In 1918, my grandfather and seven other British officers escaped from a Turkish prisoner of war camp. That was the easy part. They then faced 450 miles of deadly heat, hostile terrain and trigger-happy brigands.
In the act of remembrance there’s always so much we forget. Our historians may record British fighting in Turkey, Sinai and Palestine during World War One but we tend to remember the slaughter on the Western Front in France. It’s the same with family history where certain stories become legends, passed on in their recounting while other stories languish, waiting to be discovered.
The story of my grandfather’s escape from a Turkish prisoner of camp always lurked in the family conscious, eclipsed, for whatever reason, by other stories and his later role in governing Burma. The fate of British and Indian prisoners in Turkey, captured at the end of the siege at Kut-al-Amora in April 1916, is now a buried footnote. Of the 10,000 troops who surrendered at Kut, 4,000 would die on brutal marches or in Turkish camps. They witnessed the Armenian genocide and, like so many others before and after, bore the brunt of history without any choice or say.
Lord Justice Younger’s Report on the Treatment of British Prisoners in Turkey detailed the many acts of cruelty, as well as kindness, committed by the Turkish authorities. Many prisoners died more out of Turkish indifference and neglect rather than active cruelty. Dysentery, disease and poor medical facilities caused many deaths. Marches and camps were badly organised, suffering from lack of food and provisions. However, the report also pointed out that the treatment of prisoners by the Turkish authorities was little different to the incompetence and indifference suffered by their local population.
My grandfather, Archibald Cochrane, was captured when his submarine was damaged after being caught in nets in the Dardanelles. He tried to escape from a camp at Kara-Hissar and was recaptured within sight of the sea, frustrating to say the least for a naval officer. He spent 10 months in a Turkish jail before arriving at Yozgad camp.
Life as a prisoner
The conditions at Yozgad were hard but treatment was generally better than at other camps. The Turks were generally indifferent to their prisoners but relationships could still be tense. Nonetheless, the hard winters were feared more than anything but it was endurable so long as a prisoner could remain healthy.
Most of the prisoners were discouraged from trying to escape by the sheer inaccessibility of the camp. It was 4,500 ft above sea level in the heart of the rugged desert mountains of Anatolia and seven days march from the nearest railway station. The local town had, at the time, around 20,000 inhabitants, and was surrounded by barren hills.
The prisoners enjoyed hockey and football matches. They went for picnics, walks and even set-up a Yozgad Hunt Club for coursing, with some of their catch used to curry favour with the guards. They could go into the town to barter at the market. More importantly, they could send and received secret messages through a haphazard postal service, via coded letters and postcards carefully separated and glued back together again.
My grandfather arrived at Yozgad with a plan and experience form his previous escape attempts. He had arranged for a boat to be left at the coast. Between the camp and the boat, lay 450 miles of desert and mountains. Equipment and provisions were bought, bartered, adapted and made. The planning and scheming lasted many days as they studied sentry duties, tested equipment and built-up food reserves. There was little they could do about their map which was forty years old and had only been partly-completed by French surveyors.
Escape to a long walk
The escape involved a classic mix of holes in walls, quick-assembly ladders, dummies in bed and rope ladders. Those prisoners left behind distracted sentries and made noise to cover the escapers.
The long walk to freedom had begun. After their escape their first hope was “to be spared the ignominy of being led back into the camp at Yozgad without the taste of even a few days freedom.”
The exploits of my grandfather and his seven fellow officers are detailed in a book written by two of the officers, Captain Andrew Johnston and Captain Kenneth Yearsley (The Adventures of Eight British Officers on their Escape from the Turks). The style of the book is precise, clipped and no nonsense as you would expect from World War One British officers yet it’s not without its flashes of dry humour.
The book is good at conveying the hostility of the landscape during scorching hot days and freezing nights, and dealing with merciless winds and suspicious locals. The officers were loaded with clothing and provisions yet replenishing food and water was a constant challenge, often walking for hours in a wrong direction just in the hope of finding a mountain stream. They walked through difficult, broken landscape of valleys, ravines, steep gorges and rough steep hills. They were forced to take lengthy detours. Once they walked for five hours for the sole gain of a single mile. They hid during the day to escape the worst of the heat, but were frequently exposed on arid plains. Forests became treasured for cool shelter and somewhere to rest without being seen. Sometimes they had to make their way through ground thickly covered with thorny bushes.
They tried to avoid villages but still ran into shepherds or bedraggled gendarmes who could be bribed, but could not be trusted to keep quiet. Often they posed as German surveyors when they forced to buy provisions.
After nine days of walking they reached the desert where they were shot at by brigands. My grandfather was the navigator keeping the show on the road – “a twentieth-century Solomon, he kept the balance between the demands of increasingly sore and blistered feet, marching, avoiding encounters with the locals and searching for water. Every decision could invite disaster or capture.”
On the 17th day of escape, and in desperate need of food, they approached a village posing as Germans. A local promptly started talking to them in fluent German. My apologies, said one of the officers, there’s been an awful mis-understanding. We’re actually Magyars. Whereupon another villager revealed he had served in the Austrian army and of course he knew the Maygars. They were fortunately all distracted by the headman who seemed more interested in talking about their guns.
On they walked, shoes disintegrating and clothing turning ever more ragged. They bought food from desert tent dwellers and goat or sheep herders.
A dead coastline
Their antiquated map told them they would see the sea beyond the next rise in the hills. In fact this longed-for sight this did not happen until day 23. When they did finally reach the sea, the celebrations were subdued. The sea was dead, there were no boats and no sign of life along the coastline. After hundreds of miles of walking they were exhausted, in pain and on their last legs. Some of them were now walking barefoot over sharp rocks. My grandfather had navigated them so far, but their hopes of finding a boat seemed bleak.
Once they explored the coastline, it revealed itself to be more promising than first appearance. It was busy with Turkish troops and gun batteries set amongst creeks and bays. For the moment, they had little choice but to hide in a deserted village and look for food. They found a grinder and corn and hide in a ravine where they smoked dried leaves to try and keep the swarms of flies and mosquitos away. Despite the discomfort, it was a good opportunity to restore energy, heal blisters and keep an eye out for a boat. My grandfather directed them to make spars and sails from pieces of cloth.
Finally, while out on a recce, they saw a moored boat. My grandfather and another officer swam out to steal it but it was too well-secured and sentries were nearby. My grandfather nearly drowned when he was caught in the ropes and had to be cut free. Back ashore, they re-joined the group and hid amongst a local pine tree forest.
By day 35 they were depressed and facing few options. There was no boat to capture; either they surrendered or tried to bluff their way further up the coast as Germans. As they were hiding and debating what to do, a motor tug sailed into the bay, carrying around twenty Turkish soldiers.
It was a long shot for the tug was bound to be guarded by sentries. But that night when my grandfather swum out to the tug he discovered there were no sentries. Seizing his chance, he took the dingy and picked up the others. When they were all on the tug it took them an hour to noiselessly raise the anchor. They were painfully aware of another boat only fifteen yards away and this one was manned by Turkish soldiers. They slipped away. The engine didn’t work but my grandfather rigged up a sail until it was light enough to fix the engine.
It was 120 miles to Cyprus with a boat that kept breaking down but they made it. Made it to four days resting in a monastery enjoying good food, clean sweet water, proper cigarettes, coffee, a shave, a wash, new clean clothes, sheets and a bed.
They spent four days in Cyrpus. It took them awhile to return home via Rome and Egypt. In Rome my grandfather was sitting in bar when someone did a double-take on him.
“I’ve just seen someone who looks just like you.”
“Where was he?” replied my grandfather. It was his brother, serving in the RAF and enjoying a brief rest during a stopover. His brother of course, had no idea my grandfather had escaped from Turkey.
By the time they returned to the UK, the war was over. I wonder whether they had mixed feelings about their timing of their escape. When my grandfather finally returned home he was confronted with a poignant duty. The story of his escape had featured in the press and he received many anguished letters from families desperate to know if he had any news of a son or a husband missing somewhere in Turkey. Sometimes he did know what had happened, and had to respond confirming their worst fears. Many of the letters he received were lined in the black of grief and loss.
The escapees received congratulations from the King. Later, my grandfather battled with ministry’s bureaucracy to ensure his fellow escapees received their fair share of the prize money for the stolen boat. He provided references and helped them when the word of a senior officer could have an impact. They continued to meet for reunions for many years until time starting taking its inevitable toll.