In many ways the records of the two brothers, Christian and Leonard Miller, are unique in the knowledge we have of the part that Winkleigh played in the Great War. They represent for us, and for the surviving families, the descendants of those who a hundred or so years ago who lived in the village, a link with the wider British Empire, whose young men and women who responded throughout the war to the call from the 'Mother Country' to come to her aid. Derek and Margaret Miller, so loved and admired in Winkleigh, are truly one of the very last links that we have to those far off times and we can all be proud that they have both given their wholehearted support to the research into their family's war records. We have taken the two stories together, in a joint account, because of their common early start, and because the two brothers were inseparable. They travelled to Australia together, enlisted together, and have congruent army numbers. However, while Christian served correctly under his name, Miller, Leonard chose to identify himself under the name Millar, no doubt a sensible precaution that ensured, in a situation where volunteer recruits were enlisting in large numbers, no confusion in their records would result.
Leonard was the older of the two, born in 1893, the third child of Josiah and Lillie Miller, a Winkleigh farmer at Grays Bridge farm, Lillie coming from Zeal Monachorum. After the war, Leonard married in 1926 to Hilda Hingston. Their only son Peter, married Josephine Cooper in 1951. The family tree of the Miller brothers and their descendants is added to this site.
The brothers were seeking adventure and a new life when they decided to emigrate to Australia. We do not know what led them to take the decision to leave Winkleigh and venture overseas, but there are clues. Later information reveals that there were difficulties at home: their mother struggled to keep the farm going while Josiah is described as 'intemperate', and obviously making life very difficult for the two sons on whom a great deal of responsibility must have fallen, along with their two elder sisters. All we know is that aged 18 and 19 the brothers left Liverpool on the SS Belgic and arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia, in July 1913. We know little of the brothers' farm work but Derek Miller has reported that his dad told him that when in Australia he did fencing work on a huge farm and also drove a combine harvester that was pulled by a team of eight horses. About 19 months after arriving in Australia the brothers decided to enlist together in the Australian Light Horse, the elite of the Australian army. In February of 1916, both brothers enlisted in the Australian Imperial Military Force at Blackboy Hill army camp, not far from the state capital, Perth. Blackboy Hill acquired its strange name from an indigenous plant, Xanthorrhoea, based on the purported similarity in appearance of the trunked species to an Aboriginal man holding his upright spear, called Blackboys by early white settlers.
We are indeed fortunate that the Australian individual war records have been preserved intact and are now fully on line, in contrast to the British individual war records, some seventy percent of which were destroyed in the London blitz. As a result, we can build up a complete record of the fortunes that awaited the brothers when they enlisted into the Australian Light Horse on 2nd February 1916.
We now turn to the story of the elder brother, Leonard, born in 1893, just one year before Christian, and seemingly inseparable from him. Together they emigrated to Freemantle, Western Australia, and together they enlisted at Blackboys camp. From then onwards, however, the two brothers had very different war records. Unlike Christian who spent the war in and out of hospital, Leonard took part in one of the famous battles of the Palestine campaign against the Turks, the second battle of Gaza, on 17th to 19th April 1917, where he was wounded and then hospitalised from 19th April until 27th May.
Leonard's photo and documents are displayed on this site. Enlistment is dated 15th January 1916, aged 22 years and 6 months, and as has already been noted Leonard changed his name to Millar, so that the brothers' records would not be confused. He was not called for the medical examination until 6th April, which indicates that such large numbers of volunteers were coming forward, even after the tragedy and horrors of Gallipoli, that the brothers had to take their turn. Having sailed to Egypt, on 24th April he was posted to a training battalion, the 16th Reinforcements battalion of the 10th Australian Light Horse at Tel-el-Kebir, a large British camp 110Km north-east of Cairo, 75 km south-east of Port Said. This was originally the site of a famous battle in 1882 when British troops occupied Alexandria and took over military control of the Suez Canal. Here Leonard undertook 8 weeks basic training, before being posted to the 3rd Battalion, Australian Light Horse on 17th June. Leonard was selected for signals training, which would have included flag signalling and heliograph, and possibly some use of wireless. Leonard knew that following a riding accident his brother had been posted on 26th August 1916 to the recently formed Imperial Camel Corps, and he may well have wished to follow him. At any rate, Leonard was detached from the Light Horse to the ICC on 4th November 1916 and taken on stength at Abbassir, 10 km from Ismalia. The ICC had originally been established in January 1916 to deal with the revolt of the pro-Turkish Senussi tribesmen in Egypt's Western Desert, and recruited first from Infantry battalions recuperating after Gallipoli. Four battalions were formed. The 1st and 3rd were entirely Australian, the 2nd British and the 4th Anzac battalion of Australians and New Zealanders. The Brigade had its own Signals Section of 30 men (to which Leonard was later attached), a machine gun unit and a battery of Artillery. Operations in 1916 were characterised by patrols and brief skirmishes with the Senussi, but later in 1916 the ICC was transferred to the Sinai desert to take part in operations against the Turks alongside the Light Horse. It was at this point that Leonard joined the ICC.
The Egyptian Expeditionary Force began offensive operations in the Sinai desert in August 1916, and the newly formed Camel Brigade moved to their support in December, a mere two days after their formation and took part in the battle of Rafa forcing the Turks to withdraw towards Gaza. The Camel Corps was then involved in the first two battles of Gaza, battles which attempted to break through the strong Turkish defensive lines, and which resulted in failure. It is likely that Leonard saw action in the first defeat and we know that he was lightly wounded in the second. Further attempts were subsequently made to break through culminating in Allenby's victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. By the end of the year the advance had crossed the Sinai and entered Palestine.
The Imperial Camel Corps was disbanded in June 1918. The terrain had changed and horses were now of much greater use than camels and the Australian troops were used to form the 14th and 15th Light Horse regiments, part of the new 5th Light Horse Brigade, being eventually disbanded in May 1919. Over the two years the Imperial Camel Corps had suffered 240 deaths, 84 of them Australians. To commemorate their sacrifice a memorial to the Imperial Camel corps was unveiled on 22nd July 1921 on the Thames Embankment, inscribed with the names of all members of the Corps who died in the war, and listing all the battles and engagements that had been fought.
The coastal city of Gaza was the heart of the main Turkish position in southern Palestine, and it was necessary for the position to be taken before allied forces could advance on the great prize - the capture of Jerusalem. The first battle of Gaza was fought on 26th March 1917 under the command of Lieutenant General Dobell who misjudged the victory that was within his grasp. Mounted troops had advanced to the north of Gaza but infantry made slow progress from the south and Dobrell broke off the operation planning to resume the following day. It was too late. The troops were exhausted and the Turks quickly reinforced their positions: the attack completely failed. After 3 weeks the attack was resumed by Dobell, the second battle of Gaza on 17th - 20th April 1917. The Turks had reinforced and strengthened their positions, against which Dobell launched a series of frontal attacks, supported this time with gas shells and eight Mark 1 tanks. Both new weapons failed. The tanks broke down in the sand, three were captured by the Turks, and the gas failed to support the attempts to storm the Turkish redoubt defences. After three days the battle was closed down having gained no ground. Dobell was sacked and a change of command replaced Sir Archibald Murray with Allenby. The Palestinian campaign became the second largest in importance after the Western Front, with Lloyd George himself believing that the key to winning the war lay through a total defeat of the Turks. In October 1917 Allenby finally launched the attack that swept north and east, captured Jerusalem and advanced into Syria.
In an attempt to salvage his reputation after the first battle of Gaza, Sir Archibald Murray claimed that the first battle of Gaza had been a victory, and stating Turkish losses to be three times their casualties: in fact, the Turks lost about 2,400 men compared to the British loses of 4,000. Murray was therefore encouraged to launch the second battle. The Turks of course had further strengthened their position, extending their lines along the road from Gaza to the nearby town of Beersheba. The attached maps show how the attacks were spaced, the Camel Brigade almost in the centre. British losses in this second battle totalled about 6,444 men, three times the number of Turkish casualties.
Murray knew that failure now seriously threatened his career. He sacked Dobell but this did not save him. He was sent back to London and in his place Sir Edmund Allenby was given command. Allenby himself was considered a 'failure' from the Western Front, in disgrace with Sir Douglas Haig, but in Palestine he engineered a spectacular revival of his army's fortunes.
Reinforcements of tanks, gas shells and the use of Bristol reconnaissance aircraft were assembled and no less than seven infantry divisions, together with the newly created Desert Mounted Corps of the combined Australian Light Horse and Imperial Camel Brigade secured the break through. The expected frontal attack became a feint, while 40,000 troops attacked the lightly defended area of Beersheba, and the Light Horse penetrated the defences and secured vital control over the town's wells before the Turks could contaminate them. A 70-strong camel company captured the stronghold of Tel es Sheria, the Turks abandoned Gaza and the way was open to Jerusalem.
Leonard had been wounded in the left arm (GSW – gunshot wound) by shrapnel from an exploding shell on the third day of 2nd Gaza, the 19th April 1917. He was hospitalized the same day at the 14th General Hospital Abbassia where he stayed until 27th May. (There were multiple hospitals for the armed forces in Abbassia, including the 4th Auxiliary Hospital and the 3rd and 4th General Hospitals.) Luckily the wounds do not appear to have been too serious, but just two weeks later he was sent to the 2nd Australian Hospital at Cairo to convalesce further. Leonard was diagnosed as suffering from Pyrexia (a fever) and Myalgia (muscle pain) brought on by his injuries. Four weeks later on 17th July 1917 he was discharged to base and thence re-joined the Reserve ICC Brigade. From there he re-joined the 3rd Battalion 14th company on 5th August on active service in Palestine
When the Egyptian Expeditionary Force advanced out of Sinai and into Palestine, the change in terrain led to the disbandment of the Imperial Camel Brigade. In June 1918 the Australian troops were used to form the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments, part of the 5th Light Horse Brigade. They were eventually disbanded in May 1919. Leonard's records reflect these changes. With the 'reorganisation' of the Camel Brigade, on 6th July 1918 Leonard was posted to the Base Signals Depot at Moascar, and thence to the Signals Training Unit of the 15th Training Regiment, also at Moascar. On 26th October 1918 he moved to the HQ of the 15th Training Regiment. With the end of the war the 14th and 15th Light Horse Regiments were taking in no further recruits, but it was not until 12th April 1919 that Leonard was granted leave back to England, embarking at Port Said on the 'Caledonia'. Arriving home, Leonard was granted further extensions of leave until he was finally discharged in England on 22nd July 1919.
We are grateful to Margaret & Derek Miller for their cooperation and information and to Alan Mulcahy for research.
28th February 2018