Remembering Leonard Turner

In November 2018, Ian Macgregor Morris visited the grave of Leonard Turner, in Alexandria, Egypt, to lay a wreath on his grave to mark the 100th anniversary of World War One. Here is a piece on his experience.

The bustling heat of Alexandria, Egypt, is as far a cry from St James Park as one can imagine.

But here lies one of City’s furthest flung Grecians. Len Turner played eight times for City, scoring three times; but he remained an amateur, working at an insurance office in Exeter before war intervened. His athletic background ensured he was selected as a physical instructor, reaching the rank of acting-sergeant, although his headstone reads Private.

There is a quiet poetry in the fact that a Grecian lies here, in what was once the most Greek of cities. In the early twentieth-century Alexandria appeared a veritable cosmopolitan paradise, home to thousands of well-heeled Europeans, who much preferred the high life to the shady past they had often left behind.

It was also a centre of British colonial power, and a key staging post in the war against the Turkish empire, then an ally of Germany. Turner was one of thousands of troops dispatched to reinforce the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1917. But he never made it.

After celebrating Christmas on the island of Malta, the troopship HMT Aragon was approaching Alexandria when it was torpedoed by a German submarine; soon after the destroyer HMS Attack, crowded with men rescued from the sinking troopship, was hit by a second torpedo. Survivors reported that the men standing on the deck of the sinking ship sang as they awaited a rescue that never came. Over 600 died, drowned, consumed by fire or smoke.

Our visit to Alexandria provided the opportunity to remember this fallen Grecian on the centenary of the armistice. The immaculate cemetery at Hadra provides a welcome contrast to the intensity of the city beyond its walls. Few come to remember the fallen here anymore – the visitor’s book suggests only a handful each year.

And I could not help but wonder if many, indeed if any, had come here to honour Len Turner over the last century. But the head gardener, Mohamed Ali, was eager to help, recording our visit and posting it online. For some reason, I had forgotten to bring any poppies to Egypt.

But we managed to find a local flower-seller, who, after a lengthy description via a very patient interpreter, finally grasped what we were after. He fashioned a wreath, perhaps more suitably, from local flowers, which we laid on Len’s grave.

It is a cliché to say that great tragedy puts football into perspective, reminds us that it is only game. That it does not, in the grand scheme of things, really matter. But standing by Len Turner’s grave I felt the opposite. It was football that brought us here, the sense of community and camaraderie that surrounds a football club and that connects us across the years. It was this very sense of community that drove so many young men like Len Turner to sacrifice themselves half a world away. And it is through that sense of community that we remember them.

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