by Lt. Col. T. Gibbons, D S.O.
In 1909 the British Army was reorganised on a more modern footing. Local regiments, and the local connection was strong, regiments were divided into two battalions, one would serve at home for three to five years and the other abroad. The local Militia were transformed into the more professional but part time Territorial Force with the aim of defending the homeland in time of invasion. A third element was the army based in India giving a total membership of just under half a million men. General Haig, who assisted Lord Haldane during the reorganisation demanded a million men as all generals saw the German war approaching, he was to be disappointed!
Essex had its two battalions and added to each were the Territorials. Each was linked to the first battalion and in this town we had the proud 'F' Company of the 1/5th Battalion Essex Regiment.
The militaristic attitudes of the time, in which Imperialism was the order of the day, was felt strongly here as elsewhere. Young men enjoyed the comradeship and adventure, plus the 'holiday' of camping during training days while playing at soldering. Such men had few other outlets for their energy in the days before the First World War, money was short, work hours were long, and all were admired by the girls when in uniform! The 5th had its HQ in Chelmsford and many local towns supplied a 'company' for the Battalion.
When war was declared on August 4th 1914 the 5th were at Clacton on the summer exercises as part of the Eastern Division. For the next few months confusion reigned as the nation geared up for a long awaited but unexpected war. The main issue at the time was the possibility of civil war in Ireland, the major European was came as a surprise. When things settled down in 1915 the regiment was on home defence duties in East Anglia. Many had volunteered for overseas service despairing that the war would be over before they were overseas, the duty of 'home service' was seen as 'demeaning' by many. However by July they were aware action in the East, most likely Gallipoli awaited them and on the 22nd they left Plymouth Docks full of excitement for the Mediterranean. Those who remained were the older married men destined for home defence alongside those considered too unfit or too young for action. Their turn would come later. The Battalion sailing as part of the renamed 54th (Eastern Division) was 29 Officers and 649 other ranks strong. It was said many were young men, too many actually younger than they ought to have been for active service! The then Major Gibbons joined the S.S 'Grampian' with the rest under the command of Lt Col. J.M. Welch. T.D.
The Gallipoli campaign was a shambles. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty joined with others in pushing for an attack on the Dardanelles by aged Battleships of the British and French fleets thereby forcing Turkey to surrender. An absurd idea spoiled somewhat by the sinking of two ships and damaging of several others. Some time later General Sir Ian Hamilton was sent out to attack the peninsula, he had no staff, no maps, no aerial photography and no army! By the time he had arrived the small bad of Turks occupying the area had been massively reinforced, strong defences installed and the Turks were defending their homeland, and 'Johnny Turk' proved to be a very determined and competent soldier not given to running away!
The battalion landed on Suvla Bay on August 10th while serious fighting roared on the heights above them. For the next 17 weeks the battalion along with the rest of the Division fought high on the hills, losing men to bullet and shell but mostly to disease. The difficulty of burial in the hard ground, unsanitary conditions, flies swarming over the food all led to serious dysentery which laid the toughest men low. The fighting on the hills lasted from the heat of autumn into the floods and snow of December when the battalion was relieved and headed for Egypt. Of the 649 men and 29 officers who landed in August only 100 men and six officers had 'stood it' for the whole time.
The battalion moved to Egypt where it took a small part in guarding the railway during the short 'Senussi rebellion in 1916. After Gallipoli their duties here were not onerous and Gibbons, by now Commanding Officer after replacing the wounded Welch, found time to visit a few historical landmarks and reveal his knowledge and reading of history. The men also did such activities although many preferred the few miles walk to the beach for sea bathing! At the end of this time Gibbons took his men to the far end of the Suez canal defences where they toiled making trenches in thin sand. Their language at this point is not mentioned! The sand is fine, much finer than elsewhere it appears and ruins everything, especially your 'Bully Beef.' However being in such a place meant patrolling the Sinai looking for Turks encroaching. Night patrols could easily get lost and attempts were made to find the way home by the Polar Star, taking the young men from Essex into a world far removed from that they had known. These men probably never travelled far from where they were born, although rail travel had encouraged many to move, however the idea that one day they would traverse a desert was unlikely to be one they grew up with.
During March 1917 the battalion now with a strength of around a thousand men marched along the coast of Sinai towards the Holy Land. So impressed with this is Colonel Gibbons that he devotes a short chapter to those who previously marched this way. Abraham, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Muslim armies all made their way back and forth, now the 5th Essex joined the unseen throng. The Colonel rejoices in this, biblical knowledge, probably along with a classical education enabled him to note the History of the world around him and it is clear he really enjoyed this!
However at the end of the march the battalion once again returned to the fight. The many replacements who joined no doubt included wounded or sick from Gallipoli who had recovered, others were less experienced and thorough training had been undergone at Suez. The men were now fit, disciplined and regarded themselves as an efficient fighting force. Their chance came at the First Battle of Gaza. Here they, alongside the sister battalion the 1/4th Essex, were deployed to attack Green Hill, while the 6th and 7th Essex attacked to their right. Some 4000 yards of bare ground had to be covered, cover did not exist anywhere yet the men pressed on and as they came within range casualties were indeed heavy. Colonel Gibbons himself was shot in the thigh and could only lie their watching proudly as his men did not hesitate until they took the enemy position. All however was in vain. The 'fog of war' led the Generals in charge to fear for their outstretched force and they called a halt at the very moment victory was at hand. It all had to be done again, twice! The second battle was a rushed affair in which the 5th took little part and led to a change of leadership when General Murray, competent and successful up to this time was replaced by General Allenby, sent out after his Arras attack had ended. His stature however enabled more constructive planning for the third battle in which the 5th took a major part. Their attack, this time from shoreline of the Mediterranean took them into the enemy positions and after heavy fighting and many losses Gaza was taken. Colonel Gibbons had returned in time for the battle only to be hit once more in the hands. Heading for medical aid in the dark misty atmosphere he was not easily recognised and was amused when he overheard one man complain "It's not right sending old boys like him out to fight!"
Gibbons describes the 5th adventures as they head north along the coast, past Jaffa and the many orange orchards, fighting the last great battle of Megiddo and the continued journey north following the Calvary who raced ahead bagging thousands of surrendering Turks. Allenby had sprung a surprise by feinting to attack over the Jordan towards Damascus and instead sent the cavalry over Mount Carmel through Haifa and routed the enemy. The 5th marched north through Lebanon and soon the war against the Turkish forces was over and thoughts turned to home! On November 11th 1918 the armistice in Europe was declared but few men rejoiced. Happy that the war was over and glad to know they would soon be home they also counted the cost of the men left behind on Gallipoli, Gaza and elsewhere. Not all had been found and identified, not all lay in a decent grave. Soldiers memories never leave them though they cannot reveal them to non soldiers, sometimes the soldier cannot allow himself to remember his war.
Throughout this book we see a man of his time. An educated middle class officer, proud to be British and proud of the way his men stuck with extremely difficult situations and 'stuck it like Britons' at that! His stiff upper lip, his understanding and care for his men shine through as does his desire to do the best for all he meets. His job was to fight this war and do his duty properly, he may have to kill but he would rather be at peace, and attitude many soldiers still carry. He understood the pain and suffering of war but just got on with the job, determined to do whatever must be done no matter the cost. The impression left is of an officer who a soldier would be happy have as leader, especially a territorial soldier. While not a professional writer he writes a book that takes you into the mind and heart of a Territorial Officer of the day. This book gives witness to the action of the 5th Essex, it also gives witness to the man. This book is worth a read for that alone. He wrote his memoirs so that the sacrifice of his men should never be forgotten and I doubt he ever forgot them himself. His books dedication reads,
'To my Comrades,
on both sides of the veil.'