Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Sixteen — The Advance Towards and Against Gaza
The Advance Towards and Against Gaza
On the morning of 22nd February the New Zealand Brigade with attached troops, including the Ayrshire Battery and the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade, left El Arish for Khan Yunus—said to be the birthplace of Delilah—with the object of capturing a hostile Sheikh, Eli El Hirsch, whose activities among the natives, in the interests of the Turks, had been detrimental to us.
On reaching Sheikh Zoweid in the afternoon the column rested till midnight, when the advance was resumed, with the W.M.R. as advance guard. At the same time the 5th A.L.H. Regiment was sent forward to guard the right flank, where it was known that the Turks held a very strong position at Weli Sheikh Nuran.
At daylight on the 23rd the W.M.R. came under the fire of enemy outposts, which, on being pressed, retired to a stronger position. The 9th W.M.R. Squadron then followed on, supported by the fire of Maxim and Lewis guns, and, with the C.M.R. on its right, was advancing rapidly, when, on information being received that the hostile sheikh had escaped, the skirmish was broken off, the W.M.R. having one other rank killed and several wounded. But the result of the reconnaisance was probably much greater than could have been anticipated; it had then a far-reaching effect on the situation. The Turks had not forgotten the disasters inflicted on them at Maghdaba and Rafa, and had since lived in constant dread of the lightning-like enveloping movements of the Mounteds. Although their defence systems at Weli Sheikh Nuran and Shellal, on the Wadi Ghuzze, were very strong, they feared for the safety of their flanks and rear, and abandoned these positions without firing a shot to defend them, when a stout defence, costing us many lives, could have been maintained from either of them.
On 10th March the Brigade moved its bivouac to the beach near Rafa, and on the following day it reconnoitred towards the ancient Philistine town of Gaza, mentioned in Genesis and the Books of Joshua and Judges, twenty miles north-east, in order to gather information relating to the Wadi Ghuzze, a deep ravine which runs through the country approximately north and south, and over which it would be necessary to cross when the advance page 133against Gaza began. This city is one of the oldest in the world, and is well known for its association with Samson, who fought the Philistines there and carried the gates of the city to the top of a hill called Ali El Muntar, close by. Alexander the Great took the city on his triumphal march to Egypt, and it was one of the five captial cities of the Philistines.
The First Battle of Gaza
"A General who thinks he may be beaten is half-way on the road to defeat."
Oh, never in all the great career
Of the big New Zealand mounted men
Was "Abdul" ever allowed to sear
Or threaten a cause within their ken.
They stood their ground in the waiting days,
And harried the Turks near Gaza beach,
When the cactus hedges leapt ablaze,
And succour and help were out of reach.
The Mounted troops were now operating over cultivated country, with crops and green fields in front of them, and, having been joined by the Infantry, final preparations were commenced for an offensive against Gaza, the force for the operation to comprise the Anzac Mounted Division, Imperial Mounted Division, the Camel Brigade, and the 52nd, 53rd, and 54th Infantry Divisions, with their complements of artillery. Wheeled transport could now be used, in addition to camels, to carry supplies.
The initial move against Gaza commenced at 2.30 on the morning of 25th March, when the New Zealand Brigade left Rafa, accompanied by the 22nd Yeomanry Brigade, to select suitable crossings over the Wadi Ghuzze to expedite the transit of guns and transport vehicles when the general advance began. In order to save time and to avoid the crossing of columns converging towards Gaza, the two Brigades marched along the beach till they reach Deir El Belah—Darum of the Crusaders—ten miles south-west of Gaza, when they reconnoitred towards and covered the Wadi, whilst the Staff of the Anzac Division selected a suitable crossing near Tel el Jemme. The N.Z. Brigade then returned to Deir El Belah and bivouacked for the night.page 134
The plan for the operation next day was generally to the effect that the attacking force, comprising all arms, would move into position by night in readiness for the Infantry to attack Gaza from the south at dawn whilst the mounted troops encircled the town on the east and north, the special role of the Anzac Division being:—
|(1)||To cut off the enemy's retreat to the north and prevent him reinforcing from Hareira and Tel El Sharia.|
|(2)||To co-operate, if necessary, with the Infantry by attacking the town from the north.|
At 2.30 on the morning of 26th March the New Zealand Brigade left Belah with the Anzac Mounted Division to cross the Wadi Ghuzze, the Imperial Mounted Division following. A thick fog enveloped the troops, and some time was lost, when a break occurred in the column before it reached the Wadi Crossing, where the Infantry, under General Dobell, were waiting to attack Gaza from the south.
The division was soon across the Wadi, and by eight o'clock had reached Sheikh Abbas, where the advanced guard came under fire from Turkish Camelry, which were driven back. At the same time hostile aeroplanes, flying low, attacked the column with machine-gun fire.
At half-past nine the Anzac Mounted Division was close to Beit Durdis, four and a-half miles east of Gaza, and the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade (Brigadier-General Ryrie in command, Major J. H. Whyte Brigade Major) was sent to the north in the direction of Jebelie, near the sea coast.
At 10 a.m. the Anzac Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division, and the Imperial Camel Corps were in position on a line from the sea through Beit Lahi, five miles north of Gaza, then south-east for four miles to Beit Durdis, then to Tel el Jemme, ten miles to the south of the Wadi Ghuzze, the New Zealanders being three miles due east of Gaza. The Brigade was then under artillery fire, both from Gaza and from the direction of Hareira, and a short time later a wireless station was established by the Anzac Mounted Division on Beit Durdis, but its operation was nullified by a more powerful enemy apparatus at Gaza.
At half-past ten the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade reported that it had made good Jebelie, and that the 7th Regiment had moved on towards the sea. Gaza was now completely surrounded, and at 11 a.m. two A.M.R. Squadrons were sent in the direction of Huj and Nejed, at the north-east, where they operated with the Imperial page 135 Mounted Division to prevent the enemy reinforcing the garrison in Gaza.
Meanwhile our Infantry had been pressing forward from the south, but had met with stubborn resistance, and at 2 p.m. orders were received from Desert Column Headquarters that the Anzac Mounted Division was to close in on Gaza from the north to assist the Infantry, and that the Imperial Mounted Division, then on observation at Huj, north-east of Gaza, was, with the Camel Brigade, to take over all observation duties and so release the Anzac Division for the attack.
When these posts had been taken over the N.Z. Brigade galloped across an open plain and, seizing Meshahera Ridge, afterwards called "Anzac Ridge," to the north-east of Gaza, it dismounted, and the attack began at four o'clock as follows:—The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade extending from the sea to the Gaza-Jebelie Road (inclusive) the New Zealand Brigade from the Gaza-Jebelie Road (exclusive) to the top of the Anzac Ridge (which runs parallel to the road and on the southern end of which is Ali Muntar, which the Infantry were attacking), and the 22nd Mounted Brigade, which had taken the place of the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, on the left of the New Zealanders.
An enemy deserter who had been caught confirmed the number of guns and machine guns said to be in Gaza, and he estimated the Infantry at two battalions, 500 Austrians, and 200 cavalry or camelry, with four big-calibre guns. He said that support had been asked for from Jemamah at ten o'clock that morning. There were only twenty-four hours' supplies in Gaza, and all the wells except three had been blown up.
The line of advance of the W.M.R. lay across an open valley on the right of Anzac Ridge, towards Gaza, which could be seen in the distance behind a maze of giant cactus hedges, where the Turks, with two Krupp field guns, were entrenched, and parties of them were concealed behind the forward cactus hedges covering the advance.
The C.M.R. advanced along Anzac Ridge and the W.M.R. along the valley, with the 6th Squadron extended from the right of the C.M.R. in two lines at fifty yards distance, its right being on the Gaza-Latron Road, the 2nd Squadron (less one troop with Divisional Headquarters) following with two troops extended in support, 100 yards behind, and one troop on the right to protect the flank and to gain touch with the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, who were operating on the right of the road. The 9th Squadron page 136followed in reserve, extended on a narrow front in two lines, 150 and 200 yards behind the 2nd Squadron.
The dismounted advance of the Regiment made rapid progress, and at 4.25 p.m. the W.M.R. captured a Turkish ambulance station, with all equipment, the personnel including four officers and 125 other ranks taken. In addition, there were twenty vehicles, besides tents, rifles, and ammunition, all of which were sent to Brigade Headquarters under a small escort, whilst the remainder of the W.M.R. pressed forward.
The enemy shelled the advancing troops, and rifle fire was encountered principally from the cover of cactus hedges in the valley, and from the Ali Muntar position, but the New Zealanders advanced very rapidly. The 2nd and 9th W.M.R. Squadrons reached the outer line of the maze of these cactus hedges, in which many Turks were taking cover and shooting, but our men penetrated them by cutting gaps with their bayonets and engaged the enemy at close quarters.
On the left centre of the W.M.R. a trench manned by the enemy and protected by a shallow lagoon in front offered some opposition, but two troops, under Lieutenants Allison and Foley respectively, charged across the lagoon, which was only from twelve to eighteen inches deep, and put the thirty-two occupants of the trench to the bayonet.
In the centre, the advance under Captain Wilder continued to the cemetery, where strong posts were encountered, and defensive positions were temporarily taken up by our troops there. Meantime the right of the W.M.R. line pressed forward, and a Turkish gun position was located on the edge of the town, south of the Gaza-Latron Road, and close by a small lake. An immediate attack on this position was ordered by Colonel Meldrum, Major J. A. Sommerville being placed in command of the attacking party.
The attack was carried out with splendid energy. The guns were surrounded by the thick cactus hedges already referred to, which afforded ample cover for snipers. Major Sommerville, with two troops of the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron and one troop of the 9th, under Lieutenant Black, engaged the enemy with the bayonet. Lieutenant Snow, of the 7th A.L.H. Regiment, with a party of sixteen men, happening along at this time, was also sent in by Colonel Meldrum on the right flank of the attack. The guns were captured, and the defenders put to the bayonet or shot. The guns were found to be 77m.m. Krupp field guns, complete.page 137
In this attack the following, with others, displayed great bravery:—Major Sommerville, Lieutenant Black, Sergeant-Major MacMillan, Sergeant Rouse, Sergeant Roy Mason, Farrier-Sergeant Williams (killed), Corporal C. Nurse, Corporal J. Fraser, Troopers Woodward, C. Tombleson, G. Wood, Green, Hurd and O'Connell. Meanwhile the centre of the Regiment, under Major Wilder, were hotly pressing a strong Turkish detachment holding the cemetery. Major Wilder, who was twice wounded, Lieutenants G. Williams and Herrick, also both wounded, were here conspicuous. Defensive positions were then taken up in the cemetery and on the right to protect and hold the captured guns.
At 5 p.m. the C.M.R., on the left of the W.M.R., were pressing forward towards Ali Muntar. The 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, however, on the right of the New Zealand line, was delayed among the sandhills, the 7th Regiment of the Brigade, on the extreme right, meeting with considerable opposition.
At the same hour the Imperial Mounted Division, near Huj, was apparently in difficulties, for at its request the 3rd Brigade (less the 10th A.L.H. Regiment) was sent towards Huj to assist.
A little later the right of the W.M.R. line was some considerable distance beyond the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade's advance, and a counter-attack was threatened.
The position of the W.M.R. at this point was decidedly risky, and it was necessary for all ranks to be prepared to participate effectively in whatever fighting occurred. For this reason, defensive positions had been taken up and the officers had armed themselves with captured Turkish rifles and bayonets. All preparations, in fact, were made to defend vigorously the captured guns and to hold the rest of the line
Many enemy snipers were firing from buildings in the vicinity, some at a distance of only 75 yards. One large red building in particular drew special attention by reason of the incessant sniping which came from it. To stop this sniping, one of the captured guns was brought into use, and the formation of an extemporised gun crew of Mounted Riflemen was complete in a moment. Though the gun was a Krupp, its intricacies were quickly solved, probably not in conformity with gunnery regulation, but with splendid results. The method adopted to "sight" the gun by Corporal Rouse was of the simplest—the gun was directed at the red house till the latter could be seen through the barrel of the gun; a shell was then inserted in the breach and the gun fired. A second shot followed, and twenty terrified Turks covered with débris came bolting out and surrendered. page 138 (In addition to these, eighteen Turks were captured in street fighting). Two additional shots were fired up the street in the manner described. The effect of these four shots on the buildings of dried mud was tremendous, and Corporal Rouse, the gunner, was heard to remark that "the New Zealanders have made a new blanky street in Gaza."
A few minutes later a party of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, advancing in the rear of the Regiment, was apparently not cognisant of the fact that the latter was in Gaza, for they opened fire on the Regiment with a Hotchkiss gun and compelled its men to take cover. This party later joined up with the W.M.R. In the meantime, signalling communications being broken, owing to Brigade Headquarters moving forward, the O.C. W.M.R. sent his signalling officer, Lieutenant Hall, out to Brigade Headquarters to obtain horse teams to remove the captured guns. All the wounded were also removed to a dressing station in the rear.
At 6.10 p.m., owing, it is said, to the lateness of the hour and the strength of the enemy forces reported to be pressing in from the north and east, and the difficulty of continuing the attack in the dark, the General Officer Commanding the Desert Column decided to withdraw the mounted troops, and orders were received to break off the action after dark and withdraw the two Mounted Divisions to Deir El Belah and the Imperial Camel Corps to a position extending from the right of the 54th Division to Wadi Ghuzze. At 6.35 p.m. orders for the withdrawal were issued, the Artillery, which by then were at Divisional Headquarters, to go under escort at once.
At about this time, although the Regiments in the line were quite confident of holding their positions, orders were received from Brigade Headquarters to withdraw. At the time it was difficult to discover the reason for a withdrawal, but subsequently it was ascertained that the higher commands had been influenced by a report furnished by General Hodgson, of the Imperial Mounted Division, to the effect that he had been unable to hold the Turkish reinforcements in check.
At 7 p.m. two teams of horses arrived at the Regimental Headquarters, where the guns had been captured, and after some trouble, owing to the darkness and enemy snipers, the guns were limbered up in the adjacent roadway. The troops were withdrawn gradually, the guns and prisoners were sent back under escort, the wounded were evacuated from the dressing station, and at 7.45 p.m. the troops began to retire to the led horses. page 139About 8.45 the Regiment was complete, and began to withdraw to rejoin the Brigade. The batteries had retired from Divisional Headquarters at 7.5 p.m. The great difficulty was to get the 2nd Brigade back, as part of it, the 7th A.L.H. Regiment, was some four miles from their horses.
The W.M.R. joined up with the Brigade at 9.40 p.m., and a few minutes later the Brigade proceeded to rejoin the Division, the latter retiring at midnight for Deir El Belah—a tiresome march,—the destination being reached at 8.30 a.m. on 27th March.
The Regiment's casualties were:—One other rank killed. Wounded: Captain A. S. Wilder, Captain J. A. Sommerville, Lieutenant A. B. Herrick, Lieutenant E. G. Williams, and fifteen other ranks.
Horses.—Two killed and six wounded.
The prisoners captured by the Regiment were:—Five officers and 193 other ranks, in addition to an estimate of eighty enemy killed and twenty wounded.
Opportunities for machine guns were rare, and during the day only one good target presented itself, which was effectively dealt with at a distance of 100 yards.
Corporal Tressider, who mounted his Hotchkiss gun in an olive tree, rendered valuable service in this respect.
A special feature of this fight is the fact that, although the W.M.R fought practically in the open throughout and at comparatively short ranges, its casualties were light. This was probably due to the celerity with which the attack was prosecuted. The boldness of the men appeared to bewilder the enemy, for on examining the Turkish rifles subsequently it was found that most of them were sighted up to the equivalent of 1500 yards. In consequence, when the final attack was made on the guns from a distance of about sixty yards the enemy fire was too high to take effect.
The circumstances surrounding the heroic death from wounds of Trooper A. A. Fitzherbert, of the W.M.R., on the day following this battle are worthy of special mention. Although 64 years of age, and notwithstanding the fact that he had been previously offered sergeant's stripes to undertake clerical duties, for which his advanced education admirably suited him, Trooper Fitzherbert insisted on remaining as a combatant. Soon after the advance on Gaza commenced, Fitzherbert was shot through the neck, and although bleeding freely he continued to advance with the line. Later, however, page 140loss of blood compelled him to seek medical aid, but whilst en rôute to the dressing station he stopped to attend a wounded comrade, on whom he was tying a bandage when a burst of shrapnel mortally wounded him. Notwithstanding his fatal injuries, however, Fitzherbert refused to be carried away without his rifle.
The opinion was freely expressed after the fight that had the Infantry taken advantage of the fog (which formed a natural screen in the morning) Gaza would have fallen to them. The advance was commenced too late in the day by both the Infantry and Mounted troops. Many hours, fraught with tremendous possibilities and worth thousands of reinforcements, were wasted. The Mounteds were idle till about 4 p.m., but immediately they began to advance they brought such pressure to bear that the Wellington Regiment was enabled to penetrate a part of the town shortly afterwards. The subsequent orders to withdraw were mystifying, as the enemy seemed to be overcome. A Turkish prisoner, captured later by the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, confirmed this, as he stated that the Turks were ready to hoist the white flag. The following message, however, was sent by General Chauvel to Major-General Hodgson, of the Imperial Mounted Division, thanking him for his services. (The casualties in the Imperial Mounted Division, it is stated, were eleven):—
"I wish to draw special attention to the excellent service rendered by the Imperial Mounted Division, under Major-General Hodgson, C.B., M.V.O., in holding off greatly superior forces of the enemy during the afternoon of the 26th and the night of 26-27th, thus enabling the A. and N.Z. Mounted Division to assist in the Infantry attack on Gaza, and subsequently to withdraw after dark. Had the work of this Division been carried out less efficiently, it would have been quite impossible to extricate the A. and N.Z. Mounted Division without very serious losses."
General Chauvel's opinion of the situation, as expressed in the above message, was not shared by the majority of those who were further forward in the fight. Reasons were advanced to endeavour to justify the retirement, but the latter is really unexplainable. One excuse was to the effect that the communications had been cut, but that was not possible; otherwise the order of retirement could not have been sent through. In any case, the troops were disgusted when they received the order to withdraw.
There had been a regrettable lack of co-operation between the Eastern Force and Desert Column till late in the day through page 141no fault of Sir Philip Chetwode, and the fact that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Murray, was fifty miles away—at El Arish—during this momentous engagement did not tend to improve the situation.
On the evening of the 27th the N.Z. Brigade took up an outpost line three miles to the east of Belah—much further back than had been anticipated by the New Zealanders the previous day, for the abandonment of Gaza had not been thought of. A W.M.R. troop, under Lieutenant Black, was sent as a night observation post two miles in front of the line and overlooking the Wadi Ghuzze—this post having quite an exciting time when locating its position through broken country in the dark, and subsequently when it was attacked at close range from the rear. But the post was successfully withdrawn at dawn, and it was lucky to escape annihilation.
From that time till 15th April reconnoitring and patrolling continued daily, and preparations were made to attack Gaza again.