The fighting in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War is often overlooked. However, this year marks the centenary of the Palestine Tank Detachment, whose members fought and died in the Battles of Gaza. This is their story.
During 1915 the main focus for British and Empire forces was on defending the Suez Canal from attack by the Ottoman Turks. During 1916 the British attacked and drove the Turks out of the Sinai, and in early 1917 they began planning to attack north into Turkish-ruled Palestine.
The first Tank Men assigned to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force arrived at Alexandria on the 9th January 1917. Most of them came from E Company, Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps. Fifteen officers, 123 men and 8 Mark I tanks arrived on the 9th.
E Company, later renamed the Palestine Tank Detachment, lost 7 of its members during the war. It saw combat on two occasions, at the Second (17th – 19th April) and Third (1st – 2nd November) Battles of Gaza. At the Second Battle 2 men died, 8 were captured (1 of whom later died) and 12 were wounded. At the Third Battle 1 man was killed and 1 wounded.
The two men killed during the Second Battle were Gunners 206180 Robert Ferguson and 206177 Maurice Jones. Both were aboard the tank named Sir Archibald. This tank was immobilised by a Turkish shell then set on fire by further hits. Robert died on the 17th and 21 year old Maurice the next day after being evacuated for medical treatment. Three of their crewmates were wounded.
It is believed the 8 men taken prisoner were the crew of the tank called Nutty. They had supported the infantry in capturing their objective, but one of the tracks broke, the tank was hit and caught fire and the crew were forced to abandon it. After heavy fighting the Turks recaptured the position, taking a number of prisoners. Nutty’s commander, Second Lieutenant Frank Carr, was badly burned. Despite medical treatment from Turkish and German doctors, he died on the 19th, aged 35.
We know one man died from his wounds after the battle. Sergeant 40236 William Moulding, a former Royal Fusilier who had transferred to the tanks, died on the 27th April in Alexandria.
The man killed during the Third Battle of Gaza on the 2nd November was 27 year old Gunner 302030 John Boswell. His tank has not been identified.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, three more members of the Palestine Tank Detachment died during the war.
On the 1st August 24 year old Private 92828 Gilbert Colbourne drowned during a bathing parade. Gunner 302027 George Baker (aged 20) died on the 24th October, and Gunner 302077 Ernest Iron on the 18th November. He was 36. The detachment’s War Diary records that he ‘died of wounds “Self-Inflicted”’
The detachment remained in Palestine until around July 1918 when the men, but not their tanks, returned to the UK.
The 7 comrades they left behind are buried across Gaza and Egypt. Ferguson and Boswell are buried in Gaza War Cemetery. Colbourne, Baker, Iron and Jones also lie in Gaza, at Deir el Belah War Cemetery. Moulding is buried in Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt. Frank Carr has no known grave, his name is recorded on the Jerusalem Memorial.
For a more in depth examination of the campign in Palestine, or for advice if your ancestor served there, check out one of the books below.