William Jesse Bendle was born in the fourth quarter of 1893 in Poole, Dorset. Census records are few for his family so we do not know when he came to Winchester. His parents were Ernest and Ruth and lived at 12 King Alfred Terrace. Possibly he attended St Thomas Higher School. He was considerably older than most starting work and so may have stayed longer at school. Colour Sergeant Leach, significant in the story of William Bendle was one of the teachers at his school. William gained work as a dental mechanic in 1911 aged 17 years.
His career did not satisfy all his instincts though and he enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment in Winchester in September 1914. He was first sent to Salisbury Plain to practise bomb throwing and machine gunning, one of 319 Other Ranks and 11 Officers in the 1/4th Hampshires. A verbal instruction was received from HQ to ‘move at once’ to Southsea. Shortly aftewards he was shipped out to Iraq and anchored at Ali-el-Ghabi entering a Theatre of War (Mesopotamia) when he was just 21 years of age on 25th October 1915. Sniping from the Turkish enemy would have been his first experience of active service. Travelling on barges, they arrived at Kut-el-Amara on 29th October and bivouacked on the quay. There they stayed until 31st December when they left Kut and reached Ali Ghabi. The next few months were spent marching, digging in, crossing and recrossing the River Euphrates as the Turks put them under heavy pressure. There was a great shortage of water – a deadly irony when surrounded by great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. Water had to be fetched by mule at night, or during the heat of the day when mirages might confuse a sniper.
On 21st January a battle was fought at Umm el Hanna. The History of the Territorial Force Association and War Record of Units records that ‘ The enemy ‘s position was a very strong one, having at least 3 lines of trenches, with the right resting on the Tigris and their left on the large marsh which runs for many miles towards the Persian Hills.’ A frontal attack was supposed to be preceded by a bombardment to dent their enemy defences. However, in the event, there was just 10 minutes of bombardment which came an hour late so that when the troops moved forward out of their trenches they came under heavy fire. Support troops apparently lost direction and were not effective in relieving the beleaguered forces.
The attack was unsuccessful with 231 men of Other Ranks dead, wounded or missing plus 12 Officers killed or wounded. The following months were spent retiring, digging in and suffering intermittent shelling and sniping attacks. The History reports that ‘About this time conditions were very bad indeed’ although the author does not say why.
In April 1916 Bendle is recorded as presumed taken prisoner by the Turks following the disastrous siege of Kut. Here in a loop of the Tigris River, flooding with winter rains, the decision was made to hold the town against fierce Turkish opposition. The decision was made by To allow the local population to stay rather than turn them out in the cold, wet conditions of winter. Such kindness put a severe strain on food supplies. First to be cut was the tea ration on January 20th. operations Four days later half rations of bread and meat were issued with just half an ounce of sugar a day. The bullocks that towed carts were first to be added to the meat ration, followed by the pack mules and horses with just the officers’ mounts being spared in the hope that they would be useful if relief operations attempted in March were successful. They were not and those animals were also eaten. All kinds of expedients were used to supplement the meagre rations. One officer became a good shot of starlings, others fished and some ate the grasses and plants of the marshes of the Tigris. In the end men were rationed to 4 ounces of four and a thin slice of horse or mule meat daily.
As the men and population weakened, so the sick-rate rose. Dysentery affected most and the death rate grew in the increaing heat. Communication with the outside world was kept up by radio, but attempts to relieve the siege and drop supplies by plane failed. The end of the siege came on 29th ‘ for which Turkish incompetence and carelessness as well as sheer brutality and cruelty were responsible’.
William Bendle was one such prisoner of war who died on May 5th 1916 just days after his capture apparently at Shanram one of the camps along their death march. Another report collated by Mrs Bowker in Winchester from information supplied by Colour Sergeant Leach records his death at Baghdad 5th May 1916, but it seems unlikley that he got that far. ( CHECK LEACH’s DIARY)
Colour Sergeant Leach, earned the respect of both his men and their captors. He was allowed to send news back to Britain of deaths. His careful records show the terrible truth of the inhuman conditions they endured. Of the men from Kut who included the 7th Rajput and 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire regiment, 50% died in the first year following captivity. Bendle was among them. All survivors were put to hard labour working on railway building for 12 hours a day with minimal nourishment. 50% of them died before the Armistice.
William’s father, had sent a letter to the Hampshire Regiment HQ asking for information about his son. Sadly no good news found its way back via Mrs Bowker, wife of the captured Colonel, and on ??? his parents were informed of his death. His death is commemorated on the Basra Memorial, Iraq.