In August 1917, during our El Shauth/Wadi Ghuzzie period, the Division got a new Divisional Commander and the 180th Brigade, a new Brigadier.
Major Gen ES Bulfin had commanded the Division since December 1915, when in August 1917 he was given command of 21st Corps, the corps on the left or coastal sector, when he came Lieut-Gen Sir Edward Bulfin KCB DSO. He was succeeded by Major-Gen John Shea DSO, who after Jerusalem was Sir John Shea KCMG.
He had a tremendous capacity for inspiring enthusiasm, for putting himself alongside the ‘other fellow’ and, within a few weeks, he was certainly known by sight to every man in the Division.
At a meeting of the London Irish Rifles Lodge in 1948, it fell to me to propose his health and I said that “within a few weeks every man in the Division had the impression that the Divisional Commander knew him by sight”. Strange as it may seem, this was only a slight exaggeration. He made a tremendous impact on his Division. Right from the start, he was always referred to as “Jimmy Shea” by everyone from the highest to the lowest and at all times – except of course when face to face with him! I don’t think any of us ever knew the origin of this.
About a week after his arrival, he came to the London Irish in the desert near El Shauth and we put on a show, which would not have disgraced the Brigade of Guards. The lines were immaculate and the “snap” of the General Salute must have brought joy to the heart of the Regimental Sergeant Major. Having got that over, there was silence for some moments while the General sat his horse and just looked us over. Then one could see him relax as he said “Gather round men – gather round”. I don’t think a moan moved. One didn’t do that sort of thing. However, when told a second time – and waving his arms to indicate where he wanted us, we got round in a half circle. He then had us sitting in the sand while he talked to us for ten minutes or so. At the end of that time. He had us in the palm of his hand. Of course, as an Irishman, he had a special appeal for us, but it was soon clear he had put himself over just as well to each unit in the Division.
A few weeks later, we got a new Brigade Commander in Brigadier General CF Watson CMG DSO. He had been in everything from the start when he was a Company Commander in the Queen’s. All ranks referred to him as “Sally Watson” at all times – again of course, except when face to face with him. He also but in a quite different way, made a great impression on his Brigade.
From Beersheba at the end of October 1917 until the last battle of the Palestine campaign in September 1918, I saw a lot of him at close quarters and had a great admiration for him. He completely ignored anything unpleasant going on around him and as obviously he had been doing this for three wild solid years before coming to us, one came to feel he was indestructible. I sometimes thought at really bad moments that his voice (a rather cold expressionless voice) became just a little more bored – as if he felt the Turk was being rather tiresome.
We never had a casualty on the Battle Headquarters while the Brigadier was present but his method of command was to be close to his front line battalion and to drop in on the Battalion Commander, who was finding things difficult. It was at such moments that we on Battle HQ were apt to be in trouble, for it sometimes seemed that the temporary absence of the Brigadier was the signal for von Krupp to drop about a week’s output on Battle HQ – so we liked to have Sally around.
What was the origin of the name “Sally?” I don’t think any of us ever knew but I think he must have brought it with him from an earlier command. “Jimmy Shea” and “Sally Watson” together made a wonderful team.