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With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine

Chapter VII — The Second Battle of Gaza

page 201

Chapter VII
The Second Battle of Gaza

During the period between 26th March and 17th April, the day on which the second battle began, the enemy transformed his position round Gaza into a veritable stronghold, and collected many reinforcements. The enemy strength increased to five divisions of infantry and two divisions of cavalry, while our forces remained the same—three infantry and two cavalry divisions (the 52nd Infantry Division was not used in the first battle). Great care was taken to make the second battle a success, and to prevent any attack taking place before the whole of the preparations were completed. The railway advanced to Deir El Belah, and the new station was completed on 5th April. General Dobell's Headquarters became established in this town, and General Murray established his advanced Headquarters at Khan Yunus.

The plan of the attack was to capture and occupy the Sheikh Abbas-Mansura Ridge, south of Gaza, in the first stage, and to consolidate while the heavy artillery and tanks were brought forward; then the final assault on the town after a heavy bombardment, in which two monitors and a French battleship would co-operate.

The Turkish trench system extended for about seven miles south-east of Gaza to Atawineh Ridge, and from there to Tel El Sharia was a strong line of posts. The strength and length of the Turkish positions made a cavalry marching movement impossible until a breach was made big enough for the cavalry to be pushed through.

The dispositions of the British forces at the opening of the attack were three infantry divisions on the left and the two cavalry divisions protecting their right flank.

The Brigade moved eastwards at 9 a.m. on 17th, the day the battle opened, towards Beersheba, the Squadron forming page 202Brigade Reserve and not coming into action. It returned to Shellal at 11 p.m. On 18th the Brigade made a reconnaissance in the Beersheba area, but the Squadron again remained out of action.

A certain amount of success had attended the valiant attempts by the infantry, who had captured the Sheikh Abbas positions.

The Mounted Division on the Anzac left had made a dismounted attack on the Atawineh position with some success, and to assist the Yeomanry to push the attack home the Wellington Regiment and two sections of machine guns from the Squadron were sent into action at 11 a.m. on the 19th, after an all-night ride from El Shellal. The Wellington Regiment's objective was a spur known as Sausage Ridge, the attainment of which would lessen the pressure against the Yeomanry.

The section of guns delivered a strong covering fire, and the Wellingtons made a good advance. At 12 noon there was a dangerous gap between the Wellingtons and the Yeomanry, which the Canterbury Regiment was ordered to close. Two sections went forward with the Canterburys and did specially fine work. Unfortunately the section commanded by 2nd Lieut. L. A. Craven suffered severely as it was advancing, from a direct hit by a 5.9 shell.1 Several men and horses were knocked out. The manner in which Craven dealt with the situation was the same as is seen on the parade ground when a machine gun section is practising "casualties"; guns and equipment were at once changed from the fallen horses to spares, the killed and wounded men's places were refilled, and with very little loss of time the section was able to again catch up to the Canterbury Regiment.

With bold handling the guns were pushed forward, engaging many enemy targets at ranges from 1000 to 1600 yards, and inflicting heavy casualties. Craven's work was of particularly high order; he personally reconnoitred the positions for the guns, which enabled them to play such havoc among the enemy. About 3 p.m. he observed a large enemy party advancing through a field in heavy crop. Holding fire until

1 The snapshot reproduced, facing page 208, was taken a few moments after the shell exploded among Craven's section.

page 203the enemy party was within about 400 yards, he gave the order to open; the waiting gunners did not take a second to respond, and had the extreme satisfaction of wiping out the advancing Turks. Unfortunately, Craven was very severely wounded shortly before the Brigade withdrew. His meritorious work was recognised by the award of the Military Cross.1

An incident occurred during the attack which illustrates the feelings of the mounted men towards their horses. Trooper H. C. Green and his horse were caught by a shell; Green's leg was blown off and his horse badly smashed. An officer went at once to Green's assistance; his first words were, "Shoot my horse first, sir, and end his misery." Green died a short while after.

During this attack Capt. Hinman had a very anxious time with the horses. The country was devoid of cover, and the only way of protecting them was to divide them up into small groups, well apart, and hope for the best. The air craft and 5.9's paid them particular attention all day, but, fortunately, only a dozen or so were hit.

The Brigade and Squadron commenced to withdraw about 7 p.m., and at 10.30 p.m. was on its way to Tel El Jemmi to bivouac for the night.

The Turkish defence had proved too strong for the infantry, and in consequence the third day of the battle, bringing the British casualties up to approximately 14,000, left our positions very little improved. The infantry were ordered to consolidate their gains preparatory to renewing the attack on the following day, but in view of the strongly expressed opinions of the Infantry Divisional Commanders "that the attack ordered for the following morning did not offer sufficient prospect of success to justify the very heavy casualties which such an operation would involve," General Murray abandoned the proposal, leaving the Turkish forces triumphantly in possession of its formidable Gaza-Beersheba line.

The disastrous setback at Gaza brought a complete change in the policy of the "Eastern Force," practically amounting to an acceptance of trench warfare. The Turks had just suf-

1 2nd Lieut. Craven returned to New Zealand, but subsequently succumbed to his injuries.

page 204fered
a severe defeat in Mesopotamia at the hands of General Maude, and intended for the sake of their prestige to deny our further advance in Palestine at all costs.

With the change of policy came a change in important commands, General Sir Edmund Allenby becoming Commander in Chief on 28th June.

A long period must now be quickly passed over, the period during which General Allenby prepared the plans that enabled the strong enemy barrier to be broken, and the crusade to be pushed to a successful issue.

During this period the Squadron moved with the Brigade on numerous reconnaisances, covering most of the country in the Beersheba area, over which they were to operate in the "Big Push."

Gas helmets were issued, and all ranks were trained in their use. Fortunately, the very hot climate prevented the use of gas, and our mounted troops were spared its unpleasantness.

Enemy aircraft continued to pay marked attention to our troops: no opportunity was lost to bomb and machine-gun them. However, the excellently-placed observation posts neutralised the enemy's enterprise.