Holy Lands: The Royal Devon Yeomanry in Palestine

Black and white relaxed portrait of Royal Devon Yeomanry first world war soldiers.

Sergeant Horace Percival Crocker (Third from right) © Marilyn Tolly.

'A perfect and painstaking record of a Yeoman’s War’.

This is how a captain of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry described the First World War diaries of North Devon farmer Sergeant Horace Percival Crocker, a faithful transcript of which is displayed in our Military Rooms.

Exhibited alongside the original diaries of fellow member of the 16th Battalion Devonshire Yeomanry, Lance Corporal Herbert Algar, it forms an integral part of our extensive display which aims to provide a privileged and deeply personal insight into the lives of the ordinary men and women of North Devon during this most extraordinary of times.

Defined as ‘the Great War for Civilization’, the conflict expanded far beyond the much publicised Western Front, touching and forever changing the lives of countless individuals from across Europe, the Middle East and far beyond.  The dozens of objects on display have been carefully selected in order to provide a sense of the pain, excitement, grief, wonder, fear and occasionally even fun which permeated the lives of those who lived through it.

Metal gift box with two packs of tobacco inside. A gift from Princess Mary to first world war soldiers at Christmas 1914.

Princess Mary Gift Fund Box 1914 © MBND.

Souvenirs range from picture postcards from Cairo to a bullet engraved and lost by German soldier, T. Meininger, before being picked up by a member of the Devonshire Regiment as the unit chased him and his retreating army through Belgium hours before the declaration of the armistice.

Exquisitely engraved shell cases share space with letters of sympathy conveying the dreaded news that someone’s husband, brother or son was missing and the tragic bronze memorial plaques presented to the families of all who would never return.  Changing attitudes are amusingly reflected in the gleaming tobacco tins – one containing its original contents – sent to ‘all men serving overseas’ as a Christmas gift from Princess Mary in 1914.

Nurse May Beale’s Red Cross medal, still in its delicate box, an autograph book crammed with tokens of appreciation collected by Matron Jane Appleton from soldiers she had nursed at Barnstaple’s Voluntary Aid Detachment Auxiliary hospital and the pretty Edwardian dress owned by Barnstaple woman Hilda Smerdon, whose fiancé was called to enlist at the outbreak of war, speak volumes about the vital role played by the women at home.

Humorous drawing of nurse writing letter for bed-ridden soldier. Part of Matron Appleton's autograph book.

Matron Jane Appleton’s autograph book (detail) © MBND.

'...on board the Titanic’s almost identical sister ship, the Olympic'.

It is in the diaries, however, that the most detailed record of this turbulent time from the perspective of two dismounted Devonshire Yeoman is to be found.

While Crocker began documenting his experiences the day before he rode his beloved horse Ginger to enlist in Holsworthy at the outbreak of war in August 1914, Algar’s diary begins  as the pair join 6,000 other troops bound for the Mediterranean on board the Titanic’s almost identical sister ship, the Olympic, in September the following year.

Over the next three years both write frequently and candidly of their exploits as they are dispatched first to fight the Ottoman Turks in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, onward to Egypt and then – as part of the newly formed 16th Battalion Devonshire Yeomanry – over the border into Palestine which the allies sought to invade in order to knock the Ottomans out of the war.

Open page showing handwritten notes of Pt. Herbert Algar's war diaries.

Lance Corporal Herbert Algar’s diaries (detail) © MBND.

It was high up in the hills of ‘the Holy Lands’, in a village said to have been built by King Solomon, that the battalion would fight the costliest battle in its short history. Of the 540 men deployed to capture the ancient village and secure its vital water supply one moonlit night in December 1917, over half were killed or wounded, and only 128, records an exhausted Algar, were present at the subsequent Roll Call.

As intriguing to many as their accounts of the battles themselves, however, are the two young farmers’ observations of the everyday aspects of a war which had led them thousands of miles from home to ancient desert landscapes which politically would be forever transformed by the campaigns in which they took part. Lighter moments are to be found in Cornish-born Algar’s delight upon receiving a ‘lovely parcel of pasties’ in France and enthusiastic connoisseur of good ‘grub’ Crocker’s disgust at some of the prices charged for everyday items in ration-starved Europe. Also in the latter’s shock at the sights on display in an Egyptian red light district, which were so awful – states the man who had written graphically of his commanding officer’s grizzly demise at Gallipoli a few months  previously – that ‘I don’t like writing the account of it’.

The spiritual significance of the sacred soil upon which they were waging war also appears to have weighed heavily on their minds. A century ago the overwhelming majority of British people were regular church goers who accepted the teachings of the Bible without question. Drawn largely from North Devon villages such as Langtree, Meshaw and Black Torrington, many of these men would have attended non-conformist ‘low church’ chapels instead of their Anglican Parish church, and would have been imaging the locations in which they had been ordered to dig trenches, build roads and even kill for as long as they could remember.

Page from souvenir book showing pressed flowers and a colored postcard image of Jerusalem city walls.

Souvenir book from Jerusalem sent to Sergeant Horace Percival Crocker’s mother on Christmas 1917 (detail) © Marilyn Tolly.

'What blasphemy...to make war...in the Holy Hills of Palestine.’

Algar’s son, Edwin, recalls that his father never spoke to him about his time in the war. While a badly infected ankle had spared Crocker the trauma of participating in ‘the 16ths’ deadliest battle, after which he had returned to find many of his ‘dear old mates’ missing,  his diary contains a carefully preserved account of the event written by a fellow battalion member and published in the Weekly Dispatch. ‘The moon was up in her true Assyrian splendour,’ writes the unknown soldier.

‘We could see every detail of the task before us…… A glorious view of the hilltop, orange groves and ravines stretched around us right away down towards the plains and the sea. What blasphemy it seems to make war in such beautiful surroundings high up in the Holy Hills of Palestine.’

Vintage photograph showing first world soldiers standing in front of tent.

Lance Corporal Herbert Algar (Back Centre) © MBND.

Herbert Algar and Horace Crocker’s diaries are on display in our Military Rooms display.

Written by Sophie Jay

Editor Adam Murray

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