Battle of Khuweilfah 6/11/17

1/1st Herefordshire Regiment

In November 1917, the 53rd Division continued to press the Turks. Its objective being two main features in the Turkish position: the dominating hill of Khuweilfeh and the key to the whole position, and a flat-topped hill called the Tell, on the Turkish left.

Hill states: “The brigade was in reserve and the battalion did not move until 8.30 p.m., when it went out in the direction of the Lekiyeh Caves to a starting point indicated by brigade. It took some time for the battalion to extricate itself from its position in the dark, owing to the rough and steep nature of the ground, companies having to move in single file on a narrow track. Shortly before dawn on 4 November it reached its rendezvous – the fork roads 1 mile north of Kh el Ras.

“The division had been pushing forward steadily against increasing enemy resistance and 160 Brigade had had an arduous day, so the divisional commander decided to attack the Khuweilfeh Heights with a fresh brigade, 158, but this was cancelled as a result of 160 protesting.

“The brigade again advanced at 5.00 a.m. on the 4th, but the artillery ammunition had not come up, so it was stopped and dug in, so the battalion, together with the brigade, remained in the concentration area all day. The weather now took charge. It had been terribly hot and the khamsin, which had been blowing, became worse and put a stop to all operations, the corps commander ordering the division not to attack on the 5th as had previously been ordered. The commanding officer and company commanders, however, carried out a reconnaissance of the enemy’ 5 left flank in readiness for a further attack. The lull caused by the khamsin came to an end that evening and the attack was ordered for the 6th. In this the division was finally instructed to assault and capture the Khuweilfeh Heights, and the task was allotted to the brigade, supported by the whole of the divisional artillery.

“At 8.00 a.m. the battalion moved out to the brigade position of assembly, where the whole battalion formed up in platoon waves, each company with one platoon in the front line. D (Capt. H. Carver) was on the right, then C (Capt. C. Evelyn), B (Capt. C. Bernay) and A (Capt. C. Russel) on the left. The frontage was supposed to be 500 yards, but owing to errors on the map and the necessity of being astride the ridge leading to Table Topped Hill it was increased to well over 1000 yards, and this in spite of the fact that a battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps was ordered to operate on the right flank of the battalion.

“At 4.00 p.m. the battalion moved steadily forward on a compass bearing, covered by heavy artillery and machine-gun barrage. Owing to the configuration of the ground the tendency was for the battalion to converge to its left. It is not quite clear whether D on the right moved over Flat Topped Hill, but some of its men became mixed there with the Imperial Camel Corps, which afterwards came up on this flank. The battalion pushed steadily on and reached the reverse slopes of Tell el Khuweilfeh, shooting and bayonetting many Turks on the way.

“It was here that Capt. G.N. Berney, with a company of Herefords, found nine Turkish guns limbered up in a ravine ready to move back, as well as the transport of a machine-gun company. He at once charged, bayonetted the personnel, captured the guns and decimated the transport. Just at that moment a thick mist came down and there was a certain amount of mixing of units. This caused a good deal of confusion and resulted in 7th RWF mistaking the advanced units of the battalion and 6th RWF for Turks, and resulted in their calling for artillery fire. The gallant Capt. Berney was killed, but whether from his own artillery fire or not is uncertain, and a general retirement took place, with the guns having to be abandoned. The result of this was that the battalion was just short of its objective and there were several minor features from which the right of the line was swept by machine-gun fire. The enemy’s snipers also took full advantage of the mist and caused severe casualties.

“The battalion consolidated the position won and during the day the enemy made five separate attacks on the position held by the brigade, but these were all repulsed. In this the battalion was ably supported by the divisional artillery and the machine-guns. The whole day was spent under galling fire. The officer casualties were particularly heavy, 6 being killed while gallantly leading their men and five wounded. During the day the battalion captured 5 officers and 39 other ranks, and then took another 10 the next day.

“For his valour on 6 November, Capt. John Fox Russell MC RAMC, attached to 6th RWF, was awarded a posthumous VC. He served with the Herefords as medical officer for most of the day. His citation, which appeared in the London Gazette on 11 January 1918, read:

‘For most conspicuous bravery displayed in action until he was killed. Captain Russell repeatedly went out to attend the wounded under murderous fire from snipers and machine guns, and, in many cases where no other means were at hand, carried them in himself, although almost exhausted. He showed the highest possible degree of valour.’

“Shortly after dusk the battalion was relieved by 5th RWF and moved back to a position to the rear of brigade battle headquarters, where it remained all day on the 7th. That day saw the commencement of the general withdrawal of the Turks, and as far as the division was concerned the third battle of Gaza was at an end. On 8 November the battalion was sent to guard the Khuweilfeh Wells, where it remained till the 10th, being employed in clearing up the battlefield.

“These operations had involved great hardships:

“There was very little water, never enough for a wash; bully beef and biscuits unvaried; no mails; Officers kits only 30 pounds and often miles behind; dust and heat. Tin hats were worn and the intense heat of the sun on them made one’s head feel like a poached egg. The Battle of Khuweilfeh has been described in many narratives and despatches, but I have never seen mentioned the appalling shortage of water from which we suffered. We had about three pints for every 48 hours, which included a long march up the stifling, winding ravines of the Judaean foothills, followed by incessant fighting, the temperature, thanks to the Khamsin, which prevailed, being that of August. It was real hell. A lot of men nearly went mad with thirst.

Hill, Lt Col T J B Manu Forti: A History of the Herefordshire Regiment London 1996