Sydney Loch is an undeservedly forgotten Australian author. A Wikipedia search redirects to his slightly more famous wife Joice NanKivell Loch. She was also an author but is mostly forgotten too despite being Australia’s most decorated woman.
NanKivell Loch and her husband helped 15,000 Greeks escape Turkish persecution in the anarchic days of the 1920s. They were in Greece volunteering with Quaker Famine Relief in a war where both sides indulged in ethnic cleansing. It was not Sydney Loch’s first encounter of the Turks as an enemy; he served at Gallipoli as a runner for the Australian army before falling seriously ill. His remarkable tale of life at the front made his name though no-one knew it at the time.
Loch was an Englishman who left his country because of unrequited love. The woman he loved was five years older than him and lived at his home in London. He was shocked when he found out she was having an affair with his father. He came to Australia and became a grazier in Gippsland. He signed up in 1914 and after months of training in Egypt he landed in Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. He survived four months before being wracked by typhoid fever which gave him polyneuritis. He almost died in hospital in Alexandria and was eventually shipped home to Melbourne.
It was during his long convalescence he wrote his campaign memoir published as the “The Straits Impregnable”. Loch wrote about the shortage of shells and the poor food. Death was matter-of-fact, life in the trenches was boring, and moving between them was dangerous. No-one cared about the war.
Loch pulled no punches with his grim description of life and death on the front. Australian war censorship was among the strictest in the world, but remarkably Loch’s book stayed intact despite being a no-holds barred account of the war. The credit for publication goes to publisher Harry Champion of Collins St, Melbourne. Champion saw the manuscript as an important counteraction from the jingoism of war promoters to show the true horror of the battlefield.
As a memoir, Loch’s book was required to be submitted to military censors, a requirement laid down by the 1915 wartime Rules for Censors. A factual account could also run foul of the War Precautions Act which forbade material likely to discourage enlistment, a hot topic as Prime Minister Billy Hughes considered conscription. Champion’s solution was to publish the book as a fictional novel. The author’s name was changed to Sydney de Loghe while the book’s main character was changed to “Lake”. Other key actors were also thinly disguised. Brigadier-General Walker became General Runner, Colonel Johnston became Jackson, Adjutant Miles became Yards and war correspondent Captain Charles Bean became Captain Carrot.
The subterfuge was necessary because Gallipoli was a fiasco. For months General Hamilton hid the poor progress and extent of the casualties from the press. When English journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Australian Keith Murdoch got involved, Hamilton’s dirty secret got out. Murdoch carried Ashmead-Bartlett’s letter (which he re-wrote from memory after it was confiscated) to cabinet ministers in London and Hamilton was recalled in October. The campaign was soon called off and its most successful operation was its flawless withdrawal in December. By then there was half a million dead, roughly equal in number between Allied and Turkish forces.
Loch’s book stunned Australia when it came out in June the following year. While the Anzac legend had already started by 1916, Australians had no idea what happened in the Turkish campaign. The Straits Impregnable was critically acclaimed, among others by Melbourne reviewer Joice NanKivell who asked to meet the author. The book sold out in a couple of months and Champion wet his lips as he considered a second edition. It was here he made his major blunder.
Champion deliberately pointed out the events of the book were real, for political reasons. Hughes had called for a referendum on conscription in October 1916. Universal military training for Australian men aged 18 to 60 had been compulsory since 1911. The referendum, if carried, would have extended this requirement to service overseas. It was narrowly defeated after a bitter campaign, as was another in 1917. But The Straits Impregnable was a casualty.
Champion added a preliminary note on the first page of the second edition where no one could miss it. It read “This book written in Australia, Egypt and Gallipoli, is true”. Victoria’s military censor Major LF Armstrong was furious and demanded the book be withdrawn from sale. He also threatened Champion’s publishing house with legal action for breaching the War Precautions Act.
Champion didn’t give in straight away. He hired lawyer and friend Maurice Blackburn to negotiate with the censor’s office. Blackburn achieved a compromise; the book would be withdrawn but allowed to be published at a later date, if Loch writing as de Loghe would pen a series of pro-war articles and promote enlistment. Loch was in anguish over losing revenue from the book but agreed to the compromise. The book was withdrawn and Loch worked on the pro-war articles. It over 12 months for Loch to summon the energy to write them and they were eventually published as a pamphlet called One Crowded Hour, A Call to Arms shortly before the war ended in 1918. It contains lines Loch must have hated writing: “You are mad, you men who will not go. There is no man in those armies who is not living at the top of his life.”
If this had dubious literary merit, there was no doubting the calibre of The Impregnable Straits. Miles Franklin, a friend of Champion’s wife, saw it as an insight into the mindset of Australian soldiers and why they accepted the senselessness of Gallipoli without much complaint. She sold the British rights to Sir John Murray’s publishing house and they were published in 1917 with the provocative note included. Despite the parlous state of the war British censors did not take exception. Murray established a life-long friendship with Loch and NanKivell Loch and published their later adventures in Ireland, Russia and Quaker refugee camps in Greece.
In 1927, two successful books emerged critical of the war, Rupert Graves “Goodbye to all That” and Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Murray tried to cash in with another edition of Loch’s book (still under the name of de Loghe). Murray wanted Loch to include a chapter on his adventures in the Russian-Polish and Greek-Turkish wars but he never got around to it. The project was eventually shelved by World War II.
In that war Loch and his wife rescued a thousand Jews in Bucharest and led Polish refugees to Cyprus and Palestine. They returned to Greece after the war and Loch died in 1954. Nankivell Loch died in 1982, aged 95. In 2006 a museum opened in their honour in Greece and Loch’s book was rediscovered in Australia a year later. Susanna and Jake de Vries included the book with a biography of Loch under the title To Hell and Back. After 91 years. the banned account of Gallipoli by Sydney Loch was finally out in the open in its home country.