An Ordinary Hero – from Irlam to Constantinople
I never met my granddad, Albert William Jones. He died before I was born. But I am the proud owner of his certificate for having been mentioned in despatches “for gallantry and distinguished services” during the North African and Middle East campaigns of the Great War.
Like many of his generation, granddad did not talk much about his experiences during the war. And, unfortunately, his war record seems to have been destroyed during a German bombing raid in WW2 (about 60% of soldiers’ Service Records from the First World War were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombing in 1940). But, a family story still circulates about how on one occasion many years after he returned from the front, got married and started his family, my nan had cause to admonish him for returning home a little drunk one evening. He retorted: “I lost a lot of friends on this day.” Apparently, this was the anniversary of one of the great battles he fought in, and while he never spoke of the war, those memories clearly stayed with him.
I have tried to research my family tree and to learn what I can from the web (thank you wiki) about the battles in which my granddad fought. While the following should not be considered a wholly accurate account it is the most likely description of his war experience, given what we know.
Albert William Jones was born on the 26th December 1893, in Irlam in Lancashire. By 1911 he was living above his father’s post office and newsagents while working as a machinist in the locomotive industry. When the First World War started Albert was just 22. He joined one of the many “Pal’s Brigades” – the 42nd Territorial Signal Company – as a sapper and was sent to the Dardanelles on the 2nd May 1915.
In 1916 he fought in the Sinai Campaign under General Allenby – his commanding officers included Lt W.F.Jackson in August 1915, Lt A.A Rose from September 28th 1915 to November 1915, and Lt G.M Ellis from November 11th 1915 to 16th May 1917. His Regimental Number was 72094.
As such, he fought alongside the Arab irregulars of one T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia. He fought alongside Indian troops and the ANZAC Cavalry. He will have fought both Turks, of the Ottoman Empire, and Germans sent to North Africa to bolster their Turkish allies in an attempt to divert British forces from the Western Front. Albert would have suffered terribly in the early years of the campaign due to poor training, heat, illness and a lack of water. He witnessed the last great cavalry charge ever, chlorine gas, the first tanks, and, the beginnings of aerial warfare.
He rode a camel and he saw some fierce fighting as a member of one of the most highly decorated Divisions of World War One – a Division of volunteers. His skills as an engineer would prove vital to the success of the British campaign in North Africa, allowing the Allies to concentrate regular troops on the Western Front.
Albert was clearly a brave man. He was awarded the Victory medal, the British medal and the Star medal. He achieved the rank of corporal and was mentioned in despatches for gallantry.
The 42nd (East Lancashire) Division was the first Territorial division to be sent overseas during the First World War. The division fought at Gallipoli, in the Sinai desert. Albert seems to have stayed in North Africa while the rest of the division moved to the Western Front in France and Belgium in 1917. This may have been because of his expertise as an engineer – maintaining water supplies was a particular problem during the North Africa campaign. He may also have been “seconded” to an Australian regiment at the time – certainly we have photos of him in Australian uniform.
Albert William Jones (right) in British Military Uniform, c. 1915.
Albert William Jones (left) in Australian Cavalry Uniform c. 1917
The 42nd Territorials were originally intended to be sent to Ireland, but due to its peaceful state at that time, the move did not materialise. After a brief period at their drill halls, the various units proceeded to large tented camps at Turton Bottoms, Chesham, Holingworth Lake, and Littleborough Albert would have been asked to volunteer for overseas service . He did.
Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, described these divisions and regiments of mainly white–collar workers as “a town clerk’s army.” Kitchener sent these forces to what he considered to be peripheral campaigns in order to release Regular British Army soldiers for duty on the Western Front because he wrongly thought these amateur soldiers ‘might not be able to hold their own with the German Army.’
Albert joined the Division at Gallipoli in May 1915 when he landed at Cape Helles, in modern-day Turkey, one of a force of 14,224 men, having embarked from Alexandria in Egypt. One can only imagine how he had felt leaving the north of England for the first time and undergoing a long sea voyage to such a far off land.
The Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardanelles was the scene of fierce fighting against Turkish troops in muddy ravines subject to frequent artillery bombardment. The Signal Company acquitted itself well and members won several awards for bravery under fire. Albert will have seen much fighting and suffered from the heat, illness and a lack of water. By mid August 1915 the East Lancashire Division, through battle casualties and sickness, was down to little more than one third of its normal establishment. Albert will have lost many friends along the way.
Albert will have fought in the Third Battle of Krithia on 4 June 1916. Ottoman losses were around 6,000 on that first day and the advance of the 42nd Division was very successful, quickly reaching the Ottoman trenches and moving beyond. To advance a total of 1,000 yards. Only to be forced back by a heavy counter-attack. The British forces had come close to breaking. Second Lieutenant G.R.D Moor of the 2nd Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for stemming the retreat of his battalion by shooting four of his own men. This doesn’t sound like a very brave act to me. These will have been hard times for Albert.
Albert will have fought in the battle of Romani .On the 5th August 1916 he was ordered to move out to support the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigades in a pursuit of the enemy. Albert’s men were not prepared for the conditions they found in the Sinai desert. They had not been trained to operate in heavy sand in mid-summer heat, and with insufficient water, extreme distress and tragedy followed. 800 men died in the two–day march from Pelusium Station. The 42nd Division also had many men fall victim to thirst and the blazing sun; the infantry pursuit could not go on.
On 17 January 1917, the 42nd Division was no longer in the Sinai Campaign having been among the first of the Territorial Force to receive orders for the Western Front. Albert, however, stayed in North Africa. We do not know why. It may have that Albert’s engineering skills were required to maintain communication lines and water supplies over extended supply lines. He may also have been involved in the construction of wire netting roads, vital for the movement of military vehicles and ambulances. Alternatively, Albert may have been called upon due to his past railway experience. The newly formed Egyptian Expeditionary force was heavily dependent upon railways to move men and supplies.
Albert will have been very busy. By the end of February 1917, 388 miles of railway (at a rate of 1 kilometre a day), 203 miles of metalled road, 86 miles of wire and brushwood roads and 300 miles of water pipeline had been constructed.
As the infrastructure and water supplies improved, so did the countryside in which Albert will have found himself. The area across the border, according to one Lieutenant Robert Wilson was “delightful country, cultivated to perfection and the crops look quite good if not better than most English farms, chiefly barley and wheat. The villages were very pretty – a mass of orange, fig and other fruit trees … The relief of seeing such country after the miles and miles of bare sand was worth five years of a life.”
Albert is likely to have fought in the first battle of Gaza on 26th March 1917 and the second battle which began on 17th April. This second attack was supported by naval gunfire, chlorine gas and even a few early tanks, but was also a failure. It was essentially a bloody frontal assault on a fortified position and cost some 6,000 British casualties. General Dobell was removed from command. Thereafter, Albert would serve under General Allenby.
Allenby was ordered to take Jerusalem by Christmas. To do so he had a force of 88,000 well-equipped men against an Ottoman force of just 35,000. Albert will have fought at the Battle of Beersheba. The climax of the battle was one of the last successful cavalry charges of modern warfare, when two Australian Light Horse regiments charged across open ground just before dusk and captured the town.
On 13 November the Egyptian Expeditionary Force attacked a 20,000 strong Ottoman force. The Ottoman Army was forced to give up Jaffa and withdraw to defend Jerusalem, losing 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns and suffering heavy casualties.
Jerusalem was occupied by the British on 9 December 1917. This was a major political event for the British government of David Lloyd George, as it was one of the few successes the British could point to after a year of bitter disappointments on the western front. Albert may, at last, have been living a bit more comfortably by this time. As railway connections improved, so did the diet of the soldiers. Tea was brought in from Ceylon; sheep and goats from the Sudan, Cyprus, and later Syria; flour from Australia, India, and Canada; and frozen meat from Australia, South Africa, and Argentina.
However, it was not all plain sailing. Allenby’s force was defeated in the first Battle of the Jordan between 21 and 30 March 1918. This was the first defeat of units of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force since April 1917. And, there were still many battles to be fought. An attack at Berukin was begun between 9 and 11 April but ran into fierce Ottoman resistance supported by three German field batteries and German battalions were active in counterattacks using mortars and machine guns. Berrukin was finally captured but the delay gave the German and Ottoman defenders time to strengthen their defences.
By late April Allenby decided to attack an Ottoman force which was about 8,000 strong but the Ottoman garrison produced such heavy fire that the mounted troops were unable to even approach the foothills.
The Battle of Megiddo (or Armageddon) began on 19th September 1918. The Ottomans were taken by surprise when the British attacked Meggido in the middle of a sudden storm. The Ottoman troops started a full-scale retreat. The RAF bombed the fleeing columns of men from the air and within a week, the Ottoman army in Palestine had ceased to exist as a military force.
Australian Light Horse troops marched unopposed into Damascus on 1 October 1918. Despite the presence of some 12,000 Ottoman soldiers the Official Surrender of the City was received at 7 am. Later that day, Lawrence of Arabia’s irregulars entered Damascus to claim full credit for its capture.
The war in Palestine was over but in Syria it lasted for a further month. But the Ottoman government was compelled to sign an armistice on 30 October 1918, and surrendered outright two days later. Six hundred years of Ottoman rule over the Middle East had come to an end. British forces subsequently took possession of Constantinople on 10 November 1918. My granddad was with them.
While we do not know for sure, it is likely that Albert was mentioned in despatches for gallantry as a result of brave action during the Battle of Armageddon, being the last major action he is likely to have seen before the end of the war.
The certificate reads as follows: The War of 1914-1918; Royal Engineers, 72094 Spr. [L/C.] A.W. Jones, “N.A”. Cable Sec. was mentioned in a Despatch from General Sir E. H. H. Allenby, G. C. M. G, K. C. B dated 23rd October 1918 for gallantry and distinguished services in the Field. I have it in command from the King to record His Majesty’s high appreciation of the services rendered. It is signed by Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and dated 1st March 1919.
My granddad, Albert William Jones (war hero), Nanny Jones and my dad in December 1951 (at Aunty Winnie’s wedding)
- Diary clues to grandfather’s last days (oddonion.com)