Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Seventeen — The Second Battle of Gaza
The Second Battle of Gaza
With the apparently unexplainable loss of Gaza behind them, the higher commands determined to make another attempt to capture the town with as little delay as possible, and on 16th April orders were issued for the second attack.
The enemy strength was estimated at about 25,000 rifles in all, disposed along a sixteen-mile line running from Tel El Sharia on his left through Abu Hareira-El Atawineh and Khirbet El Bir to Gaza, and holding apparently a small reserve twelve miles north-east between Huj and Tel El Hesi, the latter eight miles north-east of Huj, his forces appearing to be distributed as follows:—8,500 at Gaza, 4,500 about Khirbet El Bir (three and a-half miles south-east of Gaza) and Khirbet Rufeih, 2,000 at El Atawineh (four miles further south-east), and the 16th Turkish Division, about 6,000 rifles, in the vicinity of Abu Hareira-Tel El Sharia; also a garrison at Beersheba. It will thus be seen that the enemy were now extended along a broader front in the vicinity of Gaza; their line was wired, and a flanking movement on the town could not be carried out by the mounted troops as in the previous operation.
The orders were, generally, as follows:—The Infantry to advance and seize the Sheikh Abbas-Mansura Ridge, south of Gaza, preparatory to a further advance, and the Imperial Mounted Division to protect the right flank of the Infantry from a position of concentration at Tel El Jemme, seven miles due south of Gaza, and further to capture a Turkish outpost at Khirbet Erk, six miles east of Jemme, destroy the telegraph line on the main Gaza-Beersheba Road, and occupy a general line from Khirbet Erk for a distance of four miles north-west with small posts; the Imperial Camel Corps to be in support at Abasan El Kebir (twelve miles south-east of Gaza); the Anzac Mounted Division to cross the Wadi Ghuzze at Shellal and demonstrate against Abu Hareira, ten miles south-east of Gaza, to prevent the enemy there from detaching troops towards Gaza. The role of the N.Z. Brigade during the first part of the operations was to the effect that on the arrival of the Anzac Division at Shellal the Brigade would be detached to act as flank guard towards Beersheba, page 143 to cover the demonstration of the Division from enemy action from that direction.
At 6.30 on the evening of April 16th the New Zealand Brigade advanced from Deir El Belah with the Anzac Division, and, marching all night, the column reached Shellal, on the Wadi Ghuzze, at 4.30 next morning.
A Turkish post with machine guns covered the ford, but these were brushed aside, and the column had commenced to cross the Wadi when hostile aeroplanes bombed it and inflicted casualties before the northern bank was reached.
Some time later the W.M.R., as advance guard to the Brigade, moved along the Rafa-Beersheba Road to the East, and by noon the New Zealanders had driven in some Turkish cavalry and taken up a line six miles in length near Im Siri, and were demonstrating against Abu Hereira and Tel El Sharia. Enemy patrols were observed around the railway viaduct near Abu Irgeig; there was much movement along his line, and then, towards evening, when the Brigade had fulfilled its mission, it returned to Shellal and bivouacked.
Meanwhile information had been received that the main Infantry attack on the Sheikh Abbas-Mansura line, south of Gaza, had been successful.
Next day (the 18th) the N.Z. Brigade again demonstrated towards Hareira and Sharia, driving in enemy outposts and taking up a line for observation purposes. Hostile aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the New Zealanders, but little damage was done, and towards evening the Division returned to Shellal.
Meanwhile our Infantry had encountered very stout opposition and had suffered heavy casualties, the Camel Brigade and some Yeomanry formations having been drawn in to assist in the attack. Little progress had been made from Sheikh Abbas and Mansura, from which Position our Infantry line extended to the sea, and towards evening orders were received by the Anzac Mounted Division to support the Imperial Mounted Division in the attack on the formidable Atawineh Redoubt, six miles south-east of Gaza, the 22nd Mounted Brigade to remain in the vicinity of Shellal to watch the country to the south and west.
That night the N.Z. Brigade advanced with an Imperial Staff Officer as guide, but soon after the march had commenced it was obvious that this officer had lost his bearings, for he practically "boxed the compass" and entangled the Brigade in such a manner that at one stage during his numerous windings he page 144followed in rear of the tail of the column he was leading—thus forming a circle. But after the Brigade had been extricated it arrived at its destination to the west of Atawineh, where the C.M.R. were bombed and several casualties were inflicted among its men and horses.
The guns of the Anzac Division were soon in action: the Inverness Battery against Sausage Ridge, just south of Atawineh, on the left of the 1st Brigade, and the Ayrshire Battery against the redoubts at Rujm El Atawineh, which were stopping the advance of the Imperial Mounted Division. The direction in which that division was moving exposed the Inverness Battery, and at nine o'clock the 3rd Squadron of the A.M.R. was sent as escort to the guns.
The 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade on the right of the Imperial Mounted Division was then being vigorously attacked, and the W.M.R. were sent forward to assist on their right by attacking Sausage Ridge, an exposed position which formed the southern arm of the Atawineh position, and orders were given that the Regiment would probably have to dig in and remain there all night.
On reaching the western end of Sausage Ridge at 11 o'clock, Colonel Meldrum reconnoitred the position with the Officer Commanding the Inverness Battery, and at 11.30 the 6th Squadron of the W.M.R. attacked along the ridge, supported by the 9th Squadron close in the right rear, and also by the fire of the Inverness Battery, the 2nd Squadron being in reserve. Four machine guns accompanied the Regiment.
At this time the 3rd A.M.R. Squadron, under Major Mackesy, was in position in front of the guns, which the squadron had escorted, and on the arrival of the W.M.R. the Auckland Squadron advanced with and on the right of the Wellington troops.
At 12.30 the latter had progressed half-way along the ridge against strong opposition, which steadily increased from the redoubt on the north as the line advanced, but at this stage the Leicester Battery arrived, together with two guns of the Ayrshire Battery, they being promptly ordered into action by Colonel Meldrum, and the opposition was considerably reduced. All the ten guns were then placed under the orders of Major Meikle, and they made most effective shooting throughout the day. The N.Z. Machine Gunners also gave covering fire.
Sorting an ever-welcome mail from New Zealand, near Hill 60, before the fight. Chaplain-Major Grant (on left), Sergt.-Major Pye-Smith (in centre), and Sergt.-Major Brown (on right) were killed a few hours after this photo, had been taken.
Major A. Samuel,
Who temporarily commanded the W.M.R. for some time prior to the Evacuation of Gallipoli and during the Evacuation. During the Sinai-Palestine campaign Major Samuel ably commanded the Training Regiment at Macscar.
At this time (2 p.m.) the enemy was aggressive all along his line, the situation then being as follows:—The 22nd Mounted Brigade was at Fara, on our extreme right, engaging enemy cavalry, and in touch with the 7th A.L.H. Regiment. Next came the 5th L.H. Regiment, connected with the 1st L.H. Brigade at Baiket El Sana. This Brigade was some distance from the Auckland Squadron on the right of the Wellington line, on the left of which the C.M.R. continued the line followed by the 5th Yeomanry Brigade, the 4th L.H. Brigade, the 3rd L.H. Brigade, and then the Camel Brigade in touch with the Infantry. Tanks were co-operating with the troops on our left.
At 3 p.m. the enemy was displaying great determination, which, in addition to his superior strength numerically, brought increasing pressure to bear against the three squadrons in the line, so the reserve W.M.R. Squadron and the remaining machine guns were sent forward to reinforce.
Both British and hostile airmen were active, flying low, but the Germans, with modern machines, were masters of the air. They bombed the led horses and batteries, and our airmen—including the redoubtable Ross Smith—handicapped by obsolete machines, were unable to prevent them, and one of our 'planes was brought down. The accuracy of the fire of the Turkish batteries was also noticeable, our led horses being driven by nigh-explosive and shrapnel shells outside the range of the big guns, or under cover till nightfall.
At 3.15 a body of Turks to the number of 300 to 400 were seen advancing against the right flank of the W.M.R., presenting a splendid target, which Colonel Meldrum quickly took advantage of, ordering the whole of the two and a-half batteries to be turned on the massed Turks. This was promptly carried out, with deadly effect, to the great satisfaction of Major Meikle, who commanded the batteries.
Fifteen minutes later the greatly superior number of the enemy began to assert itself, particularly on the right front of the Regiment, and two squadrons of reinforcements were asked for, but refused. The Regiment was heavily pressed; all the guns were actively engaged, and bitter fighting continued along the whole page 146line, our men stubbornly resisting the strong enemy pressure till five o'clock, when the counter-attack on the right had been driven back with heavy loss to the enemy, whose advance against the W.M.R. was checked. This was then reported to the Division, and, further, that the position could be held, but that the Turks were much stronger numerically. At the same hour the Leicester Battery was recalled to report to the 1st Brigade, thus leaving six guns with the W.M.R.
Meanwhile, intense and bitter fighting had been raging in other sectors, and very heavy casualties had been inflicted on the Infantry and the Camel Corps, which had been seriously handicapped for want of artillery support to cut the wires protecting the Turkish trenches. On several occasions they had almost reached their objectives, but were then mowed down by machine-gun and artillery fire, and in some cases whole companies had been wiped out.
At six o'clock a withdrawal was decided on, and the W.M.R. was ordered to retire at dusk in conjunction with the 5th Mounted Brigade.
About this time a message was received by the C.O. of the W.M.R. from Captain Hine, in charge of the 2nd Squadron, stating that he had gained superiority of fire over the enemy and asking for permission to storm the redoubt. Major Meikle, hearing the message, anticipated a ready consent, and said he could effectively co-operate, as he had all the ranges. The Colonel, however, pointed out that no advantage could be gained at that stage by attacking, as the redoubt, when taken, would have to be immediately evacuated, and it would cost some good men to take it. The request, however, showed the splendid fighting spirit of Major Hine's men, after a night without sleep and a long day's fighting.
When darkness had fallen, at 6.30 the six guns withdrew, after having rendered great service during the day. Their close proximity to the enemy had enabled observation to be made close by the guns' positions, and, by reason of this, parties of the enemy were very severely dealt with. With plenty of good targets at short range to engage his attention, the O.C. of the Battery had been very enthusiastic in his work, and, instead of withdrawing before dark, the Battery Commander, by his own wish, remained in action until all targets had become invisible. Major Meikle had proved himself a great gunner, and the Wellington Mounted Rifles have good reason to remember him for his assistance that day.page 147
Meanwhile the order for the W.M.R. to withdraw at dusk had been suspended till such time as the Yeomanry, on the left, had evacuated their wounded. This was accomplished by 8.15, and a few minutes later the front line had been withdrawn, the horses having been brought up to expedite the movement, and the retirement commenced. A considerable amount of sniping occurred prior to and during the withdrawal, but no advance was made by the enemy. At 1 a.m. on 20th April the Regiment arrived at Tel El Jemme, where it watered the horses and bivouacked.
The W.M.R.'s casualties were one other rank killed and 23 wounded, the total casualties in the British force amounting to about 14,000.