Palestine – 1917

During 1917 the Egypt Expeditionary Force (EEF) fought three battles against the Ottoman Turks as part of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. The strategic objective was to preserve the security of Egypt, India and the Persian Gulf by seizing the south of Palestine and then capturing Jerusalem. A further advance would split the Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia from those on the Arabian Peninsula and secure the region.

In the first battle, fought on 26 March 1917, EEF infantry and mounted infantry attacked the town of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. These forces were on the verge of capturing the town when, late in the afternoon, they were withdrawn because of concerns about the approaching darkness and large Turkish reinforcements. This British defeat was followed a few weeks later by an even more emphatic reversal at the Second Battle of Gaza.

In June General Sir Edmund Allenby replaced Sir Archibald Murray as commander of the EEF. The stalemate in Palestine continued in terrible conditions through the summer and but by late autumn Allenby was ready to attack. On 27 October EEF artillery began a heavy and continuous bombardment of Gaza. The Third Battle of Gaza began on the night of 1-2 November with infantry attacks on the town. Although these initial assaults were only partially successful, an intensification of the bombardment and further night attacks on 6-7 finally broke Ottoman resistance. With the collapse of Turkish positions on the Gaza to Beersheba line, the EEF pursued the enemy north towards Jerusalem which was eventually captured on 9 December 1917.

8th Battalion and the First Battle of Gaza:  The 8th Hampshire reached El Arish, on the Egyptian coast, on 25 February 1917. On 20 March they moved to In Serat, arriving five days later. During the First Battle of Gaza, 8th Hampshire took post at the Sheikh Abbas ridge, with A and C Companies on outpost. The 53rd Division was developing its attack, and eventually seized its objectives. However, through miscommunications, the 54th Division believed that the 53rd attack had failed, and therefore ordered a withdrawal. The 8th Hampshire pulled back to In Serat, where they remained until 16 April when they prepared to advance once again to the Sheikh Abbas ridge.

8th Battalion and the Second Battle of Gaza: During the three weeks between the first and second Gaza battles, the Ottomans – with German guidance – considerably strengthened their defences. On 17 April, the 8th Hampshires and 5th Suffolks advanced and cleared Turkish outposts on the Sheikh Abbas ridge, suffering only two casualties. However, phase two of the attack, which opened two days later, proved to be a disaster. The 4th and 5th Norfolks advanced towards the Gaza-Beersheba road, A and B Companies of the Hampshires supporting the 5th, and C and D the 4th. With 2,500 yards of open ground to cross, the troops were severely exposed and suffered heavy causalities. Even so, the Norfolks and Hampshires did capture a redoubt with the support of a tank, though this was knocked out when the Turks counter-attacked and recaptured the position. The Hampshires lost 23 officers and more than 400 other ranks.

After the battle the battalion was withdrawn from the line and moved to south of Sheikh Abbas. On 2 June reinforcements arrived in the shape of four officers and 270 men of the 2/5th Hampshire and a fortnight later the battalion transferred again to the trenches nearest the Mediterranean coast. They then moved to Deir-el-Belah, the depot for the EEF force surrounding Gaza, where they were joined by the 2/4th Battalion on 16 August.

8th Battalion and the Third Battle of Gaza:   The 8th Hampshire, part of 163rd Brigade, went into action on the night of 1-2 November 1917. To exploit the EEF’s success at Beersheba and to prevent the Turks transferring troops there from their right wing at Gaza, General Allenby ordered 163rd Brigade to attack the town. The advance began at 3am, the 8th Hampshire objectives being Burj Trench and Redoubt. A heavy Turkish barrage caused confusion in A Company on the right and in B and D in the second line, with consequent loss of direction. Two platoons of A, diverging to their right, entered and captured Triangle Trench – part of the objective of 5th Suffolk – taking a gun and 35 prisoners. The rest of A with C on their left kept the true line of attack and reached and captured Burj Trench and Burj Redoubt, while the second wave, bearing to the left entered Zowaid Trench north of Burj Trench.

The brigade settled down to secure the front line from El Arish Redobt northwards, but found consolidation difficult in the face of heavy enemy shell and sniper fire. The Hampshires remained in position until 5 November, consolidating and improving communications. The same day the battalion shifted to the left, taking over Rafa Redoubt and Zowaid Trench from the 162nd Brigade which then resumed the assault on Gaza. This attack met no resistance, the Turks having evacuated the town and 8th Hampshire were withdrawn into reserve.

2/4th, 2/5th and 8th Battalions in Palestine, 1917-18  Two other Hampshire battalions – the 2/4th and 2/5th – also featured in General Allenby’s Gaza Campaign and the advance to Jerusalem. Following the Turkish evacuation of Gaza both battalions took up position north of the town, the 2/5th at the abandoned strongpoint of Ali al Muntar.

On 9th November 232nd Brigade (part of 75th Division), including both Hampshire battalions, began to advance northeastwards towards Junction Station, where the railways from Jerusalem and Beersheba met. The aim was to split the Turkish forces in two. The attack on Junction Station began on 13 November and it was eventually captured, along with a great haul of rolling stock and supplies early the following day.

Allenby now turned his attention to Jerusalem which lay to the east across the Judean Hills. The advance along the main road from Junction Station to Jerusalem was dogged by supply problems, bad weather and also getting artillery through the rugged terrain. The 2/5th took part in operations to dislodge Turks from the high ground either side of the road, while the 2/4th – who had been trained in mountain warfare while in India – played key roles in the capture of Saris, Qaryat El Enab and the strategically important hill of Nebi Samwil. The latter position was fiercely contested by the Turks and the 2/4th, already well below strength, lost another two officers and 24 men killed or missing and more than 80 wounded.

By the time 2/4th went into reserve on 25 November it had suffered 160 casualties. The 2/5th had lost just over 100 men of all ranks, including one officer and 23 men killed or missing. Both battalions were in urgent need of rest and refitting.

After being issued with warm clothing, the 2/4th were lent to 54th Division and joined 8th Hampshire on the left of the British line around Lydda and Ramleh. The battalion took over a ridge at Sheikh El Gharwahi where they came under heavy attack on the night of 30th November – 1st December. Two companies held out steadfastly with Captain WR Kirby leading his men with great dash and handling the situation excellently. The 2/4th then spent a week holding the position in appalling weather. Many men went sick and at one stage D Company had just 42 rifles to 800 yards of front while C Company, the only reserve, consisted of fewer than 20 rifles. When relieved by the 2/5th – fresh from ten days’ rest – on 9th December, the battalion had only 160 fit men.

Following the capture of Jerusalem, the remainder of the year saw the Hampshire battalions involved in operations on the coastal plain aimed at pushing back the Turks from Jaffa. The capture of this port enabled British forces to be resupplied from the sea but it was important that it remained outside of the range of Turkish guns. At the end of December 1917 the Turks launched a major counter-attack north of Jerusalem. This was repulsed with crippling losses, ushering in a period of deadlock in Palestine.

The 2/4th and 2/5th both took part in the attack at Berukin in April 1918, which had to be called off due to the critical situation on the Western Front. At the end of May the 2/4th left Palestine for Egypt where the men underwent three weeks of training before embarking for France on 22 May. The 2/5th was earmarked for reduction under the British Army’s reorganisation of 1918, though it was not finally broken up to provide drafts for the Egypt Expeditionary Force until August.

This left the 8th as the only Hampshire battalion to see the Palestine campaign through to its triumphant conclusion. After spending most of the summer training and working on the roads, the battalion moved into the line in mid-September. On 18th September the battalion joined the successful attack from Wadi Ikba towards Kefr Qasin against much weakened and demoralised Turkish troops.

This marked the start of the collapse of Turkish forces. Although 54th Division, of which 8th Hampshires were part, did not take in the great cavalry pursuit which followed the success of 18th September, they did push on to Haifa and then up the coast towards Beirut. It was on 31st October, while en route to Beirut that they heard of the armistice with Turkey. The battalion was in camp near Beirut when, on 11st November, the armistice with Germany brought an end to hostilities in Europe.