Phil WHILDON was killed just a few steps from the entrenched Turks at Rafa on Tuesday 9 January 1917 as he led his dismounted section in a bayonet charge over a mile wide ploughed field then up the gentle slope to the Turkish position 60 metres above, while being constantly under heavy enemy machine gun fire. He was shot in the forehead by an enemy soldier who moments later surrendered at the sight of the Australians bayonets. Phil was the first man named on the Scone World War I Memorial Gateway killed in the Middle Eastern theatre of the war. Regrettably his name is incorrectly spelt as Wildon.
William George Phillips (Phil) WHILDON was born in Mosman, Sydney, the second child and eldest son of William Joseph WHILDON and his wife Agnes Neta née BELL. The family moved to Scone and resided in Kelly Street. William Joseph died in 1910 and Neta WHILDON married Thomas WYATT early in 1914.
When war was declared Phil, aged 21, volunteered for overseas service with the AIF only to be rejected ‘medically unfit due to varicose veins’. After an operation to remove his varicose veins Phil again volunteered, but was again rejected. Twelve months after the declaration of hostilities, on his fifth attempt, Phil was finally accepted into the army on 17 August 1915.
When attested and given his final medical in Newcastle on 31 August, Phil then 22, was single, 5’ 10” (175cm) tall, weighed 10 stone 2lb (65kg) with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His religious denomination was Church of England. He allotted half his pay to his mother.
Assigned to the 7th reinforcements for the 4th Light Horse Brigade of the 12th Light Horse Regiment led by Lieutenants Arthur DOBSON and Leslie BALL, Phil and Scone farmer Robert RYAN embarked from Sydney on 20 November 1915 on board HMAT A66 Uganda for the voyage to Egypt.
Phil was taken into the 1st Light Horse Brigade of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment at Tel-el-Kebir on 6 April 1916. While on leave three months later he met his brother Thomas Bell WHILDON who had enlisted four weeks earlier than he had. Thomas was serving with the 12th Camel Company in Abbassia, Cairo. Phil successfully applied for a transfer to the 12th Camel Company on 10 July.
The Imperial Camel Corps entered el Arish, on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula, 344 kilometres (214 miles) north east of Cairo, from the south on 22 December during a period of extremely cold weather. They were met with minimal opposition as the Turkish force had withdrawn to Magdhaba thirty kilometres to the north. Three days later the ANZAC Mounted Divisions attacked and captured the enemy stronghold of Magdhaba killing 300 Turks and taking 1,250 prisoners while less than 200 Turks escaped.
The capture of Rafa, held by two Turkish Infantry Battalions and a battery of mountain guns, was then made a priority as this would allow the Allies to advance into Palestine to drive the Turks out of an area they had occupied for the previous 400 years.
The British dispatched a mobile column under Lt General Sir Philip Walhouse CHETWODE to attack Rafa consisting of three of the four brigades of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry), the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and a Light Car Patrol of six Ford cars each armed with a machine gun.
The Imperial Camel Corps traversed the barren desert during the night of 8–9 January 1917 and were surprised at daybreak to find the hills had disappeared and they were now in flat cultivated country, covered with barley crops about nine inches high as far as the eye could see. This afforded them absolutely no cover from which to attack their enemy who were perched high on two knobs. Daylight had also brought a surprise for the Turks. They looked down upon the seemingly endless columns of Australian, New Zealand and British mounted troops who were encircling them, while the Bedouins continued to work their fields oblivious to the coming battle.
CHETWODE believed his mounted force was not up to the task of storming a strong infantry position and did not order an attack until 3pm when told that Turkish reinforcements were moving towards Rafa.
Dismounting 1,500 to 2,000 yards from the enemy position the Camel Corps fixed their bayonets and charged through the heavy enemy rifle fire. As the first men reached the enemy trenches the Turks, sighting their bayonets, raised white flags and surrendered. The New Zealanders had also been successful in capturing their objective.
The Australians, still out of breath after charging across the soft ground, gave a cheer and shook hands with the Turks who minutes before they had sought to kill. In contrast with the fighting on the Western Front this happened many times during the Middle East campaign, as once the enemy dropped their rifles or raised a white flag the rage of the Australians quickly subsided and the Australian medical corps would treat the wounded from both sides equally.
At 4pm CHETWODE, believing no progress was being made, had ordered a withdrawal just prior to news coming through that the New Zealand Mounted Brigade had mounted a successful bayonet charge. This was followed by news of the success of the charge by the Camel Corps. CHETWODE immediately cancelled the order to withdraw and the two remaining Turkish positions were soon captured.
This action cost the allies 71 killed and 415 wounded, while the Turkish casualties were 200 killed and 1,635 captured.
One group of Turks that attempted to escape was quickly captured by the New Zealanders. The Camel Corps casualties numbered 171 including eight officers. Nine men including 2nd Lieutenant Harry Alfred James LINFORD were killed. Roman Catholic Chaplain Henry Alfred CLARKE buried them at El Magruntain the following day and marked their grave with a wooden cross. Great care was taken with the burial as the Australians were very reluctant to leave their dead or hastily buried troops on the battlefield. The Turks and the Bedouins had no qualms about opening the graves and stripping the bodies of their clothing and boots despite the condemnation of the German field officers.
Neta learnt of Phil’s death by way of a cable from his brother Thomas who returned to Australia on 15 June 1919, having survived this battle and the war.
Phil’s remains were exhumed on 31 December 1921 and re buried in 2 Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. Plot F, Grave 111. Kantara is on the east bank of the Suez Canal.
His service medals, the 1914/15 Star #21496, the British War Medal #22968 and the Allied Victory Medal #22799, were sent to Neta who had moved to 101 Barney Street, Armidale in February 1923.
Trooper William George Phillips (Phil) WHILDON’s name also appears on:
added by bern
- Memorial Panel 10, Australian War Memorial, Canberra
- The Memorial at the Scone War Memorial Swimming Pool
- The Roll of Honour, Scott Memorial Hospital, Scone
- The Honour Roll, Scone Returned Servicemen’s League Club
- The First World War Memorial Arch in St Luke’s Anglican Church, Scone
© 2013 Harry Willey, Dip L&AH UNE. Courtesy Australian Family Tree Connections magazine, May 2013.