Welsh among the ANZACs: WW1 in Palestine on the Centenary of Beersheeba, 31st Oct 1917

Hidden Histories of Welsh Fallen in Israel

By Eli Lichtenstein, North Wales

    

The Battle of Beersheba, British Palestine – now Israel

The story starts exactly 100 years ago (31st October 2017). In the Battle of Beersheba, the British army was taking what used to be my hometown, Beer Sheba from the Turkish army. The city was conquered mainly by Anzac cavalry. However, it would be impossible to take the town (whose main importance was, and still is, as a junction point) without heavy infantry involvement to the west of the parochial town. From there the joint British Anzac forces, split in a fanlike movement to Gaza in the west, and Hebron and Jerusalem in the north east and all  the way to the north. And what was until then part of the Damascus province became Palestine (and later part of Israel).

But as time passed something odd happened. We, the locals, remembered only the Anzac cavalry battle and somehow completely forgot all the rest i.e.  the Infantry and even two pilots (English, and Australian) who took part in the battle in the area, and were buried there. It is hard to say why. Is it somehow the romantic notion of a bygone era versus brutal and unglamorous modern warfare that makes us remember the cavalry and forget the rest? If so one might assume that it was, in hindsight, the last battle of its kind.  Furthermore it took place in the ‘Holy-Land’ at the town of Abraham against the ‘infidel’ and the ‘Bosch’.  One might assume that it struck a chord with the general public and could be used for propaganda purposes. On the other hand, could it be more a reflection of the Israeli attitudes following the War of Independence and the resentment created during the British rule of the area?

Either way, the results were the same. We all believed that the WWI cemetery near the old Ottoman Turkish station was solely occupied only by Anzac soldiers. I think I would still believe it to be so to this day,  if I hadn’t moved to North Wales and met several locals who told me that their great-great uncles are buried in Beer Sheba Israel.

When I finally visited the cemetery, I found that, contrary to popular belief, most of the graves are not of Anzacs – of 1179 graves at least one third are graves of Welsh soldiers. Furthermore approximately 80% of those who killed on the day of 31st October 1917, did not belong to the Light Horse Brigade, ie.  80% of the casualties were British. Which, again begs the question of how and why we choose to remember historical events.

It would be interesting therefore to find letters and photographs of those Welsh soldiers who died and are buried in the Beer Sheba Cemetery so that after a century in which they were forgotten we could bring their memories, thoughts and experiences back to life. By doing so I hope we could learn something about how the lives of their families and communities were affected, and a bit more about the consequences of war.

Pvt Percy Chandler – one of many Welsh Fusiliers who died and have memorials in Beersheba, British Southern Palestine (now Israel). Also recorded in the Welsh WW1 Book of Remembrance:   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes to the Welsh Fusiliers in Beersheba Cemetery, many came from the local North Wales area – like Private Ifor Jones, who lived in York Villa Llandudno:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And some Welsh soldiers came from South Wales like Private D.E. Matthews from Merthyr Tydfil, of the Civil Service Riflemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then finally it was the first time that I noticed that some of the tombstones are not only engraved in English, but in Welsh: Cwsg Milwr, Cwsg (“Rest Soldier, Rest) – T Roberts:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now

Above the WW1 cemetery shortly after the capture of Beer Sheva. See the train station master’s house (mid building) and the train in background and possibly a convoy of camels between the two buildings.

Below, the cemetery at 2017

   

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James ‘Jim’ Macey – The Story of the Truce that didn’t Hold and the rejected Medals

Reproduced with kind permission of Jean Silvan Evans and Wales Online

James Jim Macey

 

James Macey was born in Ynyshir, Rhondda in 1895 to Ann and Henry Macey. He lived with his 5 sisters and 3 brothers (Lucretia, Ann M, Blodwen, Bronwen, Rosy May, William J, Gomer, Trevor, Albert) at 8 Danygraig Terrace. On the 4th of August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany, and aged only 19 years old James became a Sargent of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

On 24th December 1914 James took part in the famous Christmas Truce, where British and German soldiers played football together in no-man’s land. His experiences are related below.

James ‘Jim’ Macey2
James ‘Jim’ Macey’s daughter Jean Silvan Evans recalls her father telling them how the Truce began: ‘He often told us stories about it when we were children and, like so many others, remembered it as starting with calls from the German trenches of “Hello, Tommy!”, “Happy Christmas, Tommy!”.

Soon soldiers from both sides began gingerly to put their heads above the trenches. No-one fired and they became bolder. Then they were all out, meeting in the middle, shaking hands, laughing, showing each other family pictures. The impromptu football match followed.

Over the years, I’ve shared this story with young family members. Then my grandson, when he was about eight, stumped me with a question I had never been asked before. After listening seriously, he put his head on one side and asked thoughtfully: “What position did he play?” I said it wasn’t like that, it was more like a family kick-about in the garden. At least that was the way my father told it.

As it grew darker, both sides retired to their own trenches and the unofficial, unexpected truce continued with some carol singing. My father particularly remembered the singing of Silent Night, a shared carol sung in two languages as the combined melodies lifted into the darkening night sky.

All this my father told happily, with broad smiles. Very, very rarely, he would go on to the next part. His face would change and harden in disbelief. “Then the next day,” he would say with a flash of contempt and hatred, “We were killing each other again! And they were bloody nice blokes.”

It was that look and those words – reflecting the famous line that the Tommie “lions” were led by officer “donkeys” – that so very many years later, made me understand why he seemed to hate his Military Medal and was determined to get rid of it – twice!

He won the Military Medal – and lost a leg – at the Battle of the Somme. The first time he got rid of it was the source of another family story. He had swapped the medal for a pint of beer. He would tell the story, we would tease him and it would end in smiles as he shook his head and said: “I shouldn’t have done it!”

It was a different story when the medal came back, something like 50 years later. The man to whom he had given it had emigrated to Australia. When he died, his children found the medal. As my father’s name was on it, they generously decided to send it back, in the hope it would find its true owner.

As my father lived in the same place, it did. But he wasn’t laughing then. We are not sure how long the medal was in the house but he was never happy about it. One night my sister, who was delighted with the return of the medal, urged him to take pride in it. He stoically maintained he did not want it.

When she left him that night, he waited until dark. Then he walked to the river. Standing alone, he threw the medal into the shadowy waters. “I didn’t want it!” was all he would say, stubbornly, afterwards.’

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