Throughout the First World War the Government of India had reason to fear the outbreak of internal disorder and the conflicts for which the North-West Frontier was notorious. There was substance in the reports from Persia and Afghanistan of the activities of German and Turkish agents whose influence percolated to the Punjab. The pre-war Indian army had been professionally skilled at meeting such threats and the Territorial battalions sent out to replace the Regulars trained hard to reach the same standard of proficiency. An example of operations on the North West Frontier occurred in November 1916 when 6000 men of the Mohmend tribes were dispersed only after the deployment of two infantry brigades of the 1st Peshawar Division backed up by supporting troops, armoured cars and aeroplanes.1
In the two-way traffic of men and materials between India and the United Kingdom, Egypt played a vital role. Since 1882 the British had governed Egypt through an administrative structure which controlled without abolishing the authority of the Khedive and his ministers. On August 5th 1914 the Egyptian Government was required to announce that Great Britain’s enemies were also Egypt’s enemies; when war was declared on Turkey martial law was proclaimed and in December 1914 Egypt became a British Protectorate, enabling recruitment to the Egyptian Labour Corps to become increasingly energetic, amounting to virtual conscription in some rural areas. The Turks hoped that they could stir up trouble by declaring a Holy War against the British, though only the Senussi of the oases on the fringe of the Western Desert responded, their rebellion being suppressed early in 1917. When Turkish armies on three occasions crossed the province of Sinai and approached the Suez Canal the Egyptians of the Nile Valley did not stir.
In the first two years of the First World War, Egypt was the chief Imperial staging post from which troops were despatched to the Western front, the Dardanelles, Salonika, Mesopotamia and India. The third Turkish attack, delivered by a force of 16,000 men including some German and Austrian artillerymen and machine-gunners, was turned back in the sharply fought battle of Romani, 15 miles east of the Canal, in August 1916. This incident convinced the War Office of the need to put the security of the Canal beyond doubt, to be achieved by the recovery of the Sinai coastal strip up to the Palestine border. Correctly assuming that a British army was not as well adapted to desert operations as were the Turks the Egyptian Expeditionary Force began to construct a standard gauge railway, eventually 150 miles long, and a 12-inch pipeline carrying water, suitably filtered, from the Nile. At the end of 1916 the Government indicated that, though British and French offensives on the Western front were the top priority for the Spring of 1917, it envisaged a major campaign in Palestine in the Autumn. Meanwhile the EEF must do its best to distract Turkish attention from Mesopotamia, where General Maude’s plans to recover Kut and capture Baghdad were unfolding.
The EEF crossed the Egypt-Palestine border in January 1917 and in March and April made two attempts to take Gaza by storm; the first, with the advantage of surprise, was nearly successful but the second was foiled by the tenacity of the Turkish soldiers who by then were well dug in. The EEF needed reinforcements and a new leader. In late June General Allenby, ‘The Bull’, formerly commander of the Third Army in France, arrived in Egypt, having been told by Lloyd George that Jerusalem was wanted “as a Christmas present for the British nation.”2 Allenby’s frequent visits to the front line and his removal of Headquarters from Cairo to a point only twenty miles from Gaza speedily restored the confidence of a demoralised army. He demanded, and obtained, reinforcements, some from Salonika; those from India included infantry battalions which, with other units, were brigaded into the 75th Division. Meanwhile the Turkish Government, encouraged by the collapse of Rumania and the faltering efforts of the Russians on the Caucasus front devised the ‘Yilderim’ project, which with German assistance, would achieve the recapture of Baghdad and the defeat of British ambitions in Palestine. The Germans provided 6500 men including three infantry battalions, artillery batteries, machine gun companies, four squadrons of aeroplanes and the distinguished staff officer General von Falkenhayn. Their presence ensured that when Allenby was ready any attack would be sternly contested.
Allenby won the Third Battle of Gaza in early November by using his superiority in cavalry to turn the left flank of the Turkish position at Beersheba, about 30 miles from the sea. From October 27th the Gaza stronghold was subjected to military and naval bombardments, successfully deluding the enemy into expecting a third frontal assault on the town. On October 31St the operation began which won control of Beersheba, but difficulties with the water supply and strong Turkish reaction led to six more days of heavy fighting before the enemy was forced to pull out of Gaza on the night of November 6th/7th. In the next ten days the British advanced fifty miles along the coastal plain reaching Jaffa and, inland, the foot of the Judaean hills. The Turks avoided disaster by fighting rearguard actions but they lost much equipment and 10,000 men taken prisoner.
Determined to press his disorganised enemy hard, Allenby turned East into the hills on November 18th, as the winter rains set in. His line of supply could support just two infantry divisions – the 52nd and 75th – and a Yeomanry division, covered only by the mountain guns of mule and camel batteries. Aware of the potentially adverse propaganda the enemy might make of a destructive battle for the Holy City Allenby intended to cut off von Falkenhayn by capturing the villages commanding the road which runs north from Jerusalem to Nablus. This manoeuvre involved a march over precipitous, stony and trackless country, with the nights bitterly cold for troops still in their desert kit. Despite their gallantry the men of the 52nd and 75th Divisions had neither the numbers not the fire power to force their way through to the Nablus road, though they gained and held Nabi Samweil on a high ridge only five miles to the North-West of Jerusalem, the traditional point from which pilgrims and crusaders had their first view of the city. On November 24th Allenby called a halt and for the next fortnight re-grouped his command, making the tracks usable for wheeled traffic and bringing up divisions which had been rested since the Gaza – Beersheba battle. With these the second attack on Jerusalem succeeded in breaking through enough of its outlying western defences to persuade von Falkenhayn and the Turks to evacuate the city on December 9th. Allenby had delivered Lloyd George and the British nation their early Christmas present, yet his army still had work to do. Von Falkenhayn’s Turks made several fierce efforts to recapture Jerusalem but by the year’s end the villages which had remained beyond Allenby’s grasp in November were firmly in British hands and Jerusalem was secure. At the coast the front line was pushed far enough north of Jaffa to make it safe from counter-attack. In the wettest season in living memory British, Turks and Germans went, briefly, into winter quarters.
Stanley Goodland in 1917: India, Egypt & Palestine.
Alone among the officers of the 1/5 Somersets Stanley Goodland had seen front-line service and had been decorated for his bravery. Evidently thinking highly of him, his Commanding Officer recommended Stanley as a worthy candidate for a Regular Army captaincy but he did not wish his name to be put forward. Meanwhile Lt-Col Cooke-Hurle tested Stanley’s potential as a prospective Adjutant by putting him in charge of the advance party which prepared a camp for the Battalion in the wilds of the North West frontier. After two and a half years of soldiering in India, during which hard training and close comradeship had honed its military efficiency the 1/5 Somerset Light Infantry was summoned to play its part in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. On arrival in Egypt the Battalion was posted to the newly created 75th Division and, with the 3/3 Gurkhas and two more territorial units, the 1/4 Wiltshires and the 2/4 Hampshires became part of the 233rd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General the Hon EM Colston, DSO, MVO.3 In 1930 the Brigadier, asked to contribute a foreword to the Book of Remembrance, recalled his first impression of the 1/5 Somersets, who had disembarked at Suez on the morning of May 11th. That night he and his staff were waiting at a siding near Cairo. ‘Punctual to the moment, like a snake the huge troop train glided in; one whistle and the war-strength Battalion detrained and in ten minutes, headed by their bugles and band they marched off. The Adjutant turned and said: “As good as a Regular Battalion. You are lucky, Sir.’ I echoed his sentiments . . . that night was the beginning of a friendship which was to outlive the War.’4
Three weeks of re-equipping and training preceded the rail journey of the 233rd Brigade to El Arish and on to Rafa, on the Egypt– Palestine border. By early September the Somersets were in the front line South East of Gaza where the width of no man’s land – 2000 yards – determined the style of warfare, which was confined to night patrols and the exchange of artillery fire. On October 6th the raid on the Turkish outpost in the ‘Old British Trenches’ was a spectacular event which brought renown to the 1/5 Somersets who succeeded where other units in this part of the front had failed.
This ‘stunt’ had been meticulously planned at Brigade, Battalion and Company level. It was predictable that Stanley Goodland, with his campaign experience in Mesopotamia, would be given command of the raiding party. In their eagerness to use the bayonet his men omitted to capture any prisoners but the congratulations from higher command showed that this short and sharp operation boosted morale in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Lt-Col Cooke-Hurle’s report to Brigade praised ‘Captain ES. Goodland MC who commanded the assaulting party [and who] is a fine leader of men. I attribute the smoothness of the running of the raid to be due to a great extent to him.’5
After the raid Stanley was given a week’s leave in Cairo, enjoyed in the company of Lt Harry Milsom. Soon after his return to the Battalion Stanley became Adjutant, succeeding Captain Frank Calway who had received a staff appointment. For the events of November 1917, during which the 1/5 Somersets faced their severest ordeals, there are several documentary sources. As Adjutant Stanley Goodland wrote the daily entries in the Battalion War Diary which supplements his letters to Elsie and the account he wrote to his father printed in the Somerset County Gazette of January 26th 1918. Lt Harry Milsom’s uninhibited story of the campaign up to the attack on El Jib, in which he was severely wounded, provides further information. So does the privately printed pamphlet entitled ‘Some Fighting in Palestine in 1917’ by A Major (Act Lt-Col.) DSO, that is, Frank Urwick who commanded the Battalion in the absence of Lt-Col Cooke-Hurle, who was in hospital.6 These narratives speak for themselves of the triumphs and tragedies of a Battalion which, as Stanley wrote in the War Diary summing up the events of November, earned for the Regiment ‘an enviable reputation in the E[gypt] E[xpeditionary] F[orce].’7
The 75th Division did not take part in the entering of Jerusalem but won the right to wear a flash depicting a key because its brave advance into the Judaean Hills and the capture of Nabi Samweil unlocked the door to the Holy City. The depleted 1/5 Somersets spent most of December in the Ramleh area of the Judaean foothills, including eight days at Surafend, that ‘nest of thieves.’8 They moved up to the front line on Boxing Day but their main enemy over the Christmas and New Year season was the miserable cold and mud of an unprecedentedly wet Palestinian winter.
1 Moberly, op. cit., vol. III, p.55.
2 AP WaveIl, Allenby: a Study in Greatness, Harrap, 1940, p.186.
3 1880-1944. Grenadier Guardsman: succeeded as 2nd (& last) Baron Roundway, 1925.
4 BoR, p.7.
5 Insertion in War Diary, 1/5 Bn SLI. PRO WO 95/4690.
6 see post 25 November 2017
7 PRO WO 95/4690.
8 Cyril Falls: Armageddon, 1918, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964, p175.