Magazine article The Spectator

They Did Not Grow Old

Magazine article The Spectator

They Did Not Grow Old

Article excerpt

EIGHTY-FIVE years ago, my greatgrandfather, the fifth Earl of Longford, died at Gallipoli. His last words to his second-in-command, who was crouching down to avoid the shells flying overhead, were, `Please don't duck, Fred. It won't help you and it's no good for the men's morale.'

Soon after, Thomas Longford, advancing at the head of his Yeomanry Brigade troops with a map in one hand and a walking-stick in the other, fell in a hail of rifle fire. `Fred' - Fred Cripps, brother of Sir Stafford, the future Chancellor of the Exchequer - survived for another 60 years. He was one of the lucky few: 21 of the 28 officers and all Longford's staff were killed. So heavy was the fire that bullet met bullet in mid-air - several of the squashed crosses of lead that were formed by these collisions are now in the Gallipoli museum.

Anzac Day, 25 April, marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, when 1,500 Australians landed on the Turkish coast 200 miles south of Istanbul. These were the first of some 500,000 men who poured on to the Gallipoli peninsula over the next four months as part of Winston Churchill's ill-fated scheme to spring the deadlock of the Western Front with a push into Europe from the east. Of these men, 250,000 were wounded or killed.

This year, for the first time, there will be no British Gallipoli veterans to witness the passing of Anzac Day. The last British survivor, Darcy Jones, a member of Longford's brigade, died in January at the age of 103. Across the world, the generation that fought in the first world war is disappearing. The last French veteran of Gallipoli died in December. Of the three surviving Australian Anzacs commemorated earlier this year by the issue of stamps bearing their portraits, two are left; one died in January, aged 105.

While the last soldiers may be dying, the memory of Gallipoli in Australasia remains strong: Anzac Day is a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand. The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, will be at Gallipoli for the 85th anniversary, attending the dawn service at Anzac Cove, where a new memorial to the Australian dead will be inaugurated. Although 27 church services will take place in Britain on the day, the response of the British government has not been exemplary. Only recently have any plans been made for an official British presence at Gallipoli: the British government and the national assemblies of Scotland and Wales will be represented by John Spellar, minister for the armed forces.

After Longford's death, it was not possible to collect his body; it was lying too close to the Turkish guns. The survivors retreated and the corpses remained where they fell for three years, until the Armistice.

`My father had had his coat of arms tattooed on his chest in blue,' recalls Lady Violet Powell, Longford's youngest surviving daughter and wife of the novelist, the late Anthony Powell. `Because he knew how difficult it would be to tell the bodies apart.'

The family crest, an eagle displayed gales coming out of a mural crown or, and the accompanying motto - `Gloria Virtutis Umbra' - punctured on to Longford's chest, were not spotted by the men of the Allied War Graves Commission when they arrived in 1918 to bury the dead. The battlefields which had been craters and mud and dust were now covered with camel thorn, wild thyme, saltbush and myrtle, and it was difficult to find the bodies. All that remained of those that were found were bones. Of the 3,000 tombstones in the cemetery where Longford lies, 2,400 of them, including Longford's, are topped with the words, `Believed to be buried in this cemetery'.

For a year after his death, he was listed as missing in action. His wife persisted in thinking that he might have been taken prisoner. `She once called me to her room to write a letter to him because she had an idea that a child's letter might get through,' says Lady Mary Clive, Longford's other surviving daughter. …

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