Heading Home : Chanak & Kantara

After a stay of five weeks in Constantinople we sailed for Port Said, Egypt at 3pm on Sunday 9th May 1920 on the “H.M.S.Hanover” the same troopship that brought us from Russia to Constantinople.We arrived at Port Said at 8am on Friday 14th May 1920 & landed at 11am on Sat 15th May 1920. When we were on our way to Port Said from Constantinople we dropped anchor at a place called Chanak at the mouth of the Dardanelles to let some troops go a shore who were stationed there. While we were at anchor one of our anchor chains snapped & we had to stop there two hours extra while a diver looked for the anchor but he couldn’t find it so we had to sail without it.

DIVING SUIT 1922

Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres. Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922 Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives. Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

Chanak would be in the news later that year for what would be called the Chanak Crisis. Under the Treaty of Sevres, which was imposed on Turkey following its defeat in the First World War ,military forces from Britain, France and Greece occupied large portions of western Turkey. Chanak (now called Canakkale), a small seaport on the Dardanelles strait, the international sea route that divides Europe and Asia. Turkey, having overwhelmed the Greeks, threatened British forces at Chanak. When Britain called for assistance they did not receive the support they looked for. Britain eventually had to withdraw. This situation led to the fall of prime minister, Lloyd George, who had been against British interference in Russia. Incidentally the brutal Greco-Turkish War and its aftermath, especially the bizarre swapping of populations in certain regions, is covered in Louis de Berniere’s Birds Without Wings. In the fall of 1922, nationalist Turkish forces, which opposed the presence of foreign troops, had succeeded in pushing the Greek army out of the country. The Turks then threatened British forces pinned down at Chanak.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922. Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924. Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920. https://www.maryevans.com/archiveBlog/?p=12982

After landing at Port Said we entrained at 1pm on the same date for the demobilization camp at Kantara & arrived there at 3:30pm. The camp at Kantara was right in the middle of the burning sandy desert near the Suez Canal. After spending a period of three weeks at Kantara we left at 6am on Thursday 10th June 1920 & arrived at Port Said at 8am on the same date.

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And that is all we hear about Kantara or El Qantara. W.J. Cording who we heard from earlier in the series, also passed this way in late 1918. He was there for three months and has nothing much to say about it either. He does not even mention his beloved food except for saying that Kantara was in the ‘dessert’ [sic].

Wikipedia tells us ..

”During WW1, Kantara was the site of Headquarters No. 3 Section, Canal Defences and Headquarters Eastern Force during the latter stages of the Defence of the Suez Canal Campaign and the Sinai Campaign of 1916. The massive distribution warehouse and hospital centre supported and supplied all British, Australian and New Zealand operations in the Sinai from 1916 until final demobilization in 1919.’

I found a more evocative passage in a book called Hell in the Holy Land by David Woodward who used personal accounts from the diaries and letters of British soldiers to describe the experience of the fighting and dying in Egypt and Palestine. One passage from a soldier of the Dorset Yeomanry described what I imagined Kantara had been like for my granddad…

There are three sounds in Egypt which never cease—the creaking of the waterwheels, the song of the frogs, and the buzz of flies….Letter writing is an impossibility in the evening, for as soon as the sun goes down, if a lamp is lighted, the air all round is thick with little grey sand-flies which bite disgustingly. 

However Woodward goes on to describe Kantara itself  quite differently…

The British advance began at Kantara, a small village containing a mosque and  few mud huts. Kantara was the starting point for perhaps the oldest caravan route in the world, stretching across the Sinai until it reached El Arish on the Mediterranean and then continuing north to Gaza and Palestine…In 1916, Kantara resembled, according to A.E. Williams, a private in the Army Cyclist Corps [who knew there was such a thing?!] …”a western cow-town. Tents, marquees and wooden shacks stretched far out across the sandy waste.” By the end of the war, it was more like a modern metropolis. with macadamized roads, electric lights, miles of railway sidings, workshops, cinemas, theaters, churches, clubs, (including a fine YMCA establishment), and even a golf course. By late 1917 it had certainly become the largest base camp in any theater.

(Woodward, p.43)

So while I had imagined granddad sweltering in the hot sun under the meagre shade of a tent, surrounded by colleagues succumbing to cholera, typhoid and malaria he was doubtless having a grand old time. Woodward quotes another soldier arriving at Kantara in 1917 with a fractured skull being delighted at the presence of nurses…

‘It was good to see an English woman again. Had breakfast of porridge, bacon, bread and a dinner of chicken.’

(Woodward, p.144)

Perhaps Cording had been too busy eating to write in his diary. In fact conditions at Kantara were most likely superior to the conditions granddad he would encounter in Ireland over the course of his life as a Garda. ‘Tis far from golf courses we were reared…

Next week : Malta (again), Gibraltar, The Bay of Biscay and Home…

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Military base stores at Kantara, Egypt, 1919. Available at https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/H01773/

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A view of Kantara on the Suez Canal looking north. Tents are between some of the buildings and a ship is in the canal (right). Available at https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/B02907/

Further Reading & References

Cording, William, James (1916-1919), The Diary of W.J. Cording, [online]
preview available at https:/
/books.google.ie/books?
id=OuZlAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT21&lpg=PT21&dq=The+Diary+of+Private+W.J.+Cording,&sourc
e=bl&ots=X3eIBN2X8H&sig=3GgDXBIfJd_AlPxFrZ5gqOdA7kg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=
#v=onepage&q=The%20Diary%20of%20Private%20W.J.%20Cording%2C&f=false 

[accessed 13/10/2018]

Canadian Encyclopedia, The Chanak Affair, [online], available at https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chanak-affair %5Baccessed 13/10/2018]

De Bernieres, Louis, (2005), Birds Without Wings, London:Vintage.

Levantine Heritage, Chanak, [online], available at http://www.levantineheritage.com/chanak.htm %5Baccessed 13/10/2018]

Woodward, David, R., (2013), Hell in the Holy Land, Lexington : The University of Kentucky Press.

3 responses to “Heading Home : Chanak & Kantara

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