The battle area for the 54th Division at the 2nd Battle of Gaza
The start of the advance was hampered when the whole of the British line was peppered with shrapnel and machine gun fire and of the six tanks one was put out of action immediately and the others were actively fired upon causing casualties to the infantry who were following behind.
Tank Redoubt seen in the distance looking out towards where the 163rd Brigade and the Australian Camel Corps advanced on 19th April 1917
The 1/4th Norfolks provided an after action report as to what happened here and this states that their zero hour was on 19th April 1917 at 07:30, two hours after the initial assault, with A, B & C Companies forming up on the right of the 163rd Brigade and advancing towards Sheik Abbas Ridge. The tank that would support the advance in this area was a Mk 1 ‘Female’ tank under the command of 2nd Lt Frank Carr which held a crew of 7. By WWI standards this tank was old. The tank was called HMLS Nutty.
Private 3247 Joseph Emms of ‘B’ Coy from the 5th Norfolks described Nutty’s advance,
‘We suddenly heard a tremendous rattling noise coming from behind & keeping my head as low as possible I chanced a look behind & saw a tank coming at full speed not a hundred yards behind & firing all her guns which was a fine sight to see.’
The units moved forward with two lines in artillery formation with D Company following in support. The Turks saw the advance of HMLS Nutty and began to pour fire on the advancing troops of the 1/5th Norfolks and the Camel Brigade; reports state that the tanks advancing drew fire on them and the infantry in support. This fire was reported by the Camel Brigade, ‘to be the finest bit of shooting they had ever seen’.
HMLS Nutty prior to the battle
‘The 2nd Company had moved off promptly at 7.30 to cover the 2000 yards they would need to traverse before reaching the enemy trenches but first they had to align themselves with the 1/5th Norfolk but carrying the weight of 300 rounds of ammunition (Camel brigade SOP) and stores of a pick and shovel per three men and over the soft sand quickly exhausted the men (this was exceeding the load authorised in Divisional orders by General Hare of 150 rounds per man or the 250 rounds in the Imperial Mounted Division orders). The infantry with a shorter distance to travel kept up a strong pace forcing the cameleers to continue moving and not to advance by section rushes. The leading companies were deployed on a section front with three extended lines in each section, Lewis guns were placed to the right of the second line as the companies moved from artillery formation into extended order after moving a few hundred yards.’
Steven Becker historian for Camel Brigade at 2nd Gaza.
The 1/8th Hampshires now moved forward but lost heavily in the advance and only a few men managed to join the remainder of the Norfolks and Camel Brigade at around 08.30 am. Reinforcements from the Camel Brigade now plugged a gap in the line along a small sand ridge with the remains of the Norfolk’s and Hampshires. HMLS Nutty now reappeared and made for the redoubt.
‘When the leading men were about 1,200 yards from the redoubt, a British tank, “ The Nutty,” took up the lead on a track between the infantry and the Australians, and, going on surely and boldly, quickened the pace of the battalions that followed it. But no sooner did it appear than every enemy gun within range switched, as though automatically, on to it, and in a few minutes it was obscured by dozens of bursting shells. The troops on either side had swung instinctively into the wake of the tank, and so caught much of this fire. Machine-gun and rifle fire also became very active, and began to cause gaps in the already thin ranks of the attackers.’
From the Australian Official History of the Great War.
Captain A E G Campbell, DSO , MC who was part of the attacking ANZAC force now decided that he must make a dash and secure the fortification. Placing Lewis gunners on a small ridge he ordered the remnants of his two companies to fix bayonets and he along with the survivors of the 5th Norfolks and the 8th Hampshires stormed the Turkish lines under heavy fire and attacked them at bayonet point. HMLS Nutty was still in support.
‘Two enemy batteries of four guns each were now shooting point-blank at the tank at a range of only about 400 yards, but with miraculous luck the great vehicle rolled on, followed by the Camels and the British infantry. It was now apparently almost red-hot, and belched forth great volumes of smoke; but its heroic crew, with shells bursting all round them, and half-lost in a cloud of smoke and dust, drove it on through the wire entanglements, over the outer circle of trenches, until it reached the centre of the redoubt, the highest point over several square miles of country. There, hit several times in quick succession by the enemy gunners, it broke down and burst into flames.The gallant crew had nobly fulfilled their task. If the tank had drawn a terrific fire on the Australians and British infantry it had served them as a lead and an inspiration.’
From the Australian Official History of the Great War.
Behind the Mansura Ridge, near Sheik Abbas, just after the second Battle of Gaza. The men seen are from the 1/11 County of London Battalion.
The Norfolks suffered terrible casualties in this assault.
‘The trenches to be attacked were 2500 to 3000 yards from line held by 163rd Brigade. One tank proceeded in the advance to assist in operations. Heavy shell fire from enemy artillery commenced immediately on the battalion moving forward, which caused casualties.’
From the 1/5th Norfolks war diary.
As soon as the 1/4th Norfolks had topped Sheik Abbas Ridge they became sky-lined and the report states,
‘…the first line were met with high explosive, shrapnel and machine gun fire. The front line at once extended.’
The second line followed suit and both lines advanced 100 yards and both took cover. After conferring with their flank, they again moved forward and advanced to within 150 yards of the Turkish lines.
‘The left of the battalion was about 1000 yards to left of the point where a position was taken up. The line was now thinned out to about one man per ten yards.’
The 1/4th Norfolk’s line had been bolstered by ‘D’ Coy who took up positions to the right of the first line. It was reported that elements of both Norfolk battalions were in the Turkish redoubt. However, no further support was forthcoming and this meant that the remainder of the 1/5th Norfolks could not support their comrades and no further advance was made. They held tight and gave supporting fire. The 1/5th Norfolk’s war diary also confirms that elements of the advance got into the Turkish trenches and the redoubt. The gallant attack made by the Australians and the British had so unnerved the Turkish defenders that many of them, estimated to be around 500 in strength, now threw down their weapons and they fled to their next line which was some 600 yards away. Captain Campbell ordered his Lewis gunners into action and many of these men were cut down before they got to their lines.
The Australian Official History can be very unforgiving towards its English cousins but in this instance it had this to say,
‘The splendid fighting remnant of Englishmen and Australians then hung on to the infernal knoll for upwards of two hours. For a while they lined the trenches facing the Turks, and opened a futile fire against utterly hopeless odds.’
In this defence about twenty men from the 1/5th Norfolks remained under the command of Captain Arthur Cecil Blyth of ‘B’ Coy and they now defended the left flank of this meagre force. Captain Blyth had taken command of the Norfolks after their C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Sawley Grissell DSO had been killed in the advance.
This is supported by Private Emms who noted,
‘While I was in the trench my company officer Lieu Blith [Blyth] came in and by the amount of blood on his shorts I saw that he was hit rather badly in the lower part of his body, but he said nothing about it and only smiled when I ask him if it was very bad and said, “Good boys”.’
No further support, by whatever means, materialised and three hours later ammunition began to run low and the 1/4th Norfolks could not continue to pour supporting fire onto the Turkish trenches. This had brought the reverse to them and many men were lost to counter rifle and machine gun fire. No further advance could now be hoped for and other elements of the advance were seen to retire and an order, from an unknown source, was received to withdraw.
Private Emms described the withdrawal:
‘… our officer shouted out that we should either have to give in or make a run for it, so we decided to make a dash for it & only one officer & seven men managed to get away.’
It seems quite likely that Captain Campbell from the Camel Brigade gave this order,
‘One body of Turks, about a battalion strong, began to march in column of route towards the redoubt from the right; the gun-fire was still increasing, and the last of the English and Australians in the position were being shot down. Campbell, during the last stages of the approach and while he was in the redoubt, had sent back six runners with messages. So intense was the fire that four were killed and the other two wounded; none of the messages reached the rear. “ I then issued orders,” said Campbell afterwards, “ to the few remaining men to retire to a small waddy on our right rear as best they could. I also communicated my order to the Englishmen. At that time I got a message from a Hants officer on the other side of the redoubt to say that he considered the position hopeless, and was going to surrender.’
From the Australian Official History of the Great War.
From another account it is known that this officer was Captain Blyth who argued with Campbell that he wanted to remain and fight till the last but Campbell argued his point and Blyth agreed to retire with the rest.
Private Emms had high praise for Blyth noting,
‘Lieu Blith (Blyth) got safely back and is now in hospital in Alexandria where he is doing well. All of us who came back recommend him for his coolness and bravery which he showed in many ways, one by using and cleaning a Turkish rifle and by sticking it through though severely wounded.’
The 1/5th Norfolks who state in their war diary that, as a direct result of the Turkish counter attack, had now retired to a position 1500 yards from the Turkish lines and the 1/4th Norfolks right flank was now unsupported and certain elements from the 1/4th Norfolks began to withdraw. However, after moving back 300 yards, it was ascertained that the 162nd Brigade was still holding the left flank and that fire support was still being maintained on the right. The withdrawal was checked and a new line was established. At around this time the 1/4th Norfolk’s C.O. was wounded and it was believed that Lieutenant John Howlott Jewson took command, being the only officer who was not wounded.
This small group retired but a small garrison stayed on to fight the Turks, this numbered some 30 men but they were overwhelmed less two Australians who managed to get back to their lines. Major Marsh of the 1/8th Hampshires also took command of 40 survivors which included Lt Wharton of the 1/4th Norfolks and Lt Buxton from the 163rd Bde HQ. This group assisted in bringing in wounded soldiers under exposed conditions. By now it was expected that the Turks would counter attack in force and they held on here waiting for the 1/5th Suffolks to arrive.
At 1 p.m. the 161st Brigade, along with the 1/5th Suffolks, were ordered to reinforce the 163rd Brigade and the Suffolks along with the 1/6th Essex of the 161st Brigade were ordered to make a fresh attack on the redoubt.
Men of the 1/5th Battalion Suffolk Regiment at the 2nd Battle of Gaza
The 1/5th Suffolk Regiment’s history has this to say about 2nd Gaza,
‘The tanks had not given as much assistance as was expected, but a very large amount of artillery fire had been concentrated on them, and in that way they saved us many casualties. The Norfolks, on arriving about 800 yards from the enemy trenches, came under a very heavy and accurate belt of cross-fire from machine-guns which swept ground entirely devoid of cover. They tried to press quickly on but could not pass through the belt, and suffered very heavy casualties, nearly seventy five percent of each battalion being seriously wounded or killed. The 1/8 Hants, supporting pressed on and occupied Tank redoubt, but running short of ammunition, and being quite isolated, had to withdraw, leaving some prisoners.’
From the History of 1/5th Suffolks compiled by Captains A Fair, MC and E D Walton page 62.
The 1/5th Suffolks advancing from Sheikh Abbas on 19th April 1917
Once the line had been stabilised the advancing troops held on until dusk.
‘At dusk Brigadier General Ward rode out to inspect the position. At intervals throughout the day small parties of wounded Norfolks came back through the line. The groans and calls of the wounded could be heard, but to send a party into that belt meant certain death, and drew heavy searching fire on those that were there.’
From the History of 1/5th Suffolks compiled by Captains A Fair, MC and E D Walton page 63.
These attempts included a gallant attempt by Jewson and the M.O. to bring in 2nd Lieutenant William Walter Martin. They could not manage this and went to get a stretcher which could not be found although Martin managed to come in at 06:00hrs on the 20th and withdrew the rest of the battalion back to Battalion HQ moving back to Sheik Abbas. The 1/5th Norfolks withdrew to Wadi Nokhabi after consolidating their line and being relieved by the 161st Brigade.
In Part 3 we will look at the terrible toll this battle took on the 4th and 5th Norfolks.