On the 15th, we relieved the London Scottish at Shafat and had the 2/20th Battalion on our right at Tel ef Ful. On our left were the 10th Buffs of 74th Division.
The whole area here was a nightmare of rocky hills, both large and small and confirming to no particular pattern – where a man could become lost without any sense of direction within a hundred yards. There was no “Line” in the accepted sense. Some hills were held by us and others by the Turk. Some were patrolled by us in daylight and others by both sides during darkness.
One big one which our side patrolled to some extent at night, Kherbet Adasseh, was about mid-way between our hills and the enemy and was thought to be an enemy observation post, not strongly held.
On the 17th, orders were received for Kherbet Adasseh to be occupied by 0700 hours on the 18th. Number 10 of “C” Company (Lieut Oliver and 22 other ranks) had made one fairly extensive patrol on the hill so, although not much was known about Kherbet Adasseh, Number 10 Platoon knew more than others and in consequence this task fell to them
The position of deployment was reached at 0500 hours and, by 0530, the party had worked to within fifty yards of the hilltop, under cover of stone walls and terraces. An NCO with four others were detailed to work round to the right and to “demonstrate” there, while the main party was to rush the post at first light.
Ten minutes later, the enemy became aware of our party and threw a salvo of hand-grenades. At this point, the order was given to rush but got only a few yards, as the enemy was found to be in some strength with several machine-guns behind the cover of a stone wall. Our close range rifle fire brought heavy grenade fire in return – so heavy that we had to retire a short distance to get beyond hand-grenade range. A message sent back by torch – a brief report on the situation was read by our forward Observation Post.
At this point, we now had Lieut Oliver and four others wounded and the enemy were seen to number about sixty. They attempted to rush but were checked by rifle fire. Others were then seen to be working round the shoulders of the hill to get behind our platoon while they were pinned down by machine gun fire from the front.
Sergeant Henderson, who had assumed command, decided to withdraw as the odds were clearly too heavy to justify further effort to take the hill. The whole platoon would have been accounted for.
Colonel Norton’s report to the Brigadier reads:
“I clearly witnessed every move from my OP and entirely concur with Sgt Henderson’s action. Sgt Henderson with a small party held off the enemy while the rest got away with the wounded. I observed the enemy to the number of at least forty push forward about 80 yards down the slope and take up a position from which a heavy fire was opened on the patrol withdrawing.
“Lieut Scott, the FOO, who was with me, responded to my call with promptitude and accuracy – the enemy at once scattering and returning over the crest. This was at 0615 hours. Casualties: Lieut Oliver wounded, severely; two other ranks killed and nine wounded.
“In conclusion, I would like to bring to notice the exceptional good work of Sgt Henderson, who showed conspicuous ability and leadership in handling the patrol after Lieut Oliver became a casualty, also to the conspicuous gallantry of Rfn Stoate, who maintained communication by means of a torch throughout the withdrawal. He was also largely instrumental in getting Lieut Oliver back in spite of being wounded in two places himself I consider the behaviour of all ranks under trying circumstances most commendable.”
On the 19th, we were relieved by the 2/19th Battalion and returned to the same good billets in Jerusalem, in Brigade Reserve.
On the 22nd, orders were received for the Battalion to take and hold Kherbet Adasseh and companies started for the assembly position at 2300 hours. The night was stormy and boisterous until about 0100 hours – on the 23rd.
Companies “B”, “C” and “D” started off at 0300 for the start line with “A” Company in reserve. From here, it is a tale of almost complete disaster. Resistance was overwhelming. Those who came down off the hill were back before noon. The only Officer to come back on his feet was 2/Lieut Gardner of “A” Company. There was also one CSM – Parkes of “B” Company. “Other Ranks” who returned can only be guessed at. There is a note in the War Diary for the evening of the 23rd reading “Battalion strength about 130” – so, allowing for the Transport Section, Battalion HQ Signalers etc, I would think that the total of the four rifle companies and the Lewis Gun Section would be about 85.
Losses of Officers and Company Sergeant Majors were:
“A” Company: Captain Cousin – Wounded. 2/Lieut Gardner – Returned. CSM Ousman – Killed.
“B” Company: Captain Diamond – Wounded. 2/Lieut Godsill – Killed. 2/Lieut Drake – Wounded. CSM Parkers – Wounded.
“C” Company: Captain Whyte – Killed. Lieut Thompson – Died of Wounds. Lieut Burke – Killed. CSM Williamson – Wounded.
“D” Company: 2/Lieut Bisset – Wounded. 2/Lieut Brayden – Killed. CSM Keen – Wounded.
So we were down to one Company Officer and one CSM.
A most distressing feature of the affair was that many casualties occurred high up on the hill in positions from which they could not get out – and only two of these survived.
Early in the morning, the Turk stripped them all of their uniforms and left them. At dusk, CSM Williamson, with one foot badly smashed, started to crawl down the hill encouraging a severely wounded rifleman to keep with him and, in the early hours of the 24th, they were found by a search party of the 2/19th, who had volunteered for this search. Both were almost naked, frozen and exhausted.
Suddenly Williamson found a revolver stuck under his nose and a harsh voice demanded, “Who are you?” and the record states that he answered, “Company Sergeant Major Williamson”. Then the voice behind the gun, “But you are reported dead.” Williamson – “Since joining the Terriers in 1909, I’ve never contradicted an Officer, but I’m Williamson”.
A few days later, in the half-light of dawn, a party of about sixty approached the lines of the 179th Brigade (I think the Civil Service Rifles) and, as they were thought to be a patrol which had lost direction and were returning at the wrong place, they were allowed to get quite close before suspicion was aroused. They were Turks wearing the uniforms they had taken from us. Reports said that few got away.
Why did we suffer this major disaster? There were three separate and unrelated caused – and any one of them alone would have brought failure to the whole operation.
First, it was recognised that, for the operation to succeed, it was essential that we should be established on the top of the hill by full daylight. We were some distance short of the crest at dawn – with perhaps one third of the climb still to do. This was caused by one company – I think “C” – going astray on the way to the assembly point. The very broken nature of the country, big hills, little hills, gullies and a black night make it perhaps surprising only one out of four companies failed to be at the assembly point on time. Wisdom after the event suggests that the assembly point was perhaps too far forward.
Secondly, between our positions and Kherbet Adasseh, about 250 yards away half-left, was a smaller hill, which neither we nor the Turk occupied, although both sides sent patrols over it during darkness. Colonel Norton asked that a company from the battalion on our left (of 74th Division) should sit on this hill during the operation just to make certain it was denied to the enemy. He was assured verbally that this would be done. However, for some reason, he was not happy about this hill a few hours before the attack and raised the matter again. As a result, he had a written message from Division reading, “Your left is secure. Don’t worry”. However, at daylight, by which time this hill was to our left rear, about 100 Turks were shooting into the backs of our fellows from the reverse slope of this hill. I have no doubt that our “face” of this hill was occupied by the battalion on our left, but it was the reverse slope which was our danger – and this, the Turk still held.
Thirdly, although our side did not know it at the time, the Turk had brought up two fresh divisions from Anatolia which, four days later at dawn on the 27th, crashed down on the whole divisional front in their major effort to re-take Jerusalem. We ran head-on into their build-up. And these were not the Turks we had beaten back in the desert and chased all the way to Jerusalem and beyond. These men were not suffering from any sense of inferiority! They were in fact Storm-Truppen – who on the 27th were to given the whole Division just about as much as it could handle.
It was a great misfortune for the Battalion that on this day it did not enjoy the close control of Colonel Norton. Occasionally the Colonel suffered sudden attacks of malaria – malaria contracted some years before, while serving in West Africa. 23rd December 1917 happened to be one of those days, which he spent helpless on the floor of a mud hut in the village of Shafat.
If he had been fit that day and in control of the Battalion, he could have done nothing to bring success to the operation, but he could and undoubtedly would have done much for the Battalion.
With his long record as a fighting soldier and with the authority of his rank, he could have broken off the action half an hour or so earlier.
It is very difficult for a junior officer to take such a decision and the more junior he is, the more impossible it becomes. He tends to be much more apprehensive about the reproaches of his seniors behind him if he returns without orders, than he is of the enemy in front of him. When, as in this instance, there is no means of contact at all between front and rear during the vital period, the responsibility for decision is heavy on young shoulders.
The decision to withdraw was eventually made by the one surviving Company Sergeant Major – Parkes of “B” Company (a sound and experienced soldier who had been with the Battalion from the earliest days), despite the bitter protests of the one surviving subaltern, who had behind him only a few weeks experience of battle.
When these two got back to the village of Shafat, they went together to see Colonel Norton, still arguing – but, by this time, the subject of the dispute had changed. Each was insisting that he alone would take responsibility for the withdrawal.
About thirty years later, I was able to ask Colonel Norton how he dealt with these two quarrelling warriors and, with a twinkle in his eyes, he said – “I congratulated the subaltern on his intestinal fortitude and put Parkes up for an immediate award of the DCM.”
A judgment surely worthy of the Royal Solomon himself.
The unexpected strength we had come up against on Kherbet Adasseh seems to have been accompanied by other indications of something brewing on the other side, because the next day, which was Christmas Eve, a warning came from Division, putting the Battalion under “thirty minutes notice to move”.
It was expected there would be attacks at several points but that the major effort would come down the Nablus Road. The objective would be no less than the recovery of Jerusalem. The 60th Division was, of course, astride the Nablus Road.
This was the situation during the 24th, 25th and 26th until dawn on the 27th, when the expected attack broke on the whole front of the Division.
The front line brigades at this time were the 179th and 181st – with 180th in Reserve. The crisis points this day were the first rush at dawn, which had great weight behind it and the last effort of all at 1330 hours. Against Tel el Ful, just to the right (ie east) of the Nablus Road, there were eight major assaults by midday.
Although at some points, a certain amount of ground was lost from time to time, the front line brigades each time managed to restore the original line without calling on 180 Brigade. After the repulse of the assault at 1330 hours, the Turk enthusiasm seemed to drop rapidly and, by evening, comparative quiet reigned. Enemy losses had been very high.
So we were not involved in this stern test on the 27th. If we had been called upon, we could have made little difference with our strength so reduced but already on the 26th, our “bayonet strength” was nearly doubled by a draft of Lieut Battersby with 79 other ranks – and later the same day by the return of Capt Standrick from hospital and the arrival of Capt Murray of the 3rd Cheshires, who reported attached for duty.
During the next few weeks, it seemed that Officers and Other Ranks were arriving from all over the map, but although the “new boys” outnumbered the old hands several times over, the “old ’uns” plus our returning wounded from Sheria and Nebi Samwil, absorbed them effectively, so that the character of the old Battalion remained.
Early on the 28th – about 0700 hours – news came that the Turk was retreating northwards and the Commander in Chief ordered 20th Corps to make a general advance. To the 60th Division astride the Nablus Road perhaps fell the principal part and, as 180 Brigade had been the Reserve for the last few days, it fell to us to lead the Division. The advance started on a one brigade front.
To the left of the road were the 2/19th Battalion, with ourselves in Support and to the right the 2/20th with 2/17th in Support. With surprising ease, at least two miles were covered without real opposition until the 2/19th approached a feature known as Whale Back Hill and the 2/20th Battalion the village of Er Ram. Both positions were taken just before dusk, without too much trouble – the 2/19th not needing us. The Brigade spent the night on this line.
At 1700 hours that evening, news came from the 179th Brigade had occupied Kherbet Adasseh without opposition and Father Hickey left at once with a small party to identify and bury our dead high on the hill during the actions of the 18th and 23rd. Fifty one bodies were recovered.
The advance was resumed the next morning, the 29th and another two miles or more was covered without serious opposition – although the country was excellent for defence, a succession of steep rocky hills and deep wadis with almost vertical sides. Towards the end of the day, the 2/19th Battalion, to the left of the road, captured the sizeable village of Bireh without much trouble but the 2/20th, on the right of the road, came up against a very formidable obstacle, which it was clear the Turk had every intention of holding on to. This was an enormous ridge of rock, which towered high above the other rock ridges around it. In an area, which for miles around was a nightmare of jagged rock, this great mass of rock had a name – Shab Salah.
The taking of Shab Salah was a full scale battle – a fully coordinated attack employing a good portion of the artillery of the Division.
The Brigade Battle Headquarters and 2/20th Battalion HQ were together for this operation. A conference at which the Brigadier had consulted the Commanding Officers of the 2/19th and 2/20th Battalions and the FOO was just breaking up (in fact the Brigadier had gone off somewhere), when, from the stream of shells passing overhead from our own guns, there was a premature burst. The Brigade Intelligence Officer, Lieut Carey, was killed instantly and one of my signalers wounded. We could quite easily have lost the two Commanding Officers and the new Brigade Major as well.
Lieut Carey was a great loss to me personally, for although I had known him only a few weeks they had been very full weeks – and he was my one link with the two great and spectacular beings on the Battle Headquarters. So much ref flannel and gold leaf, even at the end of the war, still rather overawed the Signal Corporal after nearly a year of close proximity.
This left the Brigadier as the only Officer remaining of the three on Battle HQ when it started eight weeks before – as we had already lost Capt Crockett, the Brigade Major on 17th November.
Shab Salah was a costly battle for the 2/20th Battalion; their casualties were high and the killed included two company commanders, who had been with them since the training days in England. It was not the sort of battle the world hears about but if I were asked to name the finest work this great Battalion ever did, I think I would name Shab Salah.
Just before dawn on the 30th, the London Irish passed through and carried the advance forward to Beitin where the line was consolidated with Battalion Headquarters at Ain es Sultan. This it seem, was to be the limit of the present drive to the north. Since the 28th, the advance had carried us forward about seven miles so that Jerusalem was now about 10 miles behind the line – and so safe.