‘Quidquid delirant reges plectuntur’ – Whatever errors the great commit, the people must atone for. The Second Battle of Gaza April 1917

From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office.

While Joseph Emms of the 5th Norfolk Regiment gives a graphic account of one particular battle in Gaza in April 1917, others wrote at greater length of the fighting within the context of their day to day life in Gaza; of the heat, the hardships, the comradeship and of the natural beauty of the landscape.   Two such men were Geoffrey Palgrave Barker and Major Thomas Wood Purdy.  MC 2847/Q7 and ACC 2015/244 Part 67 (Part 5).

Geoffrey Palgrave Barker arrived in Rafah on 8th April 1017 then travelled on to Deir Al-Balah.  The landscape made an immediate impression on him:

Like Salisbury Plain, rolling hills and dusty, but covered with thin grass and barley. . . . . . The present railhead about 7m S.W. of Gaza . . whole place a huge camp. . . . Turk aeroplanes about, our guns keep them pretty high but they are always about.

His first impressions also took account of the military implications realizing that the many gardens and farms with cactus hedges would be difficult to cross.

In the days leading up to the battle Barker wrote of heavy shelling. On 16th April they took up an outpost line at Wadi Sharta then retired to a position at Piccadilly Circus.  The next day they rested in hot sun with no shelter.  They then moved up to Charing Cross under heavy artillery fire.  On 19th April they moved to Sheihk Gibbas Ridge.  Despite heavy bombardment along Khirlet Sihan and the Beersheba Road, they suffered only a few minor casualties.

The Turk seems to love sprinkling strings of camels with shrapnel so we don’t like them too close to us. . . . .A lot of wounded from Australian Camel Corps came through us, they got it rather badly.

Between the end of April and Barker’s last entry in June, his daily life is occupied with troop movement, trench digging and occasional attacks from the Turks. His diaries resume in October 1917 when he was in Beersheeba and Jerusalem.

Thomas Wood Purdy from Woodgate near Aylsham was Major of the 5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment.  His war diary seamlessly mixes his account of the fighting, his great concern for his men and his passionate interest in wildlife, particularly birds.

Purdy was involved in the first battle on 26th March which gives some context to what followed in April.  On 26th March he wrote:

We being intended as a surprise packet for the Turk in Gaza who it was hoped would move out of the Town to attack the Mounted Divisions who were to make a feint attack to the S.E. . . . . we had, as we usually do, gravely underestimated the Turk. He was present in the Town in much greater numbers and put up a tremendous fight. 

By nightfall the British had almost cleared the town of the enemy. Later that same day they were in action again.

We started without drawing water or food under the idea that the camels would accompany us, a grave error for which we suffered heavily. Brigade again.

In the days following, Purdy reflected on events:

Photo 1 29 March 1917- ed

Purdy’s diary entry 28th and 29th March 1917

 

Purdy did not actually take part in the second battle having been taken to Ras El Tin hospital in Alexandria with kidney inflammation. Ironically it is probably because of this that he was able to give such a detailed account of the battle because he was able to meet up with some of his wounded men who ended up in the same hospital.

23rd April.  Heard the awful news that Gardiner and 12 men of the Battalion are reported killed. . . . .In other words the Battalion is wiped out and worse than at Sulva. God has indeed been good to me once more. 

Amongst the names he mentions is Captain Blyth who was with Joseph Emms in Tank Redoubt. However, on 24th April, on returning to the hospital after visiting the town he was overjoyed to find some of his men there including Blyth who he had thought dead.

Photo 2 25 April 1917-ed

Purdy’s diary entry 25th April 1917

 

Purdy tells the story of the second battle from the account given by his wounded men.

Apparently they took Sheikh Abbas Ridge and the 52nd took Mansura on Tuesday morning without much trouble.  On Thursday they attacked the Turkish position along and the other side of Beersheba Road.  Byford said they had to advance over absolutely open country under a tremendous barrage of shrapnel and H.E. from the left for about a mile and a half.  They went in 4 lines and were extended to 10 paces.  The 162nd Brigade were on our left and the 52nd Division on their left.  There was a gap between the 162nd and the 163rd.  In the latter Bdge. 4th Norfolk were on the left, 5th Norfolk on the right, 1/8 Hants. In support and barrage, machine guns opened on them from either flank.  He got about 200 yards from Turkish Trenches but was absolutely alone the rest of his men having become casualties.  Gibbons said he got quite close to the Turkish wire.  Apparently they were not supported and lay in the open until wounded, when they crawled back into a little hollow, and then got back at night.  The 52nd on the left had got as far as Green Hill but then had to withdraw.  The 53rd took Samson Ridge by the Sandhills, but apparently withdrew from it two or three days later.  Two Tanks supported the 54th.  One was stopped by a direct hit from an H.E. soon after it left our trenches and then was hit twice again.  The other reached the Turkish trenches and then went up and down them clearing away the wire, but then one of its caterpillar wheels came off and it was set on fire.  It is rumoured that 4 more tanks have been put out of action.  Our guns bombarded the Turkish trenches for two hours before the attack, but Byford said that as far as he could see, our shells were directed mainly against some dummy trenches on rising ground and not against the front trenches which were 400 or 55 yards in front of the dummy ones and so beautifully sited that they were invisible till one was nearly on them. He had heard that the Camel Corps and the Imperial Mounted Division attacked on our right with no better success and lost heavily, that the 74th Division were afterwards brought up on the right and dug in on the Beersheba Road; that we still held Sheikh Abbas and Mansura. 

Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger

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2 thoughts on “‘Quidquid delirant reges plectuntur’ – Whatever errors the great commit, the people must atone for. The Second Battle of Gaza April 1917

  1. My grandfather, Charles Reginald Byford fought in the battles of Gaza – I think he must be the Byford mentioned in Purdy’s account above. I know that he was wounded in one of the battles and perhaps it was him who supplied some of the information in the last paragraph above. He recovered from his wounds in Cairo. I know that he married my grndmother, Edith in October 1916 and left for the Middle East in November 1916. He did not return until November (I think) 1919. I have a copy of his photo album – most of the photos were taken in Egypt and about 3 can be found in the Picture Norfolk archive (enter Byford in the search).

  2. Interesting to read this account. My grandfather, Charles Reginald Byford fought in one or two of the battles of Gaza and was wounded. From what little I know he recuperated in Cairo, Egypt (perhaps he met Purdy at the Ras el Tin hospital – hence the mention). He had married my grandmother in October 1916 and left for Palestine in November 1916. He returned in 1919 (November or December, I think). I have his photo album and some of these photos are now in Picture Norfolk (to see put Byford into the search engine). I’m happy to show you the album. I know that a log of his WW1 activity is held by the Regimental Museum.

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