John G. Bennett - Early Life, World War I, Marriage

Early Life, World War I, Marriage

Bennett's parents met in Florence, Italy although his mother was American. In his infancy, his family were moderately wealthy and travelled frequently in Europe. In 1912, his father, who was a noted traveller, adventurer and linguist, lost all of his money and his wife's in an investment that failed. Bennett himself would later display an extraordinary talent for languages, which enabled him to talk with many spiritual teachers in their native tongues, and to study Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian sacred texts in their original forms.

Bennett makes little reference to his childhood in his autobiography, 'Witness', but elsewhere he credits his mother with instilling in him the virtues of hard work and tolerance.

At school, he excelled in sports and captained the school rugby football team. He won a scholarship in mathematics from Oxford University, but never had the chance to take advantage of this. He continued to play rugby football for the army (against such opponents as the New Zealand national team), breaking his arm once and his collar bone twice.

In the First World War, at the age of nineteen, Bennett served as a subaltern in the Royal Engineers, with responsibility for signals and telegraphy.

In France in March 1918, he was blown off his motorcycle by an exploding shell. Taken to a military hospital, operated upon, and apparently in a coma for six days, Bennett had an out-of-body experience which convinced him that there is something in man which can exist independently of the body.

"It was perfectly clear to me that being dead is quite unlike being very ill or very weak or helpless. So far as I was concerned, there was no fear at all. And yet I have never been a brave man and was certainly still afraid of heavy gun fire. I was cognizant of my complete indifference toward my own body."

This set his life on a new course - he described the return to normal existence as the return to a body that was now in some sense a stranger.

In the closing months of World War 1, Bennett undertook an intensive course in Turkish language at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and was posted to Constantinople, where he held a sensitive position in Anglo-Turkish relations. His fluency made him the confidant of many high-ranking Turkish political figures, and helped him to develop his knowledge of Turkey and to gain insights into non-European ways of thinking. A notable piece of initiative earned drew the attention General Allenby, and a mention in C-in-C's dispatches, following which he was recruited to be the head of Military Intelligence "B" Division, with responsibility for the entire Middle Eastern region.

"All day long I was dealing with different races: English, French, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Russian, Arab, Jews and people so mixed up as to be no race at all. Each and every one was convinced of the superiority of his own people. How could everyone be right and all the rest wrong? It was nonsense."

Bennett's eighteen months tenure of this position were so eventful, that to this day he is still regarded as a major figure in the political life of Turkey in that period. He was possibly too successful, and began to make enemies among his own superiors, was recalled to London in January 1921 and resigned his commission with the rank of Captain and a pension for life.

His love of Turkey would remain with him for the rest of his life.

After the war, Bennett had married his first wife, Evelyn, with whom he had a daughter, Ann, born August 1920. Evelyn stayed in England, however, and Bennett's immersion in Turkish affairs and his relationship with Winifred Beaumont, an English woman living in Turkey, placed increasing strain on the marriage, and in 1924, Evelyn sued for divorce. Bennett later married Winifred, a woman twenty years his senior, and they remained together until her death, in 1958. (He would be married for a third time in 1958, to Elizabeth Mayall.)

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