THE MEN WHO DISAPPEARED
On 12 August 1915, during the notorious carnage of the Gallipoli campaign of World War One, a group of British soldiers seemingly vanished into thin air. Except that's not quite right, because the air wasn't thin. As one version of the legend goes, the men of the Sandringham Company walked into thick mist, and were abruptly swallowed up and lost to history. Ever since then, there has been controversy about what really happened to them - with theories ranging from the ugly to the outlandish.
WHO WERE THEY?
The group is known as the Sandringham Company because they were plucked from the royal estates of Sandringham. The company had been founded years before the war, at the personal behest of Edward VII, and included gamekeepers, gardeners, farmhands and household servants - all led by Frank Beck, a middle-aged man who was old enough to have avoided being thrust into the industrialised killing fields of the Great War. But Beck felt a sense of fatherly responsibility, saying: "I formed them. How could I leave them now? The lads will expect me to go with them. Besides, I promised their wives and children I would look after them". Beck would vanish with his beloved soldiers.
Sent into the inferno of Gallipoli, the men were originally simply reported as missing in action. It was assumed that, on that fateful day in August, they had been cut down by the relentless bullets of the enemy. But then came the testimony of British army bigwig Sir Ian Hamilton, who was one of the chiefs of the Gallipoli campaign.
"In the course of the fight," he wrote, "there happened a very mysterious thing." He went on to describe how the "fine company enlisted from the King's Sandringham estates" had "charged into a forest and were lost to sight and sound." In particular, his ominous choice of words ("Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them") turned the incident from another wartime catastrophe into an eerie mystery.
Hamilton's evocative account was one thing, but a survivor who was present at the scene disputed this story. "I did not see any wood into which the officers and men could have disappeared," said soldier Sidney Pooley. "I know absolutely nothing about how the officers and men disappeared. I heard no news about them charging into a wood until I came home."
Then, there was the research undertaken by the Reverend Pierrepoint Edwards, who investigated the grounds where the men vanished, and found a mass grave. He wrote, "The whole thing quite bears out the original theory that they did not go very far on, but got mopped up one by one, all except the ones who got into the farm." However, there are allegations that Edwards privately confided that the men had all been shot in the head - indicating that they'd been executed. There was also an account reported by a survivor, Arthur Webber, who said that he actually heard his fellow soldiers being ruthlessly rounded up and slaughtered by the Ottoman enemy.
WAS IT A MASSACRE?
Today, there are two main takes on what happened to the company. Some believe that the men had got ahead of themselves in the battle against the Turks, found themselves too far behind enemy lines and were simply overwhelmed and shot down in battle. The alternative view is far more painful to contemplate: that the men had been captured by the enemy and executed in cold blood. The evidence, made up of contradictory accounts and allegations of an official cover up to spare the feelings of relatives, makes it hard to come up with a definitive answer.
And then there's the most outlandish idea of all: that the men had been abducted by a UFO. This theory was seriously put forward in the 1960s by a New Zealand soldier called Frederick Reichardt, who - along with some other veterans - alleged he saw a "loaf-shaped cloud" descend on the area, and the men walk into it, before this "cloud very unobtrusively lifted off the ground and, like any fog or cloud would, rose slowly until it joined the other similar clouds". Experts pointed out that Reichardt had the wrong date and location in mind, but his outlandish account only helped to deepen the enduring mystery of the doomed Sandringham Company.