, vanish, or should their disappearance be attributed to something (or someone) else?
The Origin of the Battalion
The vanishing group is nowadays commonly known as the Sandringham Company, because the men are believed to have been gathered from the royal estates of Sandringham. This company was founded several years before the war, at the orders of Edward VII, and included gardeners, gamekeepers, household servants, and farmhands. These were all led by Frank Beck. Reportedly, the latter was too old to be thrown into this Great War; however, due to his sense of fatherly responsibility, he would join the rest of the men and fight in the war. Naturally, he ended up vanishing with them.
The Mystery Itself
Initially, the battalion was simply reported as missing after they were sent into the Gallipoli fight. Back then, it was believed that they had been taken down by a machine gun or by multiple enemies that have caught them in an ambush. We would probably believe the same thing if it were not for the testimony of Sir Ian Hamilton, a British army bigwig. He was one of the chiefs of the Gallipoli campaign. His account of the story basically tells how the 5th Norfolk Battalion charged into a forest and were lost to sight and sound.
On top of that, he emphasized that nothing more was ever heard or seen from those men. This claim makes up for one important question – how could such people, who used to be the top performers in terms of what they did on the battlefield, simply vanish into thin air? In short, how could trained soldiers simply vanish – forever?
Naturally, people could not believe just one account of the story. Even if no one could deny the words of Sir Ian Hamilton, there was a survivor who disputed his story – mainly because he was actually present at the scene. A soldier named Sidney Pooley stated that he did not see the forest in which the battalion could have vanished. He added that he does not know anything about how they disappeared and that he knew nothing about the charging into a forest until he returned home.
Moreover, there was also a reverend that researched this entire event. Pierrepoint Edwards investigated the place where the men vanished and found a mass grave. Naturally, he then stated that the original theory of how the men vanished now makes much more sense. He believed that, in fact, the men did not go far onwards, and got taken down one by one – every single one of them, except the ones that have reached the farm.
What Do People Believe?
Nowadays, only two of the stories we have mentioned still stand. Some people believe that the battalion and its men had got ahead of themselves when fighting the Turks, reached behind of the enemy lines where they got shot down in battle. The other half believes that the men were actually captured by enemies and, eventually, executed in cold blood; however, the evidence that is there to support these two stories is made up of contradictory allegations and accounts. It is believed that an official cover-up was in place and responsible for the stories telling of the disappearing men. Therefore, coming up with a certain answer to this mystery is rather hard.
The True Story(?)
Obviously, the story – and the mystery – are not yet done, so to speak. Steve Smith, an author who researched some of the aspects of the Gallipoli fight – particularly the vanishing of the 5th Norfolk Battalion – believes to have an answer to this mystery. First of all, he claims that the naming of the company, Sandringham, is not correct, because the men were recruited from all over North Norfolk. Some members of the company managed to advance roughly 1400 yards when they reached a sunken road. There, they stopped and waited for the rest of the battalion. Second Lieutenant Fawkes – who was the commander of this group – was ordered to press on, presumably beyond the enemy lines. A small number of people reached a vineyard, while yet another small group got to a bundle of cottages where Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp joined them. The last order of Beauchamp is believed to be ‘Hound them out boys!’ – this order was the last time he was seen alive. The surviving officers then managed to learn what happened, with Major W Barton and Lieutenant Evelyn Beck responsible for leading the survivors back to friendly lines. Smith strongly believes that the mystery was cleared up early on, by the press. Smith also points out some inconsistencies with the local newspapers, Hamilton’s dispatch, and the Lynn News report. The first said that the men simply went missing, the second one that they were lost from sight and sound, while the third one told of an officer that was recovering from wounds in hospital, as a prisoner of the Turks.
The Bottom Line
In the end, it is safe to assume that the 5th Norfolk Battalion was actually faced with an extremely determined enemy, as Smith points out. There was no simple vanishing or disappearing involved – just some moments of silence where the battalion could not be contacted or communicated with. The reverend in charge of the research of the place where the men vanished told that he found them all dead. He was able to identify only two of them. Reportedly, the bodies were scattered over an area of roughly one square mile – and at least 800 yards behind the enemy’s front line!
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think really happened? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
McCrery, Nigel. The Vanished Battalion. Simon & Schuster (Trade Division), 1992.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by John Salmon from geograph.org.uk of a memorial window in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, West Newton, Norfolk, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.