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The Mysterious Disappearance of WW1 5th Norfolk Battalion

5th Battalion Norfolk

One of the most mysterious cases of disappearance, perhaps because it concerns not an individual but a group of men, occurred during the First World War, when the 5th battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment disappeared without a trace in the middle of the Dardanelles countryside, in August 1915.

The Dardanelles campaign

Between March and December of the year 1915, England and France indeed tried to take control of the Dardanelles, a strategic point controlling communications between the Mediterranean and the Russian ports of the Black Sea. But the armies of the Ottoman Empire, commanded by the Germans, kept the Western Expeditionary Force in check. The losses were so great (46,000 dead) that the Allies finally abandoned the game in December 1915.

The disappearance of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment

The story of the Norfolk disappearance is told by the tales of Commonwealth soldiers who attended the event. On August 21, 1915, during the attack on the Gallipoli peninsula, one of the bloodiest episodes of the Dardanelles campaign, twenty-two New Zealand soldiers from an engineering company saw the 4th Norfolk Regiment, which numbered 267 men, coming to the rescue of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) attacking Hill 60, south of Suvla Bay. While in the bed of a dry stream, Norfolk soldiers enter a strange cloud. At the moment when all the men have disappeared behind the curtain of mist, the cloud rises gently then moves away in the sky, against the wind, and soon escapes the eyes of observers. No longer is a living being visible in the small valley, and Turkey claims to have never captured anyone from the regiment concerned.

Contradictions

This story is based on a testimony made fifty years after the Dardanelles campaign. Written during a commemorative meeting of the ANZACs by three of the New Zealand soldiers belonging to the 3rd section of the 1st engineer company, this testimony comes in the form of a call to file, intended for any people still alive who may have attended the strange phenomenon. Examination of the document, however, reveals a number of factual errors in the narrative, which make its reliability questionable. Thus the 4th Norfolk regiment mentioned by the three soldiers is not a regiment but a battalion, and this one, moreover, has finished the Dardanelles campaign. On the other hand, it was the 5th Norfolk, another battalion of the same regiment, which was actually missing during an attack. This took place not on August 21 as the document mentions, but on the 12th according to the English military archives, and five kilometers from the supposed position of the New Zealand witnesses. However, there is another text evoking a similar episode and written shortly after the campaign. There can be no contradiction or doubtful assertion: the testimony seems much more reliable.

True memories or a posteriori suggestions?

This is the Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission, published in 1917. According to this document, a “strange mist” reflecting the rays of the sun covered the bay and the plain of Suvla on the 21st August, concealing the trenches occupied by the Ottomans and thus allowing them to easily fire on the Allies. But as “strange” as it seems, such a weather phenomenon seems to be common in the region. It was also this same August 21, in the afternoon, that the report cited the attack on the famous Hill 60 by 3,000 ANZAC men. On reading the two episodes described in this official document, the similarities with the late testimony of New Zealand soldiers appear striking. In fact, the latter is more like a mixture of the two events, presented in the Final Report as separate, but reported on two pages opposite each other ...

Could this layout have influenced the memory of the three witnesses? It should be added that, from the 5th Norfolk actually disappeared, 122 corpses of members of this battalion were found as of September 23, 1919. And, if we consider that 27,000 of the 34,000 killed, English and ANZAC, were never actually buried, we can suppose that the bodies of the 145 missing soldiers were mixed with the ground of a battlefield drowned in a terrible heat which constitutes a factor of accelerated putrefaction. These various elements hardly argue in favor of the authenticity of the testimony of the three New Zealanders.