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Egypt and the Desert

We landed at Alexandria and entrained for Ismalia where we were settled in at Moscar Camp on 13th June 1917. Coming from the harsh conditions of Macedonia, in Egypt, we found condition of such comfort as could perhaps not be equaled anywhere else where our army was engaged. Moscar, itself, was a permanent camp of tents with ample accommodation for everyone and water to be had by merely turning on a trap. Melons and fruit in abundance and in great variety and ideal swimming in Lake Timsah only a short distance away.

We were completely re-equipped from the skin out and found numbers of local lads fighting for the honour of doing our washing. This was luxury indeed and we wallowed in it for nearly three weeks. But even here and in these conditions, which to us approached perfection, we lost two of our number: Capt Churchill, the Medical Officer and Rifleman Miller. These are remembered too as the only occasions in the life of the Battalion when we were able to put on a formal military funeral for each of them.

Capt Churchill died within a few days of our arrival and the cause was thought to be sudden change to the great heat of Moscar. Swimming with about 200 others, he was not missed until, all having come out of the water and dressed, his clothes were still lying on the bank. Two days later, native fishermen brought him up in their nets from well out in the lake.

On 5th July, we marched via El Ferdan to Kantara, where we en-trained on the 7th and arrived at Deir el Belah in the vicinity of Gaza on the following day. Belah was a good spot, with the sea close at hand, and we were lucky to stay there until the 29th when we moved inland to Sheik Nuram and El Shauth. This was the desert proper and El Shauth was the furthest into the desert of the infantry posts.

Beyond El Shauth, our right was covered by the Desert Mounted Corps, consisting of the Australian Mounted Division, the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division, the Yeomanry Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Corps, which was about brigade strength.

For the next three months, we moved between El Shauth, Shellal and Tel el Farah seeing nothing of the Turk except the daily plane trying to keep track of our activities.

We were engaged on a programme of training to desert conditions, including what was known as “water discipline” – gradually reducing our intake each week.

Everything was done to bring us to peak condition for the autumn operations, which all knew were ahead of us.

The final exercise included advancing close up to a live barrage – our first introduction to this somewhat over rated form of amusement.  The theory was that if one could arrive on the enemy post a split second after the last shell from our own barrage, then one could clobber the Turk before he had time to pick up his battleaxe. Word from Olympus was: “One casualty from your own guns will save you twenty from the enemy.” As the Australian remarked “Too true, cobber, but who wants to be ‘the one’ at the dress rehearsal?”

The Turk defences fan from Gaza on the coast to Beersheba, a distance of about thirty miles. Our positions followed roughly the line of the Wadi Ghuzzie which, at Shellal in front of El Shauth, was about twenty miles from Beersheba.

Starting from Gaza, the Turk line ran fairly straight for the first fifteen miles but was then thrown back at an angle of about 45 degrees. This “throw-back” was known as the “Switch Line” – the first few miles being named the Rushdi System and the rest, the Kauwukah Works. Beersheba was strongly entrenched for all round defence and there was a series of fortified positions linking Beersheba with the junction of the Switch Line and the Gaza Line.

The ground between the Beersheba Line and the Switch Line, some 12 to 15 miles, was completely water-less and so broken that it must have seemed to the Turk highly unlikely we would attempt that line of attack. This, however, was Allenby’s plan – a right hook at Beersheba with the 60th Division for the infantry assault and the Desert Mounted Corps on our right providing an even wider right hook.

This was the opening of the autumn offensive in 1917 which gave us Jerusalem after six weeks but which, from start to finish, covered six months – from the end of October ’17 to the end of April ’18.

It seems almost unbelievable that the 60th Division, which formed four weeks after the start of the war in 1914, got through to the autumn of 1917 without having engaged in offensive operations or a major battle. It is almost certainly the only division of the army of which this could be said. In France, in 1916, it was the only division not to go into the Somme Battle (and no division left the Somme until it was so broken that for all practical purposes it had to be rebuilt). At the last moment, we were transferred to Salonika and I have read since that we were selected because we were the strongest division in France. In Greece, in the spring of 1917, as has already been mentioned, the Corps of three divisions, which included the 60th, mounted an attack requiring two divisions – which all there thought to be a useless throwing away  of first class troops: the other two divisions were thrown away and the 60th again preserved.

When we attacked Beersheba on 31st October 1917, the 60th Division was probably the best trained and most experienced division in the whole army and on any front. From then on, for six months, we seemed to be first into everything. Almost everything we attempted, came off. Nothing seemed impossible. As a battalion, we of the 2nd London Irish had one tragic failure – Kherbet Adasseh; the 60th Division had only one failure – what we always refer to as “Second Jordan”.

But these two events, when the gods no longer smiled, were a long way ahead of us on 29th October 1917 as we prepared to leave El Shauth for the last time.