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With the Cameliers in Palestine

Chapter X — The Second Battle of Gaza

page 89

Chapter X
The Second Battle of Gaza

General Murray decided that a second attempt should be made at an early date to capture Gaza, so Lieut.-General Dobell prepared a plan to make a frontal infantry attack on the town, with mounted forces on the right flank. He now had at his disposal four infantry divisions (52nd, 53rd, 54th, and 74th), two mounted divisions (A. and N.Z. Div. and Imp. Mtd. Div.), and the Imperial Camel Brigade.

The 53rd Division which suffered so heavily in the first attack, was to move along the sand-dunes on the coast, the 52nd Division was to make the main attack along a front between Mansura and Sheikh Abbas, the 54th on the right of the 52nd was to attack towards Khirbet Sihan, farther to the right was the Imperial Camel Brigade, then the Imperial Mounted Division, and finally the A. and N.Z. Mounted Division completing the line to the north bank of the Wadi Ghuzzi near Tel el Fara. The 74th Division was in reserve, ready to reinforce the main attack of the 52nd and 54th Divisions.

The Turks in the meantime had greatly strengthened their forces and their positions from Ali Muntar eastward with strong redoubts towards Khirbet es Sihan, and Hareira, leaving no open ground undefended for the mounted forces to pass through as in the first attempt on Gaza.

The various divisions crossed the Wadi Ghuzzi before daybreak on April 17, and established a line of outposts preparatory to advancing on the main attack. On the 18th, the artillery on land and the monitors at sea bombarded the Turkish defences to prepare for the attack on the following day. On the morning of the 19th, the 53rd Division advanced on the coastal side, page 90and after stiff fighting obtained possession of Samson’s Ridge, and later on in the day occupied Sheikh Ajlin, but at a cost of nearly six hundred casualties. The 52nd and 54th Divisions which bore the brunt of the day’s fighting were subjected to heavy artillery and intense machine-gun fire during their advance, and suffered heavily. Positions were gained and lost time after time, but by the afternoon it was recognized that the attempt could not succeed; one brigade of the 52nd Division alone had 1,000 casualties out of 2,500, while the 54th Division in killed, wounded and missing, suffered 2,875 casualties.

The Camel Brigade had come up from its position at Abasan el Kebir, crossed the Wadi, and had taken up a position at Dumbell Hill due south of Sheikh Abbas. Next morning it advanced on the right of the 54th Division, and the First Battalion I.C.C. (Australian) took part in the attack on the redoubt afterwards known as Tank Redoubt. During the advance a tank, used for the first time on this front, accompanied them, but when about a thousand yards from the redoubt it drew the fire of almost every Turkish gun within range, and the infantry and Cameliers in its neighbourhood suffered severely. The tank was hit several times by shells and finally burst into flames, but the remaining members of the attacking force rushed into the redoubt, and drove out its inmates at the point of the bayonet. They were now subjected to the artillery fire of the enemy, but they held the position for two hours, when hardly any were left unwounded, and the post once more fell into the hands of the Turks. The First Battalion lost very heavily in this attack, one company losing fifty percent of its personnel in a few minutes during the advance, but still the Australians pushed on, assisted by members of the 161st Infantry Brigade, about fifty all told reaching their objective, there to be further harassed by page 91artillery fire and counter-attacks by the Turks, very few returning unhurt.

Farther to the right the Third Battalion I.C.C. (Australian and New Zealand Companies) also suffered heavily, the Fifteenth New Zealand Company losing its O.C., Captain Priest, who had succeeded Captain McCallum, who had been killed at Rafa. This battalion advanced across the road leading from Gaza to Beersheba, and took up a position on two prominent hillocks, but as a Turkish counter-attack forced the Fourth Light Horse back on the right of the Cameliers the latter had to retire to keep the front line intact. Months afterwards when this ground again fell into our hands the bodies of some members of the Camel Corps were found marking the extreme point to which the Battalion had advanced. In the afternoon the Turks counter-attacked in force along the front held by the Imperial Mounted Division, but this Division with two A.L.H. Brigades on its right, assisted by the N.Z. Mounted Brigade, finally managed to stop the Turkish advance.

Seeing that it was useless to attempt further attacks, General Murray decided to break off the engagement, and under cover of darkness most of the troops recrossed the Wadi in safety, the Turks evidently being too exhausted to follow in pursuit.

In these attacks our troops had to advance over bare slopes or ridges, exposed to sweeping fire from Turkish artillery, machine-guns, and rifles, while aeroplanes bombed them from the air. During the night advances the men suffered from the stifling dust, while during the day they endured the discomfort of the hot sun beating down on them, and the tortures of thirst, to alleviate which no provision could be made, during the attacks, to supply them with water, most of which had to be carried by wheeled or camel transport from railhead some ten miles away. If these conditions were trying page 92to the active combatants, they were much more so to the wounded of whom there were over seven thousand listed as such on the British side in the two engagements, while in addition over two thousand were posted as missing, the majority of whom would be wounded, and who would have to endure their sufferings until discovered by the Turks after the retirement of our forces.