At the beginning of 1915, the French and British Governments decide to organize a common expedition against Turkey whose ports are open only to the German warships. The aim of this enterprise is to force through the Dardanelles Strait and take control of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The two Admiralties begin by sending a fleet which comes up against an altogether surprising Turkish defence. A French battleship, two English battleships and diverse cruisers and destroyers are sunk. It is then decided to undertake a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula.
In March, a French Expeditionary Corps embarks at Marseille alongside a British Army.
After many mishaps, these troops land on the Southern part of the peninsula, on 25 April. They would meet with violent resistance there. To the point that, three months later, despite furious combats led by General Gouraud, they had succeeded in penetrating only six kilometres towards the interior.
The Etats-Majors then decide to create a second Front by attacking the peninsula from the North-East. On 6 August, sixty thousand men land at Suvla. They too would come up against a solid Turkish Army.
After some terrible clashes at the foot of Mount Scimitar, the English head South to operate their junction with the Australians who have landed at Gafa Tepe.
It is in the course of one of these marches that one of the most extraordinary events of the whole war takes place.
This occurs on 21 August, in the morning.
On this day, the 5th Norfolk Regiment, or rather what is left of it, that is to say, around four hundred men, receives the order to reinforce a Battalion of Australians and New Zealanders who are having trouble taking a certain Ridge 60, one of the key points in the region.
The 5th Norfolk Regiment therefore starts out. From the summit of a neighbouring hill, some New Zealand soldiers see it marching on a fairly steep slope, then entering a dip and climbing up a dried-up waterway.
The weather is splendid. However, the New Zealanders notice an anomaly in the scene. While the sky is clear, six or seven enormous clouds have been stationary since morning above Ridge 60. Clouds which a South wind of 6 or 7 kilometres an hour does not move from their position nor change their shape.
Further, another cloud comparable to a layer of very dense fog, which could be 250 metres long and 50 metres thick, seems to be clinging to the ground…
The New Zealanders consider this phenomenon with surprise. One of them, a Sapper named Reichart, belonging to the 3rd Section of the 1st Company of Engineers, blurts out:
“They’re strange, those clouds that aren’t moving! I’ve been watching them since this morning, they look solid!”…
One of his mates says to him:
“Look at the one on the ground. It’s reflecting the sunlight.”
Meanwhile, the 5th Norfolk Regiment continues its climb amongst the stones of the dried-up waterway. The temperature is high in Turkey, in August, and the English soldiers are perspiring.
After two hours of a difficult march, they finally arrive on a mound. There, they regroup and march in the direction of Ridge 60 which is partly covered by the strange layer of fog.
From the top of their hill, the New Zealanders observe the English. Sapper Reichart says to his companion:
“Look, the Pommies are getting to the cloud. We’ll see if they’re game enough to go in.”
The other one says:
“Why wouldn’t they be? It’s not poisonous gas…”
“Maybe not; but I don’t know why, that fog doesn’t look right!”
They soon see the 5th Norfolk Regiment reach the edge of the fog and plunge into it without hesitation. Reichart says:
“It’s so thick that you can’t see anyone in it.”
In ranks of eight, the English Regiment is still penetrating the cloud.
When the last man has disappeared, the New Zealanders still watch the layer of fog. Sapper Reichart says:
“I wonder if they’re all right.”
The other smiles:
“It won’t be long before we find out…”
And they wait.
After five minutes, as no-one is reappearing, Reichart starts to worry:
“What can they be doing in there?”
Then he immediately cries out:
The strange cloud, inside which is the 5th Norfolk Regiment, has lifted from the ground and soon rises, not like ordinary layers of fog which disintegrate in the air, but conserving its shape. Reichart hurls:
“But where are the Poms?”
On the ground, there is not one man, no weapon, nothing! The mound is absolutely empty.
The twenty-two men of the 1st New Zealand Company are rooted to the spot. While they are considering the place where four hundred English soldiers have just disappeared into thin air, the layer of fog continues to rise towards the clouds above it. When it reaches them, they all slowly move North and disappear into the sky.
No trace of the 5th Norfolk Regiment would ever be found again.
Years pass by. And in 1918, after the capitulation of Turkey, England demands that the men of this Regiment, “Missing in Action”, be returned to her.
The Turks search for them and reply that they have never heard of the 5th Norfolk Regiment. The English insist, furnish dates, precisions on the places, as well as the testimonies of the New Zealanders. The Turkish Etat-Major again hunts through its archives. Only to reply that no prisoners had been taken on 21 August 1915…
This story is authentic. It has been reported by numerous English magazines, by Returned Soldiers’ newspapers which have published the New Zealanders’ testimonies – notably that of Sapper Reichart – and it has been the subject of enquiries, searches, verifications, from both the British and Turkish authorities. No-one has ever been able to give an explanation…
At the epoch, people talked, not only of poisonous gas, but also of “dissolving” gas, invented by the Germans. But this idea was not retained. There was also talk of a natural phenomenon, a crater which might have suddenly opened under the feet of the soldiers of the 5th Norfolk Regiment, and which could have closed up again after swallowing the Regiment… This explanation did not seem very serious, either… Finally, this disappearance was classed in the big dossier of the “enigmas” of History.
To be continued.