Ali Pasha, the war hero, lived a life of quiet anonymity for 50 years. But in 1968, he was discovered and in 1986, his fame grew even more widespread. The headline read, “A Great War Survivor of Shot and Shell.”
Who is Ali Pasha, you may be wondering. Well, to learn Ali’s story, we must first meet Henry.
Henry Friston was a dreamer. A dreamer with a love for maps and far-off places. He was always in trouble at school for staring at the world map hung on the classroom wall instead of paying attention during lessons. At age 13, he left school to join his father working as a gardener.
Henry spent one year working in the country gardens, enjoying the fresh air, and still dreaming of far-off places. Then on his fourteenth birthday, he was offered a job as a deckhand on a steam drifter, The Girl Ena. It was hard work but he loved the fresh, salty air and continued to dream of the exotic lands from the classroom map.
In 1913, after five years aboard The Girl Ena, Henry joined the British Royal Navy. After training at the HMS Pembroke base, he was assigned to the battleship HMS Implacable. On August 4, 1914, the sailors receive word that war with Germany had begun. Instantly, Henry is dreaming again… where are they headed? Will he finally see one of the distant places from his childhood map?
HMS Implacable spent several months shelling Germans in Belgium before they were called to Gallipoli.
The original plan for the battle at Gallipoli was to use small boats to land Allied troops who would then evict the Turks in order to open up the Dardanelles Channel. Unfortunately the Turkish troops were solidly entrenched and the Allied forces suffered great losses. Reading about this beach landing assault called to mind the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and the D-Day landing at Normandy. Different war, different beach. But same heart-breaking, horrifying experience.
When a stalemate had been reached, Henry and his shipmates were sent ashore as part of the search-and-rescue parties tending to the fallen soldiers. Several ghastly days were spent onshore, transporting the wounded to the beach for removal to a hospital ship. It was during this time that Henry discovered a ten-inch tortoise on the beach. He decided to smuggle him onboard the ship and named him Ali Pasha, after the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
Somehow Henry managed to keep Ali’s stowaway status a secret and the two of them sailed to many other foreign places such as Taranto (in Italy), Malta, and Port Said in the Suez Canal aboard HMS Implacable. After a year, the ship finally headed back home to England.
Upon his return to England, Henry left Ali Pasha with his mother then headed back to sea, serving the remainder of World War I aboard HMS Repulse. After the war Henry returned home to work as a driver and conductor of the Lowestoft trams and buses. He married, had a family, and did not travel again after the war.
Henry and Ali Pasha enjoy a quiet life until 1968 when, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the end of WWI, a News of the World article about unusual war souvenirs introduced Ali to the rest of the world. This began Ali Pasha’s status as a local celebrity. When Henry Friston died in 1977, Ali went to live with Henry’s son, Don.
In 1986, The Times did a major feature about Ali Pasha which led to his television debut on BBC’s Blue Peter show and several other media appearances. Ali was now an international sensation!
Henry Friston never returned to the sea after the war but as a result of the renewed interest in his story in 1986, Ali Pasha was invited to visit HMS Brave, which he did.
Unfortunately Ali’s resurgence in popularity was short-lived as the tortoise died in September 1987.
What drew me to this book…
As an animal lover and a veteran, I am drawn to stories combining the two. The cover of The Tortoise and the Soldier immediately caught my attention. There are many stories about dogs in the military for example, but I’ve never seen one about a tortoise! The watercolor illustrations help to bring the story to life even more.
Ultimately the story is about more than just the tortoise. Drawing on the diary kept by Henry Friston of his time in the war, we are able to experience the war through the eyes of a young man from the British countryside. He dreamed of traveling the world but couldn’t possibly have imagined the horrors of war that he would find out there. The camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the importance of having a close friend to help you through rough times are evident to the reader.
The framework of the story supports this coming-of-age theme as well. In the book, an older Henry is telling the young reporter about his experiences as a young man. The reporter is about the same age as Henry had been during the war and this really helps to bring that young innocence to the story.
I knew right away that I wanted to know more about this story and I wanted to write about it here. What I soon discovered, though, is that there is very little information available online. That makes this book even more of a treasure. If Michael Foreman hadn’t been inspired to write this book, the story of Henry and Ali Pasha may have died with them.
Based on true events, The Tortoise and the Soldier is an excellent book about war, courage, and friendship. I have given you the basic history of Henry and Ali here, but you really need to read the book to get the full experience.
More about the author
Michael Foreman is an artist from Lowestoft who, as a boy, met Henry Friston. Henry invited Michael to meet his son, Don, who also liked to draw. While Michael was visiting the Friston home, Don introduced Michael to Ali Pasha. Many years later, Michael wrote and illustrated The Tortoise and the Soldier, saving it from obsolescence and introducing the story to a new generation.
Foreman’s words and illustrations bring the story of Henry and Ali Pasha to life. As Foreman said in a British Library article, when he paints he is “telling a story by capturing the essence of the situation, giving it some meaning.” Michael Foreman is a prolific and accomplished artist who has illustrated books by Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Roald Dahl, and Rudyard Kipling. He was twice awarded the Kate Greenaway Award for distinguished illustration in books for children. He has also designed Christmas stamps for the Post Office, and he regularly contributes illustrations to American and European magazines.
Sharing is Caring
Don’t let this story die… share it with all your friends and fellow animal lovers!
If you’d like to read more about Ali Pasha, check out these websites below.
Full pictures and summary of the book by the author (if you can’t get a copy of the book – definitely look at these)
One of very few books that mentions Ali and Henry’s story- Audience with an Elephant