An Irishman’s Diary on the Gallipoli truce
A brief truce in a time of unrelenting slaughter
At the initiative of Aubrey Herbert, they stopped fighting at Gallipoli long enough to do the decent thing by the dead
After the impromptu Christmas football match of 1914, the next most famous truce of the first World War was during the spring of 1915, in Gallipoli.
It too was short-lived – only eight hours. But it has been immortalised in literature and song, most notably by Eric Bogle’s great ballad: “And the band played Waltzing Matilda/When we stopped to bury our slain/We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs/And it started all over again.”
As the lyrics suggest, the circumstances were much grimmer than the ones that produced the football. During a month of unrelenting slaughter in late April and early May, neither side had been able to bury their dead, while the Turkish sun added horror to horror.
So at the initiative of an aristocratic British officer called Aubrey Herbert, they stopped fighting long enough to do the decent thing by the dead and make conditions slightly less awful for the living. Yet as Charles Keen, writing about the truce in the April issue of the Oldie magazine says, there was an element of the football rulebook even in this.
First of all, to ensure no loss of honour on either side, Herbert had to organise things so that both could believe the ceasefire request came from the others.
That done, the Turks submitted to his command for the operation – his evident suitability described in semi-fictional form by Louis de Bernière’s 2004 novel Birds Without Wings, wherein the narrator – a Turk – praises the “Honourable Herbert” for being able to speak both Turkish and Arabic and for “[giving] us receipts for money and other things that were found on the dead”.
Begun at 7.30 am, the work was completed by 4pm, at which time Herbert had the white-flag bearers on both sides shake hands. Then he went over to the Turks to say his farewells, which were warmly received. And after that, sounding like “a referee”, as Keen puts it, he declared that neither side was to fire again “for 25 minutes after they had got into their trenches”, at which point the insanity could resume.
Well might Aubrey Herbert have sounded like a referee because, in the classic manner, his preparations for war had started around the playing fields of Eton, if not on them.
Poor eyesight made sport difficult, never mind combat. In fact, like Rudyard Kipling’s son John, he made it into the army only via friends in the Irish Guards.
That was one of many entanglements that created a very intimate relationship between Herbert and this country. Like Winston Churchill – the architect of the Gallipoli disaster – he had spent childhood years in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his father was lord lieutenant. He later married Mary Vesey, of the Abbeyleix De Vescis, who was renowned not just for her beauty but for political leanings that, as an obituary in this newspaper put it, were broadly “fenian”. From these various influences, Herbert was more sympathetic to Ireland’s cause than normal among the British aristocracy, or indeed the Conservative Party with which he was an MP from 1911 onwards.
But then again, he was a genuine believer in the rights of small nations, and one in particular, Albania. Such was his identification with that country, he was twice offered its post-independence throne. And even his views of Irish politics could be filtered through it.
Trying (and failing) to empathise with Edward Carson, the Dublin-born unionist who became a reluctant founder of Northern Ireland, he once wrote: “I wonder if I should have a different feeling for Carson if he dressed like the Albanians and just propounded their gospel of the village. They don’t care a tinker’s curse about anything else. It’s just the rocks they know and the miserable houses where they were born that they are after keeping.”
As for the other side of the Irish argument, he was sufficiently sympathetic to write, in May 1916: “I wish they would stop the executions now.”
Herbert had survived Gallipoli, as he would the rest of the war. But he died a few years later, at the age of 43, and in a manner almost as senseless. His poor eyesight having deteriorated to blindness by then, he was persuaded that an operation to remove all his teeth might reverse the process. The operation went fatally wrong. He had recently been in Egypt and his death was popularly attributed to the “Curse of Tutenkhamun”, then presumed rampant. Officially, at least, the cause was blood-poisoning.