Part 6: Rugby and the war against Turkey

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In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 6: Rugby and the war against Turkey

In January 1915, a large army unit arrived in the Rugby area. The new 29th Division contained thousands of regular soldiers, who had mostly served around the British Empire. They were billeted in Warwickshire, including Rugby, while the new Division was organised. Householders with spare rooms were ordered to accommodate troops, and for two months many soldiers, especially Scots and Irish, were part of Rugby life. ‘Welcome Clubs’ with board-games and newspapers were set up to occupy the troops, who also enjoyed Rugby’s cinemas and roller-skating rink on Railway Terrace. By March, the Division was ready to depart, and paraded on the road from Dunchurch past Stretton-on-Dunsmore, where it was reviewed by King George V. A memorial to the 29th Division, erected after the war, still stands where the A45 crosses the Fosse Way. Unfortunately the Division, along with ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand, was doomed to be part of Winston Churchill’s failed attack on Gallipoli, in the war against Turkey. British visitors today may be welcome on Turkish beaches, but the reception in 1915 was rather cooler, often consisting of machine-guns and artillery fire, followed by desperate fighting in close trenches. Thousands of the 29th Division never came back from Gallipoli, but some later returned to marry local girls in Rugby, where love had first blossomed in 1915.

Rugby’s poet Rupert Brooke had envisaged his own death in his 1914 poem ‘The Soldier’. Ironically, Brooke, now serving as an officer with the Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, was an early casualty in the war against Turkey in April 1915 – not from enemy action, but from an infected mosquito bite, which proved fatal in the days before antibiotics. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. Over the next four years, over 30 men from the Rugby area, including several from Newbold and Long Lawford, died in the war against Turkey. Rugby’s Yeomanry squadron crossed the Salt Lake at Suvla Bay intact, but over 10 Rugby men were lost in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, including three from RWR 9th Battalion on 10th August 1915: W Hirons of Dunchurch, P Joyce and E Jiggle, followed by Lt L L Rees-Mogg. One RWR officer badly wounded was 2nd Lt Bill Slim, later famous as General Slim in World War Two. Several Rugby men fell fighting the Turks in Greece and Macedonia, including R G Webster of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Warwickshire at war in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq

The Warwickshire Yeomanry, a cavalry regiment containing over 20 Rugby men, sailed for the Middle East in April 1915. Off the Scilly Isles, their horse transport ship Wayfarer was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and limped back to Bristol. Five men were lost but 763 horses on board were saved. In August 1915 the Yeomanry eventually arrived at Gallipoli, suffering heavy losses fighting as infantry, but then moved to Egypt (part of the British Empire) to fight as cavalry in the sands of the Middle Eastern desert, against the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. In 1916, when the Turks attacked in the Sinai peninsula, Rugby’s losses included Lt H Loverock of the Warks Yeomanry, and Lt M Howkins. The British forces, led by Gen. Allenby, then advanced across the Sinai desert, aiming to liberate the Palestinian Arabs from Turkish rule. Col. T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab Revolt against the Turks. Rugby’s losses in battles around Gaza in 1917 included A S Horswill, F W Cox, and T Harris of Newbold. Gaza was captured in October 1917, along with Beersheba, where Rugby men V C Perry and W I Patchett of the Yeomanry both fell. Throughout the campaign, Rugby’s ‘Fortress Company’ of Royal Engineers (220th Army Troop), recruited from the building trades in Rugby in 1915, did valuable work sinking wells and building roads to prepare the infrastructure for the army’s advance.

One of the last cavalry charges by the British army involved the Warwickshire Yeomanry, at Huj in Palestine in November 1917. Helped by Australian cavalry and horses, they succeeded in capturing 14 Turkish field-guns. Jerusalem was finally captured by the British in December. Back in Egypt, the Yeomanry departed for France and said good-bye to their horses, who would never again graze in the green fields of Warwickshire. By the end of 1917, Warwickshire troops had helped to liberate the Palestinian Arabs, who now expected Britain to give them self-rule. However, Britain had made a contradictory promise, to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and the seeds of present-day conflicts had been sown.

A final theatre of war for the British army in the Turkish Empire was the long and arduous campaign in the baking heat of Iraq (then called Mesopotamia), with its valuable oil reserves. Losses of the RWR 9th Battalion at Basra included H P Watts of New Bilton in 1916, W Scarlett of Long Lawford and J A Osborne of New Bilton in 1917, and at Baghdad, L/Cpl F S Everett in 1917, and Harry Noon of Dunchurch in 1918. These were amongst the furthest of the ‘foreign fields’ in which Rugby’s men fell in the Great War. After capturing Baghdad, the Warwickshire troops were responsible for house-to-house searches in the city. After the war, Britain created the new country of Iraq, independent of Turkey. The Iraq Petroleum Company in London kept control of Iraq’s oil production, in a story with modern resonance. The oil came at the cost of many British lives in the Great War.