A prisoner of the Turks
Name: George Handsley
Unit: 2nd Australian Light Horse Unit
When George Handsley signed up to join the Light Horse Regiment in Toowoomba in August 1915 he had visions of fighting the great fight against the enemy hordes.
What he didn't realise was that he was destined to spend two and a half years as a prisoner of the Turks under the most appalling conditions.
Never having been out of his own State of Queensland he was looking forward to seeing the world. He certainly got to know Turkey intimately but might have preferred to go as a tourist rather than as a prisoner of war.
He sailed from Australia on board the Suffolk and after training in the sandy deserts of Egypt, he joined his regiment, the 2nd Light Horse at Sohag. He took part in a number of skirmishes with the enemy during which he felt the horses suffered even more than the men.
Handsley wrote in his book Two-and-a-Half Years a Prisoner of War in Turkey, published in 1919.
"In my opinion there should be a special heaven for the gallant steeds who got us out of many tight corners, and in many cases died through exhaustion and thirst as a result."
In his book, Trooper Handsley wrote of his capture and internment by the Turks but was full of praise for the horses.
"Very often we were out on the lookout for the wild tribes of Bedouins who were harassing the countryside, and had several narrow escapes from capture, by surprise, having to depend entirely on the speed of our mounts for escape."
It was on the one occasion he was on foot that he failed to escape.
"At dawn came my 'Waterloo.' As soon as it became light, the enemy made a series of sharp attacks on both flank and front, and through overwhelming numbers we were forced to retire.
"I received a wound in my left arm which temporarily knocked me out. Recovering, in a few minutes, I bound up the wound, which was bleeding profusely, and snatching up my rifle, went into the fight again.
Turks seemed to be everywhere, both living and dead. Beside me were Sgt Drysdale and Trooper McColl of my regiment and we seemed to be the only three Britishers among hundreds of the enemy.
"We had taken a position behind a small sandhill and a glance around showed that, being on the extreme right flank, we had been separated from our squadron, and were cut off. The Turks rushed on us with fixed bayonets, and after a sharp scuffle we were overpowered."
And so began a saga of cruelty, thirst and starvation, in appalling conditions which was to last for 2 Â½ years.
Trooper Handsley was taken with his colleagues to a German officer who questioned them about troop numbers and weapons. They refused to answer and he cursed and spat in their faces and might well have shot them if the fighting had not come perilously close to their position.
They then went to a casualty station at Mount Gamet further behind the enemy lines and from there began a march through the desert, with little water and no food.
At Katea they were again questioned but again refused to pass on any useful information.
"They brought out a party of soldiers and lined them up in front of us, loaded their rifles, and asked us to give them the information they required", Trooper Handsley wrote.
"We still refused, all of them crying out to them to shoot away.
"I believe they would have carried out their purpose had it not been for a German officer, who spoke a few words rapidly in Turkish and then gave them the order to 'imshi'."
That evening they started their journey to an unknown destination, tied together with ropes and prodded along with bayonets.
When they got to Ber-Ol Ald they were allowed to drink from the well but were not given any food.
"It was here we encountered a regiment of Bedouins mounted on camels," Trooper Handsley wrote. "They looked very fierce and wanted to torture us but our escort seemed to have influence over them and they departed, grumbling at being deprived of the opportunity to venge themselves on the hated infidel."
Whenever they entered towns of any size, they were given a hostile reception by the locals, having stones thrown at them while the women spat at them.
After travelling on scraggy, bony camels for some distance, they were transferred to a dilapidated railway drawn by donkeys as far as Raffia. There they were marched to the main station and loaded into a cattle truck.
"The filth was indescribable and we were packed so close together that it was impossible to sit down for rest. We just managed to crouch with our head between our knees. We were given a bag of hard biscuits for the journey and a few dates which were promptly confiscated by our escort.
"My wound, which had not been attended to, was festering and giving me great pain. Most of us were suffering from dysentery and as there was no sanitary arrangements in the cattle truck, we were soon in a filthy condition."
After a day and night of torture in the cattle truck they reached Jerusalem where they had their first real meal of soup and meat and a Turkish barber shaved their heads and faces.
Their journey continued in the same cattle truck to Damascus where they were paraded through the streets.
"We excited the interest of the natives who bestowed upon us the usual tokens of affection in the shape of stones, excrement and filth."
Three days later they were back in the same cattle truck for another 24 hours of agony while heading for Aleppo where they were incarcerated with Turks, Armenians, Greeks and other prisoners who had refused to take up arms.
The next leg of their journey was to Ismaile where they discovered they would have to walk over the mountains.
"The land hereabouts is very fertile and along the rail route we could see vineyards and orchards and green fields of corn and pasture land. Had we been in other circumstances I would have enjoyed this beautiful scenery, but cooped up as we were, there was no enjoyment in climbing on each other's back to view the surrounding country."
They hiked through the dark and eventually camped in the open.
"When dawn came we resumed our march and all were feeling very hungry. Our appeals to the sentries for food were met with sneers and it goaded us to madness seeing our tormentors eating their fill while we poor wretches remained almost starving."
With their numbers boosted to 39 by the arrival of more prisoners, they were once more entrained, heading for Affiom-Cara-Hissar, packed like sardines in one filthy cattle truck.
"This journey still lives in my memory as the most awful in all my experience. We were almost dead on arrival at Affiom-Cara-Hissar on the morning of 27 August, being 23 days after my capture, during which time I can only recollect one square meal, namely the one in the hospital at Jerusalem.
"When we reached the prison camp we were given a bath and our heads again shaved. We were then placed in a small room called the quarantine room for 14 days. At this period of our imprisonment our food consisted of a small loaf of bread daily and a half pint of boiled wheat twice daily.
"This camp was described by the prisoners who had been there some time as the worst in Turkey, a 'hell on earth'. Floggings were given daily on the slightest pretext and very often we received thrashings for offences of which we were ourselves totally ignorant."
The prisoners were assigned various duties either chopping wood for the weaker men or working on road building for the stronger.
"We were for the most part poorly clad. Our boots were worn out and we tied bagging around our feet."
Not long afterwards, a working party was selected for labouring work on a railway line being built between Angora and Sebastapol. One hundred and fifty men were selected and marched to the station at Affiom-Cara-Hissar where they were loaded onto trucks for another nightmare journey of overcrowding, no water and no sanitation.
They worked as navvies from daylight to dusk with poor food in terrible conditions.
"The weather during my whole stay was bitterly cold and at Christmas time we worked in snow up to our knees," Trooper Handsley wrote.
"On one occasion a whole gang of 100 prisoners was flogged. The reason for this was that on the occasion of a Turk religious festival when they were, by their religion, forbidden to eat bread, no ration was issued to the prisoners, so they refused to work without food. The commandant of the camp ordered the whole gang to be flogged, and this order was carried out."
Trooper Handsley survived his time as a prisoner without too much damage to his health. When the war ended he was taken to England to recuperate and finally sailed home to Australia.
"The sea voyage did wonders in restoring me to my former good health. I landed back in Brisbane on 1 April little the worse for my terrible experiences while prisoner of war in Turkey."
The material for this article was supplied by Mrs R.E. Hinds of Queensland