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Finsbury Rifles commemorated on 100th anniversary of biggest First World War loss

PUBLISHED: 16:50 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:24 20 April 2017

Various regiments were represented at the service. Picture: Dieter Perry

Various regiments were represented at the service. Picture: Dieter Perry

Dieter Perry

Veterans and dignitaries from Islington turned out to commemorate the Finsbury Rifles last night – 100 years on from their biggest loss of the First World War.

The Finsbury Rifles in Hertfordshire, 1915. The Finsbury Rifles in Hertfordshire, 1915.

On April 19 1917, 115 men from the Penton Street regiment were killed during the 2nd Battle of Gaza.

Though they are buried in Israel, St Mark’s Church in Myddleton Square, Clerkenwell, is the home of their memorials, and those of their successors who died in the Second World War.

Last night veterans, including the only surviving Rifles officer Sir John Chapple, were joined by mayor Kat Fletcher and dozens of others to pay their respects at a moving service.

The celebration was held at St Mark's Church in Clerkenwell. Picture: Dieter Perry The celebration was held at St Mark's Church in Clerkenwell. Picture: Dieter Perry

“It went very well,” said organiser Darren O’Brien, who became fascinated by the Rifles while serving as a police officer in Islington and is now writing a book on them.

“The whole purpose of the event was to commemorate the men that died from the local area during the battle.

“It’s as relevant today as it was then due to world events and everyone that turned up was there to remember the regiment.”

Darren O' Brien gives a speech. Picture: Dieter Perry Darren O' Brien gives a speech. Picture: Dieter Perry

After a year defending the Suez Canal in Egypt, the Rifles began preparing for the forthcoming invasion of Palestine in March 1917. Their turn came on April 19 at 7.30am, when they and the 1st/4th Bn Northants Regiment advanced towards the enemy’s trenches after poisonous gas and artillery shells failed to soften them.

It was the first time poison gas had been used by the British in the desert campaign but the attack was quickly halted and the wounded lay on the ridgeline all day under the murderous fire of the enemy’s machine gun and artillery fire.

The war diary recorded casualties of 13 officers and 366 other ranks, 115 of whom were killed or died within days.

Corporal Pugsley of the 2nd Battalion Rifles with his bugle. Picture: Dieter Perry Corporal Pugsley of the 2nd Battalion Rifles with his bugle. Picture: Dieter Perry

“I fought in the first Gulf War, so I’m quite aware of desert campaigns,” added Darren. “One hundred years ago people didn’t really leave their local area. But all of a sudden these chaps were kicked out to Gallipoli, hanging off the cliffs there, and then onto Israel and Palestine.

“We know all about the Western Front but there’s not enough awareness of the other campaigns. Everybody talks about Belgium and France. People don’t travel to see the graves of these guys so much, so they are not as widely remembered.”

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