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First Battle of Gaza
Part of First World War
Date 26 March 1917
Location Gaza, southern Palestine
Result Turkish victory
Belligerents
Australia Australia
United Kingdom United Kingdom
New Zealand New Zealand
Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire
Commanders
United Kingdom Archibald Murray Ottoman Empire Tala Bey (nominal)
German Empire Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein (actual)
Strength
16,000 infantry
6,000 mounted
22,000 total
4,000 in Gaza
15,000 total
Casualties and losses
467 killed
2,900 wounded
500 missing
2,447 killed, wounded, missing

The First Battle of Gaza was a World War I battle on the southern border of Palestine. After eight months of painstaking advances, British Empire forces had succeeded in driving the Turkish forces from the Sinai Peninsula where they had been attempting to menace the Allied supply route through the Suez Canal. Now the Allies were trying to advance into Palestine with the ultimate goal of cutting off the Turkish forces in Mesopotamia and on the Arabian Peninsula. As a first step, they needed to capture the stronghold of Gaza which dominated the southern coastal route into Palestine.

The battle was the first predominantly infantry assault of the campaign and was a costly fiasco for the British command who handed victory to the Turks.

Prelude

Allied operations in the Middle East during the war had always been secondary to the Western Front. General Sir Archibald Murray, commander of the Eastern Expeditionary Force that contained all troops in Egypt and the Mediterranean, was frequently required to send divisions to France which seriously hampered his ability to mount an offensive. He was fortunate that there was limited demand for cavalry in France which meant he was able to retain the prized Anzac Mounted Division with only a slight struggle. (The commander of the Australian Imperial Force, General Sir William Birdwood, wanted the light horsemen sent to France as infantry reinforcements.) Murray was even able to expand his mounted force with the formation of the Imperial Mounted Division.

In January 1917, Murray was required to send the British 42nd Division to France, leaving him with only three infantry divisions; the 52nd (Lowland), 53rd (Welsh) and 54th (East Anglian) divisions. These five divisions (three infantry, two mounted) comprised Murray's Eastern Force under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Charles Dobell. The spearhead of this force was the Desert Column, under the command of General Philip Chetwode, which would be making the attack. However, while Chetwode was nominally in command of the attack, Dobell was present to oversee the battle which needlessly complicated and confused the leadership.

The Battlefield

For millennia the town of Gaza had been the gateway for armies travelling via the coastal route to and from Egypt and Palestine. To prevent a modern, mobile army from out-flanking the fortress, the Turks formed a strong defensive line from Gaza on the coast to Beersheba, 30 miles inland to the south-east. The terrain favoured defence and inland the only reliable water supplies were in the vicinity of Beersheba.

Gaza was on a low hill, two miles from the Mediterranean shore. To the west, towards the beach, was heavy sand. To the east was a north-south ridge, the peak of which was the 300 ft knoll called Ali Muntar. Close around the town and along the ridge were cultivated fields bordered by thick cactus hedges which were ideal for defence and ambush.

In March 1917, with his force securely established south of Gaza and supplied via rail from Egypt, Murray signalled to his superiors his intention to capture Gaza. His decision was motivated partly by the belief that the Turks were about to retreat northwards to the Jaffa-Jerusalem defensive line.

The estimated Turkish strength in the Gaza-Beersheba area was about 15,000 troops; of which 4,000 were believed to be in Gaza itself, perhaps 2,000 in Beersheba with the remainder in the surrounding country[1]. The British forces involved in the attack numbered 22,000[2] and comprised the 53rd and 54th Divisions, two brigades from each of the Anzac and Imperial Mounted Divisions plus the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade.

Preparations

The assault on Gaza was to be a swift attack with all units, including artillery, advancing during the night which involved crossing the deep Wady Ghuzze. The advance, which started at 2.30 a.m. on 26 March, was further hindered by a thick fog which did not dissipate until 8 a.m.. The main assault would be carried out by the 53rd Division, under the command of Major General A.G. Dallas, with the support of one brigade (the 161st Brigade) of the 54th Division. The two mounted divisions and the camel brigade would provide screens on the flanks; the Anzac Mounted Division would surround Gaza to the east and north while the Imperial Mounted Division and camel brigade were positioned on the eastern flank to hold off Turkish reinforcements from elsewhere in the Gaza-Beersheba line.

Despite the fog, the mounted troops completed their encirclement of Gaza without mishap. While the fog made navigation difficult, it also shielded the horsemen's movements from observation. The advance completely surprised the Turks; two German aircraft were almost destroyed on the ground, a number of isolated Turkish posts were surrounded and the commander and staff of the Turkish 53rd Division were captured while travelling to take command of the Gaza garrison.

The advance of the infantry was less successful. The plan was for the 53rd Division to have crossed the Wady Ghuzze by 5 a.m. and be in position to assault Ali Muntar, south-east of Gaza, at 8 a.m. after a preparatory bombardment from the artillery. The 158th Brigade would attack from the right (east) and the 160th Brigade from the left (west) with the 159th Brigade in reserve. However the infantry were not in position until 8.30 a.m. and the artillery did not commence the bombardment until 9 a.m. by which time any element of surprise was lost.

The battle

For reasons that remain unclear, General Dallas delayed the attack. Uncertainty about the Turkish strength made him hesitate and he left his headquarters to go forward and view the battlefield. Dallas and his staff were absent from the 53rd Division's headquarters for two hours or more, during which time Chetwode was desperately trying to contact him with orders to commence the attack immediately[3]. Sightings of raised dust in the distance suggested to Dallas that Turkish reinforcements were approaching, making him even more nervous to commit to the attack, but it was a false alarm.

Around noon, 5 hours late, Dallas commenced his infantry attack. He was supplied with support from the 161st Brigade and the 54th Division artillery at 1 p.m.. Meanwhile, recognising that the available daylight was slipping away, Chetwode ordered General Chauvel, commander of the Anzac Mounted Division, to attack Gaza from the north and east with his two mounted brigades.

The infantry were attacking across 4,000 yards of open ground under continuous Turkish shrapnel fire. When the line approached to within 1,000 yards of the Ali Muntar position, the Turkish machine guns and riflemen opened fire and the attack began to falter. At 1 p.m. Dallas sent in his reserve brigade, the 159th. Around 3 p.m. some of the British reached the cactus hedges on the slopes of Ali Muntar and a close-quarters melee began. At 4.20 p.m. the 161st Brigade, having arrived from reserve, was sent in to assault the hill with three battalions. At this point the British had committed all their infantry to the battle. The Turks were driven from the summit of Ali Muntar around dusk but made an orderly retreat towards the Gaza township.

Shortly after 1 p.m. the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade moved in towards Gaza from the north and east respectively. The Turks had been lulled by the inactivity of these brigades and had withdrawn troops from these flanks to face the British attacking from the south. Consequently the soldiers were able to ride close in to Gaza before dismounting and were quickly amongst the cactus hedges.

At 6 p.m. the Turkish position had become perilous with the ring closing tightly around Gaza. However, in a decision that dismayed most of their soldiers, Dobell and Chetwode decided to call off the attack and retreat, delivering victory to the Turks. Brigadier General Ryrie of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was so incensed by the order to withdraw that he enforced his right to receive it in writing.

Aftermath

Both Dobell and his superior, General Murray, portrayed the battle as a success in their reports to the British War Office and excused the withdrawal by claiming the approaching Turkish reinforcements were a threat and that the horses of the mounted troops had not been watered all day. However, the reinforcements that had engaged the defensive screen of light horsemen had been repulsed with relative ease and the claim of watering the horses was false as a number of the brigades had found water supplies on the battlefield and were in no immediate need of relief.

The failure to capture Gaza on his first attempt was fatal for General Murray's ambitions in Palestine. Where Turkey had previously been demoralised by the retreat through the Sinai, and were contemplating withdrawal towards Jerusalem, it was now motivated to defend the Gaza-Beersheba line. A second attempt was made to capture Gaza on 19 April by which time the Turkish defences were even more formidable and the task confronting the British even more difficult.

"In itself the engagement was a severe blow to the British Army, since it affected the troops on both sides to a degree out of all proportion to the casualties suffered, or to the negative victory gained by the Turks. There was not a single private in the British infantry, or a trooper in the mounted brigades, who did not believe that failure was due to staff bungling and to nothing else."[4] This feeling was directed at all senior staff including Lt-General Sir C M Dobell and General Sir A J Murray.

Bibliography

  • Grainger, John D, The Battle for Palestine, 1917 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006)
  • Gullett, H S, "Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VII Sinai and Palestine", (Angus and Robertson, 1939)

References

  1. ^ Gullett, H S, "Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VII Sinai and Palestine", pp 253-254, (Angus and Robertson, 1939)
  2. ^ Gullett, H S, "Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VII Sinai and Palestine", p 265, (Angus and Robertson, 1939)
  3. ^ "At 11:30 the 53rd Division was still practically stationary, and Chetwode's chief of staff sent the following message to Dallas:- "I am directed to observe that (1) you have been out of touch with Desert Column and your own headquarters for over two hours; (2) no gun registration appears to have been carried out; (3) that time is passing, and that you are still far from your objective; (4) that the Army and Column Commanders are exercised at the loss of time, which is vital; (5) you must keep a general staff officer at your headquarters who can communicate with you immediately; (6) you must launch your attack forthwith."

    Still another hour passed without movement by the 53rd Division. Chetwode at 12 o'clock again addressed himself sharply to Dallas, "No message from you for 2 hours. When are you going to begin your attack? Time is of vital importance. No general staff officer at your headquarters for 2 hours." source: Gullett, H S, "Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VII Sinai and Palestine", p 273, (Angus and Robertson, 1939)

  4. ^ Gullett, H S, "Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol VII Sinai and Palestine", p 294, (Angus and Robertson, 1939)

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