Mesopotamia and Palestine

7th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment had landed at Basra in what is now southern Iraq on 4th March 1916, after leaving Gallipoli for Egypt in January. In April, 7th Battalion took part in the costly and doomed effort to relieve the city of Kut, where Major-General Townshend’s Division was encircled by a Turkish besieging army. One officer of the 7th wrote home to his sister on 24th April 1916, describing the Battalion’s attack at Kut on the 21st.

“. . . On Wednesday 21st A. & D. Company commanded respectively by Captains Rathbone and Scammell, were ordered to take up outpost positions 400 yards in front of the main firing line. On that day I was ordered with my Coy. Commander and fellow company subalterns to proceed to the line held by the Worcesters; to reconnoitre, preparatory to reinforcing it with C. Company of the Glosters.

“All four of us ran the gauntlet down a gully full of water open to the fire of machine guns and snipers of the enemy, who could not quite hit us as the banks of the water gully were just too high, and we crouched and kept our heads down, and got safely to the Worcester line.

“. . . I never saw such a bombardment, it looked as if no Turk could live in such a hail of shot and shell – they did though, and when the time came for our fellows (the Worcesters) to advance, they were met with a terrific machine gun fire, which not only prevented out men getting forward, but decimated C. Coy. of the Glosters who were coming up to reinforce the Worcester firing line.

“Hodgson (commanding C. Coy.) had received orders to extend his men right out, and to advance by rushes until he reached our position. The enemy’s machine guns swept up and down their line, and only half C. Company reached the trenches I was in. I saw them coming, and the dear fellows walked and ran through the sweeping fire, as if on parade.”

Townshend surrendered to the Turks on 29th April, and Kut and 13,000 soldiers fell into Turkish hands, where they endured terrible conditions for the rest of the war, and many died in captivity. For the rest of 1916, the situation in Mesopotamia was generally one of stalemate, neither side being strong enough to force the other aside. It was not until December that the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude, launched a serious offensive against the Turkish lines surrounding Kut, which fell on 24th February 1917, leaving the way open to pursue the beaten enemy up the Tigris to Baghdad, which fell on 11th March. Maude’s Baghdad Proclamation concluded:

“O people of Baghdad, remember that for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies, for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity and misgovernment. Therefore I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South, and West in realising the aspirations of your race.”

The war against the Turks was matched by the war against disease. Smallpox, typhus and malaria were in constant attendance of the army, despite the efforts of the men and medical staff to keep them at bay. In 1917 Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant George Turle of 7th Battalion was vigilantly fighting his own war against boredom and the infestations of insects and other creepy-crawlies which plagued the camps, as the repeated entries in his diary concerning them attest to:-

“27th September. – Same old routine. Up at 4 am, clean up, inspect the ropes and pegs, clean rifle and ammunition. Had a walk around and then breakfast. Started looking for different insects among the kit and packed away and came across a centipede and scorpion and, our place, mice, white, and a few large ants, black. All this is my daily work and keeping things up to date. . . .

“28th September – Nothing much to relate. Same old routine. A plague of white ants has come into the camp and they are very destructive, eat anything. . . .

“29th September – . . . General Keary visited us this morning and was informed about the plague of white ants in the district. He was interested in some and found a nest they were working. They eat everything, even the ropes of our tents.

“2nd October – . . . Turned over overcoats and valises looking for white ants which have infested this place. I found scorpions, centipede and other insects, but no ants.”

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For Lieutenant Cripps, in Palestine with the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, flies were a bigger bugbear than ants and scorpions:-

“May 17th, 1917 – . . .The flies are awful. They settle in thousands on your food and your bivvy; so beastly. I hate them worse than anything else. Every night I get a piece of paper, light it, and have a “flammenwasser” attack on the flies in my shack that go to sleep on the roof. The only drawback is that the floor is covered with wingless flies that buzz all night. . . . I must go now and see the water bottles filled with Condy to kill any bugs in them . . . one gets accustomed to the beastly taste; anyhow, it can’t hurt you.”

The Hussars had entered Palestine in January, still with 5th Yeomanry Brigade and the ANZAC Mounted Division, under the command of the Australian General, Sir Harry Chauvel. Their target was the border town of Rafa, held by the Turks. Edgerton Cripps described his part in the battle, fought on 9th January:-

“. . . At two o’clock we took up a forward position and waited for the troops on our right and left. I think that was the worst time, as we could do nothing but wait, which lasted for an hour and a half. I had one man killed in the first five minutes. Every man in the firing line, and only four men left with the horses for the whole Squadron. B and D Squadrons were on our right and suffered badly. Townsend had only one man left in his troop (Charles Timbrell). I had wonderful luck, only my second servant and two others hit besides the man actually killed in my troop, though altogether we were pretty knocked about. At about four, other troops came up on our right and left for the general assault, and up we went through what can only be described as a hail of bullets. . . . . . the men were simply splendid. My troop were up the moment I gave the word, and rushed in a beautiful line and dropped down absolutely in line, keeping their extension. The Guards couldn’t have done it better, as a certain General officer told us afterwards. . . .”

Major Henry Clifford was among those killed. Clifford had gone to South Africa with the Yeomanry during the Boer War as a “Gentleman Ranker”, and had been wounded there. Lieutenant Algar Howard noted in his diary after the battle of Rafa:-

“. . . Poor Henry Clifford’s body was taken back in an armoured car. He was hit close to the mouth right through the head and killed instantaneously. He was with B Squadron at the time but was acting second in command. He is a great loss to us all and especially to me. There never was a better example of an English gentleman than he in every possible way.”

Only five months earlier, after the battle of Romani, Lieutenant Cripps had marvelled at his own fortune in have seen so much action, and lamented Major Clifford’s bad luck in having missed so much:-

“August 15th 1916 – . . . Henry Clifford has turned up. He has been home on leave. His luck at missing everything follows him. Isn’t mine extraordinary? Another day and I should have missed the whole show.”

The Royal Gloucestershire Hussars saw but little action in the attempts to take Gaza in March and April, and were in Corps Reserve at Beersheba in October. On November 7th Allenby’s army finally broke through the Turkish position on the Gaza-Beersheba line, and the way was open to Jerusalem, with the RGH, to their chagrin, mostly acting in a support role during the pursuit. Allenby entered Jerusalem on 11th November.

Picture: The Theatre of Operations