As is the way of world wars, World War I took place not only in Europe where it broke out in 1914, but also in the Middle East and even right here in the Land of Israel. The main role of the British military force stationed in Egypt was to protect the Suez Canal, the vital sea passage between the British colonies in the East and the European continent, via the Mediterranean Sea. In 1916, the British force that fought in the region expanded into a multinational military force under British command called the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF).
In order to keep the Turks and their German allies away from the Suez Canal, and also to step up the pressure on the Turks and thus prevent them from diverting any forces to fight in other arenas of the war, the British decided to advance north towards the Land of Israel – then still Ottoman Palestine.
The British started the year 1917 with their first success along these lines. The city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip was conquered in just one day, on January 9, 1917. But the British command realized it would be difficult to defend Rafah from the Turks, and thus the British Army would have to conquer the largest city in the area – Gaza City itself. In fact, Gaza City was seen as the key to conquering the entire Land of Israel from the south.
But Gaza has never been easily conquered. In March and April 1917, two British attempts to conquer Gaza from the south failed. These costly failures led to the replacement of the EEF’s commanding officer. General Edmund Allenby, who until then had been commanding the Third Army in France, was appointed to the position. His mission was to conquer Jerusalem before Christmas 1917, as a gift of encouragement to the British people whose spirits were low after three long years of war.
Allenby, who would go down in history as the celebrated conqueror of the Holy Land who put an end to 400 years of Ottoman rule, chose a surprising strategy including a series of deceptive maneuvers. He understood that Gaza must be cut off from Be’er Sheva and that the series of outposts connecting the cities must be demolished. While the Turks were expecting an attack on Gaza, Allenby decided to first capture Be’er Sheva and then surprise the Turks by attacking Gaza from the east, thus hindering their ability to bolster their forces there.
The Australian cavalry charge on Be’er Sheva
Zero hour was set for October 27, 1917. The Third Battle of Gaza began with a heavy artillery bombardment of the city using 68 large-caliber artillery guns firing from British and French ships. In the meantime, and as secretly as possible, many forces advanced towards Be’er Sheva, which the Turks had not yet finished fortifying. Apart from the trenches on the southern and western borders, most of the city was without any effective defense. The British surrounded the southwest part of the city with 24,000 soldiers and began shooting and capturing enemy positions.
In the meantime, cavalry units from Australia and New Zealand (ANZAC) and other mounted forces, comprising 11,000 soldiers, headed east of Be’er Sheva. They all reached their destination on the night between October 30-31.
The British planned to take Be’er Sheva by beginning with a mounted assault by the Australian cavalry from the east.
The attack began at 4:30 PM from a distance of about 6.5 kilometers from the city. The horsemen slowly increased their speed until they charged the Turkish defenders, who were not properly armed and were also in the midst of fleeing the city. The forces of the 4th Light Horse Regiment jumped over the Turkish positions; the soldiers dismounted their horses and began face-to-face combat. Meanwhile the 12th Light Horse Regiment moved on to take over the city. Within a short time, Be’er Sheva had fallen.
The Third Battle of Gaza
After taking some time to rest and water the horses, Allenby began to advance the infantry and cavalry forces westward from Be’er Sheva. But the Turks still held several positions between Be’er Sheva and Gaza, and there was substantial resistance. One of the challenging targets was the military logistics center at Tel a-Sheria (today Tel Shera near Rahat). After fierce battles, the position and the nearby railway station were finally captured by the brigades of the 60th London Division with the help of additional forces.
In southern Gaza, the Turks had dug in a series of trenches that reached the Mediterranean Sea, with a number of control posts between them. The British forces captured part of their fortifications and went up along the coastline into Turkish territory as far as the village of Sheikh Hassan (today the area of the Al-Shati refugee camp), but they were stopped, and the capture of Gaza was delayed. The Turks realized that Gaza could no longer withstand the shelling and stop the advancing British forces, and on November 6, 1917, they evacuated the city. When the British entered Gaza, they found it abandoned and in ruins. The road north to the Land of Israel was now open. The British forces advanced towards Jaffa, and within a few weeks they reached Jerusalem and liberated it from the Turks without a fight.
Most of the British soldiers who were killed in the battles for Gaza were buried in the military cemetery that was established there after World War I, in the area that is now the Tuffah neighborhood near Saleh al-Din Road. The cemetery has 3,691 graves, most of them belonging to soldiers who fell in the three attempts to conquer Gaza.
The Jewish soldiers who fell in Gaza
About one and a half million Jews fought in World War I. Of these, about 50,000 were Jewish soldiers from the British Empire. Some fought in the Land of Israel. 8,600 Jewish soldiers from the British Army fell during the war. It is safe to assume that some of them took part in the battles for Gaza.
As of the writing of this article, IDF soldiers are currently fighting in Gaza as part of the Swords of Iron War. The fierce battles and heavy, heartbreaking losses made me think of the Jewish soldiers of the British Army who fell in Gaza in 1917. I decided to try to delve deeper into some of their stories.
The names of Jewish soldiers who fought in the British Army were collected after the war and published in the British Jewry Book of Honour, which also includes a list of those who fell. About a year ago, I had a conversation over Zoom with a Jewish couple from London who researched the book, how it was edited, and the soldiers listed in it. It is not possible to search for a fallen soldier by date or place of death in the book, so I tried my luck on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
I didn’t know the fallen Jewish soldiers’ names, ID numbers, or the units in which they served, so in the advanced search, I typed in “Gaza War Cemetery” and got 2,696 results. The only method, albeit not a scientific one, for finding a Jewish soldier is by looking for a name that sounds a bit Jewish. I tried “Cohen” first. One result came up: Lance Corporal Frederick Arthur Cohen, who fell during the Second Battle of Gaza, in April 1917, but his name wasn’t listed in the British Jewry Book of Honour. I then tried “Levy” and got one result: Sgt. J. Levy, but his name wasn’t listed in the book either. It’s possible that there are some inaccuracies in the book and that they hadn’t managed to collect the names of all the Jews who had fought. It’s also possible that despite the names, these people weren’t Jewish.
So, I started going through the list of 2,696 names of people buried in the British military cemetery in Gaza.
After a while, I came across a soldier with a Jewish name: Hyman Goodfriend. It’s likely his original name was Haim Godfried. He fell on November 7, 1917, on the last day of the Third Battle of Gaza. The location of the grave is listed by plot, and on the website, you can download an old map of the cemetery. Hyman is buried near the front of the cemetery on the right. His name also appears in the book, but with a different date. The date on the site, as also appears on his tombstone, is probably the correct one.
A few years ago, there was an initiative to collect information about British Jews during World War I. The initiative, called “We Were There Too”, became a website where you can search for names of soldiers, among other things. I found Hyman with a photo of him in uniform and the names of his family members. His date of death was taken from the book and not from the tombstone. He was 25 years old when he fell in battle.
Hyman served in the 17th Battalion of the London Regiment, which was attached to the 180th Brigade of the 60th Division and which fought here in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, among other campaigns. During the Third Battle of Gaza, their mission was to work together with other forces to conquer Tel a-Sheria. The battalion stormed Turkish machine gun positions and it was probably during this battle that Hyman fell.
From the grave numbers, I could see that next to Hyman’s grave is the grave of a Jewish officer named Wilfrid Gordon Aron Joseph. He was killed during the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917. He was 21 years old when he fell and was survived by his wife.
Private Sam Bernstein, a 40-year-old soldier who worked as a tailor in Leeds, England and served in the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, is buried not far from them. Although buried in Gaza, he was killed in Egypt a year after the battle, in October 1918.
The home page of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, features a large, pastoral image of the cemetery and its well-kept lawns. Above the picture, there’s currently an unsurprising announcement:
“November 2023 – This cemetery is currently closed to visitors.”
At the right end of the photo, there’s a tombstone with a Jewish star.
You can’t make out the soldier’s name in the picture, but by comparing the picture with the map, I discovered that this is grave no. XIV B 1.
On the Find a Grave website, you can search for graves in about 250 countries, also by grave number. With the help of this database, I found the name of the person who is buried in grave XIV B 1 in the picture from Gaza. His name was Maurice Magasiner and he served in the 11th Battalion of the London Regiment. This battalion was attached to the 54th Division that General Allenby placed near the coastal strip south of Gaza. The soldiers of this battalion moved up along the coast amid heavy fighting with the Turks, until they were stopped at the village of Sheikh Hassan. The Turks responded by shelling the area on November 2, and it appears that that is how Morris fell. He was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine and immigrated to England at the age of 4. He was 21 years old when he died and was survived by his wife.
It’s safe to assume that there are other Jews buried in the British military cemetery in Gaza, as well as the other military cemetery in Deir al-Balah. It’s hard to imagine the last time a Jewish memorial service was held for them.
Many battles have been fought in Gaza since the three fought by the British in 1917. May the Swords of Iron War be the last war in Gaza.