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"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess

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Saturday, 19 April 2008
The Second Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 19 April 1917, Gullett Account Part 2
Topic: BatzP - 2nd Gaza

The Second Battle of Gaza

Palestine, 19 April 1917

Gullett Account Part 2

 

 
Left to right: Lt Murray, Surveyor; Mr Gullett, Official War Correspondent; Lt O'Connor, Photographer.

 

The following is extracted from the book written by HS Gullett called Sinai and Palestine,  Chapter XIX The Second Gaza Engagement - continued.

 

Chapter XIX The Second Gaza Engagement - continued.

The orders to the Imperial Mounted Division left a large amount of discretion to General Hodgson. He was to demonstrate strongly against the Atawineh defences, and so hold the enemy on his front and away from Gaza, where the main attack was being made by the infantry. If the opposition was not excessive, his brigades were to push right through-in which case the horses would be brought up and the troops of Desert Column might have done destructive work against the enemy's rear. Orders which allow such latitude in fulfilment, although often unavoidable, are seldom satisfactory in action. Passed to brigade and from brigade to regiment, they lead, unless communications continue exceptionally good, to different interpretations by different leaders. Some regiments will maintain their advance; others, perhaps on a more difficult sector, will be brought to a halt. At the second Gaza engagement the regiments of the 3rd and 4th Light Horse Brigades met with opposition more formidable than had been anticipated by General Dobell; but all treated the advance as one to be made regardless of cost, and fought on with their utmost strength and ingenuity to reach the Turkish line

The advance of Hodgson's division was to some extent disorganised by the premature action of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade under Royston. The regiments had marched from bivouac in the darkness, crossed the Ghuzze, and, half-choked with the dust raised by the horses, moved forward on compass bearings. They had then deployed, mounted, before dawn, a delicate operation in unknown country, hit here carried out with complete success. Their advance, like that of the rest of the army, was timed for 7.30 a.m. But Royston, owing to some misunderstanding, and in a fashion characteristic of all his impetuous actions, led his regiments forward before dawn until they were one and a half miles in advance of Munkheileh, where the 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade, which was to conform on their right, was still awaiting orders to move. As the men went forward on foot, they came under fire from Sausage Ridge on their right; as usually happens, they swung towards the Turkish batteries. This brought them on to the yeomanry sector, and at the same time made a gap inevitable between their left and the 4th Light Horse Brigade. At 6.40-nearly an hour before the time appointed for the attack Hodgson ordered Royston to halt until the yeomanry and the 4th Brigade came up on either side of him.

In this engagement the 4th Light Horse Brigade under Meredith, operating between the Camels and Royston's brigade, had only the 11th and 12th Regiments. It was nevertheless given a full brigade sector, and Meredith from the outset had only two squadrons in reserve. Major K. A. McKenzie, a capable Duntroon youngster, was this day winning his spurs as brigade-major. The 11th Regiment under Grant, and the 12th under Lieutenant-Colonel H. McIntosh, dismounted at Aseiferiyeh, about two and a half miles from the Atawineh Redoubt. Advancing on the right of the Wadi Sihan, McIntosh led his men direct on Atawineh, while Grant, whose sector included the wadi, pushed for the Turks between Atawineh and the right of the Camels. A barley crop, gay with red poppies, covered the slopes; the dew had been heavy, and the men were soon wet above their knees. Moving in column of troops, with the men of the leading wave about ten yards apart, the light horsemen presented, as they always did on foot, a painfully slender force for an assault on substantial and strongly-garrisoned earthworks; and there was not an officer in the brigade, or in the whole division who believed that the enterprise had the faintest chance of success. As they reached a spot afterwards known as " Two Tree Farm," where the brigade subsequently established its headquarters, they overran an enemy outpost and took fifty-six prisoners. But shrapnel was now bursting freely over them and, after they had passed the two trees, the Turks swept their line with machine-guns and rifles. At this time Royston, galloping across the open, reported a wide gap between the 3rd and 4th Brigades, and McIntosh's reserve squadron under Major D. Cameron' was sent to the right to cover it. This left the 12th Regiment with every man in the line. Cameron's men made good progress on a wide front, and occupied a ridge directly in front of Atawineh, from which it was about 800 yards distant. So far the men had been marching steadily, without using their rifles; but, as the Turkish fire became more intense, they went down in the barley and crawled, firing as opportunity offered.

Up to this time the advance of the 11th and 12th had gone with great vigour. The Camels and the infantry on the left had attracted most of the enemy's gun-fire, and, for the moment, the prospect that Meredith's brigade would reach its objectives appeared promising. But suddenly the enemy melted away-due to sheer dissolution by casualties." The line was still half-a-mile from the great Atawineh Redoubt on the skyline, and it became clear to Grant and McIntosh that further attempts to push forward, with no prospect of sufficient survivors for a final assault with the bayonet, would not be justified. The line was therefore halted, while, as the men flattened themselves out on the ground, and endeavoured to scratch themselves in, the German machine-gun fire cut the heads off the barley above them. McIntosh, who had gallantly advanced with his two squadrons, was hit by shrapnel pellets, one of which severed an artery in his groin.

He was carried out, and the bleeding was stopped; but a night or two afterwards, as he was lying in a hospital train at El Arish, the wound re-opened, and he was found dead in the morning. McIntosh had fought at Gallipoli and was a daring leader, much loved by his men. Lieutenant E. H. Cross.' adjutant of the 12th, was wounded soon afterwards; in one of the squadrons every officer was a casualty before 10 o’clock.

On the extreme left one squadron of the 11th Regiment continued to make slight headway, and, as we have seen joined up with de Lancey Forth's Camel battalion. But the punishment was now destructive along the whole front, and Grant was forced to make a slight withdrawal. So far not a sign of Turks had been seen in the earthworks ahead; but, as the British artillery practice on the sector was exceedingly poor, and only an occasional shell was pitching on to Atawineh, the enemy had undisturbed shooting at 800 yards upon the exposed Australian line, Cameron, who had taken over the 12th Regiment, therefore withdrew his two squadrons on the left to conform with the 11th, but kept the squadron on the right on the ridge which they had gained, in the hope that the 3rd Brigade might be able to join up there. But Royston's regiments were now in similar difficulties further back. All day the 11th and 12th maintained their line. The casualties exceeded 30 per cent. of all ranks, and yet the men continued in the highest spirits. " There was constant laughter among the barley " said one of the officers. '' Our fellows took the heavy casualties almost as a joke. ' Stretcher-bearer here,' shouted a trooper, 'I have got one in the leg.' He sat up laughing, and was instantly killed by shrapnel." When at 7.30 in the evening the line was withdrawn, all but one of the wounded and dead were carried out.

At daylight on the 19th, when the 5th Mounted Brigade of the Imperial Mounted Division was about Munkheileh Rijl, and the 4th Light Horse Brigade was to the east of Aseiferiyeh, both still awaiting orders, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade in the centre-having, as has been already stated, advanced dismounted in the darkness-was far up the slope and only about 800 yards from Atawineh. The 9th Regiment was on the right, the 10th on the left, and the 8th, still with its horses, in reserve. The 9th and 10th marched one and a half miles on foot, and it was not until daylight that they discovered their isolation. So far their presence had not been detected by the Turks, but, with the dawn, as they moved through the patches of barley and intervening grassland brilliant with wild flowers, and startled many quail which awakened memories of pleasant sporting days in Australia, they were heavily shelled. Casualties were numerous; progress became very slow, and soon the line was halted until the other brigades should receive their orders to advance. Lying down in the barley, the men maintained constant rifle-fire upon the enemy trenches ahead, and admirable support was given by the Machine-Gun Squadron under Major C. L. Nicholas. Always exposed in the front line, the gunners streamed their fire on to the Turkish parapets; without their support the light horsemen must have been annihilated early in the day. But they were without definite targets, and the Turks, with highly accurate artillery and machine-guns, had all the best of the exchanges.

In actions such as this brigadiers are generally permitted to use their discretion as to how far they will gallop before dismounting for the attack on foot. Obviously the nature of the country is a deciding factor, as the regiments can gallop close up, despite casualties to the horses, if the ground is favourable for subsequent withdrawal, or if there is cover for the animals close to the firing line. On this day the 5th Mounted Brigade, led by a dashing soldier, Brigadier-General P. D. Fitzgerald an Australian-born Imperial officer, galloped deep into the zone of shell-fire. The movement cost the brigade several horses, but very few men were hit; the casualties were certainly lighter than they would have been in marching slowly over the same ground dismounted. But after leaving their horses the yeomanry found the enemy fire too deadly for progress, and were unable to get up and conform with the line of the 9th Light Horse Regiment on their left. Meanwhile the 9th and 10th Regiments had resumed their advance, and were now within 500 yards of the Atawineh trenches. They rushed a small system of enemy works near the Gaza-Beersheba road, and took about seventy prisoners without much loss, but were unable to reach the forward line of the 12th Regiment on their left, while their right flank was exposed because of the check to the yeomanry. Their right was therefore thrown back to join up with the yeomanry. This movement increased the gap between the 3rd and 4th Brigades; the 8th Light Horse Regiment was then sent in to assist Major Cameron's squadron of the 12th in closing it. The local success of Royston's regiments on the Beersheba road drew upon them greatly increased artillery fire, especially from Sausage Ridge on their right, from which the 5th Mounted Brigade was also being heavily bombarded. At 10.30 a.m. the yeomanry occupied a ridge close to the Beersheba road, but had their right bent back to engage Sausage Ridge. Soon afterwards the Wellingtons of the New Zealand Brigade advanced along Sausage Ridge in support of the yeomanry, but were at once, like the rest of the line, pinned down by the sure fire of the enemy. The men of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade had from their line a complete view of the operations towards Gaza, and could see that everywhere the assault had been checked. On their own sector they were hanging on desperately with a force rapidly dwindling under the enemy fire. Among the wounded was Scott, who led the 9th Regiment. Every man who showed himself at once became a target for machine-guns and rifles, and there was no prospect that a charge for the Atawineh Redoubt would be sustained in any strength up the bare slope of 500 yards. They could also see large bodies of Turkish reinforcements coming towards Atawineh from the direction of Beersheba.

All day the enemy's artillery was exceedingly accurate, and it was clear that the gunners had carefully studied the ground and registered their ranges. They picked up the position of the British batteries and led horses with remarkable rapidity, and also made precarious the communications over the exposed ground between the rear and the firing line. Early in the afternoon Hodgson's batteries on the Sheikh Abbas Ridge were advanced so as to give closer support to the men in the line; but the light guns, although they to some extent reduced the small-arms fire of the enemy, produced little or no effect upon his trenches.

At about noon the 5th Mounted Brigade made some slight headway, and the 9th Light Horse Regiment was ordered to bring forward its right again as a preliminary to a general assault on Atawineh. As the squadrons moved they were deluged by fire, and men fell thickly; to save the regiment from complete destruction, it, together with the rest of the 3rd Brigade, was withdrawn for a few hundred yards. On the way back the barrage was incessant. As, however, the Turks made no attempt to leave their trenches, and as the 4th Brigade was still holding to its ground, Hodgson shortly before 2 o'clock again ordered the 3rd forward. Already the regiments had suffered shattering casualties, but upon receiving the order they advanced with the same freshness as had marked their first attack in the morning. Under terrible fire they pressed on to their original position, but there again were arrested and held. While they were struggling forward, the Turks were developing a formidable counter-attack along the whole line from the coast towards the east. This blow, falling upon the right of the 54th Division and the Camel Brigade, forced these troops to give some ground, thereby exposing all Hodgson's division to enfilade fire from the west; the cross-fire from Sausage Ridge on the east also became heavier than at any time earlier in the day.

The exposed 3rd Brigade, however, stood firm, and the spirits of the men were greatly cheered by the timely arrival of the 6th Mounted Brigade-which, having been in reserve, now came forward at the gallop almost to the firing line. Two regiments of this brigade, perhaps the finest body of yeomanry which fought in Palestine, were sent to reinforce the yeomanry of the 5th Brigade; the third went to the support of the 8th Light Horse in the gap between the 3rd and 4th Australian Brigades. At the same time, as the position was now critical, the 263rd Field Artillery Brigade of the 74th Division was ordered up to support Hodgson's line, and Major Daniel came smartly into action. Thus reinforced, Hodgson's artillery concentrated upon the enemy's line at the points where the Turks were being massed for the counter-attack, and, with the assistance of machine-gun and Hotchkiss,' the storm-troops were dispersed and the offensive never developed. But while the British guns were of necessity devoted to the enemy's trenches, his batteries continued to enjoy immunity from fire, and all the afternoon they bombarded Hodgson's men with frontal fire and enfilade from both sides.

So marked was the superiority of the enemy's guns that, while they kept the light horsemen and yeomanry under constant bombardment, they had guns to spare against the British batteries. At one time during the afternoon they concentrated on " B " Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company, commanded by Major the Hon. R. M. P. Preston, which had all day been in close support of the 5th Mounted Brigade, and had fired 1,400 rounds during the action. One gun and two limbers of the battery were quickly knocked out, and the gunners had temporarily to be withdrawn.

The relief given by the 6th Mounted Brigade to the 8th Light Horse Regiment was particularly opportune. The Victorians in the gap between the two brigades had been on the most exposed of all the bare sectors, and were without the protection of even the barley crops. Their losses were heavy. Major A. McAllister, Captain A. E. Wearne, and Lieutenants A. N. Anderson, V. St. J. Maunsell, L. A. W. Macpherson, and G. Fayll were wounded, McAllister and Anderson dying soon afterwards. McAllister, who fell at the head of his squadron, was a veteran of both Anzac and South Africa, and a well-known Australian athlete.

Lieutenant Colonel Maygar, a South African V.C., and always very bold in his personal leadership, rode about the battleground all day Hotchkiss Machine-Guns-one to each troop-in place of the Lewis guns were used for the first time by the light horsemen in this fight and as there had previously been only one Lewis gun to each squadron the fire strength of the regiments was greatly increased by the change. The light horsemen were very pleased with the Hotchkiss but the Camels, who continued to use the Lewis, were equally sure that they possessed the better weapon.
On a grey horse, and was at the time in advance of his firing line. It was a day when true leaders recognised that their men needed inspiration, and Maygar gave it in the finest manner. Major H. J. Shannon, a Victorian farmer, equalled Maygar in his cool and daring leadership. Royston as usual rode where the fire was thickest, and he and Maygar on their horses played an active part in the capture of Turkish outposts within a few hundred yards of the enemy's main line. When the line was temporarily withdrawn at noon Trooper Duguid who was badly wounded, had to be left on the ground; when the men of the 8th again advanced, they found that he had been killed with the bayonet, and stripped of his clothes and boots, by Turkish snipers who had crept forward when the Australians retired. Nearly six months later, when the 3rd Brigade entered Huj in the great drive up the Philistine plain, they found Duguid's paybook in one of the enemy camps.

All day both British and hostile airmen flew low over the battleground, and the Germans in their superior machines freely bombed the horse-lines, batteries, and various headquarters. A bomb, dropped on the headquarters of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, severely wounded Major C. C. Dangar," the brigade-major. Dangar was a member of a well-known Australian pastoral family in New South Wales, who had for many years held a commission in the 13th Hussars. A capable officer, he served on the general staff with the light horsemen for more than two years, when he was invalided to Australia, and died as the ship reached Melbourne. During the afternoon there developed immediately over the rival lines a fight between a German pilot and a pilot of the British Flying Corps. The airmen manoeuvred for the advantage, and the German, getting on top, dived and missed. Then came the Englishman's turn; but, as he swooped on to the enemy, one of the wings of his machine collapsed, and he fell like a stone. For a moment the British line confused the aeroplanes, and a great cheer sounded when the men thought that the German had been crashed. Then the red, white, and blue rings were seen on the falling plane, with the pilot standing up holding on to one of the struts. He was instantly killed by the fall.

During this day's bitter fighting there were numberless fine instances of individual gallantry. Hour after hour the fearless stretcher-bearers worked in the open with no hope that the enemy could, under such conditions of fighting, respect their humane mission. Captain W. Evans,15 of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade Field Ambulance, worked all day under the fire of the guns, and, assisted only by four men handled no less than 240 wounded. Trooper F. J. Manuell, a Queenslander, was leading forward two horses with Hotchkiss guns, when a shell which pitched immediately in front of him cut one of his feet in two. Manuell kept control of the two terrified, plunging horses, and handed them over before he collapsed. As the line was diminished by casualties, surviving officers picked up the rifles of disabled men, and some of them fired up to 500 rounds. Major P. A. Chambers, of the 12th Light Horse Regiment, was hit in the shoulder, but after having his wound dressed returned to the line, only to be more seriously wounded in the body. Cotter, the international fast bowler, who was afterwards killed at Beersheba, was prominent all day among the stretcher-bearers. On the vital sector before Gaza the 155th Brigade of the 52nd Division, after very heavy losses, gained Outpost Hill, a feature on the El Sire Ridge, at about 10 a.m. But the knoll was scarcely won before it came under an intense bombardment, and the British, reduced to a handful of men, were driven out. While the brigade was organising a fresh attack against the position, Major Forrest of the King's Own Scottish Borderers on his own initiative assembled some men and gallantly re-occupied the hill from the east. He was immediately joined by troops from the 155th Brigade; but every attempt to advance from the hill was shattered as the infantry left the trenches, and in one of these essays Forrest was killed. At 1.30 p.m. the 160th Brigade of the 53rd Division, after many unsuccessful efforts and heavy losses, carried Samson's Ridge. When at z o'clock the enemy counter-attacked along the whole front, he was decisively stopped and suffered the only severe casualties inflicted upon him during the day.

By noon it was clear to Dobell that his prospect of success was slender. Reports from all his divisions were extremely discouraging, and at about 3 o'clock an intercepted wireless message from the Commandant of Gaza to Turkish Headquarters stated that the Gaza garrison was in no need of reinforcement. " Though it was possible it was intended to mislead," said Dobell in his subsequent report upon the day's fighting, " the message added confirmation to the reports sent back by the troops and the aircraft reports, all of which indicated that our attack had not yet succeeded in drawing in the enemy's reserves. In view of this fact, therefore, I considered it to be clear that the opportunity was not yet favourable for an attempt to force a decision by the use of my general reserve. At 5 o'clock the situation was practically unchanged from that of two hours earlier. The enemy still showed no sign of any considerable movement of troops. It was therefore evident that the action could not be brought to a conclusion within the day, and that it would be necessary to consolidate the positions gained and to postpone any further advance until the following day." Adjustments were then made in the advanced line of the infantry brigades, and arrangements vigorously pressed for a resumption of the attack on the following morning. The outlook, however, was anything but promising. The 74th Division was still complete, and Anzac Mounted Division on the right had suffered only slight casualties; but it was plain that, while the infantry might stay on their ground, the line held by the Imperial Mounted Division must be evacuated at nightfall, since it was too weakly occupied to be safe. During the night Dobell, after consultation with his divisional commanders, decided to postpone a resumption of the attack for twenty four hours.

The retirement of the Imperial Mounted Division was to have commenced at dark, but the difficulty presented by the removal of the wounded delayed it till about 8 o'clock. As the Turks made no demonstration, the withdrawal was carried out in good order. But tired though the troops were, no rest was contemplated for them. The fear of a counter-attack on the flank was strong in Dobell's mind. The day's offensive had been an unqualified failure; worse than that, the enemy from his high ground, and with his regiments intact, might by a vigorous blow have turned the British failure into disaster. As Hodgson's men reached their new outpost line-which had its left on Meshrefe, and ran thence through Aseiferiyeh to Hill 310 on the Wadi Sheria-they began at once to ply pick and shovel, and continued digging strenuously through the night. So milch night work had given the troops the eyes of owls. Though this outpost line was taken up in the dark, it was put down exactly on the positions ordered, and only at two points had the siting of the trenches to be altered at daylight.

This was the fourth night on which the light horsemen of the division had been without sleep, yet digging was carried on at high pressure on the 20th until late in the day. In the morning the Turks could be seen reinforcing and improving their trenches; but, although their patrols advanced within rifle-range, the feared counter-attack was not made. On the night of the 19th Hodgson's orders had been to withdraw his shattered regiments if they were seriously attacked.

"The staff that night," said one of the light horse officers, "seemed very jumpy, but our outpost position was a good one, and the men were always quite confident that the Turks could not shift them." After twenty-four hours' hard work by his troopers, Hodgson was satisfied he could hold his ground against any assault the enemy might make.

During this day's engagement the Anzac Mounted Division on the right flank was comparatively inactive. About midnight of the r8-Igth Chauvel, with definite orders not to make a dismounted attack, moved from Shellal to demonstrate against the Hareira Redoubt, and generally to protect the flank of Dobell's forces. The 22nd Mounted Brigade on the right advanced to cross the Wadi about Tel el Fara; the 2nd Light Horse Brigade marched towards Hareira; the 1st Light Horse Brigade moved on Baiket el Sana, while the New Zealanders remained in general reserve near Hill 380, about four miles south-east of Tel el Jemmi. The 1st Brigade, as advance-guard, reached Khurbet Erk at 5 a.m.; an hour later the 1st Regiment pined Baiket el Sam without opposition, and extended its line southwards to the Wadi el Sheria. Granville's men were now about a mile and a half from Hareira Redoubt, and for some hours the enemy resolutely shelled the scattered line, but without causing serious casualties, At 2.30 p.m. Cox relieved the 1st Regiment with the 2nd and 3rd, and extended his line to join up with the 7th Light Horse Regiment, which had pushed three troops under Major Richardson towards Abu Shawish. Unfortunately the 22nd Mounted Brigade (which had advanced from Gamli on the right to link up with the 7th Regiment) appeared to mistake the galloping retirement of the Australian led horses for a general withdrawal, and, evacuating its position, retired across the Ghuzze. This left Richardson with his right flank exposed. Meanwhile the 5th Light Horse Regiment had been digging a line of posts behind the 7th, from Hill 310 (near the junction of the Wadi Khurbet Erk and the Wadi Imleih) towards Shellal on the Ghuzze.

Cox's line thus ran from Hill 340 along the Wadi el Sheria to a point due south of Baiket el Sana, then northward through Baiket el Sana to the right flank of the New Zealanders. Two squadrons of the 2nd Regiment under Bourne occupied the high ground of Baiket el Sana, and the 3rd Regiment under Fulton on their right joined up with the 7th Regiment across the two wadis. Almost simultaneously with the counter-attack of the Turkish infantry from Gaza to Atawineh, the enemy demonstrated strongly against the extreme flank held by Anzac Mounted Division. Infantry (about a regiment strong) massed on the Gaza-Beersheba road about 3,000 yards north-east of Baiket el Sana; at the same time the 3rd Light Horse Regiment came into touch with about 1,000 Turkish cavalry. Some 500 of these were advancing towards Khurbet Erk on the tongue of land between the junction of the Wadi Imleih with the Wadi Sheria, while the remainder, bearing on the same point, approached on the south side of the Imleih. Never bold, the Turkish cavalry, although armed with lances, while the Australians were in the open and without a cavalry weapon, refused a mounted conflict, and, leaving their horses, advanced with the rifle. They were supported by one field-piece and a battery of mountain guns, which they carried forward on pack-horses. Fulton disposed his squadrons dismounted across the two wadis; four Maxims of the brigade machine-gun squadron, under Lieutenant C. W. Harris, were boldly placed in the open on the land between the wadis, where they were reinforced by four Hotchkiss guns. The machine-guns withheld their fire until the Turks offered a fine target at ranges between 500 and 600 yards, when they opened, and immediately began to inflict heavy casualties. This opposition, supported by excellent rifle-shooting from the light horse line, quickly stopped the enemy advance; after hanging on for about an hour the Turks retired, mounted their horses and swung across towards the 7th Regiment on the right.

As soon as the intention of the enemy to attack had become manifest, Cox had ordered forward the Leicester Battery. The guns, admirably handled by Captain Lewis, galloped out on to a patch of plain land near Adrah just as the enemy was launching a general assault from Hareira to Sausage Ridge. A single four gun battery in action among a mass of heavy artillery has a very limited influence; but on a front where the artillery is relatively light its moral effect, even when alone, is remarkable. Opening fire instantly after the teams were halted and removed, Lewis's guns began at once to make effective shooting and caused casualties and considerable confusion in successive waves of Turkish infantry. Nevertheless the enemy maintained his advance until within 400 yards of the thin line of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment on Baiket el Sana. The light horsemen, despite their inferior numbers, then commenced to do very deadly work with their rifles, supported by two machine-guns and eight Hotchkiss guns posted on the ridge. Support was also given by a squadron of the 1st under Major D. W. A. Smith.4G The Turks halted and tried to build up a firing line, to which they brought a number of machine-guns, and for a time the fight at close range was heavy. The Leicester gunners continued to shoot well until they came under concentrated fire from Turkish batteries, when Lewis galloped his battery out, gun by gun, to a position on the wadi just west of Khurbet Erk. There it again opened fire and silenced an enemy battery in the direction of Abu Shawish. After suffering severe casualties, the enemy infantry broke off the engagement and retired. Cox remained on the ground until dark, and then withdrew to Tel el Jemmi to water; the brigade, marching all night, reached bivouac at El Izraa'in shortly before dawn on the 20th. Its casualties were light, but Major A. F. Chambers of the 2nd Regiment was mortally wounded.

Soon after the attack by Turkish cavalry on the 3rd Regiment, the 7th and 5th Regiments had a lively little encounter with the enemy further west. When the Turkish regiment pulled away from its demonstration against the 3rd Regiment, it swung to the left and was joined by a further substantial mounted force, the combined bodies being about a division strong. This cavalry pressed in rapidly towards troops of the 7th Regiment, which were scattered over a long line; and Richardson, following his orders, began to withdraw towards the line of posts prepared by the 5th. The Australians retired very slowly, and with four machine-guns held the host of enemy horse at bay for over an hour. The rattle of machine-guns always had a disturbing effect upon the nerves of Turkish cavalry, and this division allowed three light horse troops to keep it at a standstill just out of range. During the whole campaign the enemy maintained at least a division of cavalry on the Palestine front, but the horsemen never made a resolute attempt to use their lances upon British troops. Indifferently led, and mounted a nondescript lot of ponies which were usually in wretched condition, they served some useful purpose in reconnaissance and patrol-but even at that work they were too timid to be effective. They practised tactics peculiarly their own. In this demonstration they advanced behind a screen of Arab rabble mounted on camels, donkeys, and mares with foals at foot. These were apparently intended for a stalking horse, since the cavalry could be seen in regular formation in their rear. Two armoured cars had come up in support of the 5th Regiment, and the light horsemen suggested to the British officers that they might make a dash at the Turkish horsemen. But earlier in the day two similar cars, venturing towards Atawineh had been hit hard by the enemy's artillery, and the officers decided to wait in the hope that the cavalry would attack. This decision becoming known, a disgusted light horseman temporarily strained Imperial relations by saying to the officer in charge: "If you chaps are not going into action, do you mind me tying my old horse to your car for a while?" The posts of the 5th Regiment were evacuated after nightfall.

All along the line the night of the 19th passed quietly, except for intermittent shelling. As Dobell, at his headquarters at Belah, obtained full particulars of the day's fighting he realised the extent of his failure, his very heavy losses, the consequent weakness of his divisions, and the impossibility of continuing the assault. " During the night," he says in his report, "after further consultation with my divisional commanders, and after fully considering the situation, which was now quite clear, I decided to postpone the offensive without giving a day for the resumption."
The morning of the 20th found the British army with its ambitious attack abandoned. Worse still, there was now danger of a strong counter-attack by the enemy, and the day after the battle was spent in building up the line occupied by the infantry during the operation. But the Turks were content to remain on their ground. All the honours were on their side. Twice assailed at Gaza, they had on March 26th luckily escaped disaster, and, three weeks later, had decisively beaten off the British assault. Among the Turkish leaders there was no further talk of a withdrawal to the Jaffa-Jerusalem line, while the rank and file naturally looked upon the Gaza-Beersheba position as one on which the god of battles favoured their efforts, and on which they could continue to resist all the forces that the British could bring against them. Dobell in his report to Murray placed his casualties at 5,900, made up as follows:-

54th Division - 2,971
52nd Division - 1,365
53rd Division - 584
Camel Brigade - 345
Anzac Mounted Division - 105
Imperial Mounted Division - 547

Such losses in a deliberate offensive which proved a failure of the most absolute kind naturally excited the attention of the Government in London. The circumstances were against Murray and Dobell. The disaster came at a most unfortunate time for England. While the two Gaza fights were in progress, enemy submarines were sinking more Allied ships than at any other time during the war, and the outlook, despite the German retreat from the Somme and the intervention of America, had never appeared so gloomy. Murray's disaster, moreover, had been entirely of his own provoking. The Turks had made no attempt to advance against the British advanced base at El Arish, nor could they have done so with any reasonable chance of success. Murray had always been eager for a great advance into Palestine, and had repeatedly urged upon the War Office the advantages of developing the campaign on strong offensive lines. It had been recognised in London that victory at Gaza would mean an immediate menace to Jerusalem with all the political and religious significance which attached to the probability of the early capture of the Holy City. Cabinet Ministers had turned with special interest to their war maps, had measured the distance from Gaza to the Mount of Olives, and congratulated themselves upon having such aggressive leaders as Murray and Dobell. When the news of the repulse reached London, disappointment was keen; and Ministers naturally recalled both Murray's insistent demand to be allowed to adopt a vigorous offensive towards the north, and the confidence he had entertained before the battle. But the Government, if bitterly disappointed, met the situation with one of the boldest arid most decisive strokes of the war. " Gaza," it was commonly said at Whitehall, during the weeks which succeeded the fight, "appears to be a second Gallipoli." The fact that the strength of the Turkish position was clearly recognised makes the decision taken by the War Cabinet the more commendable. The Government decided not merely to continue the offensive, but to treat the campaign in an entirely fresh spirit, and to apply to it new leadership, greatly increased forces, and an abundance of the materials of war. Major General Dallas, who on the 26th March had commanded the 53rd Division, had relinquished his command before the second Gaza engagement. Soon after April 19th Dobell handed over the command of Eastern Force to Sir Philip Chetwode, and in June Sir Archibald Murray was succeeded by General Allenby. Chauvel succeeded Chetwode as the leader of Desert Column, and thus received the well-earned distinction of being the first Australian soldier to reach the rank of lieutenant general. Chaytor, of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, followed Chauvel in the leadership of Anzac Mounted Division.

Although Murray did not retire from the command until July, it is perhaps proper here to estimate his work on the front, and to discuss the causes which led to his failure as an army commander on a grand scale. Murray was already a very tired man when he was, early in 1916, appointed to the Egyptian command. As chief of staff to Sir John French in the terrible but glorious opening days of the struggle in France, he had greatly distinguished himself; but he had, like most other prominent staff officers at that time, been overworked and overstrained. In France he disclosed a weakness fatal to many men not only in high military commands, but in all other walks of life; he worried excessively over details which were properly the concern of his subordinates, and dissipated much of his time and strength upon them. This weakness, reappearing in Egypt, made a task already formidable almost impossible of successful achievement. His command in the Near East extended over from the Sudan to Alexandria, and from the Canal to the borders of Tripoli. Until early in 1917 it included control of the British forces at Salonika and, after the intervention of the Arabs, of British participation in the campaign in the Hejaz. In addition, he was responsible for fighting a considerable and always growing army which advanced across Sinai to the edge of Palestine. His task was one far beyond the capacity of the average army commander.

Egypt was at that time in a state of extreme unrest, and " national " and enemy influences were busily fanning the trouble which was to burst into flame soon after the Armistice. The great majority of the Sudanese, thanks to the splendid administrative qualities of its British civil servants during the years which followed Kitchener's decisive campaign, were loyal and tranquil; but in Murray's time a wild section among the tribesmen necessitated the presence of small British forces, which fought a number of sanguinary little engagements. The elusive, thrusting Senussi were only subdued after a prolonged campaign, which, although not marked by great battles, was a heavy and constant drain both on the attention of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff, and upon his very narrow resources in men and supplies. Salonika alone would have been a nightmare to a leader responsible solely for its control. At that time the fighting on the Salonika front was insignificant; but despatches reveal an extraordinary lack of harmony between the French and British interests, and the labour which this threw on Murray was of the most vexatious and wearing nature. Very similar was the position with the Arabs of the Hejaz where the position was extremely delicate, not only because British activities awakened the jealousies of the various Allied Governments, but also because it involved the troublesome problem of Western intervention in the area containing the Moslem holy places, and of its effect upon fanatical religious susceptibilities.

Such was Murray's vast, complicated, and delicate task. What was his achievement? When the fate of an Empire is at issue, leaders of great armies in the field are tried before a popular tribunal which is rude in its justice and passionate in its decision. Success is extravagantly rewarded with applause, honours, and wealth; failure is swiftly followed by an ill-considered mob-verdict of disgrace and even execration. In the mind of the multitude Sir Archibald Murray is one of the war's tragic failures; but any impartial consideration of his task and his achievement will decide that, if he failed in his ambitious scheme for the invasion of Palestine, he otherwise justified his appointment to great command and did well for the Empire he served. During the eighteen months in which he held the Egyptian command, Murray subdued the troublesome Senussi and gave peace to the Sudan; handled the difficult Hejaz Arabs with conspicuous skill, and brought them into the war; and, with admirable tact, clever diplomacy, and constant firmness, maintained order in Egypt against innumerable seditious agencies which were working for revolt. He did all that a man unfortunately placed as he was could do with the muddle at Salonika. But all these activities, burdensome as they were, and involving negotiation and campaigns with many foreign and sometimes savage peoples, were subsidiary to his main task of guarding the Canal and Egypt against the Turk and afterwards carrying war into Palestine. In these missions he accomplished much; had fortune been a little kinder, he might have guided the campaign through to the triumphant conclusion attained by his great successor. Murray's work not only made Egypt absolutely safe from invasion, but made easy the conquest of Palestine. He was the pioneer-and he reaped the harvest which is so often the pioneer's bitter reward.

Starting with a totally inadequate force, he cleared Sinai of the enemy and shattered the Turkish offensive against Egypt. Opposed and harassed by the British Government, and always short of men, munitions, and engineering supplies, he laid the railway and the pipe-line across the desert to the sound, watered country of southern Palestine, and pushed his army up to the very gates of the Promised Land. The magnitude of his work in the conquest of the Sinai desert can be gauged from the statement that, by the end of February, 1917, he had laid down 388 miles of railway, 300 miles of water piping, 203 miles of metalled road, 86 miles of wire and brushwood road, while 960,000 tons of stone had been won from distant quarries. His large ambition, his fine sense of the strategy of the war as a whole, and his strong persistence, ultimately won the War Cabinet to his view that Palestine should be invaded. Then came his tragic failure at Gaza. The order to withdraw the cordon from Gaza at nightfall on March 26th was unfortunate; but seldom has such an error been attended by results so significant and far-reaching. In warfare there is occasionally a feather-edge between brilliant success and disastrous failure. Had Gaza been taken, and had the Turks withdrawn, as was probable, to the Jaffa-Jerusalem line, Murray would probably have received from a grateful Government that generous support which was afterwards given to Allenby; and had Philip Chetwode and not Dobell commanded Eastern Force on that day, the attempt against the town would probably have succeeded.

Sir Archibald failed mainly because Dobell, who was leading his Palestine army, was equipped neither by experience nor by temperament for an important command against a European force. There is something fine about Dobell's boundless confidence in his capacity to crush his foe at all hours and on any ground. But battles against Europeans are not won by the mere exercise of boundless confidence. Dobell was not the only British leader who, having achieved success against native troops in petty wars, had made such mistakes as he made in Palestine.

The two engagements before Gaza had a profound effect upon the character of the campaign. Hitherto the fighting had been of the old-fashioned, open kind. The British after Romani had steadily advanced in pursuit of an elusive foe, who was apparently undecided as to his plans, and who perhaps believed that Murray's offensive would cease when he had made Egypt safe by the clearing of Sinai. The scattered disposition of the Turkish force before March 26th seemed to indicate that, although its leaders had prepared strong positions on the Gaza-Beersheba line, they were still in doubt as to whether they would occupy it in strength and make a definite stand there. By March the Turks had carried their railway down the Philistine plain, and even extended it into Sinai a few miles south of Kossaima, on the fringes of Sinai; their communications were thereby greatly improved. But that railway was only a single narrow-gauge line. The rolling-stock was scanty, old, and faulty. The enemy was without coal for his engines, and was already ruthlessly destroying the rare remaining plantations of olive-trees which stood around Gaza and at other places here and there in the Holy Land. His fear of offending the Arabs prevented him from living upon the resources of the country, and in any case the local supplies of Palestine were then extremely limited. The enemy, therefore, could have had no great liking for the prospect of supporting a large army over a prolonged period between Gaza and Beersheba. Probably, too, he had an exaggerated sense of the strength of the army which Murray was bringing out of the desert against him.

But the two Gaza battles were as stimulating to the Turks as they were mortifying to the British. Both Turkish and German leaders recognised that, if they could check and even shatter the attack of Murray's divisions between Gaza and Beersheba when their defences were in a very primitive stage of preparation, they might reasonably expect to hold that position indefinitely after the earthworks had been completed. There was no more talk of withdrawal; on the contrary, their happy, elated battalions laid aside their rifles and, taking pick and shovel, worked strenuously to make the position impregnable. Simultaneously on the British side Murray's dispirited men, urged on by commanders fearful of a Turkish counterattack, laboured to make their line secure.

Each army held good defensive ground. Each was confident of its capacity to fling back an assault. By the end of April the campaign had reached a stalemate. The conflict had become a stagnating affair of rival trenches, as it had been upon Gallipoli and was now in France. Until one side or the other brought forward a powerful addition to its strength, the position was not likely to change.

 

 

Further Reading:

The Second Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 19 April 1917

The Second Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 19 April 1917, Allied Forces, Roll of Honour

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920

 


Citation: The Second Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 19 April 1917, Gullett Account Part 2

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Wednesday, 2 March 2011 8:51 PM EAST

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