Recalling Edward King: ‘The soldier who survived Suvla Bay’
Jonathan Smyth's latest Times Past column takes a look at Edward King who was born in Munterconnaught and fought in WW1...
The worst military disaster of the First World War, and dare I say, in history, was the failure of Winston Churchill’s intention to take the Turkish Dardanelles. Churchill was the first Lord of the Admiralty and, in August 1915, having failed to take the Dardanelles, a new offensive was launched under the command of General Ian Hamilton at Suvla Bay. The utter carnage that followed on the beaches, saw the sea turn red with blood and the death of 50,000 allied forces made up of British, French, New Zealand and Australian soldiers, among whose ranks were many Irishmen.
The surrounding hills were covered in scrub, from behind which the enemy was hidden, while their mountain guns on Lala Baba never ceased in the spew of bullets. Edward King was one such Irish soldier who took part at Gallipoli and, amidst the horror, he kept a diary and more amazingly, he survived to tell the tale, later published in a book titled ‘Haphazard'.
King, who won a Military Cross in Palestine, was born in Munterconnaught Rectory, Co Cavan, and was the son of an eminent Church of Ireland clergyman. A fascinating account of King’s war experience appears in the highly recommended publication ‘A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall’, by Neil Richardson.
Born Edward Joseph King, his parents were the Very Rev Albert Edward King and Mary Martha Susanna King (nee Hall). In his memoirs, Edward wrote about his Cavan boyhood, telling us: ‘I was born in August 1894 (at Munterconnaught Rectory)… a small white house on a knoll overlooking Lough Ramor near the southern border of the County Cavan.’
Edward had a sister named Marjory and a brother called Richard Francis. Their father served as rector of Munterconnaught from 1889 to 1899. The family left Munterconnaught in 1899 when Albert became rector of Kildallon, a post he held until 1931; also, from 1926 to 1932 he was Dean of Kilmore, while holding the position of Prebendary of Mulhuddart in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
Indeed, the Church was very much in the family; the children's grandfather Rev Joseph King had previously served as Rector in Munterconnaught and his brother was Rev Robert King (1815-1900), the eminent ‘Church Historian’ and Irish language scholar. Robert’s publication included an early history of the primacy of Armagh (1854); A Primer of the History of the Holy Catholic Church in Ireland, a three-volume work (1849-1855); and a re-edited version of the Book of Common Prayer in Irish.
Albert Edward, Joseph and Robert were sons of Sarah and Joseph King of Co Cork.
The King family had come to Ireland in the 1600s and Edward’s father considered himself to be an Irishman, having a pet hate of people pigeon-holing him as Anglo-Irish, as his son’s memoir recalled, ‘nothing annoyed him more than to hear Protestant families like ours referred to as West Britons or Anglo-Irish… Ireland has been our homeland for hundreds of years’, adding to this King wrote, ‘creed and politics do not affect nationality… does anyone suggest that Dean Swift, WB Yeates or George Bernard Shaw were not as Irish as James Joyce?’
Educated at King’s Hospital School, King gazed from his bedroom window at the soldiers in the nearby barracks, listening to music played by the band. After attending Trinity College Dublin, he enlisted in the First World War with the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and quickly advanced to ‘second-lieutenant’ and then to lieutenant in early 1915.
In July 1915, Edward took charge of a ‘small detachment’ on the Greek island of Lemnos and awaited the order to sail for Suvla Bay. The order came and they started the 60-mile journey to the hell that awaited at Suvla. King landed at Suvla Bay on August 12 where the explosive sound of war surrounded them as it echoed over the distant hills. Huge numbers of men were slaughtered or wounded in the merciless shelling and machine gunfire raining down from the Turks. Neil Richardson’s book notes that ‘if the wound did not kill you, a subsequent infection might'.
Evil and inhumane
King believed that the biggest weapon up the Turk's sleeve was not the guns and shelling they had, but the knowledge they had regarding a lack of water available to the Irishmen. The Turks had destroyed many of the wells in the area with explosives and quantities of poison. Richardson states the gruesome effects it had, saying: ‘Men were driven out of their minds with thirst, and although the Turks did render many wells unusable, others were soon made foul by the Irishmen themselves, although not on purpose’, adding that, ‘with the initial lack of designated latrines, men relieved themselves all along the ridges and up and down the slopes. As men wiped their arses with their shirts and sleeves and came down with dysentery in their hundreds, vital wells turned putrid.’
Not only were the ‘putrid wells’ a problem, but there were also the thick swarms of flies that got into everything including the food, to people’s noses and mouths.
In 1963, Edward King published his memoir on the daunting experiences he had in Suvla Bay. He wrote that, in one battle, only one officer of the 6th Royal Irish Fusiliers and a quarter of their soldiers survived. King lost numerous friends - one of them was Irvine Smyth, a Methodist Minister's son, whom King had met up with on the day of his own 21st birthday. But King's birthday took a horrifying turn when a Turkish 'mortar shell' landed in on the trench in which they sat, and on hitting Irvine, it lodged in his chest, killing him at 23 years of age.
King was promoted to Captain and, after Suvla, went on to serve in Salonika and then Egypt. Having helped take Jerusalem, this was followed by his bravery in capturing Kareina Peak, which earned him a Military Cross. Edward King died on November 13, 1971, and his ashes were ‘interred’ in North Devon, England.
‘A Coward if I Return, A Hero if I Fall’, by Neil Richardson, was published in 2010 by the O’Brien Press, Dublin.
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