There’s a naval cemetery in Clayhall Road, Gosport, just to the west of Portsmouth on England’s south coast. The cemetery is the final resting place for some 1500 British sailors and commemorates many more through various memorials. It opened in 1859 and was the official cemetery for the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar, which stood just up the road. For some time, the route between the hospital and the cemetery was known as ‘Dead Man’s Lane’ due to the high number of funeral processions from the former to the latter.
Segregated behind a neat railing-topped brick wall, in a corner of the cemetery by Stoke Lake, are the graves of 26 Turkish sailors. How did that happen? In life, these were crewmen from two ships of the Imperial Ottoman Navy, the Mirat-i-Zafer and the Sirag-i-Bahri, which were paying a courtesy visit to Britain in 1850 and were anchored just off Gosport. The ships stayed for several months and the men were welcomed ashore by the locals. Most of those buried far from their homes died of cholera, some perished as a result of accidents during training. I don’t know how many were victims of cholera, or whether they contracted the disease locally or elsewhere. Cholera, a bacterial infection caused by contaminated food or water (as a consequence of poor hygiene) was certainly a killer in Victorian Britain. According to the National Health Service, the last recorded case in England was in 1893 (sorry, it didn’t mention Wales or Scotland) and it only occurs now if contracted overseas.
So that’s why there’s a corner of a foreign field for these Turks. It’s a sad little story. The memorial inscription reads, in Turkish and English:
“They set sail for eternity met their creator and here they are laid to rest.”
I have read that there is an annual memorial service held at this Turkish Naval Cemetery in southern England, attended by the Turkish Ambassador, but have not been able to discover when it takes place. As a footnote, Gosport is sometimes referred to as ‘Turk Town’ – could this small cemetery be the reason?