As a prisoner of war, Sergeant Maurice Delpratt berated himself for “bad soldiering” which he blamed for his capture by the Turks at Gallipoli.
Targeted by both enemy and friendly fire as he searched the battlefield for missing men, Maurice had jumped into the nearest trench. It might have been the perfect place to take cover – if it had not already been occupied by Turkish soldiers.
That awful moment when Maurice found himself surrounded marked the beginning of three and a half years of privation as a prisoner of war, with other Australians including the crew of the sunken submarine, the AE2.
Maurice’s years of captivity began on June 28, 1915. Serving with the 5th Light Horse Regiment, which was fighting as infantry on the Gallipoli peninsula, he had been sent out to order the return of a squadron which had ventured too far forward on the battlefield.
Neither the officer nor Maurice knew the men had already returned to the lines and as Maurice searched for them he was perilously close to the enemy, coming under fire from Australian as well as Turkish troops.
In a letter to his family dated July 12, Maurice, by then a prisoner for the past fortnight, wrote of his “disgrace” at having been captured, blaming what he considered his own “bad soldiering” for his predicament.
“We were taking part in an attack on June 28 and received the order to retire,” he wrote.
“I went out to take the order to a squadron which had gone further out. The way out was pretty unhealthy and I crawled into an old machine gun pit to collect some wits and breath. I collected a frozen spine instead. Our own machine guns spotted me and insisted, with monotonous accuracy, that I was of the opposition.
“There was nothing for it but to make for an old half filled trench further out which had good overhead cover. The machine gunners’ mistake was excusable. I had been only 20 or 30 yards from the enemy and now I was in the middle of him. I was excused the ignominy of laying down my arms, they were promptly laid down for me, and here I am, a prisoner of war having failed in my mission and no longer able to serve my country but in good health and looking forward to the day when the war ends and I can get home.
“With Australians it is considered a disgrace to be captured. It was bad soldiering on my part to get within the enemy line, but I know you will understand it is not lack of courage that makes a man do that.”
One of The Southport School’s first students, Maurice had stayed on as a teacher, becoming a housemaster for whom Delpratt House was named. Lacking formal training, he considered his greatest talent as a teacher his accuracy in throwing chalk at unruly students, according to his daughter, Jan Delpratt.
Maurice quit teaching and at 27 was working as a station overseer at Longreach when he enlisted on November 12, 1914.
He left Sydney on the HMAT Persic on December 21 and arrived in Egypt on February 2, having been promoted from Lance Corporal to Sergeant. His mother, Ada, had died at home at Tamborine while Maurice was en route to the Middle East.
One of the many letters Maurice wrote home to his father, Joseph, was reprinted in the Beaudesert Times on May 21, 1915, just days after he had left Egypt for Gallipoli.
In the letter, dated March 20, Maurice tells of the irony of having spent eight days in the field hospital suffering “German” measles.
“Just before the rash came out, I boasted of being one of the three sergeants in the regiment who had not been put off duty by the doctor,” he wrote.
“The spell from the long duty days has done one good and I feel really fit.”
Maurice also wrote of seeing “one of the plagues sent for Pharaoh’s benefit” – clouds of huge grasshoppers many times greater than anything he had ever seen in Queensland.
In sham fights and mock battles between brigades, the men and their horses trained hard – sometimes too hard.
“A good many officers are apt to regard sham fighting as the genuine thing and gallop horses too far in the heavy sand, with the result that there are always horses on the sick lines, with strained tendons,” Maurice wrote.
Amongst the training there had been time for the light horsemen to play tourist and, after travelling to Mena by car, Maurice and a friend, Sergeant Taylor, had ridden on donkeys to the pyramids.
“They are very wonderful, especially by moonlight, and all the time, somehow, I felt surprised that I should be there,” he wrote.
There had been another opportunity for sightseeing when Maurice and two other sergeants were allowed to take their own horses and tour the antiquities.
“First we explored one of Napoleon’s old forts and we wondered if his soldiers swallowed as much dust as we do,” he wrote.
“Then we paid a visit to where hundreds of native workmen were excavating an ancient city. The European in charge was very good natured and allowed us over the excavations. After a fill of pitchy darkness and things antique we rode home along the Nile. There was never anything so exactly like its pictures as the Nile. I wish my pen was sufficiently gifted to tell you of the many wonderful things one sees each day.”
Maurice’s long letter also tells how the day’s papers had “brought news of the naval disaster in the Dardanelles”.
“Of course they could hardly expect to force a passage without heavy losses, nevertheless it makes us more than ever anxious to be up and doing our whack,” he wrote.
Maurice finally left for Gallipoli as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on May 16. After being reported missing in action on June 28, he was listed on September 12 as being a prisoner of war in Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The statement on imprisonment in Maurice’s service record outlines what happened immediately after his capture and of the following years marked by sickness, starvation, a savage beating and having to help build a railway line in the Taurus Mountains.
Maurice’s watch and water bottle had been taken from him the afternoon he was taken prisoner and in his statement he said:
“I objected to giving up my watch and received a small bayonet wound inside the left elbow joint.”
He spent his first night as a prisoner in a dug-out forward of Quinn’s Post, named for another Southport School Old Boy, Hugh Quinn. One of Maurice’s contemporaries, he had been killed in action a month before Maurice was taken prisoner.
From the military prison at Constantinople which was “filthy and full of bugs” and there was no bedding, Maurice was transferred to the prison at Afio Kara Hissar. He was then sent to Angora with 38 other prisoners and, at the beginning of October 1915, they were marched to Kiangheri 100 miles (160 kilometres) to the north.
Three months later, the men were marched through the snow to Angora and then travelled by train to Belemacik, from where Maurice went on to Hudji-Kirron, on the southern slope of the Taurus Mountains.
Maurice recounted, in his statement on imprisonment, the appalling conditions in the camp in the summer of 1916.
“Nearly all the men in camp got malaria. Housing was very bad indeed, the hospital was filthy, the beds being full of bugs and bedding over-run with lice. Drugs were unobtainable, chiefly due to the fact that the Doctor and hospital staff sold everything. In three months, 12 men out of 70 on the Station died,” he stated.
While working on the Baghdad railway, which was to connect Constantinople to Berlin, Maurice was severely beaten by Memdouh Bey, who was inspecting the line.
“He struck me on the face and head with his hands and the butt of his revolver. The guards then flogged me across the buttock with a twisted bull-penis. The marks were visible on my face for 14 days. I was examined by Captain Jones, RAMC, Hants Regiment, and made a statement on oath which was signed by L/Seaman Holderness of late submarine AE2 and Private D Gaffney, Wellington Battalion. Unfortunately my effects were afterwards searched and with many other papers this statement was taken and retained by the Turkish Military Authorities,” he stated.
However, there were some moments of kindheartedness, such as Christmas 1917, which Maurice described in a letter home dated December 29.
“There was quite a lot of giving and receiving presents, which made the day more like a home Christmas than others we’ve spent here,” he wrote.
“The German sister at the hospital gave me a neck-tie and a basket of figs, oranges and biscuits. We have all had experience of her kindness and feel sure we should not have buried so many of our mates if she had taken over the hospital earlier.”
Shortly after the war ended, Maurice was repatriated, arriving back in Egypt on November 21. He was allowed to travel to England to visit relatives and arrived at Dover on the HT Caledonian on December 12.
However, he continued to suffer the effects of his captivity and was hospitalised with recurrent bouts of malaria in January and April, 1919.
Maurice sailed from England on the Friedrichsruh which left Devonport on July 9, 1919, also carrying Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Minister for the Navy, Sir Joseph Cook.
After arriving in Sydney on September 4, Maurice was discharged from the Army in Brisbane on November 16, five years after enlisting in the AIF.
Maurice returned to the family home, Tambourine House, now the Albert River Winery.
At the consecration of The Southport School’s St Albans memorial chapel in 1921, Maurice had read the roll of 52 of the school’s Old Boys, including Robert Alford, and Hugh Quinn, who lost their lives during the Great War.
On April 24, 1928, almost 10 years after the war had ended, Maurice returned to the chapel to marry Mary Davies. Next morning, he was at the ANZAC dawn service.
The Delpratts had three daughters, Barbara, born in 1929, Catherine born in 1930, and Jan, born in 1935.
Jan remembers her father as a “super dad”, a quietly spoken man who, in spite of the war and the Great Depression which followed, never lost his sense of humour and was never short of a joke.
Maurice had shared some of the more amusing moments of the war with his daughters, such as the story of how, early in their captivity, he and some fellow prisoners, who had concealed a small amount of money, had attempted to buy some milk. Speaking no Turkish, they had decided to improvise, with one man pretending to be a cow and mooing while another mimed milking him. The Turks simply thought the Australians had gone mad.
Maurice did learn the language of his captors, and as little girls his two older daughters had thought it great fun when he taught them to count in Turkish.
In 2013, Jan visited Turkey to walk in her father’s footsteps and even travelled on part of the railway he had helped build.
The John Oxley Library now holds some 200 letters and postcards written by Maurice to his family and carefully preserved by his older sister, Nell White.