On 26th November, the London Irish relieved the 7th Royal Scots of the 52nd (Lowland) Division at 0300 about 1,000 yards from Nebi Samwil – near the small village of Biddu.
Nebi Samwil is a high point about five miles north-north-west of Jerusalem from which the city is clearly seen and the important road north from Jerusalem to Nablus can be overlooked. Traditionally, it is the tomb of the Prophet Samuel and hill is crowned by a mosque. Also traditionally, it is the high point from which King Richard is said to have refused to look at the city which he knew he could not capture and hold.
Close to Biddu is the ancient Emmaus with a monastery, which had been rebuilt in recent years and which has as its High Altar an ancient table which is reputed to be the table on which the Last Supper was held. One must remember that in Jerusalem, one is shown the Upper Room, where the Last Supper was held – despite the fact that in the last 2,000 years, Jerusalem has been totally destroyed seven times and each new city built on the ruins of the old, so that the present city is seventy feet higher than that of 2,000 years ago. However, these fantasies do no harm.
The country for miles around is a maze of hills, mostly rock and after leaving Enab on the Latrun/Jerusalem road, one was dependant on rough tracks which needed much work on them before adequate supplies of food and ammunition could be maintained for the forward troops.
Soon after taking over from the Royal Scots, a detachment of about forty under Lieut Gray was attack by a much larger for and heavily engaged. Two platoon of the 2/20th from Brigade Reserve reinforced and the Turks were seen off, leaving three prisoners.
On the 27th, the Battalion moved to Nebi Samwil, where we had 2/17th on our left, the 2/20th in very close Support and the Queen’s Westminsters of 179 Brigade on our right. Our “C” and “D” Companies held the great mosque with “A” Company in Support and the line here took a sharp turn – from facing north suddenly one was facing east. The two companies were almost back to back. Our “B” Company was detached under command of 2/17th.
The 28th passed without great incident but, from about 0800 on the 29th, it was clear from the steadily increasing weight of fire that this was to be a busy day. By about 1400, shelling was intense and the great tower of the mosque crashed to the ground. A strong infantry assault came in about 1500 hours. This struggle for Nebi Samwil continued until late in the evening when things quietened down. Troops engaged in addition to ourselves were the 2/17th, the 2/20th from Brigade Reserve, who were needed right from the start, the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery and two sections of the 180th Machine Gun Company.
No better description of Nebi Smwil can be given than the following, which was written on the spot by Lieut Col W St A Warde-Aldam DSO, commanding the 2/20th. Being written at the time, on 30th November 1917, it has life and vigour, which it is not possible to recapture when writing more than fifty years later.
“I am writing from a difficult bit of line which I took over the night before last – the weirdest sort of Grimm’s Fairy Tale place I’ve ever imagined. Try to picture to yourself an enormous mosque on a high hill, the sides of which are a succession of stony terraces separated by stone walls. Attached to the mosque is a village built of sold stone and mud roofs. There is a graceful minaret and fine terraces and an unsurpassed view of the Holy City on one side, and the Shephelah, the Plain of Sharon and the sea on the other.
“The mosque itself is built over the tomb of one of the prophets of the Old Testament and is the scene of much Old Testament history.
“Now don’t try to imagine it as I have seen it since. Twice I have seen it just a cloud of dust and smoke, and that is my present recollection of it. A roofless mass standing on top of a hill in the moonlight. No minaret and great holes in the walls.
“Scattered all around are dear Turks, dead Gurkhas, dead Scots , dead English and dead animals; rifles and equipment all over the place; snipers’ bullets cracking continually overhead, soldiers picking their way quietly along the sheltered corners of the debris and, in places where there is no cover, running the gauntlet for ten, twenty, thirty or forty yards in the open – silent groups of eager, alert men along a very artificial line in the village watching windows and corners of houses, in some places only twenty yards away.
“Sometimes you crawl through the inky darkness of the inside of a ruined house and scramble over you know not what. Sometimes you walk through the mosque and bits of the crumbling walls fall round you. I just can’t describe the uncanniness of it all.
“Now picture to yourself a large, low roofed cave with a small entrance and a few dim candles. At the back is a crowd of wounded men in various stages of seriousness, they are being looked after by two doctors in shirt sleeves. Most of them are awfully plucky and happy to feel they have given more than they’ve got. In the centre of the cave are two groups of telephonists with probably six operators, all talking at once.
“On each side a group of Officers and men, filthy, strained to the utmost; near each group, half eaten meals or meals waiting to be eaten. Officers often leave the groups to go and talk on the telephone only to return and say ‘Damn. Still dis to so and so’. (‘Dis’ means disconnected).
“Through the narrow entrance comes and goes an intermittent stream of bloody, dusty, wounded or breathless messengers. The atmosphere of the place reeks.
“Yesterday, after the hell of a bombardment, we beat off two enemy attacks. The Turk had not fired at us today and I am sitting in the sun outside the cave, still dirty, but partially rested. Alongside me is a badly wounded Greek-Turk and a semi ‘luny’ Arab, whom we captured and who is trembling with funk because he thinks he is going to be shot. Overhead scream our shells and one of our aeroplanes is taking photographs.
“This is a poor effort, but may give you some idea of one of the strangest scenes and episodes of my life. One of my sergeants brought me down two very interesting Arabic books and told me he had found a library in the mosque. It will be all be destroyed and I might go and save some of it, but somehow I don’t; it required energy, which I must apply elsewhere.”
This cave served as Battalion HQ and Regimental Aid Post for both the 2/20th and ourselves. The two shirt sleeved doctors were, of course, he Medical Officers of the two Battalions and the “telephonists” were of both Battalions.
December 1st was quiet day and we were relieved before midnight by the 2/24th Battalion when we proceeded to Emmaus. Here, we were “resting” under rather too much shelling for comfort until the afternoon of the 5th. In heavy rain, we moved to Enab and rain continued day and night through the 6th and 7th. About 1500 hours, we moved off for Kustal, which was our assembly point for the Jerusalem attack.