The Stench of Death; Fears of Being Buried Alive

A Rescuer is Rescued.

Special to The Great War Project

(29-31 July) The deadlock continues on the Gallipoli Peninsula in northwest Turkey.

The defending Turks and the attacking allied troops of Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand dig miles of barbed-wire protected trenches. This transforms the landscape and brings stalemate to the war for Gallipoli.

The scream and shudder of artillery is a constant for both sides, but they both find new and more effective means of killing.

Allied troops dug in at Gallipoli, circa 1915.

Allied troops dug in at Gallipoli, circa 1915.

Among them, digging mines under the enemy’s trenches. “To kill from below,” in the words of historian Eugene Rogan.

According to Rogan’s account of the fight for Gallipoli, one French soldier recalls later that he “was awakened around midnight, his ear to the hard ground in his dugout, by the distinct sound of digging in the ground beneath him.”

“The one thing I fear is to end my days blown sky high over the trenches.”

It is no surprise that similar fears infect the Turkish side as well. One Turkish officer who keeps a diary “was more afraid,” according to Rogan, “of being buried alive by an explosion than of being blown sky high.”

“There is no worse death than that,” the Turkish officer writes. “My God, spare everyone from such a fate.”

When a mine is detonated “he felt the ground heave under his feet.” The explosion comes where he hears digging a few days prior. Seven men are missing.

Whatever the tactics, “each attack littered the battlefield with hundreds and thousands of fallen soldiers,” reports historian Rogan. “Unburied between enemy lines, in the intense heat of summer, the decomposing bodies infused the Gallipoli Peninsula with an intense stench of death.”

Turkish troops in their trenches prepare for Allied attack, circa 1915.

Turkish troops in their trenches prepare for Allied attack, circa 1915.

The opposing trenches are close to each other, sometimes within hearing distance. Regularly, short truces are declared to clear the battlefields of the dead.

“Living at such close quarters,” Rogan reports, “had a humanizing effect on the men, and in periods of calm they would throw treats across to the enemy trenches. A Turkish soldier remembers throwing cigarettes, raisins, hazel nuts and almonds.

“The invaders reciprocated with cans of fruit and jam by way of thanks. [One soldier] found it remarkable that no one ever mixed dirt with the gifts or followed a treat with a hand grenade.

“The exchanges were made with genuine goodwill.”

Rogan points out that both sides do commit atrocities, but he writes…

“There were also acts of compassion across enemy lines.”

One medical officer “recalls treating an Ottoman prisoner who had saved a British soldier’s life.”

According to Rogan, “The Turkish soldier had been shot in the arm and leg while helping the British sergeant, who had been pinned down by crossfire between the lines.”

One British private, Rogan writes, experiences a remarkable act “of rescuing, and being rescued by the same Ottoman soldier in the course of battle.” The British soldier talks a comrade-in-arms out of bayoneting a defenseless Turkish soldier.

Then later in the battle, this same private finds himself left for dead with a serious bayonet wound. He loses consciousness.

He regains consciousness just as dirt is being shoveled over his body. He quickly realizes he is surrounded by hostile Turkish troops ready to bayonet and kill him.

“But before his captors had the chance to strike,” Rogan writes, “a wounded Turkish soldier with a bandage around his head leapt into the trench and protected [him] with his own body. The Briton immediately recognized his deliverer.”

You are a “very good Englishman,” this soldier says.

“I shook hands with this Turk,” recalls the British soldier, “and would give all I possessed to see this man again.

“As our hands clasped I could see he understood for he lifted his eyes and called ‘Allah’ and then kissed me.”

“I can feel this kiss even now on my cheek as if it was branded there or was part of my blood.”