William Henry Gurton was born in Springfield and was a pre-war Territorial. He was mobilised at the outbreak of the war. In July 1915 he went overseas, initially to Gallipoli from which he was withdrawn to Egypt in December 1915. His battalion fought the Turkish army back from Egypt into Palestine and he died from wounds received at the First Battle of Gaza in March 1917. His home was in Springfield Green.
GURTON, WILLIAM HENRY,
Private, 1/4th Battalion Essex Regiment
Afterwards when our diaries could be compared with the official report of the battle and its course traced out on a map, we were able to identify the distant figures pushing home a determined attack in the final daylight hours with the Essex [161st] Brigade of our Division. In estimating the character of the work done by the Essex men, it must be remembered that the Division had not much engaged with the enemy for over a year, and although the efficiency of the troops had been carefully fostered and improved during this period, there were considerable numbers of men who had not yet been in action. Any doubts as to the power of these troops to conduct successfully an arduous attack were set at rest for those who had the good fortune to witness its being carried out. It is true that we were a long distance away, but the inevitable loss of detail involved permitted us to gain a clearer perspective of the attack as a whole. An individual in an attacking force is unable to obtain more than a limited impression of the events in his immediate neighbourhood. We, in our distant and detached position were able to follow the assault of the whole Essex [161st] Brigade and it left us with a lasting impression of skill and courage.”
Another officer serving with the 161st Brigade wrote:
“The Battalions did not rest at any time during the attack. When the hostile machine gun fire opened, both the 1/4th and 1/5th Essex quickly broke up from artillery formation into extended order, the forward movement being unchecked during this process. The attack was then pressed home with exceptional celerity and in perfect drillbook fashion, platoons supporting each other as those in the rear closed up. Although the casualties were heavy, it is the general opinion that they must have been heavier still but for the swift and determined advance of the Brigade through what was nothing less than a hurricane of machine gun fire.”
Another onlooker, with the Signal Company, also described the attack:
“Our headquarters were in a gully just below a large flat plain across which the Essex advanced under a terrific machine gun and rifle fire. It was a stirring and splendid sight. They behaved just as if they were taking part in a field day scheme at home and not a man faltered. They started in company columns, which rapidly split up into small groups, which, in turn spread out until they were in long single lines advancing across the plain towards Green Hill, which was their objective. As they neared the hill they fixed bayonets and charged, taking the hill in just under an hour from the commencement of the attack, but, unfortunately, they suffered rather heavily from machine guns....
The enemy had a clean sweep over the plain and the hideous tat-tat seemed almost incessant. Of all the horrible sounds of war, I think the devilish tat-tat of a Maxim is the most fear-inspiring. There is something vicious in its rattle which goes straight to the heart. Rifle fire is altogether different - it has a dull rolling sound - but clear and sharp above it are the spiteful bursts of machine gun fore. Perhaps a gunner could be content with spurts of four or five shots as he searches the enemy, then comes. burr, burr, burr, as a whole belt of ammunition goes through at a target which suddenly presents itself....
Through all this infernal racket the ration and ammunition camels preserved a stoical calm and did not turn a hair. It is really comical to see the air of surprised interest with which they look upon a bursting shell and when they are hit they lie down without a grunt and hand in the their cheeks. Indeed they are said to be able to lie down and die at will if they get too ‘fed up’ with their unenviable life. Still, they did good work in bringing up water, etc., and did not flinch from their steady, serene plodding when the convoy was under fore. Whilst gun teams, signal wagons and ‘backsheesh’ horses were rushing madly about, perhaps dragging a dying horse in the traces, these much maligned but useful animals came steadily on.”
The post-war battalion history continued:
“Although the frontage of the objective, approximately half a mile, stretched from Ali el Muntar to Brown Hill, the line of attack contracted as losses occurred and the machine gun fire smote the troops. The right flank, which was directed upon the white mosque on Ali el Muntar, was protected by Lewis guns whose teams were ordered to deal with Turkish machine guns located behind some cactus just slightly to the right of the mosque. The right flank tended to move towards the centre and this impulse was strengthened by the fact that there was a re-entrant [enemy line] between Ali el Muntar and Green Hill. As a consequence, when the final movement took place the remnants of the 1/4th Essex had swung round somewhat towards the left face of Green Hill and were in close contact with the centre. It was there the Essex Territorials came up against the core of the resistance, and it was there, too, occurred that involuntary move forward, without word of command, which won the position and determined the issue of the day’s fighting.
The advance of the centre companies of the 1/4th and 1/5th Essex was rapid and unhesitating....
When the long lines were close to the Turkish wire they found a shred of cover caused by a slight rise. It was very slight, but it was just sufficient to protect them from fire. Lying in the centre of the attacking line was Harvey Capron, adjutant of the 1/5th Essex, who had played his part with the greatest zest and eagerness. Near by him was Captain Colvin, of C Company, with a sergeant and one or two others. The line thickened as the supports came in and then Capron said to his colleague that the time had come to take the trenches. He made a movement as if to rise, which, apparently, was instantly detected by a Turkish sniper and he was shot through the heart. The sergeant had barely time to call Captain Colvin’s attention to the casualty, when, as if animated by the dead officer’s resolve, the whole line rose and went through the Turkish wire into the trenches. The men of the two companies of the 1/6th Essex, hurrying up to the fray, had just time to reach the firing line when the forward move began, and they gave impetus to the last decisive rush. The Turks, already withdrawing, left hurriedly. A few brave men remained and were bayoneted as they stood, whilst others were shot down as they ran down the communications trenches....
“The left of the 1/5th kept resolutely upon its objective, the Brown Hill, on the skyline. The bulk of D Company, when they entered the trenches, found a series of broken gullies and on the top of the farther rise were the men of the Royal Sussex Regiment, who had been holding on since early morning. They had suffered severe losses from what they thought to be minnenwerfer fire, but Major WIlson was inclined to think that 5.9 H.E. was responsible. The enemy put down a barrage from these guns just as the objective was reached by the 1/5th Essex on Brown Hill, but fortunately the range was just too long to do much injury, though it caused casualties among the last men in. From that point patrols were sent out to ascertain the enemy’s whereabouts and touch was sought with the companies on the right.
In the centre of the objective of the 1/5th Essex was a small stone hut and this proved a great attraction, for it was the focus of enemy resistance. Three platoons of B and D Companies concentrated there, suffering considerable casualties in so doing, for at least one machine gun, resolutely handled, operated therefrom. They got within fifty yards of the structure, when further progress was stayed.”
Captain J. F Finn, then commanding No. 5 Platoon of B Company, recalled:
“I straightened out the line, but many more men were hit as the bullets continued to fall about us like hail. [F. P.] Windsor (2nd Lieut.) called out to me that he was hit, so did [A. E.] Gilmore (2nd Lieut.), who was some way off. Not only did he give this information, but he shouted out the details; this despite the fact that he dared not move for fear of being hit again and that the engagement was continuing vigorously. A few minutes later Womersley, (signalling officer), who was near me on the left, got up and said that he was going to try and get in telephonic communication with the gunners to see if they could put fire on to the stone hut. This was very desirable, as in this part of the line we had no artillery support during the operation. Womersley, I heard afterwards, only got a little way before being hit twice. Those of us who were not wounded kept up the brisk fire in an endeavour to get shots in the windows of the hut, but we were not in a position to do much. I sent a man back to battalion headquarters to report, but discovered afterwards that, owing to casualties, it did not exist. A little while later we heard a loud cheer from the right. This it was afterwards discovered came from A and C Companies of the 1/5th, the remnants of the 1/4th and the three companies of the 1/6th, when they attacked the works with the bayonet and captured the Green Hill defences. Following this, the Turkish fire ceased and doubtless those on our immediate front retired owing to the fall of Green Hill.
Darkness fell and we commenced to dig in....Our work in entrenching continued.... It was done to a most heart-rending accompaniment of groans and cries from the wounded, who were lying, it seemed, everywhere. No one could be spared to take these poor fellows back and no stretchers were there even if this could have been possible. The R.A.M.C. arrangements were inadequate for a sudden advance over practically two miles of open country.”
Major Wilson, by then in command of the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment recalled:
“It was pretty evident that we had the Turks beat; standing on the Brown Hill we could plainly hear the rumble of wheels and hubbub of excitement rising from the town [Gaza]. The Turks were undoubtedly withdrawing with all speed they could and our patrols encountered no opposition, although they penetrated almost to the town itself.”
Despite this success, albeit at a heavy price, and that of other Allied force around the town, Gaza was not taken by the Allies. On the basis of incomplete and misleading information senior commanders had already taken the decision to abandon the attack on Gaza which they believed could not taken by nightfall. Consequently Allied troops were withdrawn just at the point when the Turks were on the point of collapse. Further attempts to capture Gaza on 27th March 1917, which by then was reinforced by the Turks, failed. Gaza would not fall to the Allies until 7th November 1917 at the Third Battle of Gaza.
On 26th March 1917 the First Battle of Gaza also claimed the lives of nine Chelmsford men serving in the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment: Harold Edgar Darby, Frederick Frank Eve, Thomas William King, William Leslie Millar, Arthur Peacock, Augustus Bertie Salmon, Albert Edward Smith, Stanley Percy Spurgeon and Ernest Walter Staines; and two more from the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment: George Henry Alfred Humphreys and William Matthew Smoothy*.
A comrade from the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, Harry Miller, died from wounds on 27th March 1917. Other Chelmsford men from the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment wounded at Gaza who were to die later in the war included: Percy Andersen, and Ernest Horrex while Edward Charles Cook was to die as a prisoner in Turkish hands on 4th April 1917.
Today William lies at Gaza War Cemetery in Israel (grave: XVIII. C. 12).
His death was reported in the Essex County Chronicle of 20th April 1917:
‘Mrs. Gurton on Springfield Green, Chelmsford, is informed of the death from wounds of her son in the Essex Regt.“
A similar report appeared in the same day’s Essex Weekly News:
“Mrs. Gurton, Springfield Green, has been informed that her son, William Henry Gurton, of the Essex Regt., has died of wounds; and Mrs. Salmon, Arbour-lane, Springfield, has learned that her son, Sidney B. Salmon, also of the Essex, is missing.”
A week later the Essex Weekly News carried the following family announcement:
“Gurton. - In loving memory of Pte. W. H. Gurton, the beloved and only son of Mr. and Mrs. H. Gurton, Springfield Green, who died of wounds on March 28th, 1917, aged 18.”
William is commemorated on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford and on the Springfield Parish Memorial at All Saints’ Church. He was entitled to the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
The 1918 register of electors listed William’s parents at Springfield Green, Springfield. William’s father died on 13th February 1945 aged 75, while his mother died on 17th March 1950 aged 77.
William was born in Springfield on 10th May 1898, the son of the gardener Henry Gurton and Emily Annie Gurton (nee Creek). His father had been born in 1873 in Horndon; his mother in 1872 in Springfield.
The couple had married on 5th June 1897 at All Saints’ Church in Springfield. At the time William’s father was aged 24, lived at Navestock and was a gardener. His wife was a year older and lived in Springfield.
William was baptised at All Saints’ on 19th June 1898, at which point his father was a gardener living at Stapleford Abbots.
William had two younger sisters, Ada Kate Gurton (born in 1899 in Noak Hill, died 1970) and Eileen Mary Gurton (born on 11th November 1908 in Stapleford Abbots, died 1981).
The 1901 census found two year-old William living with his parents and sister in Noak Hill. His father was a domestic gardener. A decade later 12 year-old.
year-old William was a scholar living with his parents and two sisters near the Wheelers Arms in South Weald. His father remained a domestic gardener.
In 1914 when William lived at South Weald he enlisted at Brentwood into the 1st/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, serving as Private 2948 (renumbered as 260790 or 200790 in 1917). The battalion was a Territorial unit formed in 1908 with its headquarters in Brentwood. At the outbreak of the war William’s battalion and the other three Territorial battalions that formed the Essex Brigade were half way through their fortnight’s annual training at Clacton. On 3rd August 1914, the day before war was declared, William’s battalion was initially ordered to march to Felixstowe in Suffolk via Harwich and the Orwell ferry that afternoon. The following day mobilization papers were issued to all ranks and the battalion was alloted defence duties for Felixstowe.
On 9th August 1914 the battalion was sent to Brentwood. It did not stay there long, moving to the Norwich area by the end of the month. In April 1915 it moved to Severalls Asylum in Colchester, before transferring to St. Alban’s in Hertfordshire the middle of the following month. By then the battalion, along with three other Essex Territorial battalions, including the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, formed the 161st (Essex) Brigade in the 54th (East Anglian) Division. The majority of the period since the outbreak of the war had been spent training in expectation of foreign service.
From St. Alban’s the battalion travelled to Devonport by train, and departed on board the S.S. Marquette on 21st July 1915, with a somewhat depleted strength of 29 officers and 753 other ranks. Its ultimate destination was to be Gallipoli, Turkey to join the Allied forces participating in the campaign against the Turks which had started on 25th April 1915.
Stops were made at Malta and Alexandria in Egypt (reached on 1st August 1915), before sailing to Mudros Bay on the small Greek island of Lemnos. From there the battalion sailed towards Gallipoli, transferred to flat-bottomed boats and were put ashore at C Beach, Suvla Bay on 12th August 1915 as reinforcements to troops that had landed there over the previous week.
The battalion had a difficult time in Gallipoli, making little progress against the Turkish Army. With the failure of the Gallipoli campaign it was withdrawn from the peninsular on 1st December 1915.
Following its withdrawal from Gallipoli the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment landed in Alexandria, Egypt on 16th December 1915. After time in the desert west of Cairo, Egypt and a period of absorbing replacement officers and men, on 24th March 1916 the battalion arrived in Cairo. It was subsequently deployed eastwards to protect the Suez Canal and its vital supply route, in an area known as the Southern Canal Section, from Turkish attacks across the Sinai Peninsula. The battalion remained there until January 1917 and it was probably during this period that William arrived as a replacement.
By early 1917 the Turkish forces that had been threatening Egypt were being steadily driven back across the Sinai Peninsular towards Palestine by the advancing Allies. The 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment spent most of February crossing the Peninsular and by late March 1917 was close to the Palestine town of Gaza, then still held by the Turks. The town was of strategic importance and had to be captured by the Allies if they were to succeed in their objective of driving the Turkish army northwards out of Palestine and thus isolating other Turkish forces in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsular.
The initial attack to capture Gaza, known as the First Battle of Gaza, began early on 26th March 1917. The Allied plan was for the main advance against the town was to be made by 53rd Division, to which was temporarily attached the 161st Brigade, including the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. It would attack against the southern side of the town. The remainder of the 54th Division was in support south-east of Gaza at Sheikh Abbas to protect any counter-attack. The cavalry of the Desert Column were to circle the town to the north and east to provide further protection and block the Turks’ lines of retreat. Other Allied forces would take up positions in sand dunes to the western, coastal, side of Gaza.
The initial deployments of the Desert Column went well and by late morning Gaza was encircled. Just before noon, somewhat delayed by fog, troops from the 53rd Division advanced towards the town’s key defensive postion, a hill called Ali el Muntar which overlooked Gaza. At 1:30 p.m. the 161st Brigade, including the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment, was called in from Mansura to assist the 53rd Division attack by taking a hill known as Green Hill south-west of Ali el Muntar. A post-war battalion history recalled:
“Whilst the 161st Brigade was concentrating at Mansura, the G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] 53rd Division issued orders that the Brigade less one battalion, was to attack and carry the hill, known as Green Hill, just south-west of Ali el Muntar, in the gap between the 158th Brigade on the right and the 160th Brigade on the left. It was thought the effort would prove sufficiently powerful to cause the enemy to abandon Ali el Muntar and thus open the way to Gaza.
Shortly before 4 o’clock the battalion commanders conferred with the Brigadier and the objective was outlined. The Turks were holding on to the centre, but their flanks pushed back by the advance of the brigades of the 53rd Division. The position to be taken lay plain to the view in the distance, the flanks being natural objects standing out clearly on the skyline. The peak of Ali el Muntar was the limit on the right; the sandy hill by the Labyrinth, then known as Brown Hill, on the left. Green Hill lay at a lower altitude in the centre, with a lone tree stump upon it to direct the march of the inner flanks of the two leading battalions.
The knowledge of the Turkish defences was scanty and much was left to the initiative and resource of the officers when the attack had been launched. The numerical strength of the enemy in the assailed position was not known. The Turkish line was later found not to have been continuous, but consisted of fortified sections, well wired, with deep pits excavated in front. It was an ideal position for the defending machine gunner, for he had a mile and a half plain lying straight before him, with little obstruction to view, and he could easily maintain his traverse. Many of the machine gun positions were perfectly constructed, so deep from back to front that only at the shortest range could a bullet reach the guns or teams.
It was the machine gun fire which, in fact, caused most of the casualties to the Brigade, for, as with the attacking infantry, so with the defenders, artillery did not play a prominent part in this phase of the operation. For some unknown reason, artillery support (though asked for) was not given until just prior to the final assault, when (after repeated requests by Brigade headquarters) a few howitzer rounds were directed on Green Hill. Organized artillery support might have enabled Green Hill to be taken half an hour earlier (time was of vital importance with dusk approaching), but it would also have kept down the casualties. The Turkish artillery was silent and the defenders would have been demoralised by well-sustained fire. The taking of the position would consequently have been much less expensive in soldiers’ lives.
The 1/4th and 1/5th Essex were entrusted with the attack, each with a section of the Machine Gun Company. Two companies of the 1/6th Essex were in support, with the remainder of the Machine Gun Company. The other two companies were in brigade reserve and the 1/7th Essex were in divisional reserve.
Brigade headquarters followed the attack for about a thousand yards and then took up a position on the open plain with the last two companies of the 1/6th Essex. The advance was made most methodically and in perfect order, as if upon peace manoeuvres. The 1/4th Essex had two companies in front, with the third and forth companies constituting the second and third lines. The 1/5th had two companies in front and two in rear in similar alignment. They were in line of platoons, which split into line of sections when the enemy machine guns opened about a mile from the objective, and very shortly afterwards to extended order at three paces interval.
At a fast pace, almost a run, the long long line unwaveringly pressed on until, after a pause to gather strength and cohesion for the last effort, and in unison with two companies of the 1/6th Essex, the Turkish trenches in the centre were occupied with a rush at about 5.30 p.m. During the advance the right of the 1/4th Essex passed through details of the 53rd Division.
The Brigade suffered severe casualties, chiefly from close range machine gunfire. Lieut..-Colonel Jameson, commanding the 1/4th, was mortally wounded when about 200 yards from Green Hill. and Lieut.-Colonel Gibbons, commanding the 1/5th, was wounded in the thigh soon after the advance commenced. As the latter lay upon the ground he heard the monotonous tat-tat of the machine gun fore - for it was the Turkish custom to fire through the ammunition belts without check - mingled with bursts from Lewis guns, and then ‘at last I heard a cheer - and another and another - and I knew that victory was won.’”
The 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment suffered very heavily at the First Battle of Gaza - the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 113 fatalities in the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment (including its commanding officer) plus 117 fatalities in the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment on 26th March 1917. Among those who died that day were ten Chelmsford killed in action. William succumbed to his wounds on 28th March 1917. He was 19 years-old. The heavy casualties were mainly caused by the steady fire of three Turkish machine guns and one automatic rifle, aided by their protected position and perfect lateral filed for cross fire.
The earlier stages of the attack by the 53rd Division and the advance of the 161st Brigade were witnessed by an Essex officer, then with the remainder of the 54th Division on Sheik Abbas Ridge, who wrote:
“We had an easy time that day, but the hours were full of absorbing interest. The ridge commanded a fine view of the long, flat stretch of country up to the outskirts of Gaza. Over this ground during the afternoon we saw the advance of the 53rd Division, long lines of men moving slowly and steadily forward in the early stages of the action. From our natural amphitheatre they could be followed, with the help of field glasses, up to where the fleecy clouds of the shrapnel bursts were thick enough to show that further advance from this point could only be made by short rushes and the employment of all available cover. We could see nothing of this latter stage and could only conjecture its progress by the frequent rise and fall in the volume of the continuous rifle fire.
The advance went on for several hours - until 4 p.m. - and the fascination of it held our attention; long lines of little figures moving forward at a slow walk. After 5 p.m. the last line had gone over and no further movement could be seen, but the volume of rifle fire increased and diminished much more rapidly. The struggle for the defences was at its height. Shortly after this, one of us, searching the ground thoroughly with powerful glasses, and paying especial attention to a commanding hill near which much firing appeared to centre, was able to observe the final stages of the attack. The light was failing and the troops were too far off to permit anything but a general impression being gained. The men were obviously making splendid use of the cover available. At frequent intervals a small portion of the line would surge forward a short distance and then melt again into invisibility. The last scene, although much more difficult to follow, was even more fascinating than the advance of the 53rd Division. We were seeing the final stages of the assault, watching men who were at close grips with the enemy. We saw the progress of this determined attack until darkness and the receipt of orders to move to fresh positions prevented further observation.