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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter VI — The First Battle of Gaza

page 197

Chapter VI
The First Battle of Gaza

It has been said that when the Turks lost Sinai, Djemal Pasha, with increased concern for the safety of his Syrian Army, was ready to abandon Gaza to its fate without a struggle, and to concentrate on Jerusalem and its defences. Von Kressenstein, the German Military Adviser, insisted on making a stand at Gaza, which resolutely held could be made practically impregnable against the forces that General Murray had at his disposal.

After the Battle of Rafa the rapidity of the railway's progress had been the outstanding feature of the operations, which induced the enemy to withdraw some six miles along the old caravan route towards Gaza. Our mounted troops kept the enemy under continuous observation, and on the 28th February, after the Turkish withdrawal, entered Khan Yunus unopposed. On 5th March our airmen discovered that the enemy had made a further withdrawal, which brought him back distributed along a line between Gaza and Tel el Sheria, on the Turkish Central Railway, with a small garrison holding Beersheba. The new situation resulting on the Turkish withdrawal was complex, but it was finally decided to continue the advance along the coast, instead of making an attempt against Beersheba. General Murray, referring to this decision in his despatch, says: "I decided against making an attempt on Beersheba, since by doing so I should be drawing my line of communications parallel to the enemy's front, and there was no technical advantage to be gained by linking up the military railway with the Central Palestine Railway, either at Beersheba or Tel el Sheria."

The first battle of Gaza was fought, but it failed to achieve the whole of the objectives General Murray had in view. The objects of the attack were "Firstly to seize the line of the Wadi Ghuzze to cover the advance of the railway; second-page 198ly, at all costs to prevent the enemy retiring without a fight; thirdly, if possible to capture Gaza by a coup de main and to cut off its garrison." At the moment success was about to crown our endeavours, a mystifying order for withdrawal was sent out. It seems quite clear that had the order for withdrawal not been given that the town of Gaza would have been captured on the 26th, but in view of the general situation it is not so certain that we would have retained our hold. The following extract of the official despatch at least explains the action of the Commander in Chief:—

"The majority of the mounted troops had been unable to water their horses during the day, and it appeared that unless Gaza was captured during the day, they would have to withdraw west of the Wadi Ghuzze in order to water their animals. Strong columns of the enemy with guns were moving to the relief of Gaza from the north, north-east and south-east. It was at this moment that the loss of two hours of daylight made itself particularly felt, since had two more hours of daylight now been available, there is no doubt that the infantry would have been able to consolidate the positions they had won, and for arrangements to have been made by which the 54th Division could have effected a junction with the 53rd. It is perhaps possible that if General Dobell had at this stage pushed forward his reserve Division to support the 53rd, the result would have been different, but the difficulty of supplying water to men and horses would have been immense and impossible to realise by those who were not on the spot."

The decision to withdraw was come to between Generals Chetwode and Dobell, the former withdrawing his mounted troops "in order to prevent their envelopment by the enemy." Summing up the first battle of Gaza, the Commander in Chief states that "my primary and secondary objects were completely attained, but the failure to attain the third object—the capture of Gaza—owing to the delay caused by the fog on the 26th and the waterless nature of the country round Gaza, prevented a most successful operation from being a complete disaster to the enemy."

It would be impossible to endeavour in the present work to make a criticism of the first battle of Gaza; the writer page 199can only form an opinion from what has been written by those who were in a position to know the whole of the surrounding circumstances, but such opinion is only the same as anybody else can form, so it is thought proper to set out the facts that have been collated from the official despatches.

The work of the machine gunners in the operations on the 26th was very arduous, although the nature of the attack did not permit them to render the same valuable assistance as la the attacks referred to in the previous chapters of this book.

The Squadron, accompanied by three limbers carrying 48,000 rounds of reserve ammunition, left Deir El Belah at 3.30 a.m. on 26th, reaching Beit Dardis at 9.30 a.m., where it watered and fed, and remained in readiness to move at an instant's notice. At 2.30 p.m. the Brigade moved round towards the coast, and after a fast ride came into action north of Gaza. Two sections (four guns) were sent with the Wellington Regiment on the right flank, and two sections on the left flank with the Canterbury Regiment—the remaining two sections being kept in reserve.

Excellent communication between the Squadron Headquarters and the forward sections was maintained until the withdrawal, by visual signalling. The sections with the Wellington Regiment experienced great difficulty from the numerous cactus hedges, and only had one good target throughout the day, which was so successfully dealt with at a range of 100 yards that the gunners felt well rewarded for their efforts. The sections with the Canterbury Regiment had similar obstacles to overcome, but found numerous snipers among the hedges, who were playing havoc among the advancing troops. The gunners thereupon began the work of spotting snipers and dealing with them. Although a large amount of ammunition was expended, the results attained quite justified the expenditure.

On the much-discussed order for withdrawal reaching the Squadron, the forward guns returned, and the Squadron at 6.30 p.m. made its way to the Brigade Rendezvous, east of the Ali Muster Redoubt. The Wellington Regiment captured two field guns during the day, which the Squadron's limber horses went forward to salve and to deliver at Divisional Headquarters. D.H.Q. sent the guns with the Squadron's page 200horses on to Deir El Belah, which meant that the Squadron had to abandon its ammunition limbers in the withdrawal.

The Brigade was assembled by 11.30 p.m., and then proceeded by night march to Deir El Belah, arriving there at 6 a.m. the following morning.

Deir El Belah remained the Squadron's Headquarters until 17th April, when it proceeded with the Brigade to take its part in the second unsuccessful battle of Gaza.