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First World War centenary: Two-year prisoner of war experience left its mark on Ilford soldier captured by the Turks

Alice White with a family photo album Alice White with a family photo album

Sunday, August 3, 2014
12:00 PM

Walking wounded trudge along a barren landscape for miles, feeling the absence of the thick army jackets which have been taken from them and the icy chill of winter drawing ever closer.

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William White and his wife Alice. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]William White and his wife Alice. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]

For these men, their journey is a world away from the wave of patriotism they rode on when they enlisted for “the war to end all wars” – the First World War.

Alice White’s father William was one such soldier, who was captured by Turkish forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp for two years.

Pre-war, William, who was born in 1888 and was originally from Brentwood, worked as a labourer at railway sidings in Ilford.

In a twist of fate he sought lodgings with a co-worker and ended up meeting the man’s daughter – his future wife Alice Cottrell.

Ottoman Empire

- The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic power

- At its peak it included countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Greece and Syria

- The empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and sought to regain lost territories

- The Ottoman/Turkish Army had approximately 600,000 troops

- The Gallipoli campaign later that year was a disaster for Britain, with the Ottomans enjoying a victory

- Britain then increased its efforts in the Middle East, taking action such as bringing in a force of 150,000 men to Mesopotamia

- On March 11 1917, British forces captured Baghdad and two weeks later a strike was made on Gaza. Both the first and second battles of Gaza were unsuccessful

- In October, the forces entered Jerusalem

- The following September, British forces defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Megiddo. Five days later an armistice came into effect

- When the war ended, Britain was occupying the territory which was to become Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Lebanon

Information from the BBC website

But, like so many others, they were wrenched apart when war came calling and William enlisted as a private with the Territorial Force in August 2014.

The 26-year-old and his comrades believed they would be sent to the Western Front, but they were shipped over to Turkey in July 1915 to join the Gallipoli campaign.

Ms White, 90, who lives in Gants Hill, said: “I think Gallipoli was better in a way. When you look at what went on in France, the trenches... it was better to be sent there.”

Her father also fought in Gaza, which had its first battle on March 26 1917.

William White (right) in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1915. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]William White (right) in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1915. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]

But one of the most testing times for William, who had become a sergeant, was when he and his fellow soldiers were captured by the Turks.

They made their way through places such as Damascus, now in Syria, over approximately 40 days, travelling on trains before walking the final miles.

During the long journey, the men were shown exactly what the locals thought of them.

“If they passed through a village, the villagers spat on them,” said Ms White.

William White when he was a sergeant, in a frontline trench in Gaza in 1917. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]William White when he was a sergeant, in a frontline trench in Gaza in 1917. [Picture: Donated to Redbridge Museum by Alice White]

Some of the healthier prisoners were taken to work on railways, but William, wounded in the side from the earlier fighting, was taken to the camp outside Turkey.

The men suffered meagre rations, but their captors were not living in luxury.

“The Turkish privates were apparently so poor they had the same diet of broth and bread that the prisoners did. They also used to fight barefoot and if they captured British soldiers the first thing they did was take their boots.”

Spring 1918 saw circumstances improve for the soldiers, who were allowed to exercise outside and stage a concert.

William White with his wife AliceWilliam White with his wife Alice

Those men considered to be trusted prisoners were also allowed to go out into a bazaar, with an escort. It was during one of these trips that William discovered the war was finally coming to a close.

“There were notices in shops and houses and local Turks were clustered about all excited. Dad said [to the guard], ‘Is it peace?’ and he said not peace, armistice.”

William returned to Ilford in 1919 and went on to have Alice and her older brother William, known by his middle name Arthur, with his wife – who he had married while on leave in 1915.

He worked at Ilford Central Library as a library attendant until he retired.

William White in 1914William White in 1914

But although William, who died aged 87 in 1976, wrote an unpublished memoir about his prisoner of war experiences, A Crusader in Khaki, he did not share his memories with his family.

“He never spoke about the war,” said Ms White. “But it was the prisoner of war experience that left a mark on him.”

William’s experiences are to be included in Redbridge Museum’s First World war exhibition, which will launch on November 11.

As well as the exhibition, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the attraction will launch a website and school education sessions.

William White, in a picture from Alice's photo albumWilliam White, in a picture from Alice's photo album

For more information, call 020 8708 2317 or visit redbridge.gov.uk/museum.

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