First Battle of Gaza

“Desert Trek from Kantara to Raffa. Early Spring 1917.”

All of the following photographs were taken by Harry Belson, or with his camera, and captions, where present, are as noted by him.

The first battle of Gaza took place over the three days of 26-28 March 1917. This set of photographs covers the period from leaving the Suez Canal in the early spring of 1917 to the attack on Gaza, crossing the Sinai Desert on the way.

“Desert Trek from Kantara to Raffa. Early Spring 1917.”

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Oasis on the way across Sinai desert

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Watching the old melon patch

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On the coast – palm grove & wells – Sinai Desert near El Arish

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Pelusium

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Arab scouts used on the Suez Canal defences

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For Pa – Taken on a Sunday afternoon approaching Gaza the day before the first battle of Gaza – Somewhere near Raffa – motor tractors taking up ammo’…. 60lb artillery shells

Below the above dedication to his father this photograph is signed “Hy 1918”, suggesting it was posted home a year later.

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Khan Yunis on the way to Nu Seirat near Deir el Belah preparing for the attack on Gaza

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Gordon Trodchett & self – when at Bir El Abd in the Bardawel area on trek across the Sinai

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Deir el Belah – in front of Gaza

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Our camp at El Arish – Sinai Desert

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Pumping drinking water into the reservoirs: Artesian wells sunk in desert by Australian well borers

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Blockhouse – Sinai desert

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Home sweet home – Sinai desert – Bivouacs had not then been issued

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Old Turkish Barracks – El Arish

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Water from Artesian wells sunk by Australian well borers

HB_1602First battle of Gaza. A recollection of our first touch of Active Service in Palestine when a small section of us went up & assisted another Brigade clean their wounded, a day which every man who went up will ever have cause to remember, especially the retirement at night, we being one of the last to leave. Note Turkish prisoner on left hand of photo just below the elbow of the man with his back to the camera. We took a load down that night. We couldn’t get these men away & they laid out all day.

HB_1603Our advanced dressing station during the attack last Spring. This was only a few hundred yards away from the ridge we had just captured. I am knocking about somewhere. Behind Sheik Abass Ridge. A shell exploded in here & killed several of our fellows.

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© Paul Barham, March 2018

Suez and Kubri – 2

“Taken at Suez during the time we were stationed at Kubri and on our subsequent move to Suez early in 1917.”

The second set of photographs from the encampment on the Suez Canal. While there is clearly some overlap with the first set, the photographs have been kept in their original groupings. As with the first set, all photographs were taken by Harry Belson (with the possible exception of the picture of Lt. Col. Bremner), or were taken with his camera, and captions, where present, are as he has annotated them.

There is very little commentary to this set of photographs, and while the images speak for themselves the stories behind them may never be told – from the picnic in the desert to the brisk funeral procession which has a resonance with much more recent scenes in the Middle East.

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Isolation Compound at Suez – Diphtheria contacts

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An unsuccessful trial of camels in a sand cart. The whole lot bolted causing much fun. Taken down in the desert in Feb. 1917. HDB

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A village near Suez wiped out by cholera – Just behind our isolation compound at Suez

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One of a number of photographs of Harry Belson, taken by one or other of his comrades.

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Lt. Col. Bremner, C/O 1/1 F.G. 163 Brigade, 54 Division (Norfolk)

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Our “bivvy”. Please note the sweet smile which nearly brought on brain fever from keeping up the pose. We only did 3 exposures in getting this. HDB Palestine 1917

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Egyptian well and ox

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This is the well (near Cairo) where Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus rested whilst fleeing Herod. Known as the “Virgin’s Well”.

These last two images are signed “Harry, Oct. 1917”. However, that date would have seen Harry in the midst of the campaign for Gaza, and after that he would not see Egypt again until the end of the War. One possible explanation for the apparent discrepancy is that the photographs were amongst those printed before the campaign and posted to the Belson family from the front (I can see nothing on the official records about any detachments being sent back into Egypt at the height of the Gaza campaign).

© Paul Barham, May 2018

Suez and Kubri – 1

All of the following photographs were taken by Harry Belson, or were taken with his camera. Italicised text and captions, where present, are as noted by my grandfather.

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Camera purchased at Suez in 1916 during the time we were stationed at Kubri. The series of photographs starts from here.”

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Our encampment on the banks of the Suez Canal at Kubri, near Suez

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A baby camel captured from some hill tribes, near Suez. The boy standing was in Truth Ward, Hackney Hospital, same time as myself. Since this, was thrown from a camel and badly hurt.

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Arab scouts on the Suez Canal defences

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Your offer brother Harry and “Emily” Regt. Pet of the Regt. Somewhere in Egypt – Jan/17 – at El Kubri on the Suez Canal

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2/1 East Anglian Field Ambulance Camp, Suez Canal, Kubri, 1916

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Swing bridge over the Suez Canal at Kubri, near Suez

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Ships passing through the Suez Canal

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Looking across the Canal

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 The grain in the ship had shifted causing the ship to list.

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Patrol Boat “Bee”

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Mosque near fish market at Suez

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“Yours HDB – Suez 1917”

© Paul Barham, February 2018

Gallipoli – 1915

This small folder of prints bears the message: “Photographs taken in Gallipoli by a trooper in the Bucks Hussars”.

There are no other explanatory notes, however the pictures speak for themselves – from trench warfare to the day-to-day details of a soldier’s life, and finally the haunting image of soldiers waiting on the crowded beachhead while out at sea warships lie at anchor…

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The only photograph with any commentary – the following dedication is written on the reverse:

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My grandfather talked less about Gallipoli than his subsequent campaigns in Egypt and Palestine. Admittedly it was a shorter campaign, but I feel that the more likely reason was that there were less amusing stories to tell. My understanding, from what I have been able to piece together, is that after becoming seriously ill with dysentery he returned to hospital and a brief convalescence in England before embarking on his second and third campaigns in the Middle East.

© Paul Barham, February 2018

About my Grandpa Harry

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Harry Belson was born in East Ham in 1892. His father, Robert, was a publican from a farming family in the Norfolk Broadlands and his mother, Matilda Tomkins, came from a Welsh family who had settled in Kent to work at the Woolwich Arsenal. Grandpa Harry grew up in Braintree, Essex, but the family had also lived in Eynsford and St. Mary Cray in the years before the outbreak of World War I.

When I was growing up, visits to spend a few days with my maternal grandparents in the Essex village of Gosfield formed an essential part of Easter, summer, or half-term holidays.

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Harry Belson – and grandson, summer 1958

Amongst my favourite memories are the gentle walks with my Grandpa to visit local landmarks, along the way hearing stories from his own childhood in rural Essex and Kent, his commentary on current topics such as industrialised farming, and learning about his service with a field ambulance corps during the First World War.

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Harry and Eleanor Belson, with grandson Paul, summer 1966

Many years later, as his only grandchild, I came to inherit Harry’s collection of old books, and a box or two of other artefacts, including the old Kodak photograph wallets in which I discovered contact prints of photographs from his campaigns in WWI, along with crisp greaseproof wraps enclosing the celluloid negatives.

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It has weighed on my mind for some years that if I didn’t tell this story no one else would, and that while the photographs might end up in the appropriate archive the personal story behind them would be lost forever.

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Brigade positions before the 1st Battle for Gaza, as marked up by Harry Belson on one of his old maps of Palestine.

The archive photographs in this blog are all scanned from the contact prints, and the accompanying narrative taken from handwritten notes on the back of the prints, in the margins of regimental histories, and on campaign maps. The negatives are safely packed away in a metal box, awaiting more expert advice on how their contents should be preserved for posterity.

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Troop movements during the 1st Battle for Gaza, as noted by Harry Belson

Demob and Civilian Life

Harry Belson was demobilised in June 1919, returning to his family home in Braintree. His war record was tacitly recognised in civilian life where he was offered the post of solicitor’s clerk in the local law firm of Holmes & Hills. He married my grandmother in the early 1920s and their only daughter – my mother, Barbara – was born in 1923. The family moved to Halstead where my grandfather ran the firm’s branch office until his retirement following a heart attack in 1960. Happily he recovered fully and lived long enough to celebrate my coming of age in 1975.

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Harry & Eleanor with daughter Barbara and grandson Paul, summer 1974 (photo: Len Barham)

© Paul Barham, February 2018