Grafton-Maggs's visit to Gaza in 1946

Photo: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

One spring evening in 1946 I walked into the Officers' Mess Tent, clean and presentable for the first time in days, but weary after an arduous tour of duty with my Company in the troubled hinterland. The sand, sweat and dirt of a three-day patrol had been scrubbed off and now I just wanted to eat and get my head down.

The 6th Batttalion (Royal Welch) the Parachute Regiment was at that time encamped in the heart of Palestine's terrorist countryside near a settlement called Tel Litwinsky. Like the rest of the Battalion I was not too enthralled with our way of life. There was no kind of life beyond the perimeters of the camp, the food was appalling, and life under canvas was not living in the Ritz. All this, coupled with the incessant patrolling, manning of checkpoints, skirmishes and ambushes, had a demoralising effect upon all ranks, compounded by not knowing when it would end. There was no fixed tour of duty in those days. "You will go home when the job is done!" This is what being 'On Active Service' is all about. As a soldier, one gets on with it; 6th Battalion was to serve through 1945-6-7, without a break.

I walked up to the bar to get something 'to lay the dust'.

"Maggs!"

It was the high-pitched Blaenau Ffestiniog voice of Major Humphrey Lloyd-Jones (known as 'Wff'), the very formidable i/c of our Battalion. I had been with the unit for only nine months and had yet to win my spurs by virtue of being a worthy soldier, hence the use of surname by this senior officer. He confronted me,

"I want you to do me a favour."

My mind registered the gleaming gold crowns on his shoulders, the purple and white of his MC, and the cold unrelenting black of his Celtic eyes. One of the facts of life, soon learned in the army, is that such a request for 'a favour' from a senior field officer, if declined, can lead to a fate worse than death.

I have always been ready to 'do a favour' for my fellow man, provided of course that it did not inconvenience me to the slightest degree or inflict upon me the minutest discomfort. In this case, gazing upon the impassive, chiselled features of Wff, I felt it wise to forego any qualifications.

"Anything, Sir!"

He flicked his finger towards a group of chairs in the corner, I scurried over like a frightened little fag before a prefect.

"I take it for granted that you are still a camera enthusiast and capable of producing fair quality photographs. With that in mind, I want you to do a job for me."

I nodded and mumbled in agreement (what else?)

"Maggs! I'm sure that you were sufficiently enlightened as a boy to occasionally drag your adolescent head from out of the Wizard or the Hotspur, to read something of the history of Britain. You will surely have read about World War I and that that conflict extended beyond France.

"General Allenby took his armies to Palestine and, after a long series of bloody battles, liberated it from the Turk. The cost was heavy, Maggs, with over half a million casualties! Amongst those who fell were many Welshmen and a large number were from my part of Wales, soldiers of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

"Many of them are interred in the Military Cemetery at Gaza. Not surprisingly, their next of kin never had the means to finance a visit to their graves, slate workers being notoriously badly paid. They will never be able to come here and see their loved ones' last resting place. This cursed terrorist situation doesn't help either."

"You and I, tomorrow, are going down to Gaza cemetery to find the graves of all these fallen sons of Wales. You will photograph them and I will send those photographs back to my cousin in Blaenau Ffestiniog. He is the Chairman of the local branch of the British Legion. I needn't tell you what this will mean to a lot of people, OK?"

I nodded. Arrangements were made. I felt no enthusiasm. Shamefully, it meant little to me other than it being a break from the normal tedious daily grind, albeit with the long, bouncing drive in a jeep through the heat and dust of Palestine, southwards to the ancient city of Gaza.

At 0700 hrs the following morning, we climbed in the 2nd i/c's jeep, accompanied by his driver and one other rank, all of us fully armed. We also had an armoured White Scout Car as an escort.

We drove like the wind and as we went further south, so the danger factor lessened, this was now predominantly Arab territory and inhospitable terrain for Jewish terrorists who were being rather a nuisance elsewhere. We skirted Arab villages where grubby little children played in the dust around their homes. Black clad women were carrying enormous earthenware vats of water and as they turned their heads away, drawing veils, there were glimpses of heavy tattoo marks across their foreheads and small gold discs dancing across their eyebrows. Skinny, pale-coloured dogs foraged in the dirt. There were few men to be seen. It certainly did not give the impression of affluence.

Eventually, on the outskirts of Gaza, the impressive and well-maintained entrance to the Cemetery was reached. Official Arab gate keepers were on duty and we were cordially greeted. One keeper was allocated to us, an affable middle-aged Arab with lustrous dark eyes and a shy smile. Major Lloyd-Jones handed over the British Legion letter from Blaenau Ffestiniog. There were about thirty names, listed in alphabetical order, with full details: Regiment. Name. Rank. Number. Date of Death.

We were escorted from the entrance offices to be contronted by a long, magnificent screen of cypress trees. The keeper guided us to an arched access in this dark green wall and we turned in to face the breathtaking spectacle of thousands upon thousands of white stone crosses, stretching away before us, up a gentle incline into the distant heat haze. The whole site was in immaculate order.

I had never seen a military cemetery before. Its magnitude and import shattered me and I caught my breath. All those young lives cut short! So far from home, in such an alien land.

My short reverie was interrupted as our Arab escort gestured towards the graves. There was a lot to do and, quietly, he guided us to each and every one of those listed graves which I photographed twice with my Contax. It took quite a while, but eventually, we completed the task and walked back in the blistering, glaring heat to the relative coolness of the offices. Nobody spoke. Once inside we were invited to have tea and then it was time to leave. We turned to the escort and the Major thanked him warmly for his tireless help. he smiled shyly and bowed his head. This was a task which he had done many times before and I am sure, always with the same patience and understanding that he had shown us.

The drive back was uneventful with its usual bottom-numbing experience that only a jeep can give on the appalling roads of Palestine.

Email from Grafton Maggs, April 2010

(In 2005 the cemetery was attacked and badly damaged. There has also been some vandalism by Hamas apparently but not to the same extent.)