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The Diary of a Boy Soldier killed at Gallipoli

September 7th, 2015

When war broke out in 1914 thousands of men flocked to the rallying call of Lord Kitchener to join the Army, in what would become known as the ‘Pals’ battalions. It is a common misconception that young boys always routinely escaped the scrutiny of the recruiting sergeant. However, thousands of underage recruits did join the Army, and one of these was 17 year old William Atkinson McKinlay of Kershaw Street in Glossop. William was the eldest of a family of six children being brought up by their mother alone after their father had died before the war. He was a previous student at the Glossop Secondary School and when war broke out was working in the offices at the Dover Paper Mills, being described as having a bright and pleasant nature. He was connected with the Littlemoor Congregational Church and Sunday School.

William joined the Lancashire Fusiliers in early September 1914 but was quickly transferred into the 6th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Less than a year later, exactly 100 years ago last weekend, at the tender age of 18, William was killed in action at Gallipoli. For many of the fallen in the wars there is little nowadays to tell us about the nature of the man, with those who personally remembered him now having died themselves. However, in William’s case when he was killed his personal effects were returned to his mother, including his diary that he had kept throughout his military service right up to the day before he went into action, presumably having been left behind as he went into action. This diary is now the treasured possession of his niece, Norma Higginbottom, who lives in the same house that William left over 100 years ago after his only home leave. It gives a personal connection to a brave boy she never knew but whose memory she cherishes. Norma’s brother, William, is also named after the Uncle he never knew.

I was privileged to be able to transcribe William’s diary for Norma and was fascinated by the activities that William recorded in his diary during his transition from civilian office worker to soldier, and his well-educated nature shines through in his writing. He was initially sent to Dublin for training before moving to Basingstoke. William recorded that on May 28th 1915 his battalion was inspected by the king himself and on June 1st by Lord Kitchener. Marches of greater than 10 miles appear to have been routine with frequent camping outside.

In April 1915 the Allied forces invaded the Gallipoli peninsula in an attempt to knock Germany’s ally, Turkey, out of the war. The Gallipoli campaign has become famous for the heroic efforts of the Australian and New Zealand forces, the ANZACs, but Britain and France played a major role too. The battle did not go well for the Allies and more troops were sent out to open up another invasion beach in August. On June 12th William’s battalion boarded the transport ship N.M.T ‘Andania’, sailing for Gallipoli the day after. The journey lasted over three weeks and William noted passing Gibraltar, stopping also at Malta and Alexandria. On 7th August the battalion was landed at Suvla Bay, further north than the existing battlefield, as part of the attempt to break the deadlock. William got ashore safely but noted that the enemy was ‘not above a mile from shore’, and that Gallipoli was very hilly, rising ‘to 300 yards about 500 yards from the beach’. On 8th August William documented ‘we advance inland about 1.5 miles’. This was his last diary entry.

On 9th August they attacked again, losing 17 men killed and over 230 men missing.  One of the missing was William. The Gallipoli campaign ultimately failed to achieve its objective and in early January 1916 the last soldiers were evacuated. William’s mother received notification that he was missing but it took a full agonising year before he was officially presumed dead and all hope was lost.

William is now commemorated on a special memorial at Hill 10 Cemetery in Turkey, being known to be buried in the cemetery but in an unidentified grave. He is also named on the Glossop Cenotaph, and the old Littlemoor Church memorial (the building now houses the Bodycheck Gym). However, the family’s own memory of William remains strong with treasured items including William’s photo, memorial plaque and his soldier’s story written in his own words.

Sources: William Atkinson McKinlay’s diary, Glossop Chronicle, 1 September 1916 and British Regiments at Gallipoli by Ray Westlake

Article published in the Glossop Chronicle, September 3rd 2015