Thursday, August 04, 2011

Book Review (#26 of 2011) A Prisoner in Turkey

A Prisoner in Turkey by John Still (1920). Reprinted by Project Gutenberg here.

This was a fascinating memoir of a World War I prisoner of war. Still was a British veteran who was one of the first British captured in Gallipoli, and spent over three years incarcerated in various places in Turkey. As far as POW memoirs go, I can only compare it with John McCain's Faith of Our Fathers (my review). There are many similarities of experience. Sometimes they had a decent prison commander, and sometimes a very cruel one. Still is not fond of Turks as a whole:
"There were good [T]urks; there are good wolves, for I have known one; but their rarity was above that of rubies."

A large number of Allied POWs died due to forced marches or labor or malnutrition and lack of medicine. Still was a commissioned officer who was spared some of the abuse of the enlisted men. It was fascinating to get a view of pre-Ataturk Turkey, the Ottoman Empire in its last throes and a society that, to Still, was unready to stand on its own economically.

At one point, Still is housed in Ankara (Angora) where his company was free to explore, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the old town:
"Even to the present day Angora is a great rendevous of caravans...we used to see long strings of laden camels approaching the town from far away...They looked as if they had walked straight out of the Old Testament, and many of the men with them looked much more like what the Patriarchs must have..."

There are some interesting observations on the Armenian "deportations." Still is often housed in quarters vacated by previous Armenian owners.

One thing I learned was that in those days, the government that captured you was supposed to be responsible for maintaining your pay at the rate it would pay officers of the same rank. But Turkish wages were so much lower than British wages that captured Turkish prisoners were compensated by the Crown at a lower wage than their British counterparts, even though it was higher than what the Turks could earn. Turkey reciprocated by paying their British captives the same wage in Turkish currency. But as the war progressed and Turkey inflated their currency, the pay of the prisoners decreased and they struggled to buy their necessities, as these were not provided by the Turkish government.

Upon his release at the end of the war, Still travels through Smyrna, a Greek part of western Turkey inhabited by many Americans. I found the American presence in Turkey interesting (the Ambassador provides for the prisoners in a few places) . Still concludes that Turkey will have a hard time after the war and might better be off being ruled and organized by a colonial power than standing on its own. He clearly did not forsee the rise of an Ataturk, nor the Turkish army's ability to reclaim portions given to Greece as part of the Armistice.

I'm struck by how British the memoir is. While much detail is given to the activities of prisoners-- writing books, plays, teaching each other languages and plenty of other subjects, making furniture, etc. -- not much is given to death and dying, and none to religion. Still avoids writing much detail about the really graphic subjects. He only mentions his wife and newborn daughter in passing, never mentions any emotions or longing for them. That really separates it from McCain's memoirs and other POW documentaries I've seen. Still and his international prisoners faced weeks below freezing, disease, starvation, and confusion but just muddle through and maintain their dignity.

I enjoyed the book, I'd say it's a must-read for a World War I buff.

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