A free short story:

Looking at Death

(Some of the following is true.)

‘Don’t miss -’ continued the guide-book’s excited prose, ‘- if your tour of the Gallipoli battlefields includes the many cemeteries - the extraordinary story of Captain John Stanfield and Turkish platoon commander Mehmet Sumek.’ A sudden breeze from the Aegean - home now to occasional cruise ships rather than the looming might of the Royal Navy - caught the thin pages of the book and they rattled in my hand. I regained control after a brief struggle.

I was certainly not going to miss the extraordinary story of Captain Stanfield and platoon commander Sumek. Tantalising references in the various guidebooks I’d read before coming on holiday to Turkey made them a possible centrepiece to an article I had in mind. The brutal compactness of their story would be a great peg for a piece on the intensity and carnage of the wider Gallipoli campaign, that futile British attempt to break the stalemate of the first world war. Eighty-five years ago men came to wage a great war, and wrote great poetry as a by-product; I was there on holiday, with the possibility of eighteen hundred words for the ill-set pages of History Alive magazine. Ours is a time of mediocrity, I’m afraid.

“The lines at this point were being very close together. This cemeteries where we are here standing is representing the furthest point reached by the English attack.” Fevsi, our tour guide, was a middle-aged Turk about as wide as he was tall. His English was occasionally eccentric - but not half so strange as my Turkish. “We have ten minutes here please, and then we are driving north up the peninsula.”

I walked straight past the pallid battalions of gravestones, catching only glances of names and ranks and brutal dates, and the painful epitaphs from parents and loved ones desperate to justify the unacceptable and reclaim the eternally lost. On the brow of the gentle, so easily-walked slope is the towering monument, leading the ranks of stone behind it over the brink. At the foot of the tower, the lives and deaths of those British soldiers buried elsewhere on the peninsula are condensed into a vast and terrible list. And there, after only thirty seconds’ walking (think about it - that’s a lot of wall) was Stanfield, Capt. J.

Stanfield now kept only a part of himself in the trench. This particular schizophrenia, which kept a facet of his consciousness in a winter’s afternoon on the Essex coast, was his way of staying sane. He knew the trench like the back of his hand - that is to say, with the greatest possible familiarity but no mental engagement whatsoever. The dirty details of life in the trench, its furtive routines, were the native tongue he spoke fluently and without thought; its peculiar geography was the grammar he had never formally been taught. Part of him was squatting on his haunches, at 5 o’clock of an arid Turkish morning, leaning against the thirsty earth of the trench wall, waiting to go hunting for death. For another part of him, the sand at his neck was an English dune, as he lay in wait for evening and watched the sea playing in the shallows.

The North Sea faded as the boys around him swum into his consciousness. In an hour, Stanfield would blow his whistle and lead these boys out to play among the fierce scrub, and they would run, and shout, and kill and die, because that what was they had come here to do. Just more boys for him to lead out after death. The only difference between him and the other boys, him and the boy he’d been, was life - or death, depending on your point of view. His Captain’s pips were irrelevant; to get promoted, you just had to live. Stanfield’s eyes met those of the young 2nd Lieutenant beside him, and he smiled his encouraging smile: reassurance for the next hour, which was the hard part, not for the attack, which was easy. Run and shout and kill and die. The boy smiled valiantly back.

The visitors’ centre was a half hour’s minibus drive up the peninsular, in the air-conditioned company of a party of young Australians who were following their great-grandfathers’ search for national identity and death. “We are having a stop of forty-five minutes here,” Fevsi said to his band of young followers. “This place marks where the Turkish commanders were standing. Here you may get a picture of the whole campaign.” We started to shuffle into the welcoming cool of the visitors’ centre. “Do not miss the display cases, where are some very interesting exhibits. After this we go to a Turkish memorial.”

The displays are surprisingly balanced: maps of troop dispositions and attacks of both sides; photos of Turkish troops in their trenches; photos of Allied soldiers on the beaches; photos of the survivors from both sides at commemoration days seventy-five years later, back on the peninsula still trying to find out why they were there in the first place - remarkable survivors of a warrior generation. Glass cabinets hold a motley detachment of uniforms, weapons, documents, and some of the stuff that’s been dug up around the battlefields - spent ammunition, battered kit and insignia. Just to show the ferocity of this remarkable conflict, one case contains a pair of bullets that actually met in the air, and fused together in their own heat.

By the main entrance are two vast ledgers: the Turkish Roll of Honour for the campaign - eighty thousand thwarted family names, under headings denoting regiment and reporting glorious death for country and that greater love hath no man than this. Or so I presumed the Turkish read: the story’s the same; only the names are changed. Among them I found Sumek, M. (57 Inf.).

Huddled in the dugout while the British artillery pummelled the whole earth was like being digested in some vast and distressed belly. The dugouts - deep caverns hacked out of their native soil from which they would scurry, blinking, once the barrage eased and the British infantry attack began - were not built for comfort. So Sumek and his men were packed in with room to do no more than stand - or faint where you stood. Every few seconds another massive explosion would send shockwaves through the planet, shaking the soil walls and scattering fragments of the ill-supported earth above. In the faint light from one far oil lamp Sumek could see the sweating, shuddering faces of his boys. Each impact would prompt a few more moans in the gloom, every now and then a cry; packed in this hole, his platoon was one compact and unsettled organism, shifting its damp and smelly body unhappily. All Sumek could do was murmur words of reassurance or restraint, and touch a few shoulders.

He was too old to be playing with boys. He had a wife and son, in the old house of his family outside Erzerum, a whole country away - a different continent, in fact. He had fought the Russians, and now he fought the English and the Australians and the New Zealanders and the Indians, because all these people wanted to steal his country. He led his men - lions drawn from the wild ends of Turkey, boys torn from their families - because he was proud to and because there was no alternative to victory. But still, he was too old to be doing all this. Another massive explosion, and again the Turkish land heaved in discomfort. A boy nearby murmured feebly that the barrage seemed to be easing. Sumek frowned in the gloom. At least they’d be eager to get out and meet the attack, which must surely come soon now.

I’ve just visited Emily Stanfield - Captain John’s sister - in a nursing home in Colchester. She’s a hundred and two and (a couple of hours ago, at least) as sharp and active as I barely hope to be at half that age. It was a harder, more vital generation, fit to fight the greatest of battles. She stuffed me with tea and rock cakes, which she insisted on getting up and finding herself, and before I could open my mouth to speak began lecturing me about brother John. She told me about the memorial service, and the hymns they’d sung, and she wept cold, proud tears while I buried my face in my notebook. She told me about John as a boy - the fishing rods, the school prizes. She told me about the victory dinner and the toasts. She was pro-Churchill, who as a young First Lord of the Admiralty had conceived of the expedition. She hadn’t got a good word to say about the Turks - who had, after all, felled her family tree. At the dinner, at the memorial (which was “really very well attended”), the county had united to affirm that Captain John had died doing the Lord’s work. Until quite recently, I was told, there were local fishermen who would still sing ‘He died with sword in hand’ when the tune caught them.

As the last seconds before six o’clock disappeared irretrievably, Stanfield and his boys stood frozen in front of the ladders which led up to the real world and death.

“What happens if we actually get to the Turks?” the young 2nd Lieutenant suddenly blurted, but Stanfield blew his whistle and screamed, and all the boys screamed, and Stanfield was up the ladder and into the maelstrom.

Brandishing his sword in his left hand, pistol readied in his right, he was doing the most absurd thing imaginable, running furiously in a straight line towards the source of the massive noise that assaulted him as soon as the blade cleared the top of the trench. A step ahead of the boys, Stanfield was in his repeated nightmare - running alone into all of Asia, waving a sword and screaming like a madman at an infinite enemy he could not see.

A boy suddenly appeared at his shoulder, shrieking like a baby, then being crushed to a halt in mid-air and dropped dead to the dust; the scrub slapped at his boots as he tried to hurdle the bigger patches; bitter smoke filled his nostrils; an explosion to his right, a grenade thrown by a Turkish defender or dropped by an Allied attacker, earth and fragments of brushwood blasting into his vision; and always the frenzied rattle of the rifles and machine guns, an insane chatter that destroyed sense and sorted out the Captains and Lieutenants from the boys.

Then Stanfield saw the Turkish trenches, saw the muzzles, the barrel of every man from Constantinople to the ends of the earth pointing at his heart, then suddenly he saw the machine gun pit only yards in front of him, and then his ears disappeared and his legs ceased to feel the ground, and he flew in the nightmare, and saw and heard the sea in the shallows, then nothing.

Someone’s put me in touch with a Turkish historian, who’s kindly sent a photograph of the statue of Mehmet Sumek. It’s in his home town in eastern Turkey - rather off the beaten track for the budget historian. It’s from the east that successive waves of Turkish conquerors have come - the original Turks a millennium ago, then the Ottoman Turks, then the national uprising in the 1920s - so old Mehmet’s in appropriate company. He’d been a respected figure locally - family man, which they’re big on - so his sacrifice was highly regarded, especially in the region where the new Turkish nationalism was breeding. The details of his death, when they emerged with his body at the end of the war, cemented his glorious image, and so now the outsized hero stands for ever on a plinth in the market place, towering over a small, ill-formed and entirely anonymous British soldier. It’s probably a good thing that Emily Stanfield would never dream of visiting eastern Turkey.

To Sumek’s ear the barrage had eased not at all, but a bugle blew shrill from outside their womb and so he began urging his boys to battle and glory, with promises of courage and heaven that he felt, each one, as betrayal. Like schoolchildren hurrying out to play his boys scampered to the surface, drunk on companionship and fear. Then, cruelly, they had to stop still in their allotted places in the trench, in silence, stifling the bursting energy and muffling the screams, as they waited for death to rush at them. In instinctive routine and with no sense at all Sumek and his machine gun crew hurried along the short trench that projected forward towards the enemy, reaching the readied weapon as the sound of whistles came suddenly through the dry morning air from the sea. For a fraction of a second the battlefield was deserted, and then the horizon exploded in khaki bodies, furies with pistols and swords who thundered across the tiny distance at unstoppable speed. From the enemy lines came machine gun fire to disrupt the defence, and still there were explosions behind as the artillery rumbled on.

As the first furies resolved themselves into legs and arms and faces Sumek cried one word to the men beside him, and the machine gun burst in his ear and clattered into the dawn; another moment, and he took his helmet in his right hand and brandished it above the parapet, screaming to the rest of the platoon to begin firing. As the rifles began to crackle he turned back to the enemy and caught a faint shadow across his vision, there was an instant pandemonium among the machine gun crew and the grenade exploded among them, blowing weapon and boy and earth across Sumek’s shattered consciousness.

At the side of the road which, now busy with tour buses, runs down to the western beaches, is the cemetery of the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment. In the first vital hours of the whole campaign this regiment saved Turkey, and it continued to play a central role throughout the months of battle on the peninsula. At the back of the cemetery, furthest from the road, one flat stone lies apart and different from the very many others. Gold letters on the granite tell the extraordinary story.

‘When the ground was being prepared for this cemetery at the end of the war, the bodies of Mehmet Sumek, a platoon commander in the 57th Regiment, and John Stanfield, a Captain in the British Expeditionary Force, were discovered still locked together in their death struggle. They are buried here.’

From opposite ends of a continent these two crashed together, bullets meeting in the air, unstoppable objects neutralising destruction; in the greatest, most intense moment of struggle, clenched together, they fought each other to death, each dying for his victory.

Now, how’s that for glory?

Mehmet Sumek came to brief consciousness first. Around him in his dust-scratched vision were the remains of his machine gun, and of its operators, his boys; the reek of hot smoke and oil and blood drenched the chaos of the pit; his hearing did not seem to work - or perhaps the world was silent at last. His helmet was gone somewhere, but to his surprise his left hand still gripped his pistol. He tried to move. But some weight trapped him. Moving his aching head ponderously he saw two legs lying on his own. Two legs attached, it seemed as his head moved again, to a body very close to his own. A body in the khaki of the furies. As he tried to move, the legs twitched.

John Stanfield awoke to blindness - a hot, red blindness. Battered arm trembling with the effort, he brought his right hand, which seemed to have lost its pistol, to his face. The blindness wiped clumsily away. Blood. He felt desperately, deathly tired. Most of his consciousness of body and existence was gone. Faintly, he felt something shuddering under him.

It was the twitching body of a Turk. Rolling his weary leadened head around he took in the mayhem of the machine gun pit, the other bodies, and then came to two large brown eyes which stared straight into his own. A death stare - but the eyes suddenly blinked.

The two shattered bodies lay against each other - two bullets now fused as one; two numbed and senseless faces staring at the enemy. The muscles in Mehmet Sumek’s left arm shuddered as he tried to grip the pistol usefully; a spark of Stanfield’s mind found that his left arm still held his sword. The titanic struggles in bodies that had lost all strength were reflected in the pairs of eyes which never left each other, gazing deep, staring at death. Then two hands inched slowly forward, two right hands, and met in a handshake for eternity.