Lost letters reveal prisoner of war experience as Chunuk Bair centenary looms

Soldiers, probably of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, prepare for the attack on Chunuk Bair.
James Cornelius Read/Alexander Turnbull Library

Soldiers, probably of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, prepare for the attack on Chunuk Bair.

Letters from a captive Kiwi soldier presumed dead in WWI have been found ahead of a centenary memorial service for the battle of Chunuk Bair.

Ancestry.com military historian Ben Mercer  who had been scouring internet archives, found letters from Private William Surgenor

Surgenor, from Taranaki, spent the entire war as a prisoner after he was captured alongside 20 other soldiers as Ottoman forces retook the hill.

WWI Prisoner of War, Private William Robert Surgenor who was presumed killed in the battle of Chunuk Bair.

WWI Prisoner of War, Private William Robert Surgenor who was presumed killed in the battle of Chunuk Bair.

On September 9, 1915, Surgenor's name appeared in the Evening Post's roll of honour, a list of soldiers missing and thought to have been killed at the Battle of Chunuk Bair, which had raged for four days in August 1915.

"This would have been devastating news for everyone in his family back home in New Zealand," Mercer said.

Just over a week after he appeared on the list of war dead and missing, Surgenor's name turned up on the army's casualty lists for the Wellington Infantry Battalion - marked down as a POW.

However, Mercer said it was unlikely the army would have passed this on to his family.

"It would have been a terrible thing and his mother definitely would have started grieving before she got the good news."

It turns out he had been in Turkish hospitals being treated for wounds inflicted during the battle. 

Surgenor's story shed light on the little-known prisoner of war experience - not always traumatic - of Allied prisoners during WWI, which includes letters he sent home from the camp.

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In one letter home, Surgenor wrote: "I am quite well. I am working with the pick and shovel. Our gang consists of 30 men and two cooks, and we get paid for the work. I like the camp here, but I have got no news from you yet.

"Am getting used to the life here now, and have more money than previously. We have the freedom of the village and the district for miles around. Spring is coming on. I live in a four roomed hut, and am fairly comfortable."

Surgenor wrote to his mother on November 5, 1915: "We are at Kingari Prison now, 80 miles from Angora. We marched here in four days and arrived in a very knocked up condition … Money is very scarce at present, though stuff is fairly cheap."


Chunuk Bair holds a poignant significance for the region, with nearly 400 of New Zealand's 880 deaths at the battle from Wellington regiments.

The battle was a high point in New Zealand's doomed Gallipoli campaign but a massive Turkish counter-attack recaptured the position just two days after the Wellington regiment had secured the summit.

In the pre-dawn darkness of August 8, 1915 the Wellington Battalion's commander Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone  and his men reached the summit and engaged in a desperate struggle to hold off the Turks.

As night fell again, the Otago Battalion and the Wellington Mounted Rifles arrived to reinforce the surviving 70 Wellington Battalion men who were still holding the line.

Malone had been killed by an Allied shell about 5pm and the New Zealanders were relieved by British battalions who over the next two days gave up the hard won position to a forceful counter-attack by the Turks.


Chunuk Bair 100th anniversary tributes begin on Saturday with a dawn service at Wellington's Cenotaph between 6.45am and 7.45am.

Wellingtonians could also attend the national commemoration on Saturday, held at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park from 4pm.

Historian Jock Vennell's book Man of Iron - the first book about battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel William Malone - is being launched on Friday night.

 - Stuff


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