Pte Thomas Bance (1896 – 1917)

Invariably, British involvement in the Great War focuses heavily on battles fought along the Western Front in France and Flanders; however, Britain and her Allies took part in many engagements worldwide, such as in East Africa or Salonika. Another of these campaigns occurred in Sinai and Palestine between 1915 and 1918. The fighting began when the German-led Ottoman (Turkish) Army invaded the Sinai Peninsula, which was then under the British Protectorate of Egypt, and unsuccessfully attacked the Suez Canal. As a result, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, formed from men who had been in action at Gallipoli, was tasked with driving the enemy back through the Peninsula into Palestine. Several locals from Platt ended up in this part of the world, with two losing their lives. One of these was a young labourer from Crouch named Thomas Bance, who had rushed to enlist in the early days of the war.

Thomas was born in Crouch on 12 April 1896. He was the second of three children of Thomas, a paper mill labourer from Platt, and his wife Louisa (née Adams.) He grew up in Borough Green at Spencers Cottages on Station Road, and in 1902, when he was six years old, his father died. At the end of 1911, Louisa re-married a local millhand named George Broad, and the family went to live at Haxell’s Cottages in the Platt Brickfields.

In late September 1914, Thomas travelled to Tonbridge to enlist. He joined the 2/4th Battalion, The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) – a territorial unit raised in the town earlier in the month. After a period spent training in Bedford, orders were received in early July 1915 for the battalion to proceed overseas. 

Equipment suited for a tropical climate was issued, giving Thomas and his comrades (who also included Louis William Hayes from Platt) a good indication that they wouldn’t be going to France but perhaps heading for the Mediterranean. The battalion formed part of the 160th Brigade in the 53rd (Welsh) Division. It reinforced the Allied efforts in Gallipoli and relieved the pressure on the Anzac position by landing in Suvla Bay.

Thomas entrained at Bedford with his unit on 18 July and left Devonport on board the SS Northland two days later. The voyage to Alexandria in Egypt took 11 days, and from there, the ship immediately headed to Mudros, arriving on 8 August. The landings at Suvla began two days earlier, and by the time Thomas came ashore at West Beach on the 12th, the battle had largely failed to achieve its objectives. Under constant shellfire, the battalion managed to get off the beach and made their way to where the front line was assumed to be, only to discover that the trenches could barely be described as such and, in places, were just shallow scrapes in the earth. In addition to the lack of cover, the ground in front of the British line was dotted with bushes that provided excellent cover for enemy snipers. Consequently, the whole experience was a baptism of fire for the new arrivals, who set to work straight away to improve their defences under the most testing of conditions.

Life for Thomas at Suvla would have been tough, and he likely would have fallen ill at some point. Even when in the rear, the battalion still found themselves within range of enemy artillery, and it must have been with some relief that the Allies withdrew from the peninsula in December. At that point, only about a dozen officers and 200 other men from the battalion could still be considered effective soldiers.

Thomas spent his first Christmas overseas near Cairo and, in the first four months of 1916, was based 62 miles southwest of the city at the Fayum oasis. At the end of May, the battalion moved to the Suez Canal, where it repaired and maintained a long line of defences in anticipation of a Turkish attack, which eventually occurred further north at Romani. Thomas was sent with his unit north to Kantara to assist in the battle; however, by the time they arrived, the Turks had been repulsed, and the fighting was over. As 1916 drew to an end, the battalion had come close to but not engaged the enemy; however, as 1917 began, the situation was about to change, with disastrous consequences for Thomas.

After the battle at Romani, the Allies drove the Turks out of the Sinai Peninsula into southern Palestine. In February 1917, the West Kents marched to El Arish and eventually moved at the end of the month to Sheikh Zowaad, a Beduin town near the border with Gaza. In March, they reached Rafah in Palestine and subsequently took part in the First Battle of Gaza. Despite the enemy being outnumbered by two to one, the battle ended in stalemate, with the British suffering about 4,000 casualties against approximately 2,400 Turkish losses.

In the middle of April, the battalion took part in a second attempt at taking Gaza, in which they played a defined role, beginning their advance on the evening of the 16th. At 8 am, two days later, they attacked a hill southwest of Gaza known as Samson Ridge and immediately came under heavy enemy fire. Casualties quickly began to mount, and both flanks soon found themselves exposed. 

The situation began to improve when the 4th Royal Sussex, who had moved up from the support, fought valiantly forward along with the surviving members of Thomas’s unit and eventually stormed the ridge. The battalion fought and held the position until the 20th, when they were relieved by the 158th Brigade. During the battle, battalion casualties numbered 38 men killed and over 150 wounded. Thomas was among the former, and his body was either never found or later identified. His commanding officer wrote to his mother:

Dear Mrs Broad,

Your son, I regret to say, was missing after the battle on April 19th, when the battalion attacked and captured Samson’s Ridge Redoubt. I cannot get definite news of his being killed. Many men were buried at night, and should he have lost his identity disc by any chance he may have been buried without being recognised or there is just the bare possibility that he may have lost his way in the dark and gone towards the Turkish lines and been made prisoner, but I do not think this is likely and I am afraid I can hold out little hope of his being alive. Meanwhile until we know he must be considered as ‘missing.’ He showed great bravery on the day of the fight, and all ranks join with me in offering you our deep sympathy in the loss of so gallant a son.

Thomas is commemorated on the Jerusalem Memorial and the Platt War Memorial.