Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lt. VNH Gardam in the Palestine Campaign. 1916- 1917.

'Bill`s' Great War.
by Bill Gardam.

Dad was already fifty-two when I was born in England in1942 - the last of five children- and his wartime experiences as a young man during the First World War in Egypt and Palestine was way back in the past by then. A few expressions from that early time: "Pass the zibda!(butter)",were part of our awareness that Father had a past. The personality he presented to the world and to his family must have been strongly shaped by his early years in the British Army. So you could say that who I and my brothers and sisters became was shaped by them too. Big events like wars keep echoing down through the generations.

On the Praires.

Vaughan was born in Hull, Yorkshire, one of a large family, and as a teenager, after his parents divorced, was sent to Canada to work on a farm in Saskatchewan. When the two bachelor brother homesteaders found his name was Vaughan they said " Christ, we can`t call you that! We`ll call you Bill." Those must have been difficult and lonely times for a sensitive middle class youth a very long way from home. When the brothers went to town to live during the winter, ‘Bill’ was left for weeks on end to tend the stock and sleep in the barn to keep warm. Whatever the war was to offer dad in the way of difficulties it would have had to be pretty bad to measure up to this tough, lonely beginning.

`Bill.' 1911.
By 1914, the outbreak of war found Dad in the United States and he, along with so very many young Englishmen rushed home to enlist. Bill rushed by working his way home as a stoker on a tramp steamer. It is hard for us to visualize now, but so eager was he to get to actual battle that he kept transferring from unit to unit until someone found that he could ride a horse and he ended up as an officer in a cavalry outfit bound for Egypt. Imagine: for the first time in his life he had a recognized skill, lots of comrades and a job approved of by his country. And it supplied the clothing and transportation! Of course, for his bit of glory he could pay a heavy price. I would guess that would have seemed a fair exchange. Barely into his twenties, he would have thought himself invincible anyway.
Dad had been trained to operate a Vickers machine gun while in the infantry, one of a class of weapons that was making such a terrible impact in the trench warfare of Europe. In Egypt he was in a mounted ( on horses and mules) machine gun corps that could be attached to any army group that needed the extra firepower. He trained others to use this weapon and actually met Laurence of Arabia who was anxious to acquire some for his Arab legions who would be advancing northward into Palestine on the right flank of the British army when it had finally crossed the Sinai desert to fight the Turkish army.

The Suez Canal was the vital transportation link that the British must defend and the Turks (allies of Germany) wished to capture (they made two attempts) but eventually the Allies decided that the best defense was a good offence and began to advance across the desert to pen their enemy up in Palestine on a narrow front far away from the canal and to eventually push them back into Turkey. Bill rode his horse all the way, some of the time standing in his stirrups due to a large boil on his backside.


His photos in the old family album are stained and faded and are of the typical ‘I was here, these are my companions, here is something that is different in the desert - a lone tree, a railway bridge ( the army built a railway and water-pipeline as they advanced), here we are with our guns.’variety. I would not find shots of Generals, actual battle scenes or air photos. When things were exciting, Bill was too busy to be taking snapshots. To find anything about Dad and his war we have to look hard and understand what these few fragments are saying. My eldest brother John is a retired Canadian Army colonel who actually served for a while in the Gaza Strip as part of a UN Peacekeeping Force. He is able to fill me in with many of the stories and military history that lie behind the images. He interviewed Dad and got the account of his battle and the wounding that eventually put him out of the war for good.

As I write this, there is a battle going on between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and most of us have grown up with an awareness of the ongoing wars in that region. It is interesting to flip back to the early part of the last century and get a tantalizing glimpse into just one of a whole series of struggles over a small but vital piece of real estate. I suspect that a few thousand years ago the Philistines who had themselves arrived in this land not so long before from across the Mediterranean and were now struggling against a nomadic people pressing in from the Sinai Desert, would have had some understanding of the present conflict and the long history of peoples fighting to possess scarce, well watered and productive land. The ancient Egyptians fought in this land to protect the fertile valley of the Nile across the desert behind them. This corridor between Africa and Eurasia was a route taken by the first humans to venture out of Africa into a wider world. With all that traffic it is small wonder much of the land seems to have been pounded flat! My father was fighting on holy ground and added his footprints to the rest. First the Pharaoh, then Alexander the Great, and then my Dad!

Maps are from Palestine Campaign by Wavell.

The photos are mounted in a tattered album labeled ‘Mitry`s photo stories. Cairo’ and would have been put together probably when Dad was in hospital there in 1918. His camera had been stolen when he was wounded so all photos of Egypt west of the Suez Canal would have been taken after he arrived as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Many of the desert photos have place names that locate them in time as well, as the army advanced across the Sinai and into Palestine. The last ones are labeled ‘South of Beersheba’ and would have been taken before his final battle.

The Egypt photos. West of the Suez Canal.
I`ve left out the photos of zoo animals behind bars but the others are interesting enough. An Egyptian child, farming scenes, locals riding on a donkey: all things new in a strange land. There are big mosques, forts, a church and the skyline of Cairo with an aircraft flying overhead. Dad would have gotten to know his fellow officers and men on the troopship from England and here he was learning to speak his few Egyptian phrases so he could communicate better with the mess servants and the people of the town. Dad always had some ability with accents so I imagine him speaking pidgin English in the markets and soaking up this new and exciting world while at the same time remaining secure within the military culture of his comrades. The army, busy trying to defend the full length of the canal had already moved out beyond the east bank of the canal to establish a line of defense far enough into the Sinai to prevent an attacking Turkish army from shelling ships passing through the canal. This hundred mile long defensive line was tying down a large number of troops that were destined for the trenches of Europe where the war had become a static and bloody scene using up thousands of lives.

Bill`s splendid uniform.

Dad would have visited nearby Cairo on leave, eaten at Shepards Hotel and gone for rides with the European ladies of the town by day and roistered around the entertainment district with his fellow officers by night. He had a uniform made for himself of a superior fabric and cut to the issued variety and then worried about being caught by the Prevost Marshall. His real job of course was to become a better soldier along with all his recently enlisted companions so that he could advance the fortunes of his country as efficiently as possible. It is probably during this long intensive training period that T.E. Laurence observed Bill`s troop firing their machine guns on the beach. Besides the British, there were soldiers from many parts of the Empire: New Zealanders and Australians newly arrived from overseas or back from the killing grounds of Gallipoli to regroup, Indian troops recently from the NW frontier, West Indian soldiers, and thousands of Egyptian labourers. The totally unsung ones would have been the horses, mules, donkeys and camels on whose backs most of the whole gigantic affair would be carried.
Troops from India.

The Sinai. East of the Canal.
The Sinai is by no means totally flat; it has high mountains in the south and dunes along the Mediterranean coast but the railway, water pipeline and the army all marched through a stony desert parallel to the coast that was murderously hot in the summer and cool and often wet in the winter. Good campaign weather existed during the Spring and, after the summer heat, again in the Fall. Dad took some photos of flat land: flat like the prairies back in Canada, but with precious little vegetation. When he found a lone tree he was sure to take it`s portrait! When he found a graveyard he photographed it too, perhaps with a certain vague foreboding.


Bill took lots of photos of the human beings he saw - all his companions standing singly or together for their photos, reading in their simple little huts with grass walls or posing beside their machine guns. There are even a few of himself. As they advanced beyond the canal, the huts become very simple affairs. We see them wrestling on horseback in the sand for entertainment. It is strange to look at the photos of all these so full-of-life young men and remember that they are all dead by now - either within the year in the desert or spread out over the next seventy years or so. What we do not see are the stiff engagements with the enemy who retreated slowly back toward Palestine. Histories record the heroics of the Australians who stormed the fortified positions: first riding into the enemy`s fire and then dismounting to crawl forward and fight hand to hand. At other times the men were frustrated at not getting at the enemy because, given half a chance, the Turks would wait until they were almost enveloped and then withdraw to fight again another day. There were casualties during these brief but violent battles but all seemed to accept this as a fact of war. The Turks were very good soldiers after all and the trench warfare in Europe had inured the staff officers to accepting heavy losses as the normal cost of plying their bloody trade.

The camel train passed by all day long.

Beyond the railhead and pipeline that followed the troop`s advance, all supplies came forward by camel train. Dad watched one pass all the length of one day and snapped it`s picture. Besides other supplies, camels could carry about 25 gallons of water each, which would be a major factor in this war. Not just the men`s needs must be met but all the cavalry mounts must be watered as well. Battles were fought to capture wells. How far and how fast the army could advance depended on it! This whole campaign was dependant on the complex logistics required to not only keep this large body of men and animals alive in the desert but to enable them to advance and fight as well. In 1917 Dad and his comrades in arms thought themselves to be up to date and modern but they were still constrained by water as much as all the ancient armies before them. As for the armies of old, and in contrast to most of the war in Europe, this was an open landscape that could well use mounted troops.

Besides traditional cavalry there were also infantry mounted on horseback and camels for rapid deployment. With no roads and the railway coming forward in the rear, horses and camels were the fast mobile modes of transport that allowed the army to wheel and feint, to dash forward and outflank the opposing forces. Infantry mounted on camels, which, while not as fast as the horses could last for several days without water, extended the range and length of time they could remain in battle. TE Lawrence describes camel charges by the Beduin in the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and they must have been a fiercesome sight. The mincing machine of a cavalry charge with sabers was a deadly weapon if unleashed at the opportune moment but the cavalry often fought dismounted and, armed as they were with light rifles, they needed extra firepower, and that is where the mounted machine gunners came into their own. Riding along with the cavalry advance with their guns carried disassembled on mules they could quickly dismount, assemble their weapons and add their terrible pounding chatter to the snap of rifles and the exploding shells from the field guns of the entrenched enemy.


Dad`s description of the advance into the borderlands of Egypt and Palestine is of patrols of both armies busy trying to spy out their opponent`s movements and clashing when they met. As there were no radio communications on the battle fronts, co-ordinating the course of the action was very difficult especially as they were spread out over (for that era) large distances. His patrol was ambushed once while resting in a wadi ( a dry watercourse). One can feel the mounting excitement as the troops started using in earnest all the skills they had practiced for so long.

Once into Palestine during the late summer and early fall of 1917 there was some urgency to bring the enemy to battle before the rains began filling the wadis and turning the agricultural land into impassible mud. The British made two ‘textbook’ attacks on the fortified town of Gaza. Here they were attacking a mixed force of Turkish, German, Arab and Austrian troops well dug into trenches and behind a formidable barrier of thick cactus hedges. The first attack failed with many losses. The second one failed as well as the enemy by then had reinforce with more troops and fortified the ridges and hills that stretched toward the oasis town of Beersheba twenty-five miles away. In a way, both sides had at this point achieved some reasonable objectives. The Turkish army was now firmly penned up on a narrow front a long way from the Suez Canal and the British army could maintain their position thanks to the railway and water pipeline which had been built all the way across the desert. From the Turkish/German perspective this war in Palestine was forcing the British to expend a lot of shipping, materiel and men that they would otherwise be able to use in Europe. Really it was too bad the German General staff commanding the Turkish army and that of the British could not have made a gentlemen`s agreement to sit still and wait the war out, but of course that could not be. Thus began the moves that would bring my Dad to his final battle as well.

General Allenby was now in charge and the political need in Britain was for some successful battle to keep up moral in Britain. The Prime Minister suggested that Jerusalem for Christmas would be very nice! Containment was not good enough: Turkey and her German allies must be pushed back north through Palestine and Syria. Allenby decided to perform a larger version of the two battles for Gaza; to hook around the Turkish left flank, but on a far larger scale. The army would pretend to be preparing to attack Gaza again (forcing the Turks to concentrate the bulk of their forces there) but secretly move troops to the east and take Beersheba(with it`s vital wells) and then rush around to cut Gaza off and hopefully prevent the withdrawal of the enemy to yet another defensive line farther north. If things could be kept fluid enough and fast enough the British Army could roll ever northward. A sort of blitzkrieg using horses, camels and donkeys.

Four days before the battle was to begin, the army began to secretly move the troops from in front of Gaza to the east to prepare for the attack on Beersheba. Dad`s machine gunners were attached to the London Yeomanry (8th mounted Brigade) and up to this point had been engaged in watching the enemy from a distance but were then instructed to hold the line and prevent the enemy from looking over the ridges to see the troop movements taking place. Here we come at last to Lieutenant Gardam`s last battle. John interviewed dad in 1977.

Bill`s battle was fought on the ridges north of El Buggar and south of Waddi Hanafish.

"We (21st Squadron. Machine Gun Corp. Cavalry. and the Yeomanry) took over from the Australian Light Horse ( 3rd ALH) in the afternoon of 26 October 1917. We had been shadowing the Turks for some time, observing from the tops of sand dunes and rocky outcrops. This time, however, the orders from Brigade were different, we were told that we would not retire at nightfall but to hang on at all costs. The V trenches we took over from the Australians were only waist deep and were on the reverse slope overlooking point 630. On the top of the outcrop at point 630 were some old Turkish trenches which looked down upon our positions. We knew the Turks had some field guns and were using shrapnel so we got busy and dug in deeper but we still had no overhead cover by nightfall. At first light the Turks drove in our listening posts and then they occupied their old positions, the rising sun at their backs and in our eyes.

They started to fire down on my unit and the 1st County of London
Middlesex Yeomanry. My men were standing behind their guns and returning the fire but we were firing straight on uphill instead of from a flank. (When we moved into position I had argued that my guns should be sited in pairs on the flanks but to no avail.) My gunners never had a chance and one after another the guns fell silent as the gun numbers were shot. The left hand gun was closest to me so I crawled to it and started to fire. Whack! I was shot through the left chest.

All of our force was pinned down. The positions further back on the
reverse slope managed to stop the Turks from overrunning the position. I must have lain in the hot sand for two to three hours before the Yeomanry put in a counter attack but it failed. They were stopped in the dead ground just to the rear of our position. They started to try to evacuate the wounded and one of my own ammunition carriers who was in the dead ground, got forward to where I was and he pulled me back and dressed my wound. I was smothered in blood, flies and sand and dying for a drink of water. The worst of the wounded had to be evacuated for medical aid and I was finally lifted off the burning sand and was put across the withers of a horse and the rider took of at the canter.

I shouted at him to stop as I was drowning in my own blood. There were
two broken ribs sticking into my left lung as well as a hole in my shoulder
blade. I said to throw me to the ground and I would take my chances. He slowed to a walk and then a Turkish bullet hit the horse. The horse fell on top of me but the rider was not hit and he managed to extricate me. The machine gunner who had saved me earlier had got hold of a loose horse and had been riding near us. He helped the dismounted rider carry me out of range to the field dressing station at El Buggar. While my wounds were being dressed the Brigade Commander and his Intelligence officer came and asked what had happened at point 630, as there was little or no information getting back to their headquarters." ( Dad`s account is from Seventy years After. By Col. John Gardam.)
Dad was left at the dressing station for several days and when he still not die ( to be fair, he was held until he was stable enough to be moved), he was carried in a cart for twenty miles, put on a train and arrived in hospital in Cairo over a week after his wounding. He took a long time to recover.
The battle for Beersheba began four day`s after his wounding and thanks partly to Dad and his comrades` action, it achieved complete surprise. The capture of Beersheba was finally effected at dusk by a charge of nearly two mounted divisions led by the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade directly at the town and the guns and infantry trenches that defended it. All with drawn bayonets in one hand, reins in the other! It must have been an electrifying sight and well worth a poem to match the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. This rapid overrunning of the town saved most of the wells from being destroyed. Water had been captured and the battle could move on north. ‘The Palestine Campaigns’ by Col. AP Wavell makes exciting reading about this and the continuation of the advance through Palestine and Syria, but this is where ‘Bill`s War’ has to end.

I found that reading my father`s account of his wounding to be a touching experience. His story is impersonal enough, as though all those years later he was still writing a dispatch to headquarters, but like his photographs, for those that knew him even as a fairly remote British parent of that era, it is possible to slip into his shoes and feel the emotions he must have had but found unmanly to express. Perhaps the story of his life, from his parents` divorce and his banishment to that rough and ready life on the Prairies of Canada and on through the war years was of repressed emotions: the stiff upper lip of the Englishman. He was thirty-two before he married my mother, part of the wartime generation that spanned the time from Victorian certainty to what we call the modern era. After being released from convalescent hospital and the army in 1919 he attended Agricultural college and eventually found his place as a farm estate manager.
I imagine him roaring along the lanes and highways of England on his motorcycle on his days off to weekends with friends at country estates. A whole generation of ex-soldiers and unattached young women whose hopes of marriage and family had been wrecked by the wholesale destruction of so many young men during the war, were racing around during the roaring 20`s determined to purge the memories of war with an endless procession of parties.
My mom was a young maid at the farm where Dad worked who, on seeing Dad cross the yard one morning said to herself "That`s the man for me!" Of course I`m biased, but I think that Becky and an ever growing family was the best thing that could have happened to Dad. It was a place of domestic responsibility and emotional growth; a place to care for others and put down roots. That did not stop him from rejoining the Territorial army ( the Reserves) from 1921 to 1930 and from re-enlisting for WWII. He was turned away on medical grounds before his unit was to be sent to France. He served in the Home Guard. Then an American Airbase was built next door... but that`s another story.