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Palestine, September 1918

The role of the 1st & 2nd Battalions of the British West Indies Regiment

Palestine in September 1918

After four years of warfare British and Arab forces had pushed their Turkish foe northwards from the Suez Canal to a line running roughly from Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast to the north of the Dead Sea. 

The British commander in the theatre, General Sir Edmund H.H.  Allenby, had recently reorganised his forces, sending infantry divisions to France and receiving cavalry divisions in return.  The new German commander of the predominantly Turkish Ottoman force facing Allenby’s men was General Otto Liman von Sanders.  He decided to stand and hold his well-prepared defences.  Allenby planned an attack northwards which became known as the Battle of Megiddo.  

Chaytor Force

Allenby instructed the New Zealand Major General Edward W.C. Chaytor to protect the British right flank against elements of the Ottoman Fourth Army.  Chaytor was to occupy the attention of the Turks on his flank and prevent them from moving west across the River Jordan to support their comrades who would be facing Allenby’s assault.  Chaytor was then to advance to Amman and meet with Britain’s Arab allies operating against the Hejaz railway.

- ‘Chaytor Force’, as it was named, consisted of:  
- The Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division
- The 20th Indian Infantry Brigade
- The 38th and 39th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (both being battalions of    Jewish soldiers)
- The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the British West Indies Regiment


The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR)


Before the war the only British infantrymen recruited from the West Indies were soldiers enlisted to serve in the West India Regiment (WIR).  This was an Imperial regiment, financed by Britain, which served in the Caribbean and West Africa.  Most of the soldiers were recruited in Jamaica.  

On the outbreak of war many Caribbean man volunteered to serve in the British Army but for reasons of social prestige and identity they did not wish to enlist in the WIR.  In November 1915 a new corps was formed named The British West Indies Regiment.  Recruits came from Barbados, Bahamas, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Leeward Islands.  The rank and file was almost entirely composed of black West Indian men.  Eleven infantry battalions were raised to serve in France, Italy, East Africa and Egypt, and a contingent from British Honduras served in Mesopotamia.

However the senior echelons of the British Army were reluctant to expose the BWIR to offensive operations in Europe, unlike their French counterparts who used black troops in combat rolls in France without hesitation.  So the BWIR, much to its frustration, was mainly used on labouring and guard duties and on specialised ammunition re-supply tasks.  An artillery officer observed that whilst a white man could handle three tons of shells in a day, a British West Indian could move five tons.  Despite this hard work, when the pay of the British soldier was increased under Army Order I of 1918 the increment was withheld from British West Indies soldiers.  It took determined lobbying by, amongst others, seven former West Indian Governors before this injustice was corrected.

But in Palestine in September 1918 the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the BWIR met a General who had confidence in them and who wished to use them as infantrymen.  He was Edward Chaytor. 

Above: A crossing in the Jordan Valley today

Chaytor Force advances

Allenby’s attack by British and French troops on the Coastal Plane started on 19th September 1918.  To support it Chaytor Force had been vigorously patrolling on the west bank of the Jordan Valley from the 17th September.  On the afternoon of 19th September an opportunity arose for the British to move against the Turks defending the area of Bakr Ridge. Fire support was available from the 19th (Maymyo) Mountain Battery, Indian Army, which was operating in the brigade immediately to the west of Chaytor Force.  

The West Indians came under the command of another New Zealander, Brigadier General William (Bill) Meldrum, and he ordered the 2nd BWIR to attack the ridge to the south of the Bakr feature.  Despite facing heavy artillery and machine gun fire three companies of 2nd BWIR assaulted this ridge, seizing it and driving off the enemy outposts for the loss of 35 West Indian casualties.  The following morning before first light 2nd BWIR continued advancing and seized Bakr Ridge itself.

Right: Chayter Force movement

Also on that morning, the 20th September, 1st BWIR was ordered to attack and seize Grant Hill and Baghalat.  Spurred on to emulate their Caribbean colleagues on Bakr Ridge, the 1st BWIR infantrymen went into the attack in artillery formation, advancing for 1,600 yards (1,463 metres) under heavy-shell fire. Both objectives were seized.  Two men in 1st BWIR were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals for gallant actions. 

503 Lance Corporal R. Turpin (from La Brea, Trinidad) was cited:

For great gallantry and devotion to duty at Baghalat, Jordan Valley, on the 20th September 1918.  As soon as one company of his battalion had occupied that place, he, under heavy shell fire, ran a signal wire from Musallaheh to Baghalat, a matter of two miles (3.2 kilometres).  Later in the day he went out on four occasions under heavy fire and repaired the wire, which had been cut by enemy artillery fire.


6357 Private H. Scott (from St. Anns, Jamaica) was cited:

For great gallantry and devotion to duty on the 20th September 1918.  When a company of the battalion had occupied Baghalat, he volunteered to carry a message from that place to Grant Ridge.  Under very heavy shell fire he crossed the 700 yards (640 metres) of open ground and delivered his message.

Fighting for the Jordan crossings

Chaytor Force followed up hard on the heels of the now retreating Turks, who sometimes turned back and offered a tough fight.  Meldrum was ordered to concentrate his men for an attack on the crossing over the River Jordan at Jisr ed Damiye.  A British attack went in on 22nd September but the New Zealanders of the Auckland Regiment were forced back by an enemy counter attack.  Lieutenant Colonel C. Wood Hill, Commanding Officer of 1st BWIR, was ordered to march to the crossing immediately.  At 1050 hours a second assault on the crossing went in supported by the guns of the Inverness Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, and the 29th (Murree) Mountain Battery, Indian Army. 

Right: Jisr ed Damieh crossing

West Indians and New Zealanders charged, competing to be the first to get at the Turks with their bayonets.  The West Indians won and the enemy rear guard was broken.  A troop of the Auckland Regiment, standing-by with their mounts, galloped straight through and captured the crossing. 

Temporary Major Alfred Ernest Albert Harragin, 1st BWIR, later received a Distinguished Service Order for:

Gallantry and successful leadership of his company on the 22nd September 1918, at Damieh bridgehead, Jordan Valley.  He and his company took over 100 prisoners and three machine guns, and were responsible for about 50 killed and wounded of the enemy.  He did splendid work.

1454 Serjeant W.E. Julian (from St. Georges, Grenada), 1st BWIR, received a Distinguished Conduct Medal:

For gallantry and devotion to duty at Damieh Bridgehead, Jordan Valley, on the 22nd September 1918.  He commanded his platoon with the utmost efficiency in the attack on the bridgehead, and after the successful assault he re-organised his platoon and led them with great gallantry over the broken ground, which was still occupied by the enemy, capturing two machine guns and a number of prisoners.

Meanwhile 2nd BWIR, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J.H. Poe, had been ordered to an adjacent river crossing at Mafid Jozele.  Here the battalion, supported by the 3rd Australian Light Horse, attacked and drove in the enemy rear guard and took many prisoners.  Temporary Major William Llewellyn Thomas, 2nd BWIR, later received a Distinguished Service Order:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on 22nd September 1918, at Mafid Joseh.  On learning that an officer’s patrol was fighting a rearguard action against vastly superior numbers, he took up a platoon and kept the enemy in check until the remainder of the battalion had arrived as reinforcements.  The enemy were driven back.  He displayed great initiative in the subsequent attack, which resulted in the capture of Mafid Joseh and forty prisoners.  


Conclusion

At last the West Indians in Palestine had been allowed to display their courage and military abilities as infantrymen.  This was largely due to the progressive attitudes of two Antipodean formation commanders, whose military minds were fresh and uncluttered with the distortions and prejudices harboured by other more traditionally-minded British military commanders.    

Chater Force advanced and seized Amman before the Turks capitulated on 30th October 1918.  The British West Indies Regiment was disbanded in 1921.  Its Battle Honours were not inherited by any other Caribbean unit.

Battle Honours awarded to the British West India Regiment for service in Egypt and Palestine:

Rumani, Egypt 1916-17, Gaza, El Mughar, Nebi Samwell, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Megiddo, Nablus, Palestine 1917-18.  

Awards to the British West Indies Regiment for service in Egypt and Palestine: 

Distinguished Service Order

Major (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Charles Wood Hill, West India Regiment attached to 1st BWIR.
Major (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel) John Hugh Poe, 2nd BWIR.
Temporary Major William James Bensly, 1st BWIR.
Temporary Captain Robert John Craig, 1st BWIR.
Temporary Major Alfred Ernest Albert Harragin, 1st BWIR, (Trinidad).
Temporary Major William Llewellyn Thomas MC, 2nd BWIR.  


Military Cross

Temporary Captain George Sargent Cox, 2nd BWIR.
Temporary Captain Robert John Craig, 1st BWIR, (British Guiana).
Temporary Captain Paul Ewart Cressall, 1st BWIR.
Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) Ralph Haverlock Lewis Fink, West India Regiment attached to 1st BWIR.
Lieutenant George Basil Porter, Canterbury Rifles, New Zealand, attached to 1st BWIR.
Temporary Captain William Llewellyn Thomas, 1st BWIR.  



Above: Believed to be LCpl Leekam receiving his MM from General Chaytor



Distinguished Conduct Medal

1454 Serjeant W.E. Julien, 1st BWIR, (St. Georges, Grenada).
6357 Private H. Scott, 1st BWIR, (St. Anns, Jamaica).
503 Lance Corporal R. Turpin, 1st BWIR, (La Brea, Trinidad).  


A Distinguished Conduct Medal for a Regimental Sergeant Major

4661 Company Serjeant Major (Acting Regimental Sergeant Major) E. Addicott, 3rd Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment attached 1st BWIR.

For devotion to duty and constant good work.  He is a regular soldier with twenty-three years’ service, and has been acting as RSM of the 1st British West Indies Regiment for the last two and a half years.  He has shown a fine example to all ranks, whether in action or at other times.  


Military Medal


18 Lance Corporal T.N. Alexander, 1st BWIR, (British Guiana).
14997 Lance Corporal C. Cummins (St. Michaels, Barbados).
594 Private G.A. Dick, 1st BWIR.
5781 Corporal R.B. Evans (St. Andrew, Jamaica).
4287 Private D.L. French.
368 Private C.A. Hyndman, 1st BWIR, (Jamaica).
1188 Private W. Irish, 2nd BWIR.
2441 Lance Corporal V.E. Johns (Jamaica).
661 Private (Acting Corporal) M. Leekam, 1st BWIR.
6473 Private W.B.A. Lowe, 2nd BWIR.
9192 Private A. Marques 1st BWIR.
4675 Serjeant L.N. Miller (St. Andrew, Jamaica).
2434 Private F. Pullar 1st BWIR, (Jamaica).
6353 Lance Corporal R. Robertson (Jamaica).  

Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal


772 Private C. Babb, 1st BWIR. For gallantry in attempting to save a man from drowning at Rafa.  

Decorations conferred by His Highness the Sultan of Egypt:


Order of the Nile 3rd Class


Major (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Charles Wood Hill DSO, 1st BWIR.

Order of the Nile 4th Class


Acting Captain Cyril James Farquharson, 2nd BWIR.  

(The above list of awards is unlikely to be complete, and some of the Military Medals may have been awarded for service in other theatres, as the London Gazette details do not always specify battalion or theatre.  The 1st and 2nd BWIR sent detachments to East Africa.)  

Above: Map of the Jordan Valley.

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