With the Cameliers in Palestine
Chapter IX — The First Battle of Gaza
The First Battle of Gaza
The Turks had entrenched a position south of the Wadi Ghuzzi as if they intended to bar there the advance of the British into Palestine, and Sir Archibald Murray made arrangements to attack their position, but before he could do so the Turks retired to the northern side of the Wadi, and took up a position stretching from the coast near the town of Gaza, south-east to Beersheba, some thirty miles away. The position was well chosen as it occupied the higher ground sloping down to the Wadi and the slightly undulating country south of the latter place. Several strongly entrenched posts were established which completely dominated the ground over which the British would have to advance if a frontal attack in force were attempted.
The Wadi was like the Wadi El Arish, a wide dry river-bed for the greater part of the year, with numerous tributary wadis running back well into the hills of Southern Judaea. Its bed was sandy or gravelly, its sides were steep clay banks, and its numerous branches cutting into the plain in all directions gave splendid places of concealment for troops lying in wait to surprise our patrols in this no man’s land. Here and there in the lower portion of its basin pools of water lasted through the summer season, an unusual sight in this land, and these formed convenient places for watering-horses and camels.
Gaza is the only city that suffered material damage by siege during the Palestine campaign. Not only was harm done to it by the bombardment by the British, but the town was largely despoiled by the Turks themselves who freely used the materials from the buildings for military purposes in their defensive positions. The great mosque, Jami el Kebir, was used by the Turkish army during its occupation of the town as a storehouse for ammunition, and during a bombardment this store of explosives was detonated and the mosque was badly damaged.
By the end of February the British force had advanced to Khan Yunus, and the railway and pipe line were being vigorously pushed along behind it. Owing to the different nature of the country over which the army was now operating, wheeled transport could again be used.page 82
General Murray decided to attempt another cutting-out expedition on a larger scale than before, and attempt to capture Gaza, and while the operations were in progress he established advance G.H.Q. in a railway carriage at El Arish. The 52nd Division (in reserve at Khan Yunus), one brigade of the 74th Division, the 54th Division, and the Imperial Camel Brigade were directly under the command of Lieut-General Dobell, who was in charge of the whole movement, and these troops were at call, to be used whenever and wherever required. The services of the 52nd Division were not used at all during the attack.
The Desert Column, consisting of the 53rd Infantry Division, and the two mounted divisons, the Anzac and Imperial Mounted, all under the command of Lieut-General Chetwode, was given the task of surrounding and capturing Gaza. The 53rd Division under Major-General Dallas was to attack the position from the south, the Anzac Mounted Division under Major-General Chauvel was to slip past the town in the open country on the east and invest it on the north, while the Imperial Mounted Division under Major-General Hodgson and the Imperial Camel Brigade were to watch for any counterstroke of the enemy from the direction of Huj or Tel esh Sheria in the east, where large forces of the enemy were believed to be assembled.
The infantry and mounted forces moved from their point of concentration near Deir el Belah, eight miles south-west of Gaza, shortly after midnight on March 26, and crossed the Wadi Ghuzzi in the early morning. Unfortunately about 4 a.m. a dense fog, unusual at this time of the year, rolled in from the sea and covered the Wadi and adjoining country. The 53rd Division moved slowly towards Esh Sheluf and Mansura, and halted as a reconnaissance could not be carried out till the fog page 83lifted. Major-General Dallas had at first fixed his headquarters at El Breij, south of the Wadi, and at 9 a.m. he rode forward to Mansura, and summoned his brigadiers and the commander of his artillery to a conference, but it was 10.15 a.m. before they assembled. By the time a reconnaissance had been made, and formal orders regarding the plan of attack formed and issued to the various commanders, it was almost noon before the attack was begun.
While Major-General Dallas had been moving his Headquarters from El Breij to Mansura, Headquarters of Desert Column had been out of touch with him for two hours, and as soon as communication was established Generals Dobell and Chetwode telegraphed him urgently to attack without delay.
The infantry advanced along two ridges to attack the hill of Ali Muntar, a hill about three hundred feet high overlooking Gaza from the east, and celebrated as the spot to which Samson of old carried the gates of the city when the Philistines tried to trap him in the town. The approaches were covered by Turkish trenches, and broken by numerous impenetrable hedges of cactus and prickly pears which gave concealment to the Turks and proved impassable obstacles to the advance of the British, who suffered severely from rifle and machine-gun fire and from shelling by artillery. The 61st Brigade of the 54th Division was thrown into the line, and the British infantry pressed on all the afternoon till by 6.30 p.m. the whole position on Ali Muntar was captured, but at a heavy loss.
In the meantime, in the early morning the two mounted divisions had taken advantage of the fog and had pressed on unobserved on the eastern side of Gaza. Soon after 9 a.m. the Anzac Division had arrived at its objective, Beit Durdis, five miles north-east of the city, and the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade soon extended its lines to page 84the sea-coast north of the town. Squadrons were pushed out north and north-east to watch for the approach of any Turkish reinforcements, and one of these squadrons surprised and captured the Commander of the 53rd Turkish Division who was calmly proceeding into Gaza with a small escort to take over his new command. Although the mounted forces north of Gaza were under shell fire all forenoon, they did not meet with the determined opposition that the infantry did, and had not been very seriously engaged. About mid-afternoon the Anzac Division was ordered to press on an attack on the town so as to assist the infantry. This was done, and good progress was made in spite of the obstacles of cactus hedges and the resistance put up by the Turks in buildings in the outskirts of the town. When dusk fell the Second A.L.H. Brigade had reached the outskirts on the north and west, the Wellington Mounted Rifles (N.Z.) had captured two 77 m.m. Krupp guns and were in possession of a portion of the suburbs, while the Canterbury Mounted Rifles (N.Z.) had attacked Ali Muntar in the rear, and had joined up with the infantry of the 53rd Division in the eastern streets.
The Imperial Mounted Division having followed the Anzac Division across the Wadi in the morning advanced to Kh.er Reseim, north-east of Gaza, and came into contact with small bodies of Turks. The Imperial Camel Brigade had left its camp at Abasan el Kebir, five miles south-east of Khan Yunus early in the morning, and moved directly to its crossing over the Wadi at Tel el Jemmi in spite of the pitch-black night. It then proceeded to El Mendur on the bank of the Wadi esh Sheria, and took up an outpost line from the right of the Imperial Mounted Division to the Wadi Ghuzzi. When the Anzac Division was thrown into the attack on Gaza in the afternoon, the Imperial Mounted Division was moved farther north, and the Imperial Camel Brigade page 85was brought up to Kh.er Reseim to help to resist the pressure of the Turkish reinforcements, estimated at over three thousand, which were advancing towards the city from the east. With the assistance of the Third A.L.H. Brigade, light car patrols, and two light armoured motor batteries, the advance of the enemy was successfully checked by nightfall.
The year was just past the equinox, sunset was at 6 p.m. By 6.30 p.m. dusk had fallen quickly, as it always does in that latitude, and by that time the 53rd Division had gained its objective, the dominating position of Ali Muntar, the Anzac Division had established a footing in the outskirts of the town on the north, north-east and north-west, the Turkish relief force from the north and east had been held up, the city had been completely surrounded except on a small section on the south-west, but General Dobell was not aware of the whole of the general situation till later on in the night, and as he felt that the relieving Turkish forces would menace the safety of the mounted divisions, he had decided that, unless Gaza was captured by nightfall, the troops must be withdrawn. General Chetwode agreed that it would be inadvisable for portions of the mounted forces to be fighting in the outskirts of Gaza while the remainder of the column was being attacked in force from the north and east. Shortly after 6 p.m. General Chetwode, with the approval of General Dobell, issued orders to Major-General Chauvel to withdraw the mounted forces and retire across the Wadi, and the infantry, at the same time, were ordered to retire from the positions they held. The Imperial Camel Brigade was placed under Chauvel’s command so that it might assist in covering the retirement, and soon after daylight next morning most of the mounted troops had retired to the south side of the Wadi Ghuzzi, but the Camel Brigade remained to assist in the retirement of the infantry next day.page 86
Later on in the night of the 26th, when General Dobell became aware of the success of the infantry, he instructed the 53rd Division under Dallas, to dig in on the position they had withdrawn to, and to link up with the 54th Division which also was moved back from the position it was holding. As a consequence the whole position gained on Ali Muntar was abandoned, but at daybreak it was discovered that the Turks had not retaken possession of it, so the British reoccupied it, but a counter-attack by the Turks drove them out of it by 9.30 a.m. The British troops suffered severely in retiring during the day, and when night came they recrossed the Wadi Ghuzzi.
The total casualties on the British side amounted to 3,967, of whom 512 were posted as missing. The units that suffered most heavily were the 53rd Division and the 161st Brigade of the 54th Division. According to statements made later by the Turkish General Staff, the Turks’ total loss amounted to 2,447.
On the night of the 26th when General Dobell decided to withdraw all the forces, the Imperial Camel Brigade hung on through the darkness, and next day had to fight severe rearguard actions. The G.O.C., Sir A. Murray, in his telegram of April 1 to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London, amongst other matters, stated that on the 27th, "The Turks attacked the 53rd and 54th Divisions and Camel Corps in entrenched positions. They were not in the least successful at any point, and again suffered the heaviest losses, e.g., Camel Corps nearly annihilated Turkish Cavalry Division. I estimate enemy losses 3,000 on this day. Cavalry and Camelry had to move back to El Balah to water, horses not having had any for twenty-four hours and camels for four days."
General Murray’s messages hardly conveyed a correct impression of the true state of affairs. He stated: page 87"The operation was most successful, and owing to the fog and waterless nature of the country round Gaza, just fell short of a complete disaster to the enemy." And again: "None of our troops were at any time harassed or hard pressed. It is proved conclusively that in the open the enemy have no chance of success against our troops, but they are very tenacious in prepared positions. In the open our mounted troops simply do what they like with them." Yet our forces had to withdraw from the attack on Gaza, having suffered fifty percent more casualties than the Turks.
The Turks had a powerful wireless installation at Gaza, and another at Sheria where the bulk of the Turkish reserve forces were stationed, and as the day wore on, messages regarding the situation were exchanged between Major Tiller, the German officer in command of the garrison in Gaza, and Kress von Kres-senstein at Sheria. The British wireless station in Egypt picked up all these messages, and as the key of the Turkish cipher was in the possession of the British Intelligence Department, the messages were immediately deciphered, translated, and telephoned to Rafa, several of them before 6.30 p.m., but for some unexplained reason, their urgency was not recognized at the latter station, and they were not received by General Dobell till well on in the night, and after the retirement of the troops had been for some time in progress. Evidently Major Tiller considered the situation of the garrison as desperate; by evening he had reported that the British had entered the town by the north and east, the situation was very bad, and his troop commanders refused to face the combat at dawn. By midnight he stated that unless reinforcements were sent before daylight there was very little hope. The G.H.Q.s at Gaza and Sheria had actually exchanged farewell messages, and arrangements page 88were made to destroy all papers, and blow up the Headquarters at the former place.
The various units of the British army appear to have achieved individually the objectives assigned to them—the infantry had captured Ali Muntar, later than what was intended it is true; the mounted forces had very successfully cut off Gaza from the north and east; the Turkish reinforcements were held by dark; the air force had supplied correct information regarding the movements of enemy forces towards Gaza; the Intelligence Department had intercepted messages interchanged between the Military Governor of Gaza and the Commander of the reserve forces at Esh Sheria, showing that both had given up hope of the town being relieved; and yet Gaza remained in the hands of the Turks, with no prospect of a second surprise movement of a similar nature being successful on the part of the British. The only explanation for the failure seems to be that there was a lack of necessary communication between some of the various responsible officers in the field and at Rafa and those in charge of the whole operations at Headquarters. It has been freely stated by prominent members of the mounted forces that if the latter had been allowed to push their attack on the northern side much earlier the result would have been quite different.