Topic: BatzP - 1st Gaza
The First Battle of Gaza
Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917
Falls Account Part 12
Falls Account, Sketch Map 15.
The following is an extract of the Falls Account from the the Official British War History volumes on Egypt written by Falls, C.; and, MacMunn, G., Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1928), pp. 279 - 325 detailing the British role at the First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917.
Chapter XVII The First Battle of Gaza (Continued).
The First Battle of Gaza.
The Causes of Failure and the Reports to the War Office.
Few actions of the late war have been the subject of greater differences of opinion than the First Battle of Gaza. The problem is complicated, since it is not merely whether or not the withdrawal of the mounted troops was necessary, but whether the attack of the 53rd Division could not have been launched earlier. The latter question, again, depends to a great extent upon how far the fog delayed operations. Then there is the third question, whether, notwithstanding the delay, notwithstanding the withdrawal of the mounted troops, there was any possibility on the afternoon of the 27th of acceding to General Dallas's request to retake Sheikh Abbas, and subsequently of renewing the attack on Gaza.
It will be attempted here, not to find an answer to these questions, but merely to point out all considerations which appear to have importance. With regard to the mounted troops, the situation must be judged as it appeared to General Chetwode and as he represented it to General Dobell on the afternoon of the 26th: not as it appears in the light of later knowledge. Nor in any case has the fact that the Turkish relieving columns were halted during the night much bearing on the subject. They might have been more active, but they could hardly have exercised strong pressure during the hours of darkness. Their pressure would have been strong enough as soon as dawn appeared. On the other hand, it is clear that Gaza was, in fact, virtually captured by nightfall, and it certainly seems probable that General Dobell's actions would have been different had he received earlier the despairing messages of Major Tiller messages which he ought to have received in no case later than an hour after their despatch.
Turning to the 53rd Division, it has been shown that the fog delayed the infantry in its progress to Mansura and Esh Sheluf less seriously than has commonly been supposed. The two leading brigades had reached these positions by 8.30 a.m.; it is a reasonable calculation that they would have been there an hour earlier if unhindered by the fog, but probably not more. The 159th Brigade was across the wadi by 6.40 a.m., and could presumably have been at Mansura by 9.30. A much more important effect of the fog seems to have been its delay of the necessary reconnaissance. Even as it was, it would appear that, had the brigadiers accompanied General Dallas to Mansura, while their brigades were being led to their positions, the conference could have been held an hour earlier than 10.15 a.m., the time at which it actually began. The two field artillery brigades had five batteries out of six in position at 10.20 a.m. Granting that it might not have been possible to communicate to them the plan and arrange for their co-operation without some further delay, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the attack might have been launched an hour sooner if the conference had assembled that much earlier. Whether it would have been taking undue risk for the infantry to have advanced, covered by strong patrols, towards its objectives, without waiting for the artillery's support, is another and more difficult question. It must be remembered that the successful progress of the mounted troops does not furnish a complete analogy; they were advancing into open country, the infantry against an enemy force in position. The delay in the arrival of the 161st Brigade Group, owing to misunderstanding, was also an important factor, though less as regards its infantry than its attached artillery brigade, the support of which at an earlier hour might have led to the speedier capture of the position.
The second serious misunderstanding occurred after the order for the withdrawal of the mounted troops had been given, when General Dallas was not informed that the 54th Division was closing in to north of Mansura. This misunderstanding has been dealt with in detail, but though it accounts for the abandonment of the position gained, it does not alter the fact that the holding of the advanced line on Ali Muntar, with the Turkish artillery on Sheikh Abbas, would have been an exceedingly difficult matter, unless Gaza could be immediately taken. If the 54th Division, which had two brigades only available, withdrew to the Burjabye Ridge, it had inevitably to abandon Sheikh Abbas. The abandonment of Sheikh Abbas allowed the Turks to occupy it, to bring up their guns and (it was eventually proved) to render the new position practically untenable. Sheikh Abbas could hardly have been retained unless the mounted troops had been kept out. It could not have been retaken on the 27th unless they had been again employed, together with the two brigades of the 52nd Division then available. On the second of these cases Sir A. Murray writes in his Despatches:"If it had now been practicable for the General Officer Commanding Eastern Force to advance with his three infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions, I have no doubt that Gaza could have been taken and the Turks forced to retire; but the reorganization of the force for a deliberate attack would have taken a considerable time, the horses of the cavalry were very fatigued, and the distance of our railhead from the front line put the immediate maintenance of such a force with supplies, water and ammunition entirely out of the question. The only alternative, therefore, was to retire the infantry."
On the 28th March Sir A. Murray reported to the War Office that he had advanced to the Wadi Ghazze, that he had been heavily engaged east of Gaza on the 26th and 27th, that he estimated the Turkish causalities at between 6,000 and 7,000 men in addition to 900 prisoners, and that his troops had behaved splendidly. The C.I.G.S. replied on the 30th that as a result of his recent success and of British progress in Mesopotamia the situation had altered since he received his last instructions. His immediate objective should now be the defeat of the Turks south of Jerusalem and the occupation of that city. Sir A. Murray answered next day (the 31st) that he was most anxious to advance on Jerusalem, but added a warning that his difficulties must be realized and that no rapid advance could be expected. He again called attention to his former estimate of the strength required for the operations, and stated that, though he could beat the Turks in the open, it had been proved that they were exceedingly good defensive fighters. They would probably take up a series of defensive positions between the Beersheba-Gaza and Jaffa-Jerusalem lines, out of which he could not hope to turn them without considerable losses, requiring immediate replacement. In any case his progress would be measured by that of his railway, and the best he could hope for was 20 miles a month, if no great engineering difficulties were met with. He concluded by stating that he might have to ask for material to double the line from Qantara to Gaza.
Sir W. Robertson replied briefly on the 1st April, but on the 2nd, after the War Cabinet had considered Sir A. Murray's message of the 31st March, despatched a long telegram embodying its views. He had been asked to point out the great importance of the operations in Palestine. Everyone was now feeling seriously the strain of war, and the moral effect of success was extremely valuable. The War Cabinet therefore desired that Sir A. Murray's operations should be pushed on energetically. He added that there was internal unrest in Turkey, and that she was undoubtedly more exhausted than any other of Great Britain's enemies. With the reinforcements detailed for Egypt, he did not see why Sir A. Murray should not be completely successful. (The reference is to troops required to bring up to strength the 74th Division and also to proposals to form another division from Territorial battalions then in India. As will appear, a mixed division of Territorial and Indian battalions (the 75th) was eventually formed instead.) On the 4th April Sir A. Murray telegraphed that he hoped the War Cabinet would be assured that he fully appreciated the importance of operations in Palestine. He did not believe that a single day of the past fifteen months had been wasted, or that greater energy could be displayed. Preparations were in progress for a renewed attack on Gaza, but he was anxious not to hurry over this operation, as he felt that a methodically prepared attack had chances of winning a considerable success. After taking Gaza he intended to continue the invasion of Palestine, though he had at the moment only enough rails to reach Deir el Balah. He then enumerated his reasons for proposing to continue his advance along the coast instead of the Turkish Beersheba railway, and stated his requirements in mechanical transport, Army Service Corps drivers, artillery for his new divisions, signal units and material, Royal Engineers (Army Troops), and modern aeroplanes.
Meanwhile the Government had asked for a fuller report on the operations, all that had yet been received being the short telegram on the 28th March.2 In a very long telegram of the 1st April Sir A. Murray recounted his objects (which have been given in Chapter XVI) and the conditions, and gave a sketch of the operations, estimating the Turkish casualties at 8,000. He concluded:-"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. Our troops are exceedingly proud of themselves, particularly 53rd Division, who have not been in action since Suvla, and I am delighted with their enterprise, endurance, skill (,and leading. 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. "
It will be seen from Sir W. Robertson's messages that the policy of the Government had completely changed. No longer were serious operations to be postponed until the autumn; Sir A. Murray was now urged to advance and capture Jerusalem as soon as possible. To some extent this revision of estimates and plans was accounted for by the British success in Mesopotamia, but it was governed to a greater extent by the interpretation placed by the C.I.G.S. and the War Cabinet upon Sir A. Murray's reports. There is no doubt that these reports, the first of which resulted in congratulatory messages from H.M. The King, the Imperial War Cabinet, Lord Derby, General Nivelle, with personal telegrams from Sir W. Robertson and Sir John Cowans, created in their minds the impression that the result of the battle had been more favourable, and that the enemy had been harder hit, than was actually the case. This appears to have been one of those occasions in which a commander in the field, hoping immediately to improve his situation after what has appeared to him to be only a temporary set-back, has unconsciously understated the extent of that set-back in his reports to those in ultimate authority. He may by such action avoid creating needless despondency, but he may also give rise to exaggerated hopes, deprive himself of support which a fuller representation of the case would have ensured, and finally be forced to demand it after a further check to his plans.
At the same time, even had Sir A. Murray's messages been framed in less sanguine tones, neither the C.I.G.S. nor the War Cabinet would have been likely to admit that his offensive power had vanished as a result of one indecisive action-an action which, judged by the standards of the Western Front, was small and far from costly. The War Office was fully aware of the Turkish strength in the theatre and the limits of possible reinforcement, and with some minor differences its estimate corresponded with that of G.H.Q. in Egypt. Though the renewed British offensive, preparations for which were known to be in train, might have been less confidently urged, it does not seem probable that it would in any case have been cancelled.
Falls Account Line of March Picture.