I’ve written and rewritten this story many times, but as April comes round again I feel the need to repeat it, lest its subjects, my great-uncles … and others like them … be forgotten. With the passing of the Gallipoli Centenary, interest may wane a little, so it becomes even more imperative to keep their stories alive. This then is the story of how I came to discover my great-uncles’ long-forgotten graves on the Gallipoli peninsula, and of course, how these young Ulstermen came to be there … so far away from their home in the Kingdom of Mourne.
My great-uncles, Sam and Jack (John) Mallaghan spent the early part of their lives on the shores of Carlingford Lough, looking across to the Kingdom of Mourne. Here, in Omeath, their father was warden of the local Church of Ireland, now deconsecrated. At some point, the family moved to Newry, gateway to the Kingdom of Mourne. Here, they lived for a while in the gatehouse to the Hunter Moore estate, where their father was employed as a gardener, but also in Stream Street, in the shadow of St Patrick’s church. As WW1 approached, the brothers enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which would be decimated on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. Two other brothers, Herbert and William, enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and survived the war.
The definitive aim of the Gallipoli Campaign was to capture Istanbul, thus opening up a new supply route to Russia. Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, intended to force the Dardanelles with a fleet, followed by a bombardment of the Ottoman capital. His plan was to go drastically wrong, leading to the deaths of thousands of men and his subsequent demotion.
Sam and John, aged nineteen and twenty-one, arrived at Cape Helles, on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on 25th April, 2015. The brothers’ final destination was V Beach, where both would die, Sam, on the first day of the Campaign, 25th April, and Jack, five days later, on the 30th April. Planned as the largest and most important of the Cape Helles landings, the horror that was V Beach must go down in history as one of the greatest tragedies of the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign. Thee quarters of the Dublin Fusiliers were to land on the beach from rows of lighters, while the remainder, along with the Munster Fusiliers, and half of the 2nd Hampshire Regiment, were to land from a converted collier, the River Clyde. Survivors would capture the village of Sedd el Bahr, forming a continuous line across the peninsula as the other Helles landings took place.
Things did not go according to plan. The River Clyde, arriving late, beached in water out of the men's depth. Many died on the lighters, mowed down by a barrage of Turkish fire, unexpected resistance from Turkish troops dug in on the cliffs above the beach. Others, attempting to wade ashore, were weighed down by heavy, waterlogged equipment and were shot or drowned. The surrounding sea and beach were soon filled with the bodies of dead and wounded: the sea around the Clyde ran red with their blood. Those soldiers remaining inside the Clyde were trapped by bodies of dead comrades but, fortunately, under cover of darkness, most escaped to the beach. By 26th April, all those left alive were ashore. However, so few men survived from the Dubs and Munsters that survivors were amalgamated into one regiment that became known as the 'Dubsters'.
The Gallipoli Campaign failed, not because of the men who fought and died there, but it is alleged, because of the vacillations and incompetence of the Allied commanding officers. Churchill and his colleagues reckoned without the resistance of Turkish forces, led by Ataturk. Evacuation from the area was completed in January 1916, during which time many thousands of Allied troops, drawn from all corners of the Empire, lost their lives. Jack and Sam Mallaghan were amongst them and today, both are buried in the Commonweath War Graves’ Cemetery at V Beach.
How did I come to discover their resting place? Towards the end of the 1990s I found myself living in Istanbul, where I resided for three years. Istanbul is a frenetic city, in those days clogged with traffic and pollution. Sometimes you just had to escape. Thus my husband and I planned a trip to Troy, across the Dardanelle Straits from the Gallipoli peninsula. We would stay one night on the peninsula and take the ferry across the Straits the following day. I knew nothing of the history of Gallipoli other than having been told by my mother that two of her uncles had died there. I wasn’t remotely interested, either in them, or in the Commonwealth Cemeteries that were dotted across the peninsula. My only wish was to go to Troy.
We arrived at our small pension in Sedd el Bahr by late afternoon. Having unpacked we decided to stroll to the sea before supper. Making our way down the dusty track from the pension, and thence through the village, we were joined by a pack of village dogs that followed curiously in our wake. Cooking smells drifted from village houses, whetting our already sharpened appetites. With our canine companions in tow we found ourselves beneath the ruins of Sedd el Bahr Kale … the Old Castle … built in 1659. As we later discovered the British designated the castle "Fort No. 3" … at the other end of V Beach was "Fort No. 1", or Fort Ertugrul. Below us a path led down to a sandy beach then followed the line of the bay to what looked like a cemetery in the distance. Dusk was beginning to fall and we were very hungry following our long drive from Istanbul. But, I could not resist … pulling my husband after me, we made our way past a ramshackle hotel where men were drinking raki and playing card games, until we found ourselves pushing open the gate of the cemetery … V Beach cemetery as the sign by the entrance informed us.
All was silent, apart from the sound of lapping waves and the eerie call to prayer echoing across the bay from the village mosque. We walked among the memorial tablets, our feet crushing scented lavender and thyme. White moths flitted about in the dusk. I was amazed to discover that this peaceful cemetery was the resting place of many Dublin Fusiliers, most from Ulster, my home. Then my husband spoke, quietly, asking me for the names of my great-uncles. And there they were … Sam and John Mallaghan … by his feet, the spot where they lay unvisited since their untimely deaths all those decades ago.
I cannot apologise for the length of this blog as I need to give justice to this story. It’s not one you can easily tell in a paragraph. The discovery made me want to know more and we never did go to Troy on that trip. Instead we remained on the peninsula, exploring, asking questions. And on my return to Istanbul I spent many hours in the British Council Library conducting further research. The latter, coupled with family research, resulted in my novel, Ghost of Gallipoli, a fictional account of what happened to the Mallaghan brothers, before and after Gallipoli. Nor does the story end there: shades of Ghost of Gallipoli run through my forthcoming WW2 novel, Billy Blitz, hopefully available before the end of 2016.
As the saying goes: “Old soldiers never die”….