Gilbert, Stephen John; Petty Officer; RN/RAN 8053

Stephen Gilbert’s story is one of the horror of war. He died as a prisoner of war at Belemedik in 1916.

Born at Broadwater, Sussex on 13 May 1878, Gilbert entered the RN at the age of 17. He trained as both a gunnery and torpedo operator and by 1910 had become a submariner expert in the electrical circuitry systems of torpedoes.

Gilbert kept a diary of his years on the AE2, which detailed his service in the Pacific, including the horror he and his crewmates felt after the loss of their sister ship the AE1 and all hands: ‘This came as a great shock to us as the only two boats in Australia, and leaving England together. After the loss AE2 did not go out on patrol duty, but stood by each day [in case needed] before the order came for us to proceed back to Sydney.’ Gilbert’s theory was that the AE1 had accidentally surfaced under the accompanying ship.

Gilbert’s diary as a prisoner of war records harsh conditions, agonising hunger, incessant vermin and hard, enforced work. The camps, he wrote, were ‘not fit to put pigs in’. After working with road-building gangs of Russian, French and English prisoners, he was sent to Çankiri, travelling by train, cattle truck and foot, the latter a cold forced march over four days on bread and water. From Çankiri, he was taken to Belemedik and forced to work on the construction of the railway. Conditions were extreme: cold and windswept with heavy snow in winter, and blistering heat in summer. The crowded camp was swept by a three-month period of malaria, typhoid fever and possibly cholera.

Gilbert’s wife Beatrice wrote in desperation to the navy in January 1916 to say that she had heard nothing from her husband since August: ‘Could not something be done … it is a great worry’. Some corrupt camp warders were confiscating mail and parcels which made life even more intolerable. Worse was to come. By August 1916, the camp had become a cesspool of disease. Hundreds of prisoners died, including Stephen Gilbert. He was buried in the Christian Cemetery, Belemedik until 1922, when his remains were moved by the Imperial War Graves Commission to Baghdad North Gate Cemetery. Gilbert’s diary was brought back to his widow in Australia by his returning shipmates.