BATTLE OF GAZA
BATTLE OF GAZA
26 Mar – 2 Nov 1917
Hundreds of Norfolk men serving in The Norfolk Regiment fought in the Second Battle of Gaza on 19 April 1917, a costly day for the Norfolk Territorials.
A total of 509 British, ANZAC and British Empire troops were killed, 4,359 wounded and 1,534 reported missing after the Second Battle of Gaza. The names of local men who fell appear on many Norfolk town and village war memorials.
THE SATURDAY NIGHT SOLDIERS
The 4th and 5th Battalions, The Norfolk Regiment were Territorial Force battalions – part time soldiers in peace time.
The 4th Battalion recruited from Norwich and the south of the county with headquarters at The Drill Hall, Chapel Field, Norwich. The eight Companies that made up the battalion had their headquarters in the county towns of Wymondham, Attleborough, Diss and Thetford. The 5th Battalion recruited in the northern half of the county, with headquarters in East Dereham. They had Companies as far apart as King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth and in the towns of Downham Market, Cromer and Fakenham. Notably, there was also a company recruited from the King’s Estate at Sandringham.
The companies consisted of men drawn from all strata of society, from both towns and villages. At every level in the battalion you could find extended family links with fathers, sons, brothers and cousins all serving together with friends, neighbours and workmates.
The Territorial Force was created in 1908 as part of the Haldane Reforms of the British Army. Under this scheme Britain’s county regiments would have, in general, two battalions of Regular Soldiers (full time, professional soldiers). One battalion would be on garrison duty in the British Empire while the other was on Home Service and could be mobilized to create a rapid reaction British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the event of a war emergency. In the event of war the Territorial Force would be mobilized to take the place of the Regular Army battalions that would have left our shores as a BEF and stand ready to defend Great Britain. The Territorial Force was not intended to fight in military campaigns abroad.
MOBILIZATION, RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING
War was declared at 11pm on 4 August 1914 and the Territorial Force was mobilized. On the morning of 5 August 1914 cheering crowds waved goodbye to their local platoons and companies as they marched down to local railway stations to catch trains to their battalion headquarters.
On arrival medical inspections were carried out, equipment checks were made and live ammunition was issued. The 4th Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment mustered at the Chapel Field Drill Hall and were billeted at the City of Norwich School on Newmarket Road. The men of the 5th Battalion reported to their headquarters at East Dereham and had their medical examination in the Church Rooms. The majority of them were billeted in Smith’s maltings.
Just over a week later the 4th and 5th Battalions entrained for Essex. On 17 August, the 5th Battalion marched to Colchester on a gruelling hot day where they were initially billeted in the Colchester Asylum. They were joined on 19 August by the 4th Battalion and spent Christmas of 1914 in the Colchester area. In the meantime Reserve Battalions had also been raised and trained to provide reinforcements when required.
In April 1915, the battalions moved by train from Colchester to Bury St Edmunds where they had better accommodation and the benefits of open fields around the area for training and manoeuvres. In May 1915, the 4th and 5th Battalions became part of the 163rd Brigade, 54th Division and moved with the rest of their brigade to Watford on 20 May. The Norfolk boys got on well with the locals and many a tear was shed when the men of the battalions left the town to serve their King and Country on active service abroad.
Shortly after war broke out men of the Territorial Force were asked if they would be willing to serve abroad. Their call was answered by the majority of men in the Territorials and those who had agreed were issued with an ‘Imperial Service’ badge which they wore with pride above their right breast pocket.
As 1914 rolled on to 1915, the trained men of the Norfolk Territorial battalions questioned if they would ever be deployed for active service. In 1914, they would have anticipated serving in France and Flanders, but the war had widened. Shortly before their departure from Watford, for their embarkation port of Liverpool on 29 July 1915, the men were issued with pith helmets and sets of khaki drill jackets and trousers. They would have wondered where they were going.
Only when they were at sea aboard the S.S. Aquitania was their destination announced to the men – Gallipoli, a place few of them had heard of, let alone knew where it was. On 6 August, after almost a week-long journey across thousands of miles of dangerous waters, they reached Lemnos. From here they transferred to the SS Osmaih, with 1,700 men aboard in accommodation meant for 800. They travelled to Imbros then onto Suvla Bay. At 5.30am on 10 August 1915 the Norfolk Territorials landed at ‘A’ Beach onto Turkish soil.
Within days the 5th Battalion were in action and suffered horrific casualties during the attack on Anafarta Ova on 12 August 1915. The 4th and 5th Battalions hung on through the campaign. They were joined by reinforcements and other local units such as The Norfolk Yeomanry. Sadly, the campaign was not a success and British forces evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915.
THE CAMPAIGN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The war in the Middle East was one that was hard fought by the men of The Norfolk Regiment. Regular soldiers of 2nd Battalion had been on campaign in Mesopotamia since 1914. However, after initial successes fighting in Basra, notably at The Battle of Shaiba in April 1915, they had become mired in a campaign that faltered and resulted in a siege at Kut-el-Amara with terrible losses.
After evacuation from Gallipoli, the men of the 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions, The Norfolk Regiment, had been withdrawn to Egypt and spent Christmas of 1915 in Sidi Bishr camp. They remained there until February 1916 when they moved to Mena Camp at the foot of the great pyramid near Cairo and drafts were sent over from England to reconstitute the 54th Division. After a period of training and reorganisation, both battalions were involved in the manning of posts along the Suez Canal. In February 1917, as the new campaign emerged in Palestine, the 4th and 5th Battalions marched across the Sinai Desert with their Brigade to join the advance.
Their first major action in this campaign was one they would observe as a reserve unit, it would prove to be the First Battle of Gaza on 26 March 1917. It was unsuccessful but the field commanders pushed for another attack.
It was the Second Battle of Gaza fought 17-19 April 1917 that proved so costly to Norfolk Territorial battalions. It also failed and the city was only taken after the field commander was replaced by General Edmund Allenby. He readdressed the strategy and tactics of the campaign and the victory at the Battle of Beersheba broke the stalemate. Gaza was finally taken in a third battle fought on the night of 1-2 November 1917 and brought victory in the Middle East into sight.
THE SECOND BATTLE OF GAZA
The soldiers of 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions, The Norfolk Regiment would take part in their first major action in the Middle East campaign at The Second Battle of Gaza, fought 17-19 April 1917.
On the night of 17-18 April the battalions assembled with their brigade at Sharta under orders to attack Sheikh Abbas ridge at dawn.
The enemy only had a few outposts in this area and the capture and consolidation of the ridge was achieved. There had been heavy shell fire and ‘A’ Company of 1/5th Norfolk, under Captain Birkbeck, received a fair brunt of the enemy fire during the consolidation but, fortunately, suffered few casualties.
Orders for the general attack upon the Turkish main line along the Gaza-Beersheba Road were issued so late on 18 April that they did not reach all the men until nearly midnight. This resulted in most of the night being spent preparing for the attack and distributing rations and water.
Of the advance of the two Norfolk battalions Captain Murray Buxton wrote: ‘it was a magnificent sight to see them going in extended order as if on a field day’. However, since the First Battle of Gaza, the Turks had extended their formidable garrison defences south-east along the road to Beersheba. The Gaza fortifications had also been reinforced and were far more formidable than before.
Each attacking battalion covered a front of about 900 yards. The right of 1/5th Norfolk was directed on an enemy redoubt which soon sprayed the men with heavy machine gun and rifle fire. The first low ridge was crossed by 8.30am and the second, about 500 yards further on was reached.
“Artillery bombardment commenced on Turks at 05.30, lasting two hours. 163rd Brigade ordered to attack 07.30. 5th Norfolks being on right of 163 Brigade frontage, 4th Norfolks on left with 8th Hampshires in support and 5th Suffolks as reserve. The trenches to be attacked were 2500 to 3000 yards from line held by 163 Brigade.” The 1/5th Battalion War Diary 19 April 1917.
The tank, known as ‘The Nutty’ with the 1/5th Norfolk and 1/8th Hants, did sterling work inflicting heavy damage on the enemy, but followed a somewhat wayward path towards the redoubt. Upon achieving the knoll it was fired upon at point blank range by four field guns and set on fire. Despite suffering severe casualties taking the redoubt, the attacking troops from the Camel Corps and 1/5th Norfolk under Captain Arthur Blyth took it with a bayonet charge. The Turkish troops, some estimate at being 600 in number, broke and fled to their second line defences, 20 were taken prisoner of war.
The capture of what became known as ‘Tank Redoubt’ was undoubtedly the infantry’s most significant gain of the battle, but this gain was to be short-lived. No support came, and those who did not get away, sixty in all, were captured in the Turkish counter attack. By noon, the British attack had faltered at all points and any gains which had been made were too thinly occupied to be held for longer than minutes or hours.
At 2.23pm a British counter attack was launched, 1/6th Essex on the left and 1/5th Suffolk on the right with artillery barrage firing on the enemy trenches.
It soon became clear this attack would make no progress and 1/6th Essex were withdrawn behind the Sheik Abbas ridge, while the remains of the Norfolk battalions and 1/8th Hampshires dug in at the positions they occupied.
At around 4pm the 1/5th Suffolk was sent up in support and helped consolidate what ground the Norfolks had managed to hold. At about 7pm, the Brigadier came up the line and ordered the battalions to retire under cover of darkness to the start point. Captain Buxton wrote: “We brought in a lot of wounded as we came back. The three attacking regiments of our Brigade had all had very heavy losses. Each was reduced to about 150. The 5th Norfolk lost, killed or wounded, all the Officers who went in, except one, and about 600 men.”