Bertram Harry Wright, known as ‘Bert’, was born in Chelmsford and brought up in the Moulsham area of the town. He assisted in his father’s french polishing business before joiining the army in May 1915. In November of that year he went overseas, serving in Egypt and Palestine. He was killed in action in November 1917 near Gaza. His home was in Hall Street.
Bert was born in Chelmsford on 5th September 1893. He was the only child of Henry Joseph Wright and Martha Wright (nee Hines). His father had been born in Chelmsford in 1867; his mother c1865 in Long Melford, Suffolk. the couple had married in 1891 in Suffolk.
Bert was baptized at St. John’s Church, Moulsham on 1st November 1893. At the time his father was described as a French polisher from Hall Street, Chelmsford
Bert began his education at Moulsham Infants School on 6th September 1897. At the time his parents lived at Rose Cottage in Mildmay Road, Chelmsford.
The 1901 census found seven year-old Bert and his parents living at 3 Hall Street. His father was a self-employed French polisher. A decade later the 1911 census listed 17 year-old Bert living with his parents and uncle George Hines at 3 Hall Street, Chelmsford. Bert was a French polisher working for his father who remained a self-employed French polisher.
Bert lived and enlisted at Chelmsford, in May 1915, into the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment where he served as Private 3602 (later 250933). The battalion was a Territorial unit formed in 1908 with its headquarters in Market Road, Chelmsford, and it naturally contained many Chelmsford men who were to lose their lives in the war.
For the first year of the war Bert’s battalion, which formed part of the 161st (Essex) Brigade in the 54th (East Anglian) Division had stayed in England, training and providing part of the defence for the eastern counties. In July 1915 it had hone overseas to participate in the Gallipoli campaign, landing there on 9th August 1915. There it had a difficult time and had withdrawn from Anzac Cove on 4th December 1915 to Mudros, just six days before Bert arrived as a replacement for its depleted ranks.
Following its withdrawal from Gallipoli the battalion landed in Alexandria, Egypt on 17th December 1915. On 28th December 1915 it was sent to El Hamam, Egypt where it formed part of the Western Frontier Force. On 5th March 1916 the battalion left for Mena Camp near Cairo, Egypt, before it was moved 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.
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 161st Brigade, including the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment captured a hill known as Green Hill south-west of Ali el Muntar on the southern outskirts of Gaza. It was done so at a price - the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 117 fatalities for the battalion on 26th March 1917 plus 113 in the 1/4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. Among them were ten Chelmsford men. 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. Those losses were made more bitter by the decision, based on poor intelligence and communications, to withdraw Allied forces from their captured positions that night when in reality the town was their for the taking.
On 17th April 1917 a second attempt to capture Gaza, by then heavily reinforced by the Turks, was started by the Allies. Bert’s battalion participated in the action. Some progress was made despite determined opposition and heavy casualties (many suffered by the Norfolk Regiment), but the breakthrough the Allies needed could not be achieved and Gaza remained in Turkish hands. The town would not fall to the Allies until 7th November 1917 at the conclusion of the Third Battle of Gaza.
During the period between the Second and Third Battles of Gaza the 1/5th Battalion of the Essex Regiment spent much of its time in trenches facing Turkish forces near to Gaza and the Mediterranean Sea.
On the morning of 1st November 1917 the battalion received news that it was to launch an attack towards Gaza in the early hours of the following morning. The attack was planned as part of a deception designed to convince the Turks that a major assault would be made direct on Gaza, while the main Allied advance was in fact taking place some 30 miles to the east near Beersheba. From Beersheba the Allies would strike westwards towards the coast, threatening to encircle Gaza.
A and D Companies of Bert’s battalion were to attack the Rafa Redoubt. B Company, and two platoons of C Company were to take Zowaid Trench which lay immediately to the south (and to its right from the battalion’s starting position). Tanks would support both assaults. The remainder of C Company were in reserve while comrades from the 1/6th and 1/7th Battalions of the Essex Regiment were to assault other Turkish positions in the area, including Beach Post, Sea Post Cricket redoubt and the Rafa-Belah trench which ran northwards from Rafa Redoubt.
WRIGHT, BERTRAM HARRY,
Private, 1/5th Battalion, Essex Regiment
At 4.30 p.m. on 1st November 1917 a short service was held for Bert’s battalion, which was well attended. Half an hour later the battalion’s troops went to sleep. At 11 p.m. a ‘good square hot meal’ was served with a pint of beer to wash it down, to the accompaniment of an artillery duel began between the Allies and Turks. The bombardment continued until 1 a.m., and by 2.30 a.m. the battalion’s troops were in position for the attacks, timed to start at 2.55 a.m. The battalion consisted of 25 officers and 925 other ranks. A post-war account of the battalion by its commander continued:
“Silence reigned supreme and we stood unscathed on ground, which an hour before had been a veritable inferno. It was a good start. The tanks had got over safely and at 2.55 the Companies moved off. At three precisely, the artillery commenced. The moon had just disappeared and the light was very bad. The smoke and dust of the fire made a thick fog and the compass had to be relied upon for direction....After about half-an-hour a runner got back to say that the enemy’s front line was in our hands....The Turks had put up a wonderful fight, many of them lying in forward positions in the open to avoid the bombardment, and meeting our men with the bayonet.
Still the reports were very confusing, as both attacking parties claimed to be in the Rafa redoubt. No word was received as to the Zowaid trench. Runners lost their way in the thick haze and it was impossible to tell exactly what the situation was. The air seemed filled with fine sand and smoke, which hung about like a thick ground fog and made it very difficult.
Reports came in from the right that attacks on El Arish Redoubt and El Burj trench had been repulsed. I was very anxious about Zowaid, which joined El Burj. The reports, however, proved incorrect. It was now broad daylight and the enemy was firing furiously from his second line. The 6th [Essex] had taken Beach and Sea Posts with little trouble. The 7th [Essex] had taken Cricket redoubt. bit had not succeeded in their attack on the very important trench the Rafa-Belah. The tanks had broken down and neither had reached even its first objective. The loss of their support was a serious blow for the 7th.
The morning wore on and still no more definite news of Zowaid.”
Over the next few hours news emerged that B Company, whose objective had been Zowaid Trench had lost direction in the darkness and struck Rafa instead - the objective of A and D Companies. A swarm of men from B Company had been spotted by the commander of D Company, Lt. E. B. Deakin, clambering up the steep sandy slope which led up to Rafa Redoubt. Realising the error Lt. Deakin then took his men to attack Zowaid Trench instead which was captured by A and D Companies, who suffered heavy casualties in doing so. Men from C Company also entered Rafa Redoubt, but the Rafa-Belah trench held out and inflicted heavy casualties on the 7th and 10th Battalions of the London Regiment who were fighting nearby. The post-war account continued:
“It [the Rafa-Belah trench] was effectively blocked from the Rafa redoubt end, where [2nd Lt.] Archer did great work with his Lewis gun, fighting it himself almost single-handed after Sergeant C. T. Allaway, his most efficient Lewis gun non-commissioned officer, had been killed and most of the team knocked out. C.-S.-M. Wilson did splendid work in helping to organise and consolidate the position. Richmond and Lockwood, I remember, were conspicuous too, in Rafa redoubt; but it is hardly fair to mention names, there were so many others.”
The battalion managed to reinforce and retain both Rafa Redoubt and Zowaid Trench despite further attacks and heavy artillery fire from the Turks. Writing after the war the battalion’s commander stated:
“The capture of the Rafa redoubt and Zowaid trench was a feat of which the Battalion may well be proud. That the enemy offered a determined resistance was shown by the fact that our casualties in the action were two officers and 73 other ranks killed, seven officers and 172 other ranks wounded and nine other ranks missing. The killed included....such good non-commissioned officers as Sergts. H. Byles, N Bruce and D. Ambrose, Corpl. P Andersen, and L/Corpl. H. Quilter and Tasker.”
Bert was one of those 73 killed. He was aged 24. In addition to him, a further six men commemorated by the Chelmsford War Memorial were also killed in the attack. They were: , , , , , and .
As hoped for, the attack succeeded in not only capturing the Turkish positions it also succeeded in its strategic aim, which was to keep the Turkish forces tied to Gaza and to draw a large number of troops to reinforce the defence of the town. Allied forces were to continue to advance from the east and on 7th November the Turks abandoned Gaza and retreated to the north.
On 16th November 1917 the Essex County Chronicle included the following family announcement:
“Wright. - Killed in action, on Nov. 2nd, while serving in the Essex Regt. with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine, Bertram H. (Bert) Wright, dearly beloved and only child of Mr. and Mrs. Wright, of 3 Hall Street, Chelmsford, aged 24 years.”
The same edition also reported:
“Mr. and Mrs. H. Wright, of 3 Hall Street, Chelmsford, have been notified that their only child, Bertram H. (Bert) Wright, has been killed in action while serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. He was only 24 years old, and before his enlistment assisted his father in his business in Hall Street. Deceased has served 2.5 years. and went on foreign service two years ago exactly. He was very well known and highly respected.”
Bert has no known grave and is commemorated on the Jerusalem Memorial in Israel, on the Civic Centre Memorial, Chelmsford, and the Moulsham Parish Memorial, St John’s Church, Moulsham. He was entitled to the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, and Victory Medal.
The 1918 register of electors listed Bert’s parents still at 3 Hall Street. The site of the property is now occupied by the Life Church (formerly Elim Pentecostal Church).