Lancashire oak that marks where they fell

Authors Martin Purdy & Ian Dawson at the Gallipoli Oak
Authors Martin Purdy & Ian Dawson at the Gallipoli Oak

In March 1922 a 58-year-old local businessman called James Duckworth stepped from a cruise ship onto the shore of Gallipoli.

He was accompanied by a host of other pilgrims equally as desperate to visit this Mediterranean outpost as both he and his wife. He did not land empty handed but with a bucket of water containing the sapling of an English oak tree.

Duckworth and his wife had not made the trip to Gallipoli in the hope of finding the remains of their eldest son, 19-year-old Second Lt Eric Duckworth, but their plan was to plant the tree on or near the spot he was last seen. They decided to plant the tree in a nearby Imperial War Graves’ cemetery that contained the bodies of many of their boy’s comrades from the 1/6th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers – a Territorial Army unit made up of men from Todmorden, Rochdale and Middleton.

Having paid the Turkish gardeners “a considerable sum” to water the tree, the couple headed for home. The lone oak tree of Gallipoli continues to provide a striking visual anomaly in what is now a Turkish national park.

More surprising than the tree’s ongoing survival is that the sacrifices of the local men it commemorates, remains so little known. This is a situation we hope that our new book, The Gallipoli Oak, will change. For the Redoubt Commonwealth War Graves’ Cemetery is close to the scene of one of the most ferocious battles local men fought in – the battle of The Krithia Vineyard.

At the battle men like Company Sgt Major John Mason of Todmorden were to fall. A veteran of the South African War, Mason had been taken prisoner by the Boers and held in a concentration camp at Ladysmith. On returning home he had worked as a master printer and served as a Sunday School teacher for 25 years, volunteering for active service with the Territorials at the outbreak of the new world conflict, inspiring many fellow Todmorden residents to join the battalion.

Following his death, one of his officers wrote to Mason’s wife: “He was the finest man I have ever had under me. The men would have followed him to hell, and I would have gone with him anywhere. ”

Mason, a 47-year-old father of one, one of the oldest of the Todmorden volunteers, had reportedly been hit in the neck by shrapnel which had worked down his back and paralysed his legs.

Such was the high regard in which Mason was held, one of the Todmorden officers who had been fighting by his side, Lt Harold Smith, ordered that the sergeant’s body be taken and placed in a burial ground reserved for the commissioned officers.

Pte George Owen, of Lydgate, was one of the men tasked with the job of removing Mason’s body from the battlefield. Mason was among the few to receive a marked grave.

It is only one aspect of our tale. We have collected previously unpublished letters, diary extracts and photographs from many Todmorden, Rochdale and Middleton men involved. We have been able to follow them (mainly in their own words) from the start of the war in 1914, and the excitement among their local communities, through their adventures in Egypt and ultimately tragic role in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

As we approach the centenary of the Great War in 2014, our hope is that the human stories we have unearthed will go some way towards bringing the sacrifices of these men, our own forefathers, back into the spotlight.