Finsbury Rifles: How Islington regiment lost 115 men in Gaza on April 19, 1917

The Finsbury Rifles in Hertfordshire, 1915.

The Finsbury Rifles in Hertfordshire, 1915. - Credit: Archant

Police officer and historian Darren O’Brien tells the story of the day in 1917 the Finsbury Rifles suffered their biggest loss during the First World War.

Darren O'Brien.

Darren O'Brien. - Credit: Archant

On April 19, 1917, Islington’s Finsbury Rifles regiment suffered devastating losses in Gaza. Later this month, a century since that day, a service in Clerkenwell will commemorate the 115 men who were killed.

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

The history of the Finsbury Rifles begins on March 6, 1860, when it was raised as the 39th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps as a result of French aggressions.

It recruited from of Clerkenwell, Finsbury and Islington, with headquarters at 16 Coldbath Square. The regiment formed part of the volunteer force (now the modern army reserve) and took part in many volunteer reviews and royal inspections. Its HQ moved to Penton Street, where it stayed until 1955.

From the Rifles’ formation, all ranks wore a rifle green uniform with a scarlet collar and cuffs. From 1883 it was allotted to the famous King’s Royal Rifle Corps as one of its volunteer units.

The Finsbury Rifles in Suffolk, 1915.

The Finsbury Rifles in Suffolk, 1915. - Credit: Archant

The regiment was at its annual camp in Dorset when war was declared on August 4, 1914, and immediately returned to its headquarters to start the process of mobilisation. It initially protected a section of the National Railway System in Hampshire, while in April 1915 it joined the 162nd Brigade, the 54th (East Anglian) Division (TF) quartered around Norwich undertaking vital coast defence duties.

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The whole division was then transferred to the area around St Albans while it prepared for overseas deployment. On July 8, 1915, orders were received to move abroad and at 6pm on July 29 the Finsbury Rifles boarded HMT Aquitania at Liverpool bound for Gallipoli.

They landed at Suvla Bay on August 10 and within five days were in action against the Turkish forces in the vicinity of Lone Tree Gully with the battalion war diary recording that nine officers and 350 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing.

The Rifles remained in Gallipoli until December and sailed for Egypt where they helped defend the Suez Canal for the next year.

In early March 1917 the regiment prepared for the forthcoming invasion of Palestine. Its turn came on April 19, 1917, at 7.30am, when the Finsbury Rifles and 1st/4th Bn Northants Regiment advanced towards the enemy’s trenches after the use of limited poisonous gas and artillery shells to soften the Turkish trenches had proved ineffective.

Rifleman, Finsbury Rifles in Egypt, 1916.

Rifleman, Finsbury Rifles in Egypt, 1916. - Credit: Archant

This was the first time poison gas had been used by the British in the desert campaign. The attack of both units 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, of whom 115 were killed or died within days. It was the heaviest loss of life suffered by the battalion during the First World War.

On December 21, L/Corp John “Jock” Christie won for the regiment the only Victoria Cross that would be awarded to a member of the Finsbury Rifles. The battalion remained in Palestine until the surrender of the Turkish Forces in October 1918 and the cadre finally returned home on August 3, 1919.

A second battalion was also formed in September 1914 and from 1917 was to fight on the Western Front, where it fought in the Ypres Salient and took its place at the Battle of Passchendaele. It was, however, disbanded on January 31, 1918, due to losses.

A third (reserve) battalion remained in England helping train and supply reinforcements for the two service battalions.

The memorial was organised by Darren, who is writing a book about the regiment. He asks that any information or photographs are passed on to care of The Editor: call 020 7433 0110 or e-mail