yeovil at War

Percy Lionel Holt

Killed in the 'Action of El Mughar' in Palestine

 

Percy Lionel Holt was born in 1896 in Yeovil, the son of printer's compositor William Mears Holt (1861-1915) and his wife Mary Sarah née Poole (1862-1955). The 1901 census listed William and Mary living at 47 Vicarage Street, almost on the corner of Quidham Place, with their children; 11-year old William, 7-year old Mabel and 5-year old Percy. The family were at 42 Vicarage Street in the 1911 census and by this time 15-year old Percy was listed as a GPO telegraph messenger working at the Post Office which, at this time, was in Middle Street (now occupied by WH Smith's). Later, Percy was to work at the Nautilus Works in Reckleford.

At the age of eighteen Percy enlisted in the Army in 1914 at Yeovil and became a Private (Serial No 240821) in No 2 Company, 1st/5th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. He was to serve three years in India, achieving the rank of Lance Corporal, before going to Palestine with the Battalion.

The 1st/5th Battalion was a Territorial Battalion formed on 4 August 1914 at the County Territorial Hall, Taunton as part of the South-Western Brigade, Wessex Division. It was initially stationed at Plymouth for a few days and then proceeded to Salisbury Plain. On 9 October 1914 the Battalion sailed from Southampton and arrived at Bombay, India, on 9 November 1914. The battalion remained at Jubbulpore until December, when it proceeded to Ambala. Strenuous training began almost immediately and continued almost for the next year.

 In May 1916 a large draft of nine officers and 449 other ranks arrived from England and the battalion was temporarily divided during the ensuing hot weather with some companies going to Chakrata and the remainder to Meerut.

The following months were mainly occupied in training the draft but even in the hills little was done beyond this owing to the exceptionally wet season. The Battalion was reunited in October at Meerut. On 26 April 1917 17 officers and 838 other ranks of the Battalion, including Percy, sailed on HMT Chakdara from Bombay, landing at Suez, Egypt, on 11 May 1917, becoming part of 233rd Brigade, 75th Division - part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine.

Having spent an uneventful two and a half years in India it was now intended that the 1st/5th Battalion was to become involved in the attack on Gaza which had been ordered to take place on the morning of 2 November 1917 although 1st/5th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry were ultimately not employed in the attack.

The Regimental History of the Somerset Light Infantry records "Several weeks training at El Arish and Rafa, where long route marches through the burning desert fitted the battalion for the part it was to play in the near future, followed on 28 August Nos 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion went into the trenches in the Sheikh Abbas area, south of Gaza (see first two photographs below), and were attached to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders for preliminary instruction in trench warfare. The remainder of September was uneventful.

The Action of El Mughar, also known as the Battle of Mughar Ridge, took place on 13 November 1917 during the Pursuit phase of the Southern Palestine Offensive of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Fighting between the advancing Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and the retreating Yildirim Army Group, occurred after the Battle of Beersheba and the Third Battle of Gaza. Operations occurred over an extensive area north of the Gaza to Beersheba line and west of the road from Beersheba to Jerusalem via Hebron. Strong Ottoman Army positions from Gaza to the foothills of the Judean Hills had successfully held out against Allied forces for a week after the Ottoman army was defeated at Beersheba. But the next day, 8 November, the main Ottoman base at Sheria was captured after two days' fighting and Turkish units along the whole line were in retreat. The Allies attacked the Ottoman Eighth Army on an extended front from the Judean foothills across the Mediterranean coastal plain from 10 to 14 November.

The Regimental History of the Somerset Light Infantry records the detail of the Action of El Mughar and the part played in it by the 1st/5th Somersets, including Lance Corporal Percy Holt of B Company (also known as No 2 Company) - "On the 12th the Battalion moved forward and occupied a ridge south of El Kustineh and El Turmus, digging in and remaining in the position during the night of 12th/13th. The task allotted to the 233rd Infantry Brigade in the attack to take place on the 13th November was the capture of Tel El Turmus - El Kustineh (both inclusive) with El Mesmiyeh as a further objective.

In phase one the 1/5th Somersets were to attack Tel El Turmus, and the 1/4th Wilts Regt. Kustineh, both Battalions attacking El Mesmiyeh as a further objective.... At dawn on the 13th the Brigade was ready formed up for the attack, the 1/5th Somersets on the right and the 1/4th Wilts on the left, with the 3/3rd Gurkhas guarding the left of the Brigade and the 2/4th Hants in Brigade Reserve. The Somersets disposed No 1 and No 4 Companies in the front line with No 3 in support and No 2 in reserve.

By 6:50am patrols of the Somersets and Wilts had reported Turmus and Kustineh clear of the enemy, and at 8am the leading waves of both Battalions advanced to occupy the two villages and re-form north-east of the latter ready for the attack on El Mesmiyeh. In moving through Turmus the 1/5th came under shell fire, but no casualties resulted and by 9:15am the Battalion had formed up north-east of the village, as ordered, ready for the next phase of the attack. Kustineh had similarly fallen into the hands of the Wilts Regt., the latter forming up for the next stage of the operations on the left of the Somerset men. Of the latter Battalion No 3 and No 2 Companies now formed the front line with No 1 in support and No 4 in reserve.

At 10:15am the attack on El Mesmiyeh began. About 1,200 yards from the village the 1/5th Somersets first came under very heavy shell fire and ultimately, as the Battalion approached its objective, violent rifle and machine-gun fire principally from the right flank. But with great steadiness the Somerset men kept on and El Mesmiyeh was stormed and captured "with great dash and gallantry". The village had fallen by 10:55am, but it took another half hour to clear the cactus-hedges and gardens of Turkish snipers who had concealed themselves cleverly. But eventually the last remaining Turk had either been shot down or sent scuttling back to the main body of the enemy, who had taken up position on the ridge running approximately east and west, about 1,000 - 1,200 yards north of El Mesmiyeh. A counter-attack on the latter was beaten off, but the Turkish guns continued to shell the village heavily while the enemy's rifle and machine-gun bullets tore through the cactus hedges behind which the British troops were lying awaiting further orders. The 3/3rd Gurkhas were now moved up into the village to strengthen the position.

At 3:45pm Brigade Headquarters ordered the 1/5th Somersets and 1/4 Wilts to attack and occupy the ridge north of El Mesmiyeh. For this attack No 3 and No 1 Companies of the 1/5th Somersets were lent to the Wilts.... This attack was again completely successful, the Somerset men and the Wilts attacking the ridge with great determination. They dislodged the enemy who fled in full retreat, the Somerset men capturing three machine guns after killing practically all the crews of the guns. The Wilts took many prisoners. No 2 and No 4 Companies of the Somersets guarded the right flank of the attack which was still under heavy machine-gun fire."

Casualties suffered by the 1st/5th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry during the fighting on 13 November 1917 were one officer and five other ranks, including 21-year old Lance Corporal Percy Holt, killed and two officers and 41 other ranks wounded.

On 30 November 1917 the Western Gazette reported "Mrs Holt, of 42 Vicarage Street, has received the official intelligence that her son, Private Percy Holt, Somerset L.I., has been killed in action in Palestine. Deceased, who was only 21 years of age, served three years in India before proceeding to Palestine. Before enlisting he was employed at the Nautilus Works."

Percy Lionel Holt is commemorated on Panel 17 of the Jerusalem Memorial. His name is also recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.

 

gallery

 

Dug-outs in the front line at Sheikh Abbas where Nos 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion, including Percy Holt, were entrenched.

 

A reserve wadi at Sheikh Abbas.

 

Nabi Samwil, photographed in 1917.

 

El Mughar village, photographed in 1928.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Percy Holt.

 

The Jerusalem Memorial, in Jerusalem War Cemetery.

Jerusalem War Cemetery was begun after the occupation of the city, with 270 burials. It was later enlarged to take graves from the battlefields and smaller cemeteries in the neighbourhood. There are now 2,514 Commonwealth burials of the First World War in the cemetery, 100 of them unidentified.

Within the cemetery stands the Jerusalem Memorial, commemorating 3,300 Commonwealth servicemen who died during the First World War in operations in Egypt or Palestine and who have no known grave. The memorial was designed by Sir John Burnet, with sculpture by Gilbert Bayes. In addition, the mosaic in the Memorial Chapel was designed by Robert Anning Bell. The Memorial was unveiled by Lord Allenby and Sir James Parr on 7 May 1927.