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The Battle of Sheria

Following the taking of Beersheba, the next few days were mainly devoted to finding and developing water supplies wherever possible and it was 6th November before the next assault could go in.

This was to break the Switch Line and three divisions were given this task. These were the 10th (Irish) Division on the left, facing the Rushdi System, the 60th Division in the centre with Sheria itself as our target and 74th Division – a grand division of dismounted yeomanry, on the right. Both 74th Division and ourselves faced Kauwukah works.

The afternoon of the 5th saw us moving up some ten miles from the vicinity of Beersheba towards the start line and this proceeded almost without incident. Two which caused a certain of hilarity come to mind.

The four battalions of the Brigade had been fairly widely dispersed since the Beersheba operation. We were “resting” and the actual location of battalions were determined by the availability of water during this period. When orders were given for the Sheria operation, the first directive was to the effect that “The Brigade will concentrate at Point 100”. I don’t know the actual reference but Point 100 will serve. It was a hill of a few hundred feet and, in the late afternoon as the Brigade HQ reached the top, having had no sight of the battalions up to that point, suddenly we saw all battalions approaching from all points of the compass and ascending the hill. They were carrying out their instructions “to the letter” and concentrating on Point 100.

The leading files of all four battalions approached the top about the same moment and that was the moment one lone Boche plane chose to appear out of nowhere and drop three bombs on the top – or as near as he could make it. The plane seemed to be approaching at about walking pace and so low that it almost seemed that one could reach up and pluck it out of the sky. The Brigadier was waving one hand about as he said “Lie down men – lie down”, when our friend dropped three quite small bombs, which fell among the baggage camels – three of which had to be destroyed. The only human casualty was the Brigadier, who got what must have been the smallest possible splinter through the palm of the hand he was waving about.

The other incident during this move forward was the loss of our RSM – Mr Roffey. I did not see this but the story at the time was that, after moving for some along the bed of a wadi, the Battalion came to a point where it divided and the RSM was standing in top of a mound perhaps 10 feet high calling to the Companies as they reached him – “’A’ and ‘C’ Companies to the left; ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies to the right’, or some such instructions. It was sometimes said that RSM Roffey was the only soldier in the Battalion – certainly he was the only one who looked like a Guardsman and carried himself like a Guardsman. So we must imagine this martial figure on his mound where the wadi forked (reminding one of the youngsters playing “I’m the king of the castle”) when one shell came over (I think the only hostile action during the whole afternoon), and landed right alongside the RSM and he disappeared in a cloud of dust. The laugh that went up might have been heard in Damascus. When the dust cleared, Roffey was found to have lost a foot but was otherwise intact. Fortunately, he lasted another forty five years after this incident and was a great figure in the Regimental Association of which he was a Trustee.

On 6th November, the leading battalions of 180 Brigade were ourselves and the 2/19th, with 2/20th in Support, and 2/17th in Reserve. Movement to the assault positions started at 0500 and the attack started at 0700, in poor visibility due to mist and low cloud. A considerable distance was covered over rolling down land under fairly heavy shell fire.

At this stage, no doubt, we had some benefit from the poor visibility, which must have interfered quite seriously with the enemy gunners. Unfortunately, it also prevented our artillery registering on the Kauwukah Works during the opening stage. This opening stage, which lasted until about noon, was, of course, the clearing of the ground up to the line from which the permanent defences, the Kauwukah Works, could be assaulted.

During all this time, the advance of the 60th Division was determined by the progress of 10th (Irish) Division on our left and 74th Division on our right and these were both held up about 0930. About 1130, all were moving again; all three divisions were in position soon after midday and the attack went in at 1230 hours.

The other front line Brigade was the 179th, on our left. In about forty minutes, the whole Kauwukah defences were in our hands and the London Irish share of the bag was 6 Officers and 58 Other Ranks as prisoners. After a pause of two hours or so, the whole line went forward again and, by the end of the day, had cleared more ground similar in character to that cleared during the approach to Kauwukah, finishing on a low ridge from which we looked down on some two miles of completely flat sand with another series of ridges beyond. These distant ridges were to be our objective for the following day. Our losses on the 6th were surprisingly light – 2/Lieut John Ashbridge wounded; two Other Ranks killed and 38 wounded.

Beyond the area of flat sand was a wadi, the Wadi Sheria and the first of the ridges rose straight out of this wadi, to a height of perhaps 200 feet.  From our positions on the evening of the 6th, looking down on to this flat sand, we could see a railway built up on an embankment, which curved round in front of the 60th Division position, towards the Wadi Sheria, which it crossed on a high bridge. About 200 yards short of the wadi was Sheria Station – consisting only of one building of a warehouse type and two loading bays. The railway embankment was about the middle of the area of 60th Division and was given as the boundary between the two attacking brigades at dawn on the 7th – the 180 Brigade to the left of the embankment and 181 Brigade to the right.

At dawn on the 7th, the two front line brigades had crossed the flat sand in darkness and, at first light, reached the Wadi Sheria, crossed it, and established themselves on the first of the ridges beyond. Our “B”, “C” and “D” Companies, having reached the Wadi, spent the rest of the day there in Brigade Reserve. “A” Company was under command of 2/17th on the left. Casualties this day in Brigade Reserve were heavier than those on the previous day as one of the front line battalions. Capt RWF Harding killed and Lieut CJO Thompson wounded. Three Other Ranks killed and 38 wounded.

Captain Harding, Commanding “D” Company, was a great loss. He was the last of the 1914 Officers of the Battalion and had commanded “D” Company since about mid 1915.

Although, on the 6th, we had taken the whole of the Switch Line – the Rishdi System and Kauwukah Works – the second day of the Sheria Battle was much tougher than the first. The whole day was spent trying to ease the Turk out of a series of ridges, perhaps a thousand yards in depth, with nothing behind him them but ten to twelve miles of flat ground almost all the way to the sea. We got perhaps 90 percent of the area quite early in the day but he held on to the last of this broken ground despite all we could do – and all the Australian Mounted Division could do. They crossed the flat sand, which we had covered in darkness, crossing at the gallop under very heavy shelling and tried to burst through our front line – but could not even get started. Of course, if the Turk had lost that last ridge, he could have been cut to pieces by the mounted men on the level ground, which stretched behind him.

I would not have thought it possible for the mass of the Australian Mounted Division to cross the 1½ miles of flat sand under such a heavy concentration of shell fire without unacceptable casualties. There must have been casualties but not a horse or man was left on the sand. About the same time the whole of our Divisional Artillery crossed the same ground and they too, of course, faced the same barrage. They were not nearly so packed together as the Australians and they too crossed without leaving anyone behind on the plain. Of course, sand is the best possible receptacle for shells but it still seems a miracle.

By the evening of the 7th, the Turk had nothing behind him but miles of flat open country and he was not so stupid as to be caught in that position at dawn the next day – so he withdrew during the night.

Soon after dawn on the 8th, the 60th Division started on a drive to the coast – driving all the way behind the Turk permanent defences, which had faced our army for so long and we covered about ten to twelve miles to Huj. Leading the Division was our 179 Brigade with the 2/17th and ourselves, both under Colonel Norton, in support.

This day had something of the air of a Field Day on Salisbury Plain. Most of the Division could be seen moving forward, all in extended order, for mile after mile until suddenly we came under quite heavy artillery fire. Not that there was a great number of guns but lying out on the ground as flat as a billiards table and with the guns the best part of a mile away is not a situation, which the foot slogger finds at all attractive. (“How on earth do we cover this 1,200 yards without even a pebble for ‘cover’?”)

It was at this time that the Divisional Commander, Major General John Shea, himself a cavalryman, drove off in a little Ford truck (imagine a 10 HP chassis with no body but a wood box with sides 12” high) and finding two squadrons of yeomanry, ordered them to take the guns. An excellent account of the action which followed was given by Lord Latymer in The Yeomanry Cavalry of Worcestershire – and from this, the following is taken.

“By the morning of November 8th, it was obvious that the Turkish infantry was shaken and that the enemy generals were depending mainly on their artillery, much of which was manned by Austrians and Germans, for holding up our advance.

At 115pm, six troops (a squadron and a half) of the Worcester Yeomanry and six troops of the Warwick Yeomanry, covering the advance of the infantry, were held up by heavy fire a thousand yards short of the Turkish gun position. Behind the ridge from which the guns were firing lay a large and important depot of stores and ammunition, which the Turks had established at Huj. They did not mean to give it up with its water supply, if they could by any means avoid doing so.

The ridge covering Huj was held by infantry, mountain guns, machine guns and a battery of field artillery served by Austrian gunners.

The Yeomanry dismounted under the shelter of a low ride, shaped like a boomerang, to give their horses a rest (they had been on the move since dawn and had fought one dismounted action earlier that morning) and to consider the situation.

To their left rear, they could see the extended infantry of the 60th (London) Division, trying to advance in the face of a fierce fire from the Turkish ridge and obviously suffering severely in doing so; they were advancing over bare and open ground. It was clear they would not be able to get on much further until the guns on the ridge had been silenced.

The Worcester colonel decided that he would attack the guns but, before doing so, he wished to get in touch with an Australian mounted brigade, which he knew to be somewhere on the right. So, he got on his horse and, taking an orderly, galloped off to look for the Australians.

No sooner was he out of sight than up rides General Shea, in command of 60th Division, and sees Colonel Cheape, commanding the Warwicks, standing by his horse.

There was a brief exchange of question and answer, a short order and away rides the much harassed divisional general to join his command.

Colonel Cheape mounts and rides over to the Worcester second in command, Major Wiggin.

‘The General has given me orders to go for those guns at once. Will you chip in?’

‘Of course’ came the answer; ‘mounted or dismounted?’

‘We must gallop them, I think, dismounted action will take too long. How about your Colonel?’

‘He’s gone to find the Australians – might be back any moment.’

‘We can’t wait – the General’s in a stew and his division is getting all shot up.”

“At about 120pm, the twelve weak troops, only 160 strong altogether moved off along their covering ridge in column of troops, the Worcesters leading. The dust they made – the ground was really dried mud – attracted the gunners’ attention and shells began to fall over the ridge. But the squadrons were trotting briskly and the gunners could not pick up the range.

As the leading troop cleared the north end of the ridge, they came face to face with the infantry and mountain guns on the enemy ridge. The leading squadron leader, Major Allbright, at once realised that it would be impossible to attack the main enemy position if the advancing troops of yeoman were enfiladed the whole way. He acted with the quickness of a born leader of cavalry, formed his squadron on the move into column of half squadrons and charged up the slope of the ridge in front of him. The infantry and the gunners of the mountain battery did not wait but ran away down the reverse slope in the direction of Huj. Most of them could have been killed or made prisoners but Allbright realised that he would be badly wanted for the main attack so he rallied and re-formed his squadron and wheeled to the left along the ridge.

As soon as the ridge was clear, his troops charged the enemy’s main position – Captain Valentine with his squadron of Warwicks in column of half squadrons, with two troops of Worcesters under Lieut Edwards on his right and a trifle behind. The remaining two troops of Warwicks were held in reserve and eventually mopped up a battery of 5.9 howitzers, which were limbered up and making for Huj just as the action began.

Out into the open galloped the six troops and were immediately met with a terrific fire from rifles, artillery and machine guns.

The Austrians swung round the trails of their left hand section of guns and opened a point blank fire on the advancing horsemen. Valentine fell, Edwards fell, half the troopers went down, but the rest charged home as, at they reached the guns, Allbright and his squadron crashed into the flank and rear of the Turks, completing their ruin. Allbright too fell in that supreme moment – a man much loved by his friends.

The Austrian gunners fought to the last but were put to the sword. Down the ridge swept the few horsemen, who were still in the saddle, sabreing the flying infantry. It was all over and, when the Colonel of the Worcesters returned a few minutes later from his search for the Australians, he found only three un-wounded officers, arranging for the defence of the ridge with the few un-wounded men.

But the Turks had had enough; there was no counter attack and, within an hour, the leading brigade of the London Division had reached the captured ridge. Well, they knew what the yeoman had saved them from and heartfelt indeed were their congratulations on this amazing feat of arms.

Of the 160 yeoman in the twelve troops, over 100 were killed or wounded, the list including all the squadron and troops leaders, who took part in the main charge. Between eighty and ninety Turkish corpses were buried, all killed with the sword and there were about seventy prisoners, mostly wounded.

The spoil included a battery of Austrian field guns, a battery of 5.9 howitzers, a battery of mountain guns and four machine guns. But of course, this booty, valuable though it was, was as nothing to the fact that the infantry had been saved from losses, which must have been heavy and might have been crippling – which might indeed have involved the slowing up of the whole advance, when speed was essential.”

This account by Lord Latymer ends here. He does not overstate the debt of the 60th Division to this small body of yeoman, or our recognition of it at the time. We were not, as he writes, to the left rear of the Yeomanry – on the contrary, we were some way forward of them and to their left. At the start of the charge, they passed close to us on our right – so close that they galloped over some of 180 Brigade, who were prone on the ground. One other point not mentioned is that Major General John Shea, the Divisional Commander, led the charge for the first few hundred yards beyond our most forward line, standing in the Ford truck already referred to, holding on to the windscreen with one hand and with the other arm stiff above is head until he had a clear sight of the gun positions when, looking back over his shoulder to the first troop of yeoman, he brought his arm down sharply, pointing the exact direction to them. His driver then swerved sharp left out of their path – and returned to us, his own people, at a smart pace!

This marked the end of the opening phase which had taken, in all, nine days. The whole Turk defences from Gaza on the coast to Beersheba were in our hands – and 60th Division were due for a rest. We had started off on the extreme right as the infantry furthest into the desert; we had made a wide sweep further into the desert to bring off the surprise attack on Beersheba on the Turk extreme left, we had then broken the Switch Line and marched behind his permanent defences almost to the sea behind Gaza – his extreme right.

Now 21st Corps, under Lieut General Sir Edward Bulfin (our Divisional Commander until three months before) took up the running and cleared the Turk off the coastal plain and up into the hills far enough to threaten Jerusalem itself. All this in not much more than three weeks.

During this rest period for us, the chief problem was water.

On 10th November, Colonel Norton noted in the Diary, “Animals now 56 hours without water. Can’t go on unless water is forthcoming. Camels going back to Sheria (about 10 miles) for water.”

On the 23rd, we moved up to Latrun, where we spent the night. This was the end of the “flat” and the beginning of the climb up through the hills to Enab and Jerusalem.

Latrun seemed to us a beautiful spot. After having looked at little other than desert for four months, it was refreshing at Latrun to see rocky hill with greenery of various sorts and a small stream with just a trickle of water. On the 24th, we spent the night near Enab and, during this day, the climb ever higher into the hills brought us a breath of fresher air. A wonderful view, too, of a great stretch of the plain behind us and of the sea beyond.  There was a great feeling of exhilaration up in the hills after having been on “the flat” for so long.

Also, Jerusalem had now come to be talked about and probably few had any doubts we would soon be in the city. There is a certain magic about the Holy City and surely we all felt it.

It was at Enab that, ignoring strict instructions on the subject, I tried at a monastery for a bucket of water and the monks were so hospitable (and also they seemed so delighted to have contact with us), that they insisted on filling the buckets with wine. Quite good wine too, but water would have been more appreciated! I still have the impression of a group of large well-nourished men, very comfortably housed and with a merry glint in their eyes – and from our relative poverty, it seemed to me that a religious life must have its compensations.

Before moving onto Nebi Samwi and Jerusalem, I want to first to return to Sheria and Huj.

It seems to me that this was our most important battle, in that success brought great results whereas failure would have been a disaster – it would have forced the immediate withdrawal of the divisions engaged on the right of the line to Beersheba area for water. The water at Sheria was indispensable.

Then again, it provided great spectacles such as will never be seen again. All horse lovers will be glad that in war the horse has been displaced by the engine; but to see the whole of the artillery of our Division crossing that stretch of sand under heavy shelling with the mounted drivers getting the last bit of effort out of the gun teams; then the crossing of the same area by the mass of the Australian Mounted Division. These events are as vivid today as they were fifty years ago. Today can provide nothing like it. One might as well compare the Musical Ride of the Royal Horse Artillery at the Royal Tournament at Earls Court with the same manoeuvres carried out by a few self-propelled guns. Also, it was the two day battle of Sheria and the drive to Huj on the third day, which gave the regiment the Battle Honour of “El Mughar”.

So, Sheria shall provide me with the only personal story I include. Two incidents occurring within a few hours illustrate what a great part luck plays in our affairs – and I would only add that, although with the Battalion from start to finish, I had an easier war than most infantrymen.