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A Warhorse in the desert

Far away from the horrors of the Western Front, another war was raging in the Holy Land. The First World War was a truly global conflict, and my great-grandfather, Thomas Cooper, experienced it in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine.

After Gallipoli

Aged 33, Thomas was relatively old when he enlisted in 1915. He was working as a groom for the aristocratic Seely family (of ‘Warrior’ fame) when he joined the local territorial battalion – Princess Beatrice’s Isle of Wight Rifles (1/8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment).

Earlier in August that year, the battalion sustained heavy casualties when it took part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Empire. 89 men were killed in action and many more wounded when the Isle of Wight Rifles assaulted the Anafarta Ridge during the landings at Suvla Bay.

News of the disaster shocked islanders - among the dead, 32 were from the town of Newport, of whom four lived on Orchard Street. Accounts of Gallipoli may well have influenced Thomas’s decision to volunteer.

Update on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 5:16PM by Registered CommenterDavid Langford

Because of his experience caring for horses, the Seelys recommended that he enter service as a batman to the family’s eldest son, Captain Charles Grant Seely, who’d already seen action at Gallipoli. As a batman, Thomas acted as a valet; maintaining his officer’s uniform and equipment, and caring for the horse. He would also accompany Captain Seely into combat.

By September, Thomas was undergoing military training at Hatfield Park (Hertfordshire) on the mainland. At the same time, the British Army were preparing to test early tanks here; little did he know it, but these slow and cumbersome machines would later support his battalion in the battlefields of Palestine.

After completing his training, Thomas embarked on a troopship taking reinforcements to Alexandria, where the remainder of the Isle of Wight Rifles (part of the 54th ‘East Anglian’ Division) were incorporated into the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commanded by General Archibald Murray. He left behind his wife Mabel, a daughter and two young sons.

Desert warfare

Arriving in Egypt in 1916, Thomas acclimatised at Sidi Bishr before joining his battalion at Mena – a sprawling tented encampment situated beside the Great Pyramids at Giza. Like most of his comrades, Thomas had never been abroad before; Egypt’s strange landscape of sand dunes and ancient wonders must have seemed unimaginably exotic.

The Isle of Wight Rifles spent the early part of 1916 preparing for the forthcoming campaign against the Ottoman and German forces in Sinai and Palestine, and in April they occupied positions near the Bitter Lakes on the Suez canal.

On August 3rd the Egyptian Expeditionary Force successfully repelled an attack by German and Ottoman forces at Romani a victory that secured the British Empire’s defence of the Suez Canal, and marked the start of its offensive against the Central Powers in the Sinai peninsular.

Having withdrawn from the Bitter Lakes to Moacsar in January 1917, the Isle of Wight Rifles were ordered to advance on February 1st. They marched 145 miles across the barren expanse of the Sinai desert before arriving at their destination of El Arish on February 26th. The battalion endured stifling heat and rough terrain, resorting to mules and camels for transport, whilst bivouacking over night.

The battalion were now in the front line and would soon see action in Palestine, where the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commenced a new offensive on March 26th. General Murray’s first assault on Gaza was initially successful against heavy resistance, but his Eastern Force succumbed to the relief column reinforcing the town’s determined defenders, who inflicted significant casualties on the retreating British troops.

This was not the first bloody siege witnessed by the ancient town of Gaza - where Alexander the Great, Saladin and Napoleon had once fought - and it would not be the last.

The Second Battle of Gaza

After the initial defeat at Gaza (during which Thomas’s battalion remained in reserve), the Egyptian Expeditionary Force regrouped in preparation for a second assault. Meanwhile their opponents were refortifying their positions in the line between Gaza and Beersheba with trenches, machines guns and barbed wire.

The Second Battle of Gaza began early on the morning of April 17th 1917; Thomas’s brigade (163rd Norfolk & Suffolk Brigade), now accompanied by several Mark I tanks, were ordered to advance on Khirbet-el-Bir. On their left was the 162nd Brigade, whilst Anzac mounted units protected their right flank. Thomas never spoke about the ensuing battle, but the accounts of others create a vivid picture. Isle of Wight Rifleman Ernie Parsons described the advance:

“At 7:30 in the morning we went over the top. The ground was smooth as a football pitch and we didn’t stand a hope in hell. I thought Gallipoli was bad but this was ten times worse… I’m lucky to be alive and never thought that I would get out in one piece.”

The terrain afforded little cover and the battalion progressed under a hail of machine gun fire and a tremendous artillery barrage. The lead tank received three direct hits and burst into flames; Rifleman Bill Mowbray bravely dashed into the burning wreckage to rescue the surviving crew, and was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Overnight and into the 18th April, the 163rd Brigade consolidated its position before attempting to advance again the next day. The Isle of Wight Rifles suffered heavy losses as they continued to advance across the open ground. Rifleman J.R. Toogood recounted the second assault in a letter home:

“First one side of me then the other, my comrades were shot down and big shells were dropping all round us, then my officer got knocked off his feet and those of us who were left went on with the advance until we were less that a hundred yards from the Turkish trenches. We stopped here and made up our line but could do nothing to help us advance further.”

Despite gaining a small foothold and briefly managing to occupy enemy positions, the offensive was a disastrous failure as the British and colonial divisions were forced to retreat after fierce and successive Ottoman counter-attacks.

It was on April 19th that Captain Seely was killed in action; his epitaph describes how he ‘fell gloriously,’ thrice wounded while leading the advance upon the Turkish position. He was later buried in the war cemetery at Gaza, surrounded by many others from his battalion.

Of the 800 Isle of Wight Rifles who went into battle, only two officers and 90 men answered roll call that evening. Thomas’s brigade suffered the heaviest casualties of the E.E.F. during the Second Battle of Gaza – 1,828 men were killed, captured or wounded. It’s suspected that the actual losses were concealed to the British public and were in fact far greater than those recorded officially.

After the battle, General Edmund Allenby took over command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The Isle of Wight Rifles went on to participate in raids and diversionary attacks against the Gaza-Beersheba line, until the E.E.F. eventually overcame the German and Ottoman defences and advanced further into Palestine.

On the December 9th 1917, Allenby’s army succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. Meanwhile Thomas’s battalion were dug in on the Judean Hills, where they remained until the E.E.F’s final offensive in September 1918.

Returning home

When the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918, the Isle of Wight Rifles were still advancing northwards, some 30 miles north of Beirut. The battalion returned first to Alexandria and then Cairo to demob.

Thomas eventually returned home to England in 1919, where he was sent to convalesce in a military hospital. Like many of the patients at the Southampton University War Hospital, Thomas was suffering from exhaustion after years of arduous desert warfare.

Military hospitals were overwhelmed by the sick and injured, and so temporary huts were built to accommodate patients returning from the Middle East and the Western Front. After he was discharged, Thomas returned to his rural life and continued looking after horses as a farmer.


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