The 2nd Battalion the Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia

Summary for February 1915-April 1915

Dates and events given here are a summary of the narrative related in The History of the Norfolk Regiment, Volume II (1914-1918) by F. Loraine Petre from the published edition of Jarrold & Sons Limited: The Empire Press. A facsimile of the Jarrold original has recently been made available by The Naval & Military Press (www.naval-military-press.com).

The Battle of Shaiba (from History of the Great War, Based on Official Documents, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume 1)

The Battle of Shaiba
(from History of the Great War, Based on Official Documents, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume 1)

The principal engagement of 2nd Norfolk during this period was the Battle of Shaiba. Shaiba was a small settlement north of Zobair, dominated by an Ottoman fort. It had been lightly garrisoned as an outpost of the main British base at Basra, some eight miles distant. By March 1915, the low ridges on which Shaiba stood were surrounded by flood waters. Lieutenant-General John Nixon, the newly appointed commander of the IEF in Mesopotamia, decided to reinforce the Shaiba position in anticipation of a Turkish counter attack on Basra from the west.

Shaiba Fort 2 March 1915. c. Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture LIbrary (www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com)

Shaiba Fort 2 March 1915. c. Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture LIbrary (www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com)

DATE EVENTS
7 February 1915 The Norfolk battalion furnished the guard of honour on the occasion of of the visit of His Excellency Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, to Kurna.
17 February 1915 A and C companies sent back to Basra.
21 February 1915 B and D companies sent back to Basra.
25 February 1915 2nd Norfolk sent to the Ashar Barracks, ‘where they suffered some discomfort owing to the reduction of the ground by rain to a quagmire’.
March 1915 March was passed in Basra
11 March 1915 Lieutenant Farebrother and fifty men despatched to Nukailah (An Nukhaylah), some twenty miles north of Shaiba on the New Channel of the Euphrates, to interrupt the arrival of supplies by ‘mahela’ (sailing barge) to the Ottoman camp. The Turks had for some time been collecting both regular and Arabs there, with the object of attempting a blow at Basra from the west by Shaiba.
5 April 1915 2nd Norfolk was ordered to march to Shaiba with the rest of the 18th brigade, the 16th brigade being already there with the cavalry and three batteries. Marching at 6.45 a.m. the battalion did not reach Shaiba till 7.30 p.m., owing to the difficulty of the march across the intervening flooded desert, through which the men had to wade, the depth of water being six inches to five feet in places.Water and mud eventually became too deep for wheeled transport and these were replaced by ‘pack’ Mules. Shortly after this Lieut ORTON organised a a fleet of Ballams which plied from the ZUBAIR GATE to SHAIBA with stores & rations whenever there was sufficient water on the Desert. When there happened to be a southerly wind, the flood waters were blown back into the Lake & marshes, leaving a desert of mud. Through which the boats could only be pushed with the greatest difficulty. Lieutenant R.T. Frere, Norfolk RegimentBy jove, it was a proper day yesterday, getting out here, the worst day I’ve ever known… The whole battalion strung out over some 3 miles. You try walking through deep mud and water for 7 miles – it’s a masterpiece. An unidentified soldier of the Norfolk Regiment
Indian Cavalry crossing the flooded desert between Basra and Shaiba

Indian Cavalry crossing the flooded desert between Basra and Shaiba

Arrival of the Anglo-Indian convoy at Shaiba - pack mules about to be unloaded and artillery in the background.

Arrival of the Anglo-Indian convoy at Shaiba – pack mules about to be unloaded and artillery in the background.

The Shaiba position was on a low ridge running north to south. The main portion of it was about an old mud fort and was about a mile from north to south and about half that in breadth. The position was strongly fortified with barbed wire, trenches, gun emplacements and redoubts. The Turks had collected 10,000 or 12,000 men, whilst the British force consisted of three regiments of cavalry, eight battalions, and four batteries, including one of horse and one of mountain gun.

The Turkish force had advanced to within four miles of Shaiba… and were expected to attack on April 12th.

12 April 1915 At 5.15 in the morning… heavy rifle fire was opened from the south, followed by artillery… Of the Norfolk Regiment ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies were held in reserve… just east of Shaiba Fort; ‘A’ and ‘B’ were with the machine-gun section and were in reserve in trenches behind the south salient of the fort.I must say, they [the Turkish soldiers] are full of dash, attacking untrenched infantry with machine guns, wire entanglements, etc, right across a pumb open plain with no cover. An unidentified soldier of the Norfolk Regiment.At 11 a.m. the whole battalion was ordered to cover the the arrival of reinforcements from Basra. The order was presently cancelled; the reinforcements failed to get through, except the 24th Punjab Infantry which came over in bellums with General Melliss. Artillery fire continued all day.

The Norfolk battalion’s casualties on this day were Major W.E. Cramer Roberts (wounded when in a trench with Colonel Peebles and Captain de Grey), Lieutenant H.S. Farebrother (who received the Military Cross for his conduct on this day) and thirteen other ranks wounded.

The night of 12th-13th was much disturbed by rifle fire and attacks by the enemy with hand grenades.

13 April 1915 …a sweeping movement was undertaken by the 16th brigade towards the village of Zobeir in the south-east [about 4 miles away], pivoting on the Norfolk Regiment, who only had one man wounded.
14 April 1915 At 8 a.m., a similar sweeping movement, starting towards the south-west… The objective was to clear all the ground between Shaiba and Zobeir. As the Norfolk Regiment advanced [on the right] they encountered heavy rifle fire, and few shells…The main body of the enemy had been located in well-sited  trenches north of Barjisiyeh [a thinly wooded area]. When the Norfolk regiment had got within 350 yards of these trenches, they had suffered heavy casualties and found themselves held up by intense rifle and machine-gun fire. On reporting this to headquarters, they were ordered to hold firm where they were.At 3 p.m. orders were received that the trenches must be taken ‘at all costs’. Colonel Peebles* now decided that a bayonet charge was the only way of carrying out his orders. The battalion charged forward cheering, and, thanks to the improved artillery fire, was able to cover the last 200 yards with a loss of only one killed and one wounded!

*As Colonel Peebles rose to lead the charge, he waved his sword (it was the last occasion on which officers carried swords in action)…

The charge was more than the Turks could stand; they fled from their trenches before the Norfolk men could reach them.

…luckily for us, most of them hopped it, and a few were shot or bayonneted, and we got 2 machine guns. Our men were so done that if they [the Turkish troops] had stuck it they could hardly have raised a rifle – lying there all day in the sun, no water and a charge of 400 yds. An unidentified soldier of the Norfolk Regiment.

On the left the 16th brigade soon afterwards overcame the resistance in their front, and the whole Turkish force was now in rapid and disorderly retreat.The British were not in a condition to pursue. There had been seven battalions engaged on the day; their casualties amonted to 1,100.

Lieutenant A.J. Shakeshaft, Norfolk Regiment, writing in his diary, seemed mystified by the sudden Turkish abandonment of their positions, We did not know what had prompted the Turks to retire, when our men were absolutely exhausted and incapable of further effort. The Turkish commander, Suleiman Askeri, committed suicide after this defeat.

The Norfolk Regiment had very severe losses:

Oficers, killed – 2nd Lieutenants J.H. Brownrigg, R.A. Wynn, and Burnett (R.A.M.C.)

Officers, wounded – Major F. de B. Bell (died of wounds); Captains C.V. Lanyon and R.D. Marshall; Lieutenants J.O.C. Orton, R.T. Frere, and H. Richardson.

Other ranks, killed or died of wounds – twenty nine (including Sergeant-Major Semmence and Colour-Sergeant Ewin); wounded, ninety.

The 2nd battalion was at very low strength on this day; Major de Grey thinks only about 300. Many men were sick…

At 5 p.m. when the Turks were gone, orders issued for retirement to the Shaiba camp. The Norfolk battalion were back in camp at 7.30 p.m.

15 April 1915 …was spent in collecting and burying the dead [it having been considered unsafe to attempt it the previous day – only the wounded had been carried off the field], and bringing in the ammunition and supplies abandoned in the enemy’s camp.Lieutenant W.C. Spackman, a young regimental medical officer, wrote in his diary: That evening cartloads of dead and wounded Turks were brought in, the dead, the dying, the wounded all mixed up… No, there is nothing romantic, picturesque or glorious about the aftermath of a battle, with the maimed and wounded dying before your helpless eyes.
22 April 1915 …the battalion again reached Basra, after a very difficult march in pouring rain through six miles of flood, mostly waist deep.
27 April 1915 …the Norfolk regiment was again in Ashar Barracks.
The Battle of Shaiba by Stanley Barwell. Taken from the History of the Norfolk Regiment, Volume II (1914-1918) by F. Loraine Petre, Jarrold edition

The Battle of Shaiba by Stanley Barwell. Taken from the History of the Norfolk Regiment, Volume II (1914-1918) by F. Loraine Petre, Jarrold edition

Despatches from General Sir John Eccles Nixon, K.C.B., Commanding Force “D,” to the Chief of the General Staff, Simla, No. 168-40, dated Basrah,6th May, 1915.

I cannot speak too highly of the steadiness, spirit and pluck shown by the troops in these actions, nor of the able manner in which they were handled by their commanders.

In the battle of Barjisiyeh our troops had to attack over open ground a superior force of the enemy, skillfully entrenched and concealed, on a front of over 3 miles.

The Turkish troops showed themselves well trained and exhibited tentacity and courage; while their musketry and machine gun fire were remarkably effective.

ln driving such an enemy from his position by a bayonet charge, after a steady advance in the face of hot fire, the British force performed a feat of which any troops might be proud!

…and despatches from Major-General C.I. Fry, Commanding at Shaiba, 21st April, 1915

The machine gun of the 2nd Norfolk Regiment at the southern extremity of south salient did most excellent service throughout the day and night in a very exposed position.

Lieutenant H.S. Farebrother, 2nd Norfolk Regiment, for his skillful handling of the machine gun at south salient until seriously wounded.

No. 6592 Lance-Coporal R. Waller, 2nd Norfolk Regiment, was in charge of the machine gun at south salient after Lieutenant Farebrother was wounded, and handled his gun exceedingly well and assisted largely in keeping off the attack when it was heaviest. Though wounded, he still continued to direct the work of the gun throughout the night of 12th-13th. [Lance-Corporal Waller was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal]

It was a real soldier’s battle; the General said so, and the nearest thing to a disaster I ever want to be in… All’s well that ends well, but it was near enough. An unidentified soldier of the Norfolk Regiment.

With many thanks to our regular Mesopotamia researcher for this blog.

West Norfolk News: April 1915

Lynn News and County Press 17th April 1915

Another raid last night: We are officially informed that another German airship raid on the East Coast took place in the early hours of this morning. Thornham, Brancaster, Holt and Lowestoft being visited.

A timber yard was set on fire at the last mentioned place. At the time of writing no additional information is available.

A Thornham message at 9am says; At 1;30 this morning aircraft was distinctly heard in the village, but nothing was seen.

At Brancaster Staithe, however, an airship was seen out to sea travelling from the north-west and proceeding in the direction of Wells.

At 2:30 it was seen at Bacton

British Casualities: it was announced in Parliament yesterday that the British casualties up to April 11 totalled 139,347

Volunteers for war service line up on Norwich Market Place – 28th February 1915

This is just one of several hundred newly digitised original photographs, posters and notices connected with the First World War in Norfolk. The material is all held in the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre and over the course of the next four years will be posted on http://www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk (the online picture archive for Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service)Volunteers parade in Norwich Market Place 28th February 1915            arket Place 28 feb 1915

Mesopotamia – A Garden of Eden? Part Two

Our researcher into the forgotten war in the Middle East continues looking at life in Mesopotamia during World War One…

Life in Basra

In compiling these notes it is apparent that there are few commentaries from 2nd Norfolk (although the remarkable survival of the diary of Captain A. J. Shakeshaft is an invaluable account of the captivity following the surrender at Kut), and in particular there are few observations from the ‘other ranks’.

The river front and the main creeks are crowded with picturesque craft, the two main types being a large high prowed barge, just what I picture to have taken King Arthur at his Passing, but here put to the prosaic uses of heavy transport and called a mahila ; and a long darting craft which can be paddled or punted and combines the speed of a canoe with the grace of a gondola and is called, though why I can’t conceive, a bhellum. Some of the barges are masted and carry a huge and lovely sail, but the ones in use for I.E.F.D. (Indian Expeditionary Force D) are propelled by little tugs attached to their sides and quite invisible from beyond, so that the speeding barges seem magically self-moving. Letters from Mesopotamia, Robert Palmer (1915)

Transport on Ashar Creek ,Basra

Transport on Ashar Creek ,Basra

A range of local craft, large and small, were used for transporting people and supplies to and from ships in the Shatt al-Arab and onto the Tigris river steamers. The terminology for the craft was borrowed from the River Nile; the British having a long experience of life in Egypt, However, Wilfred Thesiger, who lived in the marshes some 40 years later, provides the most informed local descriptions:

Canoes are indispensable to the Ma’dan (marshmen)… They call their canoes by the generic term mashuf (pl. mashahif). A mashuf is made from planks, carvel built, flat-bottomed and coated outside with bitumen (jir)… The outer planking is carried forward and upward to form a long, thin, tapering stem (‘anj) which parts the reeds as the canoe is forced through the marshes… Different types of mashuf are chalabia, barkash, kada and tarada… The Ma’dan always prefer to punt rather than paddle their canoes, since they then travel faster and with less effort… There is no wood in the marshes and boats are made of imported wood. The Marshmen of Southern Iraq, The Geographical Journal, September 1954.

These craft were also invaluable to the British troops:

During the flood season from February to June, water, varying in-depth from one to four feet, lies between Basrah and the further shore, two methods of approach are in use across this lagoon, one by wading across 6 miles and landing near Old Basrah, whence troops and convoys have to march another 4 miles to reach Shaiba; the other by means of native boat, known as “bellum,” which is punted by two men and carries 8 to 10 armed men or their equivalent in stores and ammunition. Despatches from General Sir John Eccles Nixon, K.C.B., Commanding Force “D,” to the Chief of the General Staff, Simla, No. 168-40, dated Basrah,6th May, 1915.

In the foreground of the postcard above is a small canoe, a chalabia, behind which are four canoes of the barkash kind, one of which has a canopy to keep off the sun. To the left is a large sailing vessel, an ‘aniya, which were used by the local people for collecting reeds and reed mats from the marshes, but employed by the British as water taxis to and from ships in the Shatt al-Arab.

Postcards published in Basra were usually printed either in England or in Bombay (Mumbai). The one below bears the F.P.O. (field post office) cancellation for Basra, and O.A.S. (on active service) ensures that it didn’t need a stamp to be sent home.basra field postmark

When required, stamps were imported from British India and overprinted I.E.F. Later in the war, I.E.F. ‘D’ with Indian currency values was sometimes overprinted on Turkish stamps. Mail between Britain and Mesopotamia was sent via Bombay.Basra IEF stamp

The Ashar is one of the principal waterways of Basra and the artery of the Shatt al-Arab. It relinquished its palms, walls, and trees to make way for the street that the [Ottoman] governor Sulaeman Nazif built in 1909… The coffee houses overlooking the Ashar River had become linked in a chain of wooden-filigree balconies and were the first destination for people arriving from the distant villages down the Shatt al-Arab. Basrayatha: Portrait of a City, Mohammed Khudayyir, (2007) – this is a moving account of the author’s home city, a lyrical panegyric for a place whose name is synonymous to British ears only with war.

Ashar Creek and Coffee Houses (note the wooden-filogree blaconies and the sinle masted 'aniya)

Ashar Creek and Coffee Houses (note the wooden-filigree balconies and the single masted ‘aniya)

Robert Palmer was hardly less enthusiastic upon first acquaintance:

But the most fascinating sight of all is Ashar Creek, the main thoroughfare, as crowded with boats as Henley at a regatta. The creek runs between brick embankments, on which stand a series of Arabian cafes, thronged with conversational slow-moving men who sit there smoking and drinking coffee by the thousand. It is a wonderful picture from the wooden bridge with the minaret of a mosque and the tops of the tallest date palms for a background.

When one reaches the native city the streets are unmistakably un-Indian, and strongly reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Kismet. This is especially true of the main bazaar, which is a winding arcade half a mile long, roofed and lined with shops, thronged with men. One sees far fewer women than in India, and those mostly veiled and in black, while the men wear long robes and cloakes and scarves on their heads bound with coils of wool worn garland-wise, as one sees in Biblical pictures. Letters from Mesopotamia by Robert Palmer (1915)

The Bazaar, Basra

The Bazaar, Basra

W.C. Spackman’s impression was also positive:

…the large Jewish, Armenian and Chaldean Christian community gave us a most heartfelt and friendly welcome. One heard talk in Arabic, Persian, French, Turkish, English and Italian, in about that order of frequency. Local supplies were plentiful and the usual camp market sprang up at once for purveyors of fresh produce of which our Mess cook took immediate advantage. Captured at Kut: the Great War Diaries of Colonel W.C. Spackman, Tony Spackman (2008)

However, water supplies and disease soon began to tell, again W.C. Spackman:

The problem of potable drinking water now became very pressing. There was quite an epidemic of dysentery amongst our Pioneers who were constantly occupied, when not fighting, with making roads, bridges and ramps. Water for all purposes had to be drawn from the river and this meant that, in practice it was collected from the muddy tidal river bank, where it was more polluted than would have been the case further out… We opened a large War Hospital in the Sheik of Mohammerah’s palace.

This from A Handbook of Mesopotamia, Volume I (1916):

The main town [of Basra] is notoriously insanitary; the streets unpaved, strong faecal odours abound everywhere, while the Ashar canal serves the lower orders at once for drinking water, washing, and as a receptacle for filth and sewage of every description.

However, the Handbook also makes the point that the Karun River and the Shatt al-Arab provided a comparatively pure water supply, which bears out Spackman’s comment.

Accommodation for the troops was a problem in a town where opportunities for billeting were limited, Spackman again:

My regiment was at first accommodated in a fine large building but as it turned out to be a mosque we moved elsewhere; and this from Robert Palmer: They use ships here as barracks and hotels, very sensibly seeing that there are none fit for habitation on land; while being about 400 yards from either bank we are practically free from mosquitoes.

On their return from Qurna, the 2nd Norfolks, having been in tents, were sent to the Ashar Barracks which had been taken over from the Ottoman Navy.

Ashar Barracks, Basra

Ashar Barracks, Basra

Malaria is the principal disease of the country… It is found in a severe form at Basra.  (Hence, Robert Palmer’s appreciation of accommodation on a ship, away from the mosquitoes of the low-lying marshes.) Small-pox, diphtheria, dysentery, ophthalmia, typhoid fever, tuberculosis (which is on the increase), syphilis and other venereal diseases are more or less endemic, especially in the towns. There has been plague at Basra as recently as 1910: still, plague is no longer the scourge of Mesopotamia, as it used to be; indeed, cholera is probably in these days a much more potent evil. A Handbook of Mesopotamia Vol I (1916)

The ‘Baghdad Boil’ (the native Ukht) is a… slow, sloughing ulcer, which generally attacks the face, hand, wrist and ankle, not generally amenable to treatment, but disappearing of itself after a tedious course, perhaps for about one year (hence the Persian name yalek meaning ‘yearly sore’). With hardly a single exception, Europeans are attacked within a year of their arrival… treatment by carbonic acid snow will possibly reduce the boil for a time, but in that case it is likely to return sooner or later. If the boil is left alone, the disease will not come back when once it has run its course.  …the parasite causing it, a flagellate called Leishmania, is certainly injected by the bite of some noxious insect, probably a sand fly. A Handbook of Mesopotamia Vol I (1916)

Middle Eastern Sandfly (courtesy of the USDA)

Middle Eastern Sandfly (courtesy of the USDA)

In 2012 the US Department of Agriculture reported that sandflies were biting troops in Iraq as many as 1000 times in a single night, and that there was still no cure, no vaccine, and no medicine for the disease Leishmaniasis.

Leishmaniasis Ulcer (Baghdad Boil) - commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leishmaniasis_ulcer.jpg

Leishmaniasis Ulcer (Baghdad Boil) – commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leishmaniasis_ulcer.jpg

Charles Townshend (When God Made Hell, 2010) concluded: Dust and heat would define the Mesopotamia experience for hundreds of thousands of troops.

However, Robert Palmer also noted,

…the murderous folly of military authorities… there was no food for the men on board. Consequently they had to load kits, etc., and embark on empty stomachs. Well, hungry but punctual, we embarked at 10 a.m. It was 102 in my cabin, so you can imagine what the heat and glare of 150 men in an open barge was… Then came disembarking, unloading kits and all the odd jobs of moving units which all had to be done in a furnace-like heat by men who had had no food for twenty hours. Nobody could complain of such an ordeal if we’d been defending Lucknow or attacking Shaiba, but to put such a strain on the men’s health newly arrived and with no pads or glasses or shades gratuitously and merely by dint of sheer hard muddling is infuriating to me and criminal in the authorities – a series of scatter-brained nincompoops about fit to look after a cocker-spaniel between them.

Many of the soldiers of the time would have known their Bible or at least some of the stories from the Old Testament, and might have concluded that they needed ‘the patience of Job’ in the conditions in which they found themselves. The Old Testament tells us that, Satan… smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his feet unto his crown (Job 2:7).

Job's boils (from a 10th Century Byzantine manuscript)

Job’s boils (from a 10th Century Byzantine manuscript)

We also learn that Job lived in the Land of Uz. Scholars are divided about the location of Uz; perhaps in Arabia, perhaps as far north as Uzbekistan: but the so-called War Scroll from the Dead Sea describes Uz as ‘East of the Euphrates’. With which, this post comes almost full circle from where it began on 5 March, 2015.

Oh! and then there were the snakes, and the scorpions: but they were more common in the desert than in the marshes, except in the dry season. So, their description awaits a later opportunity. Medical arrangements, too, were quite shocking, with wounded men spending up to two weeks on boats before reaching any kind of hospital: an issue which will merit attention as the campaign progresses.

Can you help Ryburgh Remembers find relatives of Harold Comer?

Ryburgh Remembers is a parish project aimed at helping the community mark the centenary of World War 1 through a series of events, whilst also researching the names of the fallen whose names are recorded in Ryburgh parish.

At St Andrew’s church in Great Ryburgh between the two entrance gates, visitors can find the grave of William Edward Comer who died September 3 1913 aged 64 and his wife Mary Jane who died April 20 1932 aged 81.  Also remembered on the gravestone is one of their sons – Harold. The inscription reads:

Also Harold Douglas son of the above aged 26 years who gave his life for his country August 13th 1915.

Photograph provided by Steve Bushby.

 

The Ryburgh Remembers team have been researching Harold and his family in preparation for a commemorative event that will be held on the centenary of his death. A special peal of the St Andrew’s bells will take place and hopefully the gravestone will also be cleaned.  For the latter to take place, we need the permission of the family and at the moment we have not made any contact with anyone connected with Harold including descendants of his brothers.  Of course, we’d also like to invite them to the centenary commemoration and share with them what has been discovered.

As anyone who is researching their family history understands, you never know what road you will taken down and who you will meet along the way.  In the search for information about Harold Comer, that certainly has been the case. Here’s what we have discovered so far …

The Comer Family

Harold’s birth was registered in the 3rd quarter of 1888. By the 1901 census, Harold (born Great Ryburgh) is aged 12 living with his older brother Archibald (Archie) Thomas (aged c25) in a Maltings’ cottage whilst still at school. At the time of the 1911 census, Harold aged 22 has left Great Ryburgh and is an ironmonger’s assistant staying with his eldest brother Sidney William Comer and family at 51 Portland Street Norwich. At this time, Sidney (a Clerk to the Official Receiver in Bankruptcy Norwich) would have been approximately 37 years old, married to Maria with one daughter Freda (Winifred Mary) Comer.

Marriage and Service

It appears that Harold married school teacher Eva Blanche Pope Dunman in the registration district of Christchurch Hampshire in the second quarter of 1915. Eva Blanche christened 22 September 1893 at Piddletown (also known as Puddletown) Dorset was the daughter of Theophilus Bartlett and Ellen Dunman.

Harold and Eva’s marriage lasted only a few months as on the 28th July, Harold embarked Avonmouth aboard the Royal Edward heading for Gallipoli. 20599 Private Harold Douglas Palmer Comer was a member of the 1st Battalion the Essex Regiment. Harold had originally enlisted in Norwich for the Norfolk Regiment as a Private and was given the service number 17338. In the summer of 1915, 300 men from the 3rd Battalion Norfolk Regiment, the Regiments regular Army training battalion, had volunteered to go to Gallipoli. 100 men went in the first draft on 23rd June and 200 in the second draft on 24th July. Indications are that Harold was part of the first draft as those on that draft are recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves records as 1st Essex, whilst those on the second draft are recorded as 3rd Norfolks.
On 19 August 1915, the Royal Edward was sunk when it was torpedoed by German submarine UB-14. The Royal Edward was hit by one torpedo in the stern and sunk in 6 minutes. Around 1,000 lost their lives and Harold is one of the many commemorated on the Helles Memorial panel 144-150 or 229-233.

Throughout the project, Twitter has proved a useful tool in establishing connections around the world.  Having established the Gallipoli link to Harold’s death, a quick tweet to @Gallipoli100 led to an exchange of information and Gallipoli Association Membership Secretary Keith Edmonds provided us with this photograph of the Helles Memorial.

Helles Memorial

Helles Memorial

The Medal Search

Harold’s widow Eva received his British War Medal (BWM) and death plaque in 1924 and we discovered that they had been included in a sale at Lawrences (Crewkerne Somerset) auction house in October 2009. We understand from the auctioneer that the lot was purchased by a dealer and are likely sold on by now – current whereabouts unknown. Lawrences have kindly given permission to reproduce the following extract from their catalogue:
“A BWM & PLAQUE TO THE ESSEX REGT.
British War Medal named to 20599 Pte H Comer Essex R. The Plaque named to Harold Comer.CWGC states that Harold Comer of the 1st Battn Essex Regiment is commemorated on the Helles Memorial 13/8/1915. An original box of issue card top K/1474 British War 20599 Pte H Comer. Essex R, also a 1914 Xmas Tin with Princess Mary’s card and a typed leaflet. The property of Pte H Comer on obverse, Please acknowledge receipt of to-The Adjudant, 3rd Battn Norfolk Regt, Felixstowe, Suffolk. Estimate: 80-100″.

Medal

Medal photograph by kind permission of Lawrences.

 

Immediately above Harold’s medal entry in the auction catalogue was the name William Dunman. Was this Eva’s brother, whose 1914-1915 Star, death plaque and a photograph of him in uniform were also on sale?  The answer was yes.

1171 Private William John Hill Dunman from Godmanstone, Dorset had enlisted on 26 October 1914 and served in A Squadron 1st Dorset Yeomanry (Queen’s Own).  In a cruel twist (sadly not uncommon in WW1) William was also killed in action at Gallipoli on 21 August 1915 aged 19. In 8 days, Eva had suffered the loss of her husband and brother.  William like Harold is commemorated on the Helles Memorial, Turkey (Panel 17 and 18) and he is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as the son of Ellen Dawe (formerly Dunman) and of the late Theophilus Bartlett Pope Dunman, of Puddletown, Dorset.

Despite having died in the same theatre as Harold, William was awarded the 1914-1915 Star, BWM and Victory Medal. To try and remedy discrepancies such as this, the Gallipoli Association launched a campaign in October 2014 to secure a review of medal awards to those who were lost when the Royal Edward went down in August 1915.

What about Eva?

As for Eva, it seems she collected Harold’s BWM in 1924 after marrying again as Eva Blanche Smith, Hill Crest, Dorchester Road, Weymouth, Dorset. Perhaps Eva kept the medals together for many years and eventually Harold’s medals came to be up for auction in 2009 in the same catalogue as her brothers trio?  The question is, did the buyer know about the family connection and where are they now?

The Ryburgh Memorials


Harold is also remembered on the Think and Thank screen and Roll of Honour of those who served (alongside his brother Archie) St Andrew’s, the War Memorial and the commemorative panel above the stage in the Memorial Hall.

Roll of Honour

Note. Archie Comer was a German PoW during WW1 and married to Clara Pratt, sister of Gerald Pratt who is also named on the Roll of Honour.

If you have further information about Harold or can connect Ryburgh Remembers with a Comer relative, we would love to hear from you via e-mail SBRVAG@aol.com or Twitter @ryburghaction

Research compiled by Peter Trent, Steve Bushby and Steve Tipler, with grateful thanks to Jeff Day (Lawrences), Keith Edmonds (Gallipoli Association) and Sid Hart who is researching the 172-4 ex-Norfolk’s who volunteered to join the 1st Essex, and who lost their lives on that day in August 1915.

The Norfolk Regiment in April 1915: A Memorial to the Fallen

Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.

Herbert Hitchman's Memorial Plaque

Herbert Hitchman’s Memorial Plaque

This is the memorial plaque sent to the family of Lance Corporal Herbert Hitchman of the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. At the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum we have a small collection of Hitchman’s photographs, letters and personal objects, including a Regimental Variety Concert programme that lists him as a soloist singer. In September 1914, as the 2nd Battalion were preparing to leave India for war, Herbert wrote to his parents: “I promise that if I get through it well I shall give you a song or two at your club.” Sadly, he did not make it through the War.

Herbert Hitchman

Herbert Hitchman

The first few months of 1915 were relatively calm for the 2nd Battalion, who were camped out near Basra in Mesopotamia. But by April, the Turkish threat had become serious. On April 5th, the 2nd Battalion were ordered to march to battle at Shaiba, across flooded desert. Their order was to simply “push forward at all costs and take enemy’s trenches.”

The 2nd Battalion charged with their bayonets over 500 yards of desert into heavy rifle fire and shelling, forcing the Turkish forces to flee, and took the Shaiba position for the Norfolks. However, by mid-April the battalion had lost a great number of men, through both wounds and sickness. It was during the Battle of Shaiba on April 14th that Herbert Hitchman met his death, aged 25.

 

A photograph of Herbert Hitchman's grave

A photograph of Herbert Hitchman’s grave

Mourning families like Hitchman’s were sent a bronze memorial plaque or “dead man’s penny” after the War to commemorate their loved one. They also received a named scroll and a letter signed by the King. Over 1,150,000 plaques and scrolls were issued from 1919 onwards, revealing the devastating impact of the First World War.

 

War Diary April 1915

War Norfolk
Second Battle of YpresGerman troops launch a major attack on Allied soldiers around Ypres and use poison gas extensively. Fighting lasts months and the stalemate is not broken. More Zeppelin Air Raids3 bombs were dropped from an airship near Henham Hall War Hospital, fortunately no injuries were sustained.
First Landing at GallipoliBritish, French and ANZAC troops land at Gallipoli in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Turkey. Cross Country TrainingA 7 mile cross country race between units of the North Midland Brigade took place near Diss.
Italy Joins the WarItaly signs the Pact of London and joins the war on the Allied side.