Aubers Ridge

Private, 6/348, Joseph Unwin, 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade

Aubers OH

The order of battle for the 7th Division on 9th May 1915

Today is the 102nd Anniversary of the the Battle of Aubers Ridge and this is the story of a man from Worsead who was killed in action in the battle.

 

Joseph Unwin was born in Enfield, Middlesex in 1891 and was the youngest son of Henry and Caroline Unwin who had two other sons, Henry and Alfred and two daughters, Martha and Edith. He married Emma Louisa Woodhouse in 1912 and at the start of the Great War both were residing at Meeting Hill, which is a small hamlet to the North West of Worstead. His trade is listed as being a chauffeur. Joseph is not recorded on the war memorial in the church but he is listed as being a Worstead man in the Norfolk Roll of Honour.

The 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade had landed in France on 6th November 1914, along with the rest of the 25th Brigade, which was part of the 8th Division. They had been a much needed re-enforcement for 1st Ypres. They would then learn their newfound craft in the trenches over the winter of 1915/15, a time, which would become known as the ‘Winter Operations’. During this phase men were lost to snipers and mining activity. They had to rapidly adapt to trench warfare where one mistake could mean instant death and their conditions were terrible They were constantly low on drafts of replacements and supplies and would be forced to carry out a number of initial battles which would not be able to break the German lines due to them being without support and because they would be fought as small engagements and it is in one of these that Joseph would lose his life.

While the BEF were engaged in learning their craft in the winter of 1914/15, the Central Powers had turned their attention to the Russian Front and a series of battles had been fought there. This led the Allied Powers to believe that the Germans were planning the same for the spring of 1915 and with that in mind they believed that the Germans were to make reductions of their forces on the Western Front.

The Allies felt that an attack there whilst their foe was weak in reserves would also serve the purpose of supporting the Russians because if they capitulated it would mean the Germans would be able to direct all their forces against the Western Front.
In early March 1915, Sir John French agreed to commit troops to a plan put forward by General Joseph Joffre. This would be a joint British and French offensive to capture the heights of Aubers Ridge, which stretched for 6 miles behind the small towns of Aubers and Fromelles. The first of these offensives occurred on 10th March when French ordered General Sir Douglas Haig, the then commander of the British 1st Army, to attack the Germans along a 2 mile front opposite the French town of Neuve Chapelle. Haig used 4 divisions to break through a line held by a division of the German 6th Army. But the total gain, for three days of terrible fighting, amounted to a piece of French soil 2,000 yards wide and 1,200 yards deep. All this at the cost of 11,000 British and Indian troops.
The Germans quickly counter-attacked, and although Neuve Chapelle was held, Haig had to abandon plans to advance towards Aubers Ridge. At the end of the offensive, the British Expeditionary Force had only gained 1.5 square miles of land at a cost of 13,000 casualties. The Allies went back to the planning table and Joffre asked French whether he could commit troops to a joint attack where it was planned to capture the Douai and Aubers Ridges, John French agreed. The plan can be summarised by a communiqué from Joffre to French.

‘In the last days of April the French Tenth Army, will undertake an important attack north of Arras with a view to piercing the enemy’s line. In order to carry out this attack the Tenth Army will be strongly reinforced, it will consist of fourteen infantry divisions (exclusive of Territorial divisions) and about 220 heavy guns and more than 720 field guns and howitzers.’

From: France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos. OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR.

The French 10th Army would attack to the right of the British who held a frontage of four miles with the II Cavalry Corps to be held in reserve. They would attack Vimy Ridge between Farbus and Souchez. If successful the French would be able to capture the dominating heights of Vimy and allow them to sweep into the Cambrai-Douai Plain. Three diversionary attacks would also be implemented.

French informed Joffre on the 9th April that the British 1st Army would have the task of attacking the Germans the day after the main attack had gone in. This would be in conjunction with the final French diversionary attack. The British would centre on the area towards Aubers Ridge and La Bassée. French committed the 1st British and the Indian Corps to attack the Festubert/Neuve Chapelle line and the British IV Corps would have the job of attacking the Aubers-Fromelles line. They would have the job of consolidating the French gains and would prevent the Germans pouring in reserves.
However, the Germans struck first at Ypres on the 22nd April, utilising gas, which was the first time it was ever used in any offensive. In this battle the Germans very nearly overran the Allies, but the Canadian troops managed to hold the line, the first time a Colonial power had ever done this. Amazingly this German strike did not faze Joffre who continued his plans for the joint British and French offensive. Joffre was of a mind that a carefully planned offensive would help to relieve the pressure from the German attacks in the north.

On 4th May 1915 John French issued this order to the 1st Army:

‘The First Army will take the offensive on 8th May. Its mission is to break through the enemy’s line on its front and gain the La Bassée-Lille road between La Bassée and Fournes. Its further advance will be directed on the line Bauvin-Don. The Cavalry Corps, Indian Cavalry Corps, Canadian Division, Highland (51st) Division (less one brigade R.F.A.) and Northumbrian (50th) Division will be in general reserve at the disposal of the Field Marshall, Commanding in Chief, and will be ready to move at two hours notice.’

From: OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR, France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos.

With this in mind, the respective units took over the line in preparation for the forthcoming attack with the 8th Division being given a frontage of 1,500 yards opposite the Sailly-Fromelles Road and would face the German 6th Bavarian Reserve Division. The plan for Aubers Ridge was for the 1st Army to make a two-pronged attack on the German line that ran from just south of Neuve Chapelle to Bois Grenier.
The southern sector consisted of the Indian and 1st Corps who had the job of capturing Aubers Ridge itself. IV Corps, 6,000 yards to the north, had the task of capturing Fromelles.

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The left hand aspect of the area for 9th May 1915

But the biggest problem at this time was the shortage of artillery and shells. The French intended to adopt a slow and methodical bombardment of the German trenches in their sectors, the British could not hope to match this and decided on a 40-minute intense bombardment like the one used at Neuve Chapelle. This had been quite successful and had led to the Germans being unable to hold their own lines due to insufficient defences. But the Germans had learnt from their mistakes and had worked tirelessly to strengthen their defences. This would prove to be a major point of fact as to how the battle would progress.

The 8th Division would attack with the 24th Brigade on the right and the 25th to the left; both brigades totalled around 7,000 officers and men. The Official History of WWI estimates that around ten German companies would be facing them, a total of around 1,600 men. The plan was for both brigades to rush the German front-line before pushing on to enlarge the front and protect the area. The 7th Division would advance close behind the 8th and then capture Aubers and Leclercq Farm. It was then hoped that both divisions would be able to further advance capturing Aubers Ridge and protecting the left flank in order that the 7th Division could eventually meet up with the Indian Corps at La Cliqueterie Farm.

We now turn to the 2/Rifle Brigade’s war diary for May 1915. They had been in and out of the line around Laventie since the beginning of May. There is no mention of any training being carried out for this forthcoming action and the first mention of their participation comes on 6th May when company officers were sent up to the line to reconnoitre the area and orders were passed for operations.

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The right hand aspect of the battle area for 9th May 1915

What is strange is that there is no build up to this battle for the 2/Rifle Brigade. They rested in their billets on the 7th and 8th May and were only paraded for the forthcoming attack at 11.00 p.m. and then marched off to their assembly positions. This movement went without incident with the war diary stating,

‘Instructions and orders for assault & the first advance were issued & were accurately carried out.’

The weather on this day is recorded as being fine, clear and fresh with sunrise at 04:06hrs This was shattered at 05:00hrs by the start of the 40 minute bombardment from 102 guns that had the task of either cutting the German wire or destroying the German positions. Unfortunately some of this fell short and the artillery began to shell their own lines, of which the 2/Rifle Brigade took the brunt of this fire and men were either killed or wounded before even getting out of their trenches, or were forced to retire from their start points. This retirement was stopped and at 05:40hrs the first waves of men climbed out of their trenches and moved towards the German lines.

The 25th Infantry Brigade’s frontage stretched from the main Sailly/Fromelles Road across fields towards La Cordonnerie Farm. The 2/Rifle Brigade faced Rouge Bancs. B & D Companies had been given the task of advancing in the first wave, with C & D Companies, the Machine Guns and RHQ following behind. B & D took the first German trench and continued their advance.

However, the follow up waves took heavy casualties from German fire and could not advance any further than the German front-line, with many of the units being dispersed, including the bombing parties who were to be used to widen the advance. B & D Companies managed to capture a number Germans and pushed on a further 250 yards.
Here they managed to make a line and at this point consolidated the position and they organised bombing parties, where bombs and bombers could be found, and defended 50 yards to the Sailly-Fromelles Road to the 250 yards of German line already mentioned. This places them just in front of where the Australian Memorial is situated today. At this point in time, every officer in the most forward position was either dead or wounded. At around 8.00 a.m. the men who still held this position began to trickle back to the original German line and reported the forward elements were taking fire from the flank and from the rear.

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Looking out towards where the 2/Rifle Brigade advanced on 9th May 1915

The German front line was then strengthened and an attempt to bomb the 2/Rifle Brigade out of this position was repelled. At 12 noon Lt GRAY led a party of 50 men from the British front-line to the German line. By now the whole area was being swept with German machine gun fire and only 20 men reached the German line.

At this point in time, only 3 other battalions had successfully reached the German lines. These were the 2/Northamptonshire Regiment, the 1/Royal Irish Rifles and the 1/13th London Regiment. All had advanced with the 2/Rifle Brigade. The 1/13th London’s had been assisted by two mines which had been fired at 05.40 a.m. and they had occupied the craters. But all other movement either by the 24th Brigade or the 23rd Brigade who were to follow up was stopped after the 24th Brigade found the German wire uncut and took heavy casualties there.

This initial success, followed by failure in other areas prompted the brigade commander, Brigadier General Lowry Cole to go to the front-line. He found all movement stopped and no man’s land being swept with machine gun fire. He ordered two companies of the 2/Lincolns to use the mine craters to get to the 2/Rifle Brigade and shortly after this a large number of Rifle Brigade and Irish Rifles men were seen to be streaming back to the British lines bringing with them the two companies of 2/Lincolns. To add to the confusion, large numbers of German prisoners came too leading the British to believe a counter attack was taking place. Lowry Cole stood on the parapet in an attempt to stem this tide and fell mortally wounded. This goes to show that not every senior officer in France spent his time well away from the front; in fact during the course of WWI well over 60 senior officers were killed in action.

This fact was noted in the 2/Rifle Brigade’s war diary noting that their C.O., Lieutenant Colonel R B Stephens, had become the acting brigade commander. It was also at this point in time that the forward units became cut off.

‘The British front and communication trenches, converted almost into obstacles by the remains of broken ladders and light bridges, were blocked with dead, wounded and leaderless men, the congestion being constantly increased by the endeavours of the rearmost waves to reach the front. Movement forward, rearward or lateral became impossible, except over the open, and the Germans in the unattacked portions of the front were able to prevent not only substantial support, but even individuals from crossing no man’s land. It was clear that the men who had formed the lodgements were cut off.’

From: OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR, France and Belgium 1915.Vol II: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos.

The men of the 2/Rifle Brigade, along with all the other battalions who now held a small piece of German line could have had no idea that any of this was going on. They put up obstacles to repel any German attacks and consolidated what little they had captured. At this point in time it became very apparent to the commanders on the ground that no further movement could be made.

Haig was told of this fact and in light of the fact that the 1st and Indian Corps attack had failed and the need to assist the French who were attacking he ordered the 8th Division to renew the attacks. A fresh bombardment was ordered and what was left of the 23rd and 24th Brigades was readied for a new attack.

The attack went in a 1.30 p.m. and failed almost immediately when the leading waves were hit with furious fire. In fact, it is noted by the Official History of the Great War that the attack was stopped even before it got under way. Haig ordered fresh attacks and put other brigades at the disposal of the 8th Division, but by 8.00 p.m. these new attacks were cancelled and Haig ordered his commanders to the Indian Corps H.Q.

After the battle it was noted,

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The memorial to Paul Adrian Kennedy and his friends which now stands on the battlefield where the 2/Rifle Brigade fought at Aubers Ridge.

‘Throughout the 9th and 10th repeated efforts were made to make further progress. Not only was this found to be impossible, but the violence of the enemy’s machine-gun fire from his posts on the flanks rendered the captured trenches so difficult to hold that all the units of the 4th Corps had to retire to their original position by the morning of the 10th.’

From Sir John French’s 8th Despatch printed in the Second Supplement to the London Gazette of 10th July 1915.

Between 07:50hrs and 15:00hrs the 2/Rifle Brigade fought off two determined German counter attacks. Their war diary notes that their machine gun detachment acted gallantly and caused heavy losses to the Germans. They, along with all the other units, managed to hold onto their gains all through the night and some reinforcements managed to get to them during that period. However, at 2.30 p.m. on 10th May 1915, the Germans launched a strong counter attack and all survivors of the advance were withdrawn. By now this only totalled some two hundred men. The last battalion to stay in the German lines, the 1/13th London’s, were reinforced by the 2/Royal Berkshires and the 2/Lincolnshires, but they were insufficient in numbers to hold onto the German lines and by 15:00hrs all British units were back in their trenches.

‘About 5 a.m. the battalion, consisting of 3 officers and about 195 men marched back to billets near SAILLY.’

From the war diary of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade.

In total the 8th Division lost 192 Officers and 4,490 Other Ranks, the highest number that any division lost in this ill-fated offensive. The 2/Rifle Brigade lost 21 Officers and 632 Other Ranks. Of this total 18 Officers and 244 Other Ranks were either killed in action or died of wounds soon after. Joseph Unwin was one of the men who were killed in action and he has no known grave, as do many of the others who fell on the 9th May 1915.

There is a memorial that stands in memory of Captain Paul Adrian Kennedy who was attached to the battalion. He was killed in action in the attack and the memorial commemorates his sacrifice and remembers his 3 comrades in arms. They are Lieutenants Talbot Stanhope and Edward Leigh, and Second Lieutenant the Honourable Henry Hardinge. None of them have no known graves and along with Joseph Unwin are commemorated on Panel 10 of the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium.

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The Ploegsteert Memorial

 

Rifle Trench

The 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment

The Battle of Arleux

28th April 1917

Rifle Trench No 1

A map showing Rifle and Bayonet Trenches situated to the south of Roeux. Both of these positions were given to the 7/Norfolks as objectives.

After a ten days out of the line the 12th (Eastern) Division went into forward positions between the north east of Monchy and the River Scarpe. 

On the 27th April 1917 the 35th Brigade were given orders to capture Bayonet Trench and Rifle Trench situated to the south Roeux. The 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, along with the 5th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, were given the task of leading the attack. After the first objectives were taken the 7th Suffolks would pass through to the second objective and the 9th Battalion Essex Regiment were placed in reserve. 

Zero Hour was at 0425 a.m. began with a two minute intense artillery bombardment to which the Germans made a furious response and the 5/R.Berks advanced close behind the barrage and captured their objectives in Bayonet and Rifle Trenches without difficulty and began consolidation.

The 7th Norfolks were less successful. They had “A” and “B” leading with “C” and “D” attempting to gain contact with the lead companies. This failed and the Norfolks came under heavy machine gun fire from their flanks.

Frank Herbert Smith KIA 28 Apr 17

Sergeant 43037 Frank Herbert Smith who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. He was the son of Herbert William and Alice Mary Smith of The Chalet in Brundall Gardens.

The 7th Suffolks also found themselves unable to proceed against heavy machine gun fire when they attempted to pass through the 5/R.Berks lines at 0505. At this point the Berkshires still held Bayonet Trench and 150 yards of Rifle trench but the Germans still held Rifle Trench as far as Harness Lane.

Due to the heavy fire both the 7/Norfolks and the 7/Suffolks were still in their original positions. One company of the Essex was sent to help the Berks hold on to their gains. Attempts to capture the rest of Rifle trench with bombing from both flanks failed.

Rifle Trench No 2

The field where Rifle and Bayonet Trench once used to be.

An SNCO in the 5/R. Berks noted,

‘As we had lost all our officers in my company except one I was detailed with my platoon to take up bombs, ammunition, rifle grenades etc to another company of ours (C Company) Having collected all my men together and issued to them these different stores we left our trench at about 3 am under very heavy shell fire. I had been given orders by my company officer to get there at all costs as they had run short of nearly everything. I succeeded in reaching them after a very hard struggle as the Boche were giving us hell with his shells and machine guns. C Company were greatly relieved when they heard that I had arrived with a fresh supply of trench stores, which were quickly issued out. I discovered on my way that there were a lot of bombs, shovels and picks lying spare in a trench that I passed. I succeeded in collecting them and was waiting to get through again  to C Company when the Germans succeeded in blowing part of the trench in, cutting us off from C Company. We had to remain in this trench, where I had got my men, when the Germans started to shell us unmercifully, and continued at it all day long without a break, causing a good many casualties. I told my men to stick it and that as soon as it became dark we would chance it and make another attempt to reach C Company. I had succeeded in dodging these shells all day and was just on the point of starting to C Company when a big shell burst about six yards in front of me, which wounded me and also buried me.’

Harold Brighton KIA 28 Apr 17

Private 29714 Harold Brighton from Thorpe St Andrew who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. Harold was the son of Robert and Sarah Brighton of Southend Cottage in Thorpe.

“D” Company from 7/Norfolks had come up against uncut wire and “A” and “B” Companies had to take cover in shell holes. The war diary noting,

‘The remainder of the day our men lay out in shell holes being sniped by the enemy. As soon as it was dark all those that could returned to our lines and stretcher squads went to try and bring in the wounded. During the whole of their work they were continually under enemy M. Gun and rifle fire which was done with the aid of extremely bright Verey Lights. The fire was so heavy and accurate that it was impossible to bring in many of our men who were badly wounded and close to the enemy’s trench.’

Bernard Dix KIA 28 Apr 17

Private 202793 Bernard Dix who was killed in action on 28th April 1917. He was born in Leicester on 7th January 1887 and was the son of William and Edna Dix of 128 Waterloo Road in Norwich

The war diary noted that casualties were especially heavy in “C” and “D” Companies.

Another attack was ordered on 29th April and the 9/Essex advanced and took Rifle Trench supported by flanking fire but were driven out by two German counter attacks.

In this attack 12 officers 223 other ranks were lost. In total the CWGC records the loss of 92 men killed on 28th April 1917. Like the 1st Battalion at La Coulotte many of them have no known grave and are commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

 

 

GEORGE SIDNEY SIDELL

 

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On the war memorial montage there is one man who can be pinpointed to serving in the Royal West Kent Regiment and this is possibly George Sidell who served with them prior to moving to the Middlesex Regiment.

George was born in Worstead in 1878 and was the son of William and Rachel Sidell who resided at 78 Brockley on Station Road in Worstead. William’s profession is listed as a painter on the 1891 Census and at the age of 13 George was also in employment as he is listed as an agricultural labourer which he was still doing when the 1911 Census was recorded. He had six brothers, Alfred, Sidney, Frederick, Charles, Arthur and Walter and one sister Sabina.

George’s service record did not survive WWI but we can state that he enlisted in Norwich and joined the Royal West Kent Regiment (RWK), being given the service number of 1328. He did not remain with this regiment and did not go to war until, at the very earliest, 1916. It is more than probable that he was posted to France as a draft for the RWK only to be sent to the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment from an infantry base depot. 

On the 23rd April 1917 the British launched the Second Battle of the Scarpe and the 1/Middlesex had been in the line from the 17th to 20th April and had spent the 21st and 22nd in a sunken road between Henin-sur-Cojeul and Neuville Vitasse.

1st Map

The area assaulted by the 33rd Division on 23rd Apri 1917

Here they prepared for the coming battle of the 23rd. At 04:30hrs the battalion, having been issued with bombs, rifle grenades, Verey lights, ground flares and sandbags, marched to trenches position approximately 1,500 yards of south east of Heninel. Their dispositions were as follows, A Coy on the right and C Coy on the left with B & D, taking up the rear, on the right and left respectively.

Zero hour, set for 04:45hrs, saw A & C Coys going over in the first wave with B & D Coy following in support. The 98th Brigade, as a whole, advanced under cover of a barrage with the 4/Suffolks on the right and the 2/Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders in the centre and the 1/Middlesex on the left. The 4/Suffolks were given the task of clearing out trenches on the Hindenburg Line to the Sensee River and the other two attacking battalions were to attack frontally. This puts them advancing towards a small town called Cherisy.

The regimental history takes up the story.

The attack of the Suffolks proceeded well down both trenches of the Hindenburg Line, but the Highlanders, in the centre, and “A” and “B” Companies of the Middlesex, were hung up in front of the small copse. The two left Companies of the latter Battalion (“C” and “D”), however, reached their first objective without much opposition, where 30 prisoners were taken and sent back. They then pressed on to their final objective, which they reached successfully and dug themselves in. Here they were joined by “A” Company of the Highlanders, who had fought their way past the copse. But now, unfortunately, a serious position presented itself to these three Companies, for it appeared that they were not only in the air, but the enemy was still between them and their original “jumping-off” line. Captain Beesham, therefore, made his way back along the Hindenburg Line in order to report the situation to Brigade Headquarters. But whilst he was away the enemy counter-attacked and succeeded in cutting off a portion of the Hindenburg Line, thus completely cutting off all communication with “C” and “D” Companies in their forward exposed position. To make matters worse, troops on the left of these two Companies fell back, taking with them a small party of Middlesex “moppers-up” which had taken possession of that portion of the first objective captured by “C” and “D”. The position as it affected the 1st Middlesex now stood as follows: The enemy was again in full possession of his original front line; “A” and “B” Companies of the Battalion were held up in front of the copse, i.e., the line of the first objective, and were digging themselves in; the left flank of the Battalion was absolutely in the air; the enemy had regained a portion of the Hindenburg Line; “C” and “D” Companies had broken through and had reached their final objective, but were entirely cut off, the enemy being in front and behind them.

From DIE-HARDS IN THE GREAT WAR (Middlesex Regiment)

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A trench map showing you the area where the 1/Middlesex fought. Their start point was in grids 35 to 36.

The regimental history makes note that by 12:00hrs all units, with a few exceptions, were back in their starting positions although elements were still holding out but were now surrounded. Another attack, pressed home at 06:28hrs, did not amount to much and signallers, orderlies and officer’s servants were being used due to losses and men still being unaccounted for. At 20:00hrs the Germans counter attacked and threatened to overrun the 1/Middlesex Battalion HQ, but this was repulsed by the 4/Suffolks and the brigade itself was down to just 300 men.

The rest of the night was carried off peacefully and at dawn it was ascertained that the Germans might have vacated their positions and the 1/Middlesex put out patrols, which proved this to be the case. The old German line was captured and the men still holding out, which included men from C & D Coys, were able to inform the brigade that this was the case although they could not retire until darkness fell.

By this time what was left of the battalion had been relieved and those men that held out, for an estimated forty hours, rejoined the battalion in a sunken road at 23:00hrs. On the morning of the 25th April they marched back to Grosville. The regimental history makes note that the actions of the 1/Middlesex on the 23rd/24th April were praised by the G.O.C. of the 33rd Division who personally congratulated the men before they marched out of the line and on the 1st May 1917 their actions were mentioned by the 3rd Army Commander General Sir Edmund H. H. Allenby who stated,

“I have read this account with great pride and admiration. I congratulate all ranks in the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment on the staunchness and bravery of their two splendid companies.”

However, this came at a high price and the war diary, dated the 24th April 1917, lists the battalion strength as such.

Going In 26 Officers, 399 Other Ranks
Coming Out 8 Officers, 230 Other Ranks

Of this total they recorded the following casualties:

13 Officers Killed, wounded or missing and 169 Other Ranks suffered the same fate.
This included George who is listed as being killed in action on the 23rd April. He now rests in Wancourt British Cemetery, which is situated very close to where he went over the top.

 

La Coulotte

The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment 

23rd April 1917

La Coulotte

La Coulotte on a trench map. The 1st Battalion were given the task of capturing trenches between grid 1 and 2. Their first objective, Cyril Trench to the Lens-Arras railway line, can be seen.

After Vimy Ridge was captured by the Canadians on 9th April 1917, other units took over and by the 13th April the 5th Division relieved them and took over what had been taken. Hostilities were resumed here on 23rd April 1916 when the 15th Brigade were ordered to capture German positions in front of La Coulotte. The war diary records that the specific objectives for the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment were Cyril Trench to the Lens-Railway line.

Magnay

Captain John Christopher Frederick Magnay was born at Drayton on 30th December 1896 and was the son of the late Frederick and Annie Magnay. He was killed in action at La Coulotte on 23rd April 1917 and has no known grave being commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Zero Hour was at 4.45 a.m. and the infantry followed with the 1/Norfolks leading the way. The war diary notes that their battalion strength was 24 officers and 743 other ranks. To the right if the 15th Brigade was the 52nd Canadian Battalion. “A” and “C” Company lead the advance and “B” and “D” Company followed up in support. As the Norfolks got to the German trenches the enemy began to surrender but came under heavy fire from machine guns hidden in the railway cutting.  

Fernvil James Loveday 23 Apr17

Private 22798 Fernival Loveday who was killed in action on 23rd April 1917. He was 21 and the son of James and Amelia Loveday of Forncett St Peter. Fernival has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Both of the rear companies came up against uncut wire but the 1/Bedfords found a way in and began to bomb along the trench. Both the lead Norfolk companies got elements into the trench who also began bombing and they captured 4 machine guns.

‘The party of A & D Coy by bombing along the German front line captured 4 MGs and bombed 5 or 6 dugouts but were held up about T.1.D.7.8. by a German strong-point and could make no further progress. The 4 M.G.s captures were afterwards destroyed by a rifle grenade into the lock when it was found we could not withdraw them.’

From the war diary of the 1st Battalion

La Coulotte MD

Part of the area in front of La Coulotte where the 1st Battalion advanced on 23rd April 1917. This area is where Cyril Trench was positioned.

Other parties also got forward and into the second trench but came under fire from enfilading fire even though this trench was poorly manned. This is where Captain Frederick Magnay was killed and in a letter to his parents his C.O. stated,

‘He was killed when most gallantly leading his company into the German second line against heavy machine gun and shell fire. He was an officer of very great ability and promise, and had endeared himself to all ranks, his loss is very deeply felt.’

Frederick had been with the battalion since 1915 and 2nd Ypres.

The Norfolks came under artillery fire from 10 a.m. onward which lasted until 10 p.m. Eventually the rear companies were withdrawn to their original outposts. Failure here was put down to uncut wire.

This is confirmed in the war diary which notes,

‘I account for the failure of the attack to the uncut wire, even if only the artillery had cut two or three gaps in the wire where we could have got in the Germans would have surrendered, as on our reaching the wire, the occupants of the German front-line all held up their hands.’

Losses for the battalion were 7 officers killed and 8 wounded and 220 other ranks killed or wounded. This can be conformed as 64 killed, most of whom have no know grave and are commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Richard Charles Howlett 23 Apr 17

Private 23600 Richard Howlett was born at Broome on 13th November 1896. He was educated at St. Mark’s and Thorpe Hamlet schools and was 20 when he died and was the son of John Thomas Howlett and Susanna Maria Howlett of Railway House Carrow Road in Norwich. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

 

 

 

The 2nd Battle of Gaza

Part 3

Casualties

 

Robert Tooke KIA 19 Apr 17

Private 201061 Edward Tooke, 4th Battalion, who was 24 when he was killed at 2nd Gaza and was the son of Robert S. Tooke of 11, Goat Yard Oak Street in Norwich.

After the battle it was found that both battalions were so badly mauled that they had to be formed together into a battalion called the 4/5th Composite Norfolk Regiment under the command of the 1/8 Hampshire’s C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Miles Torkington. By dawn on the 20th April what little had been gained had to be given up when orders were sent to withdraw. 

Arthur Lyst KIA 19 Apr 17

Private 242345 Arthur Albert Lyst, 4th Norfolks, who was killed on 19th April 1917. Arthur was 19 when he died and was the son of George Ambrose Lyst and Ellen Sarah Lyst of 1 Home Street North Heigham.

Both of the Norfolk battalions had suffered terrible casualties and the Norfolk Regimental history records this figure:

Officers 1/5th Battalion killed 6 and 11 wounded.

Officers 1/4th Battalion killed 6 and 9 wounded

Other Ranks 1/5th Battalion killed 49 and 312 wounded.

Other Ranks 1/4th Battalion killed 13 and 401 wounded. 

On top of this both battalions lost 5 officers and 328 other ranks missing. 

The total for both battalions being 37 Officers and 1103 other ranks killed, wounded or missing.

This can be amended to show that 228 officers and men from the 5th Battalion and 165 officers and men from the 4th Battalion died between 19th and 30th April 1917, many of which have no known grave and are commemorated on the Jerusalem Memorial.

Frederick John Sayer KIA 19 Apr 17

Private 200614 Frederick John Sayer, 4th Norfolks, who served with the 1/4th Battalion, who was born in Brooke and was killed in action on 19th April 1917. Frederick was 21 when he died and was the son of George and Hannah Marie Sayer of Brooke.

The Australian Official History records the casualties for each division which took part as follows:

54th Division 2,971
52nd Division 1,365
53rd Division 584
Camel Brigade 345
Anzac Mounted Division 105
Imperial Mounted Division 547

The casualty list for the 163rd Brigade included 2 Battalion and 12 Company commanders which included Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Salway Grissell D.S.O., the C.O. of the 1/5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment who was the son of the late Thomas de la Garde Grissell of Redisham Hall in Beccles and the husband of Olive Grissell. He is laid to rest in grave XXIII. C. 5. in Gaza War Cemetery.

Donald Savage KIA 19 Apr 17

Private 200425 Donald John Savage who was 22 when he was killed in action and was the son of William and Annie Savage of 13 Chalk Hill Road in Norwich. Donald is laid to rest in grave XXIII. F. 2. in Gaza War Cemetery.

 

George Brakenbury is recorded as being ‘Killed in Action’ and Robert Watts is listed as having ‘Died’.

IMG_20170408_092435

George Brakenbury’s grave in Gaza War Cemetery.

This means that, as with the earlier chapter with the Norfolks at Gallipoli, Robert’s fate was unknown but is listed as this because at a certain point in time it would have been recorded on his service record that he must be dead but how this occurred was not known.

Horace Warnes KIA 19 Apr 17

Corporal 240158 Horace Warnes, 5th Norfolks, of Little Massingham who was killed on 19th April 1917. He was 24 and was the son of George and Anna Elizabeth Warnes of Great Massingham.

It is possible that he was one of the men who reached the Turkish lines because he was in ‘A’ Coy who had been in the first line of advance. Whatever his fate he has no known grave and he is listed on the Jerusalem Memorial. George, at the very least, was given a burial and now lies in Gaza War Cemetery.

043

The remains of HMLS Nutty after the battle

Also among the casualties was the intrepid tank commander of HMLS Nutty. Joseph Emms described what happened to Frank Carr and his crew,

‘…then a very lucky shot for the Turks hit one of the ‘Tanks’ wheels and put her out of action which made a great difference to us in the trenches. The crew rather than let the Turks have it set fire to it and ran into the trench where I was in, there was an officer and 3 or 4 men and they all seemed to be wounded.’

2/Lieutenant Frank Carr died of his wounds. He was aged 35 and the son of Mrs. T.H. Smith of The Corner House Handsworth Wood Road in Birmingham and the husband of Dora Carr of 129 Church Lane Handsworth Wood. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Jerusalem Memorial.

Leslie Rudd KIA 19 Apr 17

Private 24232328 Leslie William Rudd, 5th Norfolks, Leslie was 21 and the son ofWilliam and Annie Rudd of 28 Park Lane in Norwich 

It should be noted that George and Alfred’s parents had lost their two sons in the space of four months. 

Image 22

Private, 240279, George Albert Brackenbury, 5th Norfolks, from Worstead who was killed in action on 19th April 1917

Towns and villages across Norfolk were deeply affected by the battle, one family alone lost three sons in the battle. Arthur, Clifford and Horace Bird, all brothers, and Frank Bird, their cousin, all died in the fighting at 2nd Gaza. All came from East Runton. Also from West Runton, Charles and Henry Creasey, were also killed in action. They, along with two other brothers, are commemorated on the war memorial for East and West Runton with the Bird brothers.

Bird Brothers

The Bird brothers, three of whom died at the 2nd Battle of Gaza, the other brother, Ernest survived WW1 having also served in the 5th Battalion. Another brother, Royden, also died in WW1 serving with the 18th Battalion Middlesex Regiment in May 1918.

These casualties are staggering for one day when you compare it to the losses incurred by the 8th Norfolks on the 1st July 1916 at the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Here they lost 335 officers and men of which 104 were killed. So, to me, the 2nd Battle of Gaza was the First Day of the Somme for the Norfolk Regiment and the county as a whole. 

If you think about it 393 telegrams were sent to families in the county recording the loss of those that died at 2nd Gaza. Just doing one speculative search shows that 22 telegrams went to families in Great Yarmouth and 25 went to families in King’s Lynn. A staggering 50 telegrams went to families in Norwich and this is why I think this compares to how it must have been to communities who lost so many on the 1st July 1916. To lose two in men in a small village like Worstead must have had an impact on the whole community and it is still something I cannot get my head around.

To lose two sons in one go must have been beyond comprehension.

Alfred and Anna Brakenbury were so heartbroken by the loss of two sons that they recorded their passing on their own headstone when they were buried in Worstead cemetery and both died within months of each other in 1939. Alfred died in February aged 83 and Anna passed away in December a few months after World War Two had started, I often wonder what she must have thought about this and on their gravestone it states,

In Loving Memory of
Anna Maria Brakenbury
Who Died Dec 3rd 1939
Aged 76 Years
Also Of Her Two Sons
Killed In Action
Ernest France Jan 1917
George Gaza April 1917
For Ever With The Lord
Also of Alfred Brakenbury
Who Died Feb 14th 1939
Aged 83 Years

The same can said for Robert Watts as his passing was also recorded on his parent’s grave in Worstead cemetery. He is listed as having ‘Died of Wounds Gaza April 1917’ on the headstone of Jonah and Elizabeth Watts when they died in 1937 and 1944 respectively.

251120091060

The grave of Jonah and Elizabeth Watts in Worstead cemetery which also records the loss of their son Robert at Gaza in April 1917.

I wonder how many more parents recorded this fact on their graves.

My personal thanks go to Ibrahim E. Jaradah from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Gaza for getting a photograph of George Brakenbury’s grave.

The 2nd Battle of Gaza

Part 2

The Battle

Image 23

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 from Sheikh Abbas

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’.

Nutty No 2.jpg

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.

Mansura Ridge

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.

5 Suffolks 19 Apr 17

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.

Sufolks Advance from Sheikh Abbas

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.

The 2nd Battle of Gaza

Part 1

Overview

Gas 2

Men undergoing gas mask training in the desert. Gas would be a weapon used at the 2nd Battle of Gaza.

The 19th April 2017 sees the 100th Anniversary of a battle fought in Palestine that I consider the Norfolk Regiment’s first day on the Somme. By that I mean the amount of casualties incurred in one day were terrible and affected communities all over Norfolk.

Two men from my village were killed in that battle.

James Robert Watts was born in 1889 and was the son of Jonah and Elizabeth Watts who were residing in Westwick when war was declared. He had one brother, Dennis, and a sister called Jane. Looking at records it looks as though he preferred the name Robert. Secondly, we have George Albert Brakenbury, as we have already discussed, he was the brother of Ernest Brakenbury and was born in 1894.

Robert and George had both joined the Norfolk Regiment and had both become Territorials. George can also be dated to being at Gallipoli at the same time as Thomas Self and Cecil Bullimore as all three landed at in that theatre of war on the 6th August 1915. In fact Thomas and Cecil had joined the battalion on 17th February 1911 and their service numbers are only 8 digits apart. Robert would have joined up in November/December 1914 due to his initial 4 digit service number.

George was part of the 1/5th Norfolks and James the 1/4th Norfolks. James must have been a replacement for men lost in late 1915 as he did not reach the battalion until, at the very earliest, January 1916 as his MIC does not record a date of entry into theatre. 

Following the failure of Gallipoli the 54th (East Anglian) Division had withdrawn from there between the 3rd & 8th December 1915. By the 18th December the 54th Division was positioned around Sidi Bishr near Alexandria. By the 2nd April 1916 they had refitted and took up position around No 1 (Southern) Section on the Suez Canal. The area around the Suez Canal was, during the Great War, part of the Ottoman Empire and the war against Turkey was continued here in what is today known as Palestine. The Turks in this region, as they had been in Gallipoli, were advised and supported by Germany. However, this area stretched as far as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq showing you that history repeats itself.

The word ‘Jihad’ is not a new word when it comes to fighting against British troops in a holy war. Both Turkey and Germany had ensured that they fuelled this type of war by enlisting the assistance of various Arab tribes including a group called the Senussi. During 1914 and 1915 the British had fought defensive actions against the Turks and the Senussi who had tried, and failed, to capture the Suez Canal. As with today’s strategy, the Suez Canal was vital to the whole region and this stretched to the area around it, namely Gaza, Jaffa and the Jordan Heights.

 

NPG x67153; Sir Charles Macpherson Dobell by Walter Stoneman

Lieutenant General Sir Charles Macpherson Dobell KCB, CMG, DSO

If is had not been for this vital waterway then supplies of men, materials and food would not have been able to travel through here from Australia, India and New Zealand.

The British also had the support of Arab tribes from the Hejaz region and by 1917 it was deemed viable that Palestine could be captured and that Germany might be defeated in this region, which would mean a less costly war of attrition than that of the Western Front. And so the British high command, led by Major General Charles Dobell and General Archibald Murray, looked at an offensive around Gaza, which was, and still is, a strategically important town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Murray

General Sir Archibald James Murray GCB, GCMG, CVO, DSO

The first battle, fought on the 26th March 1917 had been a costly failure when the British troops were withdrawn when in reality they could have captured the Turkish positions along the Gaza-Beersheba Line. And so a second attempt was planned for April. But by then the Turks had bolstered their defences and were ready for another attack.
The battle had been planned on the fact that the commanders believed that a quick resumption of hostilities in the same area would bring a quick and successful victory. Murray and Dobell had also informed the War Office that the first battle had been a complete success, this was not so.

Four divisions, known as the Eastern Force were put into the line, these were the 52nd (Lowland), 53rd (Welsh) and 54th (East Anglian) and the recently formed 74th (Yeomanry) Division. There would also be a mobile element made up of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade.

British Trenches Gaza

British trenches prior to Gaza

Dobell planned to make the battle a more like the Western Front by utilising a two-day preliminary bombardment and by using gas and tanks.

‘Dobell’s plan was simple. The infantry divisions wcre to crush the enemy on his main position around Gaza, while the mounted divisions pressed back his flank towards Beersheba, prevented the withdrawal of reinforcements from there to Gaza, and held themselves in readiness for the pursuit. In the infantry attack the 52nd Division was to assault Ali hfuntar and its surrounding defences, while the 54tIi, crossing the Gaza-Beersheba road on the right of the 52nd, was to capture the enemy’s works at Khurbet el Bir, and then swing round and seize Anzac Ridge. At the same time the 53rd was to attack to the south-west of Gaza on the sand-dune sector between Samson’s Hill and Sheikh Ajlin on the west. It was therefore a plain frontal attack against the full strength of the great Gaza position, and the adoption of such a scheme is conclusive evidence of the remarkable confidence of Murray and Dobell.’

From the Australian Official History

Only six tanks would be available and the use of gas was met with great concern from the local commanders, which prompted one commander to say,

“That, gentlemen, is the plan, and I might say frankly that I don’t think much of it”

I cannot really verify this but what I do know is that if the officer made that comment he was prophetic because his concerns were founded. 2,000 gas-shells specially shipped from England would be available for the battle and would be freely used against Ali Muntar.

Secondly, as previously mentioned, the Turks had had ample time to build up their defences and it was estimated that they could bring to 25,000 men to the battle and the area was defended by the Fortress at Gaza and Ali Muntar and, to the east, a number of redoubts on the ridges overlooking the area called Tank, Atawineh, Hareira and Sheria.

The Western Front style bombardment started on the 17th April 1917 and was assisted by the British and French Navies. However, this artillery engagement cannot be compared to that of the Western Front. It was too weak and too little for the time period and only helped to provide the Turkish defenders with ample warning that another attack was about to take place. On the morning of the attack the artillery concentrated on the fortress of Ali Muntar and it was here that gas was used.

No Mans Land 5th Suffolks

No-Man’s Land at Gaza looking from the 5th Suffolk’s trenches

The order of battle was as follows:

The 53rd Division was to advance on the extreme left of Gaza using the Mediterranean shore as an aiming point.

The 155th and 156th brigades of the 52nd Division were to attack Gaza centrally and also take Ali Muntar.

The 162nd and 163rd Brigades of the 54th Division would attack to the right of Gaza and the Tank Redoubt.

To the right of the 54th Division the 1st Battalion of the Camel Brigade would advance and conform to the movement of the 163rdBrigade, with the 1/5th Norfolks acting as their guides. The Camel Brigade was part of the Australian force which would include the Anzac Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division.

The 74th (Yeomanry) Division would remain in reserve.

All through the preliminary two day bombardment the Turks had been able to pour counter battery fire onto the British lines causing casualties on the infantry who were forming up for the attack and as the attack started they were able to do the same as the three divisions started their advance.

In Part 2 we will look at what happened during the battle.