I have been re-reading Aubrey Herbert’s diaries. He was the younger half-brother of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and on 25 April 1915, he landed at Gallipoli. The Gallipoli Peninsula controlled access to Istanbul through the Dardanelles and the Allies were keen to knock back the Turks who had joined the Germans in the war against them.
Two days after arriving, Aubrey wrote “We had landed on a spit of land which in those days we called Shrapnel Point, to the left of what afterwards became Corps Headquarters. The Navy, it appeared, had landed us in the wrong place. This made the Army extremely angry, though as things turned out it was the one bright spot. Had we landed anywhere else; we should have been wiped out.”
The campaign was a disaster with neither side gaining anything except an enormous death toll of some 400,000 men either killed or wounded. Whichever side, Aubrey tried to go out to offer Turk or ally water, “their faces caked with sand and blood”. The unsanitary conditions had given rise to disease and slow decay as the ranks of wounded and the ranks in the cemetery met each other in the limited space.
From incompetence, to blunders and disillusion. Aubrey was finally evacuated on October 12th. Like many others, he was ill but miraculously still alive and, in ironic contrast to the attack, the retreat was considered a major success.
Aubrey’s spirit of adventure was all the more remarkable as he was practically blind. Fluent in eight languages including Turkish and Greek, he was, throughout the war, also a serving member of the British Parliament whilst fulfilling his military duties. After the war, Aubrey continued to work but his diaries also record a never-ending whirl of friends and conversations, madcap travel and “immense amiability” and compassion. His enthusiasm for the brighter side of life is what we are all finding today in shared lighter moments on the one hand and deep compassion for those and their families who suffer today on the other.
Aubrey was nicknamed Hereward as a baby by his parents, perhaps with foresight: a chivalric romantic Anglo-Saxon hero with few men and resources defending his homeland from the Norman conquest.
Hereward’s story has a happy ending in that he lived finally at peace with the Normans. Sadly, Aubrey died of blood poisoning following a tooth extraction at just 43 years old, a mere six months after his brother, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died in April 1923 in Cairo, Egypt.
Was he man out of time out of his time? I don’t think so necessarily. He was a life enhancer, and part of his legacy is his stories and his family alongside a specific legacy in Albania whose cause he championed, and the charitable fund set up to help those most in need.
Nevertheless, the first world war did instigate a period of massive social change. In 1916, the pacifist, Lord Landsdowne, wrote “We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.” In fact, Aubrey did not agree with him, but supported his right to observe his views, which was after all partly Landsdowne’s definition of “civilised”.
Yet these stories of individual courage and humour which came out of this terrible war are part of our myths of courage in the face of futility. Gallipoli ‘s steep juniper and thyme filled cliffs, with its familiar smell of warm Mediterranean climes, is today the much honoured and visited memorial to impossibly brave men.
Today, we have our own knights in shining armour: from those who support patients and their families to Captain Tom encouraging us all to walk together. We probably also suffer, like the past, from a lack of planning, confusion and a need to distinguish the right generals for the right jobs, but we too have our tales of impossible courage and bravery against overwhelming odds.