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Gaza, 1st May to 7th November 1817

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry
 

The beginning of May found the Battalion in support, with its Headquarters on Queen's Hill. As was usually the case, when in support the time of all ranks was taken up with continuous fatigues and other duties. At this time, besides supplying working parties for the Royal Engineers and burying cable for the Brigade Signaling Officer, various parties, usually of 200 each, were employed in constructing communication trenches for the battalions of the Brigade in the front line. On 3rd May the Battalion relieved the 7th H.L.I. in the front trenches on Lees Hill. Each company held a part of the front line and furnished its own support. The period in the line until relieved by the 7th H.L.I. on 10th May was uneventful. A considerable amount of time was spent in improving the trenches and the occasional light shelling which took place did not do much damage and inflicted no casualties. The Turk it was observed was spending his time in much the same way and at first exposed good targets for our machine-gun fire; latterly, however, as a result of our fire his work was carried out under cover.

The only casualty during this period was Captain T.S.S. Wightman, who was accidentally wounded by a cartridge exploding in a cook's fire. After a week the Battalion was relieved by the 7th H.L.I. and the period in support was taken up in night fatigues for work in the line and by gas demonstrations carried out by the Divisional Gas Officer under somewhat trying circumstances, as the weather was very hot and not conducive to the wearing of a gas mask. Captain Dingwall Kennedy unfortunately had to leave the Battalion sick and his place was filled by Captain D.C. MacArdle.

Prior to relieving the 5th A. & S.H. the Battalion had a "night in bed"a most unusual occurrence. On this occasion the Battalion held Kurd Hill, Heart Hill, Carnarvon Redoubt, Snowdon Street, Sniper's Spur and Sniper's Post. The country was flat and rather uninteresting except on the extreme left held by "D" Company, where the outlook was over sandy hills studded here and there with patches of scrub. Captain A.R. MacEwen and 2nd Lieut. T.C. Price were lent for temporary duty with a battalion of the 155th Brigade, and as a result the former took a hand in a successful night raid by the K.O.S.B. on "Sea Poast."

On Brigade instructions standing patrols were furnished all along the line at night under the charge of two officers. On the night 18/19th May the 155th Brigade made a considerable demonstration against Umbrella Hill. In order to cover the whole front the line had to be very thinly held, and in consequence of the drifting sand considerable difficulty was experienced and much work required in keeping the trenches in repair.

On 27th May the 6th H.L.I. relieved the Battalion, when some difficulty was experienced owing to the camel transport being delayed. The Battalion was situated in Brigade reserve with headquarters at Kurd Hill, the only detached party being one platoon of "D" Company under Captain Townsend, who occupied No. 6 redoubt. The whole Battalion was soon engaged on numerous fatigues which continued to the end of the month. On 2nd June the Battalion relieved the 7th H.L.I. in the right sector of the Brigade line lying on Happy Valley and Lees Hill; each company holding part of the line as before.

At this time word was received that Major J.B. Neilson had been awarded the D.S.O. for his good work in Gallipoli.

The enemy showed very few signs of activity, an occasional patrol only being encountered. On the night of 11th June a demonstration was taken part in against Outpost Hill to assist a trench raid by the 5th K.O.S.B. against Belah Post. The distance between the lines here was about 600 yards. Men were sent out with dummy figures to a nullah about 300 yards from the Turkish line. At a fixed hour these dummies were fixed in position on the top of the bank in imitation of a line advancing to attack. The men took shelter in the nullah, working the figures into position by a rope and Verey lights were fired. We then opened fire on the Turkish line. Whether the Turk imagined he was being attacked or not is doubtful, but he did not reply with any considerable fire until one hour had elapsed; then he kept it up for about fifty minutes. The next night "B" Company undertook the unenviable task of bringing in the dummy figures and found the ridge on which they lay occupied by the enemy in several places.

On 13th June the Battalion was relieved by the 7th battalion Essex Regiment and moved to a much longed for camp on the beach beside Regent's Park. The period spent beside the sea will always be looked back upon by all who shared in it as one of the most enjoyable times of the war. To be able to have the prospect of the sea within fifty yards is always enjoyable, but more than ever so when the climate is such that the pleasantest moments are those spent in the water. Just a sufficient amount of drill and work was put in to make the rest enjoyable, and even a long and tiring "Brigade Exercise" was able to be faced when we knew that a bathe awaited us at the end.

During this period the Battalion exchanged their Mark VI. rifles for those of Mark VII. and had a few days' practice at a range close by.


Inside Yapton Post

Captain F.W. Brown, R.A.M.C., was with us for a short period, taking the place of Captain MacArdle who departed on home leave.

No reserve area could compare with Regent's Park. It was situated among the sand hills, on the very edge of the Mediterranean, and when the sun made the atmosphere too hot a medium for comfortable living, the sea was always there. Our bivouac area lay within a mile to the east of the mouth of the great Wadi Ghuzzeh, down which flowed for the last mile or so of its course clear fresh water. This attracted a great variety of birds, including flamingoes and storks, and on the bushes near the wadi were found these wonderfully nimble little green tree frogs. Small fish abounded in the pools; but pools were not popular with the malaria experts and attempts were being made to drain all casual water into one channel, put a little paraffin in the pools that could not be emptied by draining, and so either remove or render ineffective the breeding places of the anophylis mosquito. The day's work lay on the rifle range or in practicing trench-to-trench attacks. There was no enemy artillery-fire to disturb the calmness, and each day gave the same opalescent eastern sky at dawn and the same fast-dropping sun falling below the sea at night. A battalion could really rest at Regent's Park, and we were somewhat unwilling to move when orders came on the 9th July to take over the front line at Dumb-bell Hill.

A night-march across the rear of our own lines on compass bearings, a rest at dawn, and we took over the line from Bury Hill to Yapton Redoubt. In this part of the line the trench system, which was opposite and to the left of Gaza, gave place to mutually supporting redoubts and defended localities. The Battalion was disposed with three companies in the line and "C" Company in reserve. There was nothing to do in this sector beyond the ordinary routine of trench garrison. The distance between the enemy line and our own was so great that there was no chance of the painful intimacy of other sectors. But the country in front was full of interest; it was sweeping, undulating ground, cut up by many deep wadis, and generally the only way to be sure that there was no enemy movement in a wadi was to have a post in it or on the bank.

Yapton Redoubt was the most curious in formation; a deep wadi ran through the middle of it and the wire blocks on the enemy side were so ingenious that on a dark night it was extremely difficult for patrols to find the way in. An attack up the wadi would have been difficult, as small bombing posts had been constructed on the top of the high banks, and while they could have lobbed over bombs into the gully, they were almost out of bomb range themselves. However, the scheme of defense was never put to the test. In an old cactus-bound garden about 1500 yards in front of Yapton we had a day observation post perched in a tree. The cactus hedge was a mass of ripe prickly pears, and the art of eating them was only learnt after a lengthy period spent in extracting the fine thorns from one's fingers, mouth, tongue and throat. Within the hedge were fig trees, small vines, tomatoes, pomegranates and a small native hut, but huts in this part were not entered as they swarmed with small insects more desirous of making our acquaintance than we were of making theirs. One step within was sufficient. "C" Company sent nightly patrols to the Wadi Sihan and to Two Tree Post, but they returned each morning with no tale to tell. Except when an enterprising member of a patrol entered the back door of a hut unknown to the officer who entered the front door. A little mutual stalking was indulged in with bombs ready, but fortunately recognition took place before attrition.

The only excitement was the end of the Ramadan fast and the entrance on the Bairam month of feasting. G.H.Q. thought that the enemy might celebrate his release from the month of denial by doing something rash or risky, and orders were sent broadcast for extra vigilance and doubled sentries. The eventful hour came and he sent over half-a-dozen battery salvoes on Dumb-bell Hill and Brighton Redoubt and peace reigned once more over our corner of Asia. The same situation occurred in Gallipoli in 1915 when we were facing the Turk and the result was also the same. On the 23rd July the Battalion was relieved by the 4th R.S.F. and passed into Divisional reserve at Wadi Simeon. It was about this time that fate transplanted in our midst a medical officer from Kirkliston.

At this time the enemy had several very strong and heavily wired redoubts in his front line, and of these, by far the most spectacular was dug round a derelict tank of ours, lost in the second Gaza battle. It was known to us as Tank Redoubt and lay opposite Abbas Apex in our own line and some 1600 yards away. Several very successful raids had been made on other of his strongholds and G.H.Q. detailed our battalion for a similar attempt on Tank Redoubt. Such an operation required skilful and exact preparation and very great accuracy. A scale model of the redoubt was made near the bivouac area and the raiding party, 300 strong, under Major Findlay, began active rehearsals. The "Destruction Party" were to form a spectacular feature of this raid. They were to carry 6-feet tubes full of ammonal for blowing gaps in the wire. The sappers, by using the mechanism of Mill's bombs, were able to devise a method by which the Mill's lever was released and five seconds after the tubes exploded. Hatchet men then were to rush in and clear the gaps. The system seemed to work well in practice. The raid was to take place while the Battalion was holding the line at Abbas Apex, and on August 5th Colonel Morrison with the rest of the Battalion took over this sector from the 4th R.S. Previously, parties of officers and men from the raiding party had gone out on patrol with the Royal Scots in order to familiarize themselves with the ground. On every occasion they met strong Turkish patrols, who usually held some old British trenches, dug by the Suffolks during the second Gaza battle, on a small ridge about 600 yards from Tank Redoubt, known as Suffolk Ridge. The first officer we sent out to familiarize himself with the ground had a much more exciting time than he bargained for, and only by being possessed of an excellent sense of direction did he return to us. It was a fitting introduction to what was in store for us in the No-Man's Land in front of the Abbas Apex. The presence of a hostile patrol on the night of the raid would jeopardize everything and so it was determined to make an attempt to clear No Man's Land the night before. A patrol of two officers and thirty other ranks accordingly got orders to move out to the old British trenches to act as a decoy to entice the enemy to pursue them towards our lines, while on the flank were to be stationed two companies of another unit, whose orders were on hearing rapid fire coming from the patrol to close with the bayonet on the flank of the enemy and roll up his line against our wire. It was an intensely dark night and the patrol moved out after the two companies were safely hidden in cover. The first intimation of the Turk was the sight of a line of sparks from bombs being lit (the Turk then used brassards for lighting the fuses); then began quite a battle. Rifles and our Lewis guns opened out rapid fire, ceased fire, and opened again, and then began to withdraw. It was time, as the Turks were enveloping us. Several men had been hit and half the butt of the Lewis gun blown off by a bomb. It was difficult to estimate the number of the enemy, but an officer found himself in the third extended line of advancing Turks and reckoned we were up against a big roving patrol which had a good reputation for this sort of work. This officer, with a balmoral as a head-dress and armed with a rifle and bayonet, escaped in the dark by his resemblance to a Turk and by his bayoneting one of the enemy. The patrol extricated itself with ability, much helped by Corporal M'Lean in charge of the Lewis gun section, who took the gun after all of his team had been wounded and kept off the enemy by firing it from his shoulder. For his coolness and gallantry he received the first Military Medal awarded to the Battalion in Palestine. The Turks had been drawn on all right, but what of the charge by the two companies. That unfortunately miscarried. It came late and the two companies missed the flank of the enemy's advanced force, getting into the gap behind it and just in front of the enemy's reserve line which was also advancing. Thus they found themselves with no one in front of them, but with a bomb and rifle attack on both flanks. With some difficulty they were withdrawn. Our own patrol got home safely but Lieut. Milne and Pte. Graham were lost in the retiral. No one had seen Lieut. Milne fall, but months later we heard that he had died of wounds in a Turkish hospital. He was a great loss, as his bright and cheery nature helped all ranks.


Sheikh Abbas

As the result of this raid could not be said to have cleared the enemy of the extensive No Man's Land, the raid on Tank Redoubt had to be cancelled and the raiding party joined the Battalion in the line.

The next fortnight must rank as among the most unpleasant and least satisfactory periods of the whole campaign. The Turk was extremely active in No Man's Land, and while our last encounter had made him appreciate he was not going to have it all his own way in his midnight strolls, and while he apparently agreed to keep some 800 yards from our line, still beyond that point he considered the land was his preserve, and there he kept every night large floating patrols and maintained a garrison in the old British trenches, and he was most determined that we should not visit him. From the Apex an old road ran straight through our wire towards the Tank, crossed by another road at right angles about 800 yards out. To these cross-roads, from which the trenches were about 400 yards distant, the Battalion sent at least one nightly patrol. The patrol then became a listening post or covering patrol and an officer and a man would proceed further to try to find out the Turk's night dispositions. These were discovered, and at length the reserve company asked permission to clear the trenches with the bayonet. The idea was approved, but a higher authority announced that it was preparing a scheme and that until the plan was ready we must not disturb the Turk unduly, but were to continue our patrols to the cross-roads and send on a small party to draw fire from the enemy holding the old British trenches. This was clear, and although unpleasant was regularly carried out, but all ranks got thoroughly tired of this job as it had to be done for about ten nights before the scheme appeared. It embraced artillery and machine-gun support, Verey lights and all the incidentals of a first-class night attack. The enemy was to be enclosed in a rectangle, three sides of which were to consist of shells and machine-gun bullets and the fourth of one company of another unit and "A" Company of the 5th. This side was to move inwards, clearing the old British trenches with the bayonet as it reached them. On the right was "A" Company, clear of the trenches, which fell to others, so that "A" Company's duty was to clear their side of Suffolk Ridge and keep in line with the company on their left. From the information gained by our patrols we did not anticipate that "A" Company would meet with any opposition. The Turkish position to their front was some 200 yards farther on than their objective. On the 20th August the operation was attempted. The trenches were strongly held, and the company on the left could not carry them. The line became confused in the darkness. Acting on orders previously issued "A" Company withdrew to the cross-roads; a patrol was then sent out but nothing was discovered. The Turks were remaining in their trenches and the other company had gone home, so "A" Company also returned after a most unsatisfactory night's work and fifteen casualties, of which two were killed and four missing. Three of the missing were accounted for in this way. Two stretcher bearers with one stretcher case set off for our line, but unfortunately got confused at the cross-roads and wandered into a wadi where they were captured. We got word soon after from the bearers, by letter dropped from a Turkish aeroplane, that they were safe, and after the Armistice we were glad to hear that Pte. Brooks, the wounded man, had returned safe, if not sound, as he had lost a leg.

There is an amusing incident which occurred at this time when the Brigade held the Apex. An officer's patrol was sent out by another unit one very dark night to reconnoiter the ground between the Apex and Tank Redoubt. Having covered the ground they returned to their own lines, where the officer sent the patrol in under a corporal and decided to go out again with his sergeant to endeavour to get some information regarding a particular part of the enemy's line. Off they went and after having gone some distance were quite at a loss as to where they were. They suddenly came up against some barbed wire and thinking that it might be the Turkish lines decided to lie down and listen. Very soon they heard voices talking in a language unmistakably eastern. They distinguished such words as Achmed, Abdul, etc., and jumped to the conclusion that they were within a few yards of the enemy. While they were rapidly considering the best way of beating a hasty retreat they were greatly relieved to hear the raucous voice of a sleepy Scot exhorting the speakers in very fluent language to take the ration camels away from his vicinity. In the darkness they had described a semi-circle and returned to their own lines.

On the 24th the Battalion was relieved and went into Brigade reserve at Tel el Ahmar, occupying the redoubts about two miles behind the front line. By the beginning of September we were back in the Wadi Simeon working on fatigues by night and day. After a fortnight of this, orders came to rejoin the rest of the Brigade at Sheikh Nahkrur. This was a bivouac area near to the tomb of some ancient holy man and almost within the shadow of Tel el Jemmi, the huge circular earth-tower, which was the most southerly outpost of the Crusaders. There we began a hard programme of training in musketry, bayonet-fighting, physical and close-order drill and movements by night, a plain showing that we were entering again the valley of decision. On the 19th, General Hill, the commander of the 52nd Division, inspected the Brigade, and, after complimenting it on the steadiness of drill and marching, foretold the near approach of the day when all its steadiness and valor would be required. The last week spent at Sheikh Nahkrur we were attached to the 155th Brigade, the remainder of our Brigade having gone nearer the line as they had come out before us. Left to ourselves we thoroughly enjoyed life. The training on the open country was a delightful change, and after our recent experiences we were easily able to devise small night operations of the most hair-raising kind. It was here that our Battalion Concert Party made their debut. There were seven of them, Corpl. Hamilton, Ptes. F. Williams, A. Heron, J. M'Ardle (Ella Rish), Sergt. R. Lyon, Ptes. T. Elliot and J.B. Smith. The pioneers rigged up a stage with its back to a high cactus hedge and from the performance the future success of the company was assured, and to the company, as well as to the pioneers who afterwards erected and decorated stages in the open or in nullahs, we owed much for the entertainments given. Battalion sports were also held. Most who were there will remember the stalwart Pte. Little walking round the tiny transport donkey with the "Bint" up. Another worthy effort of the pioneers was the erection of a palatial hut when an officer's mess dinner was held, our first since leaving Mahamdiya. A move was made on the 29th when the battalion arrived in the Abbas sector, coming under the command of the G.O.C. 234th Brigade. The remainder of the Brigade took over the Edinburgh sector of the line from Outpost Hill westwards. A change was made on October 5th when we moved into reserve at Apsley House where the other battalions of the Brigade joined us a week later. Training was continued. Particular attention was paid to the specialists, and Brigade Bombing and Sniping Schools were started. Lewis gunners, in their little groups, sweated over the dusty ground and picked their weapons to pieces almost every hour. The men were exercised in attacks over the open and in surprise attacks on unknown positions. Parties of officers visited the coastal sector and examined diligently the enemy lines. Each day saw a keener polish put on the weapon which was so soon to be used. The strain was beginning to be felt when, on the 24th October, the guns on our whole front began the overture to the third battle of Gaza.


Observation Post in Front of Yapton Post

Following our custom we had been living in a nullah, but the first rain of the season took us by surprise on 25th October, and the dry bed became a stream and all the little cubby holes became full of water; the lightning was amazingly brilliant and the roar of the thunder made the bombardment sound tame in comparison. There was not a soul in the Battalion but was soaked to the skin. It was a curious thing as the conditions steadily got worse to hear the men instead of grousing singing their favorite songs till day broke and a sunny morning dried up everyone in a few hours.


The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918

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