From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office.
During 1916 the British had steadily advanced from the Sinai desert in Egypt as part of their plans to invade Palestine in 1917. By January 1917 they had defeated the Turks at Rafa and the borders of Palestine were in sight.
However Turkish strongholds in Gaza prevented the British advance. The first battle of Gaza on 26th and 27th March had been unsuccessful following a British retreat. This failure only strengthened the Turks resolve to make a stand at Gaza.
The second battle of Gaza took place between 17th and 19th April. It involved the 163rd (Norfolk and Suffolk) Brigade which was made up of the 4th and 5th Territorial Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment drawn mainly from North Norfolk as well as the 54th (East Anglian) Division.
Private Joseph Emms, service number 3247, was in B Company of the 5th Norfolk Regiment. He recounted in detail his part in the attack. FX 296/1.
“On the 19th of April we made the attack on a very ancient town in part of Palestine. The 5th Norfolk Regiment was in the first line to advance & suffered rather heavy losses”.
At 5am that day they were told they would be advancing about 2000 yards and that they would be under heavy fire throughout. The gunfire was so intense that the regiment, initially in artillery formation, extended themselves out and went at intervals. Emms approached a Turkish redoubt with his friend Dent on one side and a comrade, Eastie (sic), on the other. Both Dent and Eastie were hit.
“I began to think my time was coming, but luck was good for me that day and I managed to get as far as any man in the line”.
The Turkish redoubt was strongly fortified and comprised lines of trenches one behind the other forming a half circle. As they approached they encountered barbed wire in front of the trenches. Emms wrote that as they considered how to get past the wire “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 tank was known as ‘The Nutty’. As it made short work of the wire, Emms and his company followed behind and made it to the second trench. The Turks shot at the tank hitting one of its wheels and putting it out of action. Rather than let the Turks get hold of the tank, the tank crew set fire to it and joined Emms and the others in the trench. Emms found himself with a group of men all of whom appeared to be wounded. This included his company officer Captain Blyth.
“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 & only smiled”.
Things then took a turn for the worse. The line retired leaving Emms with eighteen others in the trench. They were heavily outnumbered.
“Almost at once there were scores of Turks swarming round us and I began to think it was all U.P”.
There were two Lewis guns in the trench but no ammunition. The men emptied their pockets and used what they had to fire the guns.
“When it was all done we sat down on the dead Turks who were in the trench as there were so many that we couldn’t help it”.
Having no more ammunition they waited for the next onslaught. After a few hours around a dozen Turks arrived.
“We only had our bayonets to fight them with. Someone managed to find a “bomber’s” coat full of bombs and we kept them off for a short time with these”.
Captain Blyth then shouted that it was either surrender or make a dash for it. They chose the latter but only one officer and seven men, including Emms, managed to get away. Blyth was treated in hospital in Alexandria and survived his injuries.
“All of us who came back recommended him for his coolness & bravery which he showed in many ways, one by way of using & cleaning a Turkish rifle & by sticking (at) it though severely wounded”.
The capture of Tank Redoubt by Blyth and his men was a significant gain for the British until all their ammunition was spent. The 4th and 5th battalions suffered heavy losses and the second battle of Gaza was another defeat for the British.
It is not known what happened to Emms after his escape from Tank Redoubt. While his account is particularly graphic, others also wrote not only of battle but of the daily monotony and also beauty of this foreign landscape. We will explore these records next month.
Complied by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger