Finsbury Rifles

Away from the Western Front : 1st – 17th May 1917

Digging Decoy Trenches in the Front Line

Ottoman machine gunners near Gaza 1917

After the failure of the two attacks on Gaza  it was clear that the EEF needed to have far higher levels of manpower and equipment in order to be able to break through the Ottoman defences. This would take time to put in place. The front line was now the trench system to the south of Gaza where the Finsbury Rifles were to spent the next few months.

The 54th (East Anglia) Division instructed its battalions to construct dummy trenches and machine gun posts.  The war diary shows that the Finsbury Rifles spent much of their time digging trenches and dug outs. This was no mean task in summer heat with so little water available to drink. Did these decoy defences mislead the enemy into wasting ammunition on destroying them as intended? There are frequent references to heavy shelling and enemy sniper fire throughout the summer so it is likely that they did.

Date 1/5/17

With the exception of heavy shelling of gully the day has been quiet and usual digging in on our trenches.

Date 2/5/17

In Bivouac. Fatigues to right of working party, improving next dugout. Desultory artillery fire on both sides.

Date 3/5/17

In Bivouac. Fatigues to right working parties in front improving next dugout, reciprocal artillery fire.

Date 4/5/17

Dug out, reciprocal artillery fire. Capt W.S Even left for ‘Staff Bravo’ Mena and Cairo.

Date 5/5/17

Fatigues as required. Battn under orders to relieve 156 Brigade.  Mansora Ridge. Usual artillery fire relief affected, Battn took our left sector from Gaza.  Mendur Track. R17 6.10.15 (M of L) Large 1/40,000. High amount of artillery fire.

Location MANSORA RIDGE Date: 7/5/17

Battn in front line trenches, quiet day, during day, work was put in on dug out in next area; during night work on ……..front line trenches was carried out leapt Capt (?)  RAMC left for …..being replaced by Capt N.M Cumming RAMC.

Date 8/5/17

Battn in front line trenches, usual artillery fire, work in day on dug out in next area during night work on improving. Front line trenches.

Date 9/5/17

Battn in front line trenches, usual artillery fire, work in day on dugout, in rest area.

Date 10/5/17

Battn in front line trenches, usual artillery fare, other than that, quiet day.

Date: 11/5/17

Battn in front line trenches about…night two Turkish….taken, usual artillery fire…etc.

Location MANSORA RIDGE Date: 12/5/17

Battn relieved on the front line trenches, by the 1st 5th Bedford Regt work on communication trenches.

Date: 13/5/17

Battn in support, usual work in communication trenches.

Date: 14/5/17

Battn in support, usual work in communication trenches.

Date: 15/5/17

Battn in support, usual work in communication trenches.

Date: 16/5/17

Battn in support, usual work in communication trenches.

Date: 17/5/17

Battn in support, usual work in communication trenches

Finsbury Rifles

Away from the Western Front : 20th – 30th April 1917

 On Sheikh Abbas Ridge

Trenches before Gaza James mc Bey
Trenches before Gaza,1917. A view across a series of trenches.James McBey ©IWM (Art.IWM.ART.1591)

After the disastrous Second Battle of Gaza as part of the 162 Brigade , the Finsbury Rifles retreated behind the Sheikh Abbas ridge. Over a third of the battalion had been killed, wounded or posted as missing   – all recorded as casualties in the battalion war diary. In spite of the heavy losses, it was business as usual. A new communication line and trenches had to be dug while shelling continued from the enemy artillery behind the Gaza defences.


Date: 20/4/17

Owing to heavy casualties Total reorganisation of battn necessary. Fairly quiet day with reciprocal artillery fire. 2nd Lt A.R. ALDERS to hospital.

Date 21/.4/17

Usual artillery fire and otherwise quiet day. 4 Officers, 300 Other Ranks digging new line and communication trenches during night 21/22 April.

Date: 22/4/17

Usual artillery fire, otherwise quiet day. 2 officers 300 other ranks digging new line and communications.

Date: 23/4/17

Usual artillery fire, otherwise quiet day. 2 officers, 300 other ranks digging new line and communications.

Date: 23/4/17

Usual artillery fire otherwise quiet day – 2 officers 300 OR digging our line and communications.

Date: 24/4/17

Usual artillery fire. Otherwise quiet day – 2 Officers 300 OR digging over line and communications: 2nd Lieut AR ALDERS  returned to duty.

Date: 25/4/17

Usual artillery fire: Battn on front line trenches. Patrol work on trench line in accordance with brigade working.

Date: 26/4/17

Usual artillery fire, Battn on Front Line Trenches. Patrols, work in trench line, long sniping by the evening.

Date: 27/4/17

Heavy artillery fire, Battn in front line trenches. Long Patrol at Waddi Mukademe work in a trench line,  general observations of enemy line. 2nd Lieut AR & Alders re-entered  hospital.

Date: 28/4/17

Usual artillery. First sniper brought in and battn on front line. Usual trench work in trench line and communications trench.

Date: 29/4/17

Usual artillery fire, 4 prisoners brought in from front line trenches work and trench line and communications. General observations of line.

Date: 30/4/17

Usual artillery fire, work in trench communications in accordance with Brigade working together

Finsbury Rifles

Away from the Western Front : 18th – 19th April 1917

 The Second Battle of Gaza


Having failed to take Gaza by surprise,  Lieutenant-General  Murray  drew up a more cautious plan for a second attempt to capture the town. While the Royal Navy would shell Gaza from the sea, three  infantry divisions would attack together, supported by an intense barrage of artillery fire as well as new technology – tanks and gas shells. This meant that the EEF would be attacking across open ground in full view of the enemy – a risky tactic.

However, the Ottoman forces had not waited idly for the next offensive. More troops had been sent in to reinforce the garrison and the defence system in and around Gaza had been strengthened. Now it stretched 12 miles to the east along the key route to Beersheba.

The artillery commanders had queried the order to bombard the enemy. They warned that the distance between the artillery lines and the enemy was simply too great to guarantee accuracy. They also knew there was a danger that they would run out of ammunition during the course of the attack.

Inevitably, their protests were overruled by GHQ and inevitably those on the ground were proven right.

…This bombardment was the most futile thing possible resulting … only in warning the enemy of … the attack and in gross waste of ammunition …

The Second Battle of Gaza was a failure with heavy losses. General Murray’s days as commander-in-chief of the EEF were numbered. His general staff and officers had lost confidence in him as well as the War Office in the United Kingdom.


Location INSEIRAT independently Date: 1/4/17

Orders received for the battalion to move to line Y 16.8.3 (point 300) W31C 8.3 and deploy for attack on that position of SHEIKH ABBAS RIDGE from w26b1.8. to w25b1.8. 165 Brigade (1/8 HANTS) on our right, 1/5 BEDFORDS on left. Move forward from position of deployment at 0745. Position taken after slight opposition. Casualties 1 killed 12 wounded.

Location SHEIKH ABBAS Date: 18/4/17

Reciprocal shelling by artillery. Further advance orders for tomorrow.

Date: 19/4/17

Advance orders to commence at 0730 after 2 hours bombardment by artillery, the first 40 minutes of which to be by “special” (gas) shells. Battalion to move in support of 1/4 Northants and 1/10 LONDON on objective (trenches) from w15b8.7 to WADI MUKADDEME. As soon as time of advance arrived men went over ridge in artillery formation. Enemy at once putting up a barrage of H.E and Shrapnel causing heavy casualties. 10 London on left were soon held up but 4 Northants pushed on. 11 London then pushed on with them. The two battalions (11 London and 4 Northants) eventually establishing a firing line about 500 yards from objective and overlooking the BEERSHEBA ROAD. Enemy’s trenches slightly semicircular, the flanks being pushed forward.

Enemy very strong in machine guns bringing very hot machine gun fire causing heavy casualties; practically all at Lewis gun  wiped out, also nearly all men who got on a ridge facing Battn’s objective at about 400 from it. The dead and wounded on this ridge remained as a line of skirmishes the Turks sweeping them with M.G fire at intervals through the day consequently men wounded early in day, were killed and all men were riddled by bullets. Greatest difficulty in getting up ammunition and in establishing communication from front line to Battn H.Q.    Messengers time after time becoming casualties. Front line held on until dusk but by that time men reduced to small parties of one or two. At dusk 1/5 Bedford relieved 1/11 LONDON and 1/4 Northants, both of which Battns had lost heavily. Line taken up by 1/5 Bedford considerably nearer bivouac area than the day time. Casualties: Officers 13, other ranks 366.

second battle of Gaza map 10.30am
©Cyril Falls and George MacMunn (maps)Official History of the Great War Military Operations




Finsbury Rifles

Away from the Western Front : 22nd March to 16th April 1917.

The First Battle of Gaza – 26/27 March 1917

1st battle Gaza
An Ottoman gun amongst the hedges near Gaza.    Wikimedia Commons

Although the initial role of the EEF was to defend the Suez Canal and keep it open for Allied shipping, the overall aim of the campaign had shifted since 1915. Now it was clear that the EEF would be fighting an offensive campaign to defeat the Ottoman Forces and bring down their empire in the Middle East.

Capturing Gaza was an important first step. Part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, the city’s strategic location at a crossroads of trade routes and markets meant it controlled access to the north and west. Supported by German and Austrian units on the ground and in the air, the Ottoman forces in the area were commanded by General Kress von Kressenstein.

The Finsbury Rifles played a supporting role during the ill-fated 1st battle of Gaza . 162 Brigade of the 54th (East Anglian) Division remained in reserve, protecting the forces who were acting as a screen for those divisions actually attacking Gaza. However, they came under fire and supplies of food and water did not reach them or the other battalions in the brigade. According to their respective war diaries, the 1/10 London (Hackney Rifles) had only one bottle of water per man for 30 hours while the 1/5 Bedfords consumed their iron rations.

Foggy weather as well as poor communication played a part in the outcome of the battle. This painting by James McBey, an official war artist gives an impression of how such weather affected visibility.

A Morning Mist James McBey
A Morning Mist. James McBey. © Art.IWM.ART 1436


Date: 22 to 23/3/17

Training + Backing Parades – Usual Routine

Date 24/3/17

Batt. proceeded to Rafa 0800 by Route March arriving 1300

Batt. On outpost duty night 24/5. Orders received to move

Date 25/3/17

Batt. Proceeds to In Seirat via Khan Junis where day spent in bivouac arriving In Seirat 2200.

Location SEIRAT Date: 26/3/17

Batt. Proceeded at 0630 to El Meshrefe  for day moved out at 2000 to outpost line Tel El Ahmar and dug in.

Location: Tel El Ahmar  Date: 27/3/17

Digging continued on outpost line which was consolidated under heavy shell fire which continued throughout the day resulting in 18 men wounded. Sudden orders received on about 1900 that force would withdraw at about 2200 and proceed to bivouac in SEIRAT. Throughout the period Batt was away from front, with difficulty supplied with rations and water entailing heavy work on ranks day and night.

Date: 28/3/17

Batt. resting in bivouac.

Date: 29/3/17

Batt.  part of new outpost line – started digging operations.

Date: 30/3/17

Digging a defensive position. One Company on outpost duty.

Date: 31/3/17

One Company on outpost duty. Remainder of + fatigues.

Date: 1/4/17

Batt. Reserve. Bde Divine Service.

Date: 2 to 7/7.4/17

Batt. finding various guards duties also Companies for work in connection with coming operations. Batt. also covering Companies for other troops working obey(?) and outpost Line.

Date: 8/4/17

Brigade Divine Service. 17 Other Ranks arrived from Division Base. 2 Companies on duty, ie one digging in pipe line and one covering Troops working beyond Outpost Line.

Date: 9/4/17

One Company performing Covering duties, remainder of Battn on Training. Usual Camp Routine.

Date: 10/4/17

Two Companies employed on Work and Covering Troops. Remainder of Batt Training.

Date: 11/4/17

One Company employed on field works, remainder of battn training a Draft of 41 other Ranks reported from Base Depot.

Date: 12/4/17

Batt Training. One Company on Bde Fatigue Work.

Date: 13/4/17

Batt Training. One Company acting as Covering Party to RE

Date: 14/4/17

Batt Training. One Company engaged on Field Work under RE.

Date: 15/.4/17

Bde Divine Service and Usual Camp Routine. Operation Orders received for forthcoming attack.

Date: 16/4/17

Batt engaged preparing for Operations against GAZA.

Finsbury Rifles

Away from the Western Front : 10th – 23rd March 1917.

 Precautions against cholera


IWM ART2939 bacteriologist inspectin test tube James McBey
Bacteria: in the lab of a field hospital the London specialist and his assistant examine the contents of a test tube. ©IWM(Art.IWM Art 2939)


The army medical infrastructure in Egypt had been set up to treat casualties from Gallipoli. During the 1916 when much of the EEF was tied up in defending the Suez Canal against a largely absent enemy force, the Royal Army Medical Corps was able to refine sanitary arrangements. Each division had its own Sanitary Section. This section was in charge of making sure all camp areas were fit for purpose and the importance of  good practice was dinned into all officers and men. As a result, the overall  sickness rate during 1916 and early 1917 was extremely low – only 0.2 % amongst the 54th (East Anglian) Division.

It was well known that cholera was spread through the contamination of water supplies by human faeces. As the campaign advanced through the Sinai Desert and into Southern Palestine, the RAMC was at the forefront of making sure that an outbreak of cholera remained a threat rather than a reality. As well as maintaining high standards of hygiene and sanitation,  soldiers were also vaccinated. 90,000 units of cholera vaccine had been sent out to Egypt. It was only effective against cholera if administered in 2 stages and before any contact with the disease.

This description of El Arish in December 1916 shows some of the challenges the RAMC encountered in keeping disease at bay.

… human excrement, filth and garbage of all kinds, were heaped in every corner, and met the eye and the nostrils at every turn… latrine-pits, full to the brim with the accumulation of months, were spread indiscriminately over the whole town- area, each adding its stench to the already over-burdened air. There was a plague of flies in the place, and little wonder…Well might the officer commanding our R.A.M.C. Sanitary Section have despaired at sight of … El Arish. But of course he did nothing of the kind. He and his men wasted no time in looking at the job; they just took off their coats and went at it. Organisation won the day.

Date 10/3/17

Bathing Parades – ½ holiday – Batt. Command inoculation against cholera. Capt. Rev. Dixon Spain reported from 3 days leave.

Date 11/3/17

Divine Service postponed on account of Sandstorm. L. Col. S.C. Byrne left for England via Alexandria. Major A.H. Windsor takes over command of Batt.

Date: 12/3/17

Company Training. Usual Camp Routine.

Date: 13. To 17/3/17

Company Training. Backing Parades. Batt. On outpost duty every 4th night.

Date: 18/3/17

Brigade Divine Service. Routine as usual.

Date: 19/3/17

Brigade outpost Scheme for night 19/20. 11 London in Receiver. Battalion on Brigade Duties.

Date: 20/3/17

Returned from outpost Scheme + prepared to move same day to Sheik Zowaid. Batt. Moved 1715. Arr. Sheik Zowaid 2000 & prepared

Location: SHEIK ZOWAID Date: 21/3/17

Battn engaged in squaring up bivouac.

Date: 23/3/17

Training + Backing Parades – Usual Routine

Date 24/3/17

Batt. proceeded to Rafa 0800 by Route March arriving 1300

Batt. On outpost duty night 24/5. Orders received to move

Date 25/3/17

Batt. Proceeds to In Seirat via Khan Junis where day spent in bivouac arriving In Seirat 2200.

Location SEIRAT Date: 26/3/17

Batt. Proceeded at 0630 to El Meshrefe for day moved out at 2000 to outpost line Tel/El Ahmar


After serving more than 25 years with the Finsbury Rifles, Lt – Col Stanley Cesnola Byrne returned home to England via some of the well-known sights of Egypt. His battalion would remain in the Middle East for another two years.

Q57786 Lt col SC Byrne at the Sphinx March 1917
Lt-Col S.C.Byrne at the Sphinx , March 1917.© IWM (Q57786)