William Surgenor enlisted a week after the First World War broke out. He was a private in the 11th (Taranaki) Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion. His battalion was heavily involved in the Sari Bair offensive during the Gallipoli campaign, seizing the heights of Chunuk Bair in the early hours of 8 August 1915. Surgenor was involved in his battalion’s occupation of an empty Ottoman trench. However, this forward trench was shallow and Surgenor and his comrades soon got into difficulties when the enemy attempted to retake the trench. This was some of the campaign’s fiercest fighting, as one of the Wellington Battalion soldiers, Private Reginald Davie, recalled.
Owing to the narrowness and shallowness of the front trench, we were all nearly exposed from the waist up to the rifle fire of the Turks. At such short range and being outnumbered there were soon very few of our men left firing.
The New Zealanders were completely isolated from the Allied line and the trenches began to fill with the dead and wounded. The majority of the 297 men of the Wellington Battalion killed that day died in that forward trench. It soon became clear that the New Zealanders could not hold the trench, and a few of the survivors who were not wounded retreated back over the crest of the hill to the support trenches. Some, including Surgenor and Davie, opted to remain in the forward trench. Within about half an hour, only Surgenor and Davie were left firing in their section of the trench. Davie described the scene:
Private Surgenor was hit in the head somewhere, but kept on firing with his face streaming with blood, until he got another hit in the head, which dazed him for a time and knocked him back. This time I thought he was killed but he partly came to soon after and loaded rifles for me to fire. At that time I was using three rifles and each was burning hot.
Private Davie, reportedly the last man standing, was also eventually shot and, soon after, Ottoman troops entered the trench and took them prisoner. Davie and Surgenor were two of the 20 wounded New Zealanders to be taken prisoner during the battle for Chunuk Bair. Surgenor recalled his surrender.
Every man in the trench I was in was killed or wounded, including myself. I was hit in the mouth and leg. The Turks got into the trench and bayonetted or clubbed every man wounded except for myself and Davie. They eventually bayonetted Davie in the arm but did not kill him. They took my surrender.
Surgenor spent over three years as a prisoner of war, first in Constantinople and then in a small village near Ankara.
Just a few lines to let you know I am still alive, and nearly well. I was hit in two places, one on the cheek, and the other right through the ear and down the scalp. Both are quite better now, so I hope to be out of here soon, and be perhaps doing some work.
Surgenor was released in December 1918, and returned to New Zealand. Despite the suffering he endured during the First World War, when the Second World War broke out, Surgenor re-enlisted. He died in 1970.