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.

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