Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte W H Guilford
1/6th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment
William and Agnes (nee Hughes) Guilford moved to Weybridge during the 1890s. William was a coachman and the family lived at Newlands Stables, St. George’s Avenue. Their son, William Henry, was the second of their four surviving children; the other three were all daughters: Violet, Elsie and Amy. William was born in 1891 in Mersham, Kent, where he was baptised on 2 August of that year. His father died in 1903; by 1911 his mother earned a living as an upholstress and William, who had been a pupil of St. James’ School, had started his working life as a picture frame maker and fitter. He was a member of the local Rowing Club where he won several prizes. The family lived at Ivy Cottage, The Quadrant.
William had joined the East Surrey Territorials in 1905 and when war broke out nine years later he was called up. He was posted to the 1/6th Battalion of the East Surreys and they embarked Southampton for India on 29 October 1914, arriving at Bombay on 2 December. It is not clear how long William was in the sub-Continent as he volunteered for service in the Persian Gulf. Consequently, he was involved in the campaign in Mesopotamia, then a province of the Turkish Empire, now modern Iraq. On Turkey’s entry into the war in support of Germany and her allies (October 1914) Britain quickly opened a front in Mesopotamia to secure vital oil supplies around Basra. This was achieved with the capture of Basra in November 1914 soon followed by that of Qurna (at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates) in December.
So encouraged were the British by this progress and underestimating Turkish resistance they decided to take the capital, Baghdad and so they advanced. By 28 September 1915 Kut-el-Amara, on the banks of the Tigris had been taken. William was definitely involved in the bloody defeat at the Battle of Ctesiphon in November as a comrade recalled taking his leave of him there. The survivors of Ctesiphon retreated to Kut-el-Amara. William was one of those besieged there from 7 December 1915 to 29 April 1916: 147 days.
Kut was flat and vulnerable to Turkish fire so the 11,800 British and Indian troops had to dig in very quickly. Valiant efforts to lift the siege failed and conditions became ever more difficult. Winter rains and cold worsened their plight; they were reduced to eating horse and mule meat and by 29 April had no food left. There was no other option but to surrender. When the siege ended William’s suffering continued and increased. That he survived for the next nine months is remarkable. He and his comrades were marched out of Kut on 30 April to start the trek of over one hundred miles to Baghdad. They arrived on 15 May. Within the first week of the march nearly 300 died of dysentery and gastro-enteritis and there were up to another 800 casualties by the time they reached Baghdad. This was due to hunger, searing heat, moving through constant clouds of dust and being herded forward by mounted Arab troops fond of the use of whips and sticks to ‘flog forward the stragglers’. The men had been separated from their officers and medical care was virtually non-existent with the notable exception of a Turkish doctor – Doctor Alia – who did his best for them.
Any respite in Baghdad was all too brief. They were reviled as they marched through the streets for three to four hours but finally eleven British medical officers were allowed to attend them. Turkish medics did what they could and the American Consul, Mr Brissell, who would later die of cholera, made stalwart efforts on their behalf. A group of French nuns also provided help. Throughout June and July William and his comrades who were deemed ‘fit’ to move were taken out of Baghdad to face a march of over 500 miles across the Syrian desert in the heat of summer before being dispersed to camps in Turkey. The route was marked with dead and dying men; many in the final stages of dysentery and starvation. The dead lay unburied.
William was still among the survivors. His final destination was a camp at Angora (now Ankara) run by a harsh sergeant-major where the prisoners were put to work on railway construction. By the spring of 1917 there were 75 prisoners living in an insanitary house which nurtured outbreaks of typhus. William died of this disease on 13 February 1917. He may well have been an inhabitant of this dwelling. He was buried in the neighbourhood of Kurbaghali but his body was later reburied in Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery (XXI. Y. 28) His Commanding Officer wrote to William’s mother that in his death the Regiment had lost ‘….a real good soldier….’ and a friend and comrade recalled touchingly, ‘He was my best chum from the time of our landing in this country……As he was of my section, I can say a better and braver man never was in the field than he.
In November, 1918, the official British report on the Mesopotamian Campaign stated that 3,290 British and Indian men taken prisoner at Kut died in Turkish captivity and a further 2,222 were missing presumed dead. Owing to the sensitive political situation in Iraq (2015) the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is unable to maintain the War Cemetery so it is especially poignant that William is remembered in Weybridge. His mother continued to live in the town until her death in 1953, residing, at various times, in Dorchester Road, Palace Gardens and Monument Green. Her last contact with William had been three communications whilst he was a prisoner.
UK, De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1924, https://www.ancestry.co.uk/
First World War Centenary, 2014-2018, Imperial War Museum, Podcast 18: Mesopotamia, http://www.1914.org/podcasts/podcast-18-Mesopotamia/
Mesoptamia in the First World War, War Letters 1914-1918, Report on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Turkey by Lord Justice Younger’s committee, http://warletters.net/battles/Mesopotamia/