Topic: BatzP - 1st Gaza
The First Battle of Gaza
Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917
The following is extracted from the book written by HS Gullett called Sinai and Palestine, Chapter XVII First Gaza Engagement.
On March 18th Chetwode, who then had his Desert Column advanced-headquarters at Sheikh Zowaiid, conferred with Chauvel, Hodgson, and Dallas of the 53rd Division, and plans were completed for the attack on Gaza. The possibility of a general Turkish retirement in the event of a decisive British success at Gaza was discussed. Chetwode, in whom the cavalry instinct was always strong, emphasised the necessity of preparing the mounted troops for a vigorous pursuit. Arrangements were made to transfer the supply wagons, with their horse teams, from the 52nd and 53rd Divisions to the two mounted divisions in exchange for the camels of the latter, so that Chauvel and Hodgson should have all possible mobility. The Turks had withdrawn from Khan Yunis, and the village had been occupied by Anzac Mounted Division, and the water-supply developed. On March 22nd Chetwode advanced his headquarters to Rafa.
Dobell was well aware that, if the Turks anticipated his attack on Gaza and concentrated the bulk of their troops in the area Gaza-Beersheba-Huj-Shellal, the position, with its exceptional natural defences, would be unassailable by the troops at his command. Day after day German pilots flew over the British camps; the superiority of their machines enabled them easily to out climb and outpace the British airmen, a fact which made them very daring in reconnaissance. As the British force was moved forward, special care was therefore taken to avoid this vigilant observation. All marches were made by night, the troops being concealed as far as possible in the sand-dunes by day.
For his operations against Gaza Dobell decided to base his advanced-force on Deir el Belah. The site was almost ideal for the purpose. Belah, a small native village, lies at the edge of the coastal sand-dunes, which, for a distance of two or three miles, are there fringed with many groups of palms. These and the pockets between the sand-hills gave good cover to horses and troops. The clean sand made a perfect camp area, particularly in the winter weather, while the hard ground of the treeless plain to the north and east made all movement simple and rapid.
Belah lies ten miles south-west of Gaza. Half-way between the two a great irregular gash is torn across the plain by the Wadi Ghuzze, which, fed in the wet season by many tributaries from the western slope of the central range, interposes a strong barrier south-eastwards from the coast. ("Wadi" is a comprehensive Arabic term for water-courses of every size, from a mere dry gutter to a great feature like the Ghuzze. Arabic has apparently no equivalents for our specific "creek," "brook," and "river.") A characteristic wadi, the Ghuzze is more favoured than most of the streams of southern Palestine; in addition to its winter floods, when it rolls down in a great muddy torrent several feet deep-and between Gaza and Belah more than a hundred yards in width-it is fed in summer by a number of springs in its bed, which, although they do not maintain its flow, provide permanent water for the natives. Its floor lies some thirty or forty feet deep between rugged banks of broken, sandy clay, opening out on either side into innumerable spacious bays. In the spring of the year, with the rain diminishing, it was fordable at many places; consequently, while it offered an easy passage to Dobell's troops, it promised, in the event of failure, an excellent basis of defence if the Turk should retaliate with a counter-attack.
On March 25th a general reconnaissance of the Gaza position was made by the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade. Crossing the Wadi Ghuzze, with supporting troops kept as well concealed as possible, a mounted screen pushed up close to the town on the south-east, and staff officers riding immediately behind were able to make a close personal survey of the ground, in view of the advance which had been decided upon for the following morning. At the same time working parties tested the water in the wadi, and prepared crossings for the troops. The Turks opened long-distance fire on the screen, but appeared to have no inkling of the close proximity of the British divisions; Dobell and Chetwode were hopeful that night that their cautious advance was still unknown to the enemy, and that they would take the garrison by surprise in the morning.
As darkness fell, Chetwode's Desert Column troops moved to camping grounds in the Belah area. All lights and fires were forbidden. The few hours which remained before 2.30 on the morning of the 26th) when the advance was to begin, were spent in completing arrangements, and very few of the men obtained sleep. The troops, especially the infantry, had been on the move for two or three nights, and were, in consequence, already somewhat tired. But the weather was keen and the going sound, and all ranks were in good physical condition for forced marching and battle.
Running north and south about 1,200 yards east of Gaza is a long, irregular ridge, which extends almost to the Wadi Ghuzze. From the Ghuzze to a point abreast of Gaza this feature was known as the El Sire Ridge; further north it was afterwards described as “Anzac Ridge." Rising from it, about 1,500 yards south-east of the town, is the knoll Ali el Muntar. Flanked on either side by intricate little fields enclosed with cactus, the Ali Muntar position, although only 300 feet above sea-level and a few acres in extent, was the key to the defence of Gaza against attack from the south and east. Troops concealed in the cactus on its flanks could effectively sweep the bare plain country to the east and south west, and also cover any approach along the ridge itself from the south; while artillery observers on its summit, which was at that time marked by the large tomb of a sheikh, could direct the fire of the gunners behind with great accuracy. A few hundred yards south of Ali Muntar the enemy line turned off along the fringe of the cactus hedges towards the Mediterranean, so that Gaza was contained against the British attack in a rough right angle, with the hedges and the sand dunes nearer the sea covering the south, and Ali Muntar ridge guarding the east. Ali Muntar and the ridge immediately north and south of it dominated Gaza and the Turkish line through the cactus on the south. If the knoll could be seized by the British early in the attack, the fall of the town was assured. Dobell believed that, if Ali Muntar could be taken, the rest would be easy.
The latest information possessed by the British commander on the night of the 25th was that Gaza was held by only 3,000 troops under the command of Tala Bey, and that the enemy's closest support was at Hareira, ten miles to the south-east. Other Turkish forces were known to be at Tel el Sheria, sixteen miles to the south-west; at Khurbet el Akra, beyond Huj and twelve miles north-east of Gaza; and at Tel en Nejile, on the railway seventeen miles distant. In other words, Dobell and Chetwode believed that 4,000 troops were isolated at Gaza, with a ring of reinforcements, of which none were nearer than ten miles. But in actual fact the intervening country was a hard, rolling plain, over which the Turks, if they moved to the assistance of Gaza, could march swiftly; while in Gaza itself, and within a radius of from ten to seventeen miles, the enemy had a total force of about 15,000 rifles.
Against this force Dobell had within a few miles of the Ghuzze, on the night of the 25th, the 53rd and 54th Infantry Divisions, a total of about 16,000 rifles; Anzac Mounted Division, less the 1st Light Horse Brigade, about 2,400 dismounted rifles; the Imperial Mounted Division less the 4th Light Horse Brigade, about 2,400 dismounted rifles; and about 1,000 rifles in the Camel Brigade-a total force of about 22,000 effectives. And when the mobility of the mounted brigades is remembered, and also the fact that the 5th, 6th, and 22nd Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigades of the Imperial Mounted Division carried swords, and so were complete as cavalry, it is taking too little account of them to consider them merely as dismounted rifles.
With this advantage in numbers and mobility, the prospect of successfully rushing Gaza before Turkish reinforcements could arrive appeared exceedingly good. Only one possibility threatened the enterprise with failure. Were the British misinformed as to the true strength of the garrison? Had the Turks, like the British, been moving at night? If they had thrown a few thousand additional troops into the town within the last few nights, and had closed in from the north and east generally towards the position, Dobell's task was certain to be formidable. The British battle-plans were based on the assumption that the information was correct. Dobell's scheme was simple, and was designed to allow the fullest time possible for storming the town. The attack was to be made by the Desert Column under Chetwode, but Dobell was himself active in the preparations, and he decided to retain the 54th Division under his direct control. The advanced-headquarters of Desert Column and Eastern Force were together during the operation, at a point on the Belah side of the Ghuzze - an arrangement which, as might have been expected, led to excessive leadership without ensuring the strong direct driving force essential to success. Chetwode aimed to fling in the 53rd Division on a frontal attack against the position from the south-east, while the Anzac Mounted Division under Chauvel, having enveloped the town on the north-east and north as far round as the coast, would advance a light force to guard against counter-attack from Deir Sineid and Nejed to the north. At the same time Hodgson, with the Imperial Mounted Division, would take up a position facing generally east and north-east to contain the enemy's reinforcements; his line would be continued to Wadi Ghuzze at Tel el Jemmi by the Camel Brigade, which would act as a pivot for the mounted troops. The 54th Division, which was encamped on the night of the 25th about Inseirat, would press forward across the Ghuzze in readiness to support the 53rd, and was to assist the Imperial Mounted Division if the latter were strongly attacked. Chauvel led Anzac Mounted Division from its camp near Belah at 2.30 in the morning of March 26th. The 7th Light Horse Regiment of the 2nd Brigade formed the screen, and despite the "pitch-black darkness" good progress was made as far as the Ghuzze, which was crossed near Um Jerrar, the traditional birthplace of Isaac. The Imperial Mounted Division moved simultaneously, while the 53rd Infantry Division under Dallas marched towards the wadi near El Breij, two and a half miles nearer the sea. Smith with the Camel Brigade moved further to the east, and crossed at Tel el Jemmi, with orders to clear the front of the 53rd Division, which was following Hodgson to its place of readiness across the wadi.
The country for a mile or two on either side of the wadi was broken with branches from the waterway, and was very rough. A heavy fog fell as the 2nd Light Horse Brigade approached the Ghuzze, and made the work of the guides extremely difficult; but Captain S. A. Tooth1 of the 6th Light Horse Regiment, and Captain H. O. C. Maddrell of the 7th, who were entrusted with the lead, located the crossing without loss of time, and Ryrie's brigade, the New Zealanders, and the 22nd Yeomanry Brigade passed the obstacle at the appointed time. After clearing the wadi, the guides were given half-an-hour to check their bearings, while the division was consolidating. Tooth and Maddrell then led the way slowly but confidently through the dense fog before dawn, on a line a few miles east of Gaza, passing through El Kutshan, Sheikh Abbas, Khurbet er Reseim, Khurbet Kufieh, and thence to the native village of Jebalie three miles north-east of the town. So thick was the fog that each section of horsemen was almost invisible to the one which followed, and the march was only maintained by the ceaseless activity of gallopers between advance-guard and main body. Ryrie's true soldier instinct told him that the fog, although an embarrassment, made observation by the Turkish outposts impossible and greatly improved his chances of taking the enemy by surprise. " It is believed,'' said Chetwode in one of his filial orders. "that Gaza is not strongly held, and it is therefore intended to push the attack with great vigour." Ryrie, believing in his guides, went on boldly.
Throughout the campaign the 7th Light Horse Regiment was noted for its dashing screen-work, and this morning gave officers and men many opportunities of showing their quality. Soon after 6 o'clock, when the fog had lifted and the screen was near Sheikh Abbas, an enemy patrol opened fire on the scattered horsemen. Without hesitation the Australians charged the Turks at the gallop; then a few hundred yards ahead they saw two aeroplanes on the ground and men running round them. The German airmen and mechanics had been awakened by the firing, and had made a rush to start their engines. As the light horsemen galloped up, the machines began to "taxi" across the ground; both escaped, and the pilots, turning almost immediately, returned and machine-gunned the column. One squadron from each regiment was dismounted, and the light horsemen opened on the airmen with their rifles. The only mishap was that Ryrie temporarily lost two fine chargers, which, startled by the aeroplanes, broke away from their groom and galloped into Gaza. But such are the accidents of war, that, many hours later, when Gaza was still uncaptured, some Turks were taken prisoner with the two horses in their possession.
Meanwhile the pace of the brigade had been quickened. The squadrons of the 7th, trotting and cantering over a wide front, were now in constant touch with small bodies of the enemy. Every show of resistance on the open country and in the olive-groves was resolutely galloped. The Turks, most of them just rising from their night's sleep, were bewildered with surprise and entirely without preparations for action against this force of wildly-shouting horsemen. As the Australians crossed the Gaza-Beersheba road, they cut the wires between the two centres. At about this time Major F. G. Newton, with a squadron of the 5th Light Horse Regiment, galloped down a convoy of ten wagons and shot the horses. Another party rushed and captured thirty German pioneers, with a quantity of pack-gear. These fellows at once became very sulky, and refused to march at the double until the light horsemen began ominously to fix bayonets.
As the sun came up over the dark ranges of Judea, it discovered the Australians extremely happy and excited in their adventure. They were now many miles deep into the enemy territory, a long, slight, swiftly-moving column, ignorant as yet whether the other mounted brigades and the infantry had succeeded in penetrating the fog, but, in the excitement of the morning's sport, as careless as they were ignorant. Troopers on the Gaza side of the column chased several little parties of startled Turks up to the outskirts of the town; but bigger game was now to fall into the net. Nothing could have disclosed more completely the surprise of the enemy than the fact that in the early morning a Turkish divisional commander and his staff officers, attended by a small mounted patrol, were jogging along in a number of gharries towards Gaza on the road from Deir Sineid. The general, as he afterwards explained, was proceeding to take over the command of the Gaza garrison, and believed that the British were still somewhere about Khan Yunis. As he sat back in his gharry, enjoying the keen morning air, he was startled by a wild whoop and the noise of galloping hoofs, and in a moment was surrounded by a body of grinning, unkempt Australians on their great steaming horses. His mounted patrol drove in their spurs and fled, followed by the Australian troop-leader, shooting with his revolver, and by most of his men.
But three or four of the light horsemen sat on their horses and, moved by the comedy of the situation, laughed aloud at the little Turkish general. Greatly flustered, the Turk - who possibly believed the crude stories of horrible cruelty inflicted by the Australians on their prisoners, which were circulated among the Ottoman troops by the crafty Germans - nervously produced a gold cigarette case and offered a smoke to the troopers. Not to be outdone in courtesy, an impudent, harem scarum New South Wales boy produced from his breeches pocket a half smoked issue "fag," and solemnly handed it to the general. Later in the morning, when the distinguished prisoner was taken before Ryrie, he complained bitterly of the indignity he had suffered in being laughed at by common soldiers. Ryrie, with his ready sense of humour, was perhaps not so sympathetic as the circumstance demanded. “Well," he said, in his big hearty voice, "you must admit it was damned funny." Passed on to the headquarters of Anzac Mounted Division later in the day, the Turk still protested against his treatment, and insisted to Chauvel that he should be escorted to the rear by an officer of his own rank. Chauvel told him that he was the only British divisional commander east of Gaza, and he feared he could not at that time do himself the honour, nor could he spare one of his very busy brigadiers. The Turk, much disgusted with Australia's sense of courtesy, went off under the escort of an officer of lower grade.
The 7th Regiment, having secured the roads leading north and east from Gaza, was re-assembled and led by Onslow as far as the sand dunes towards the sea, thus practically completing the cordon round the town. The mounted troops, aided by the darkness and the fog, had carried out their appointed task. Gaza was encircled, and the success or failure of the day now rested with the infantry of the 53rd Division.
Ryrie established his headquarters at a knoll which was afterwards known as “Australia Hill," and his line from then until after 4 o'clock ran for three miles west through olive and orange-groves towards the coast. Part of the 6th Light Horse Regiment was pushed north east as far as Deir Sineid to watch for enemy reinforcements, in which work it was supported late in the day by Lieutenant McKenzie with the 7th Light Car Patrol. The New Zealand Brigade, following closely after Ryrie, came into position on the left of the Australians, and two squadrons of the Auckland Regiment were sent in the direction of Huj to watch for the enemy, The 22nd Yeomanry Brigade was to the south of the New Zealanders. General Chauvel had his headquarters on a knoll near Beit Durdis.
Meanwhile good progress had been made by the Imperial Mounted Division and the Camel Brigade; and, although Hodgson's command was for a time delayed by the fog, all the mounted troops were in position by 10 o’clock. The Imperial Mounted Division, with headquarters near Khurbet er Reseim, took up a position of observation extending from near Huj, where touch was made with the Auckland squadrons, to the Gaza-Beersheba road, and thence the Camel Brigade carried the line to the Ghuzze at Tel el Jemmi. Hodgson, and Smith of the Camels, now pushed out patrols, and had the enemy under close observation at all points for several miles. British airmen were also flying low over the surrounding country, so that Chetwode was safeguarded against a surprise attack. Touch with the enemy was made early near Huj by two squadrons of yeomanry, which were in action all day. One troop of twenty-five men charged a large batch of Turks in the open with their swords, and took sixty-seven prisoners. Chetwode had thus completed his outer circle; and, although his second line, facing enemy reinforcements to the east and north-east, was extended and thin, it was highly mobile. Swift concentration at threatened points was assured, and the infantry moving on Gaza had at least some hours' security from an attack on its right flank or rear. The function of the mounted troops was to keep the ring for the infantry; and when the horsemen and Camels had closed all roads out from Gaza, and were in position against any Turkish relieving columns which might attempt to march in, they waited anxiously for the sound of the attack of the 53rd Division.
The story of the First Battle of Gaza is the story of a fog. Major-General Dallas had orders to march with the 53rd Division from his camp near Belah in the dark, and to be ''in a position to throw a strong bridgehead across the Wadi Ghuzze by 5 o'clock in the neighbourhood of El Breij, and seize the high ground Mansura-El Sheluf," and to " attack Ali Muntar as soon as he can complete his reconnaissance, registration, and other arrangements." The Mansura and El Sheluf Ridges were detached features, lying, Mansura on the right and El Sheluf on the left, of the El Sire Ridge, about 3,000 yards south of Gaza. Dallas was therefore to cross the wadi as rapidly as possible, and march without loss of time on his objective. It was hoped that his brigades would be launched on their assault by 8 o'clock in the morning, if not before. But the artillery was first to bombard Ali Muntar and the strong positions to its north and south, although, owing to the limited supply of ammunition, this bombardment was to be brief. The 53rd Division was supported by only two brigades of 18 pounders, and a section of 8 pounders. One infantry battalion and two mounted yeomanry squadrons, supported by a section of 8 pounders, under Lieutenant Colonel Money, was to demonstrate against the enemy line west of Gaza towards the sea, so as to hold the Turks in the trenches there while the main British force was flung at Ali Muntar.
The 53rd Division reached the crossing at El Breij, and before dawn had thrown forward strong bodies to the east bank to guard the bridge-heads. The 158th Brigade was on the right directed on Mansura; the 160th on the left marched on El Sheluf, with the 159th in reserve. As the battalions floundered over the rough crossing of the wadi shortly before dawn, the dense fog settled upon them. It was only about six miles from El Breij to the Turkish defences at Ali Muntar, and the route, although broken near the wadi, was across open rolling plains and bare, low ridges, and offered no obstacles to a vigorous approach. But for the fog Dallas's brigades might easily have reached their points of attack by 8 o'clock; under really active leadership they might have done so even with the handicap of the fog. The situation with the fog, however, was one calculated to delay the average commander. Dallas had in his approach to wheel his division from the right; and to carry out this movement within range of enemy guns, on country of which very little was known in detail, in a dense fog and semidarkness, was one calling for conspicuous resolution. The attack was, moreover, to be preceded by a bombardment, which was impossible until the light improved. Dallas feared that, when the fog lifted, his brigades might find themselves under heavy fire from the Turks before his artillery could register its targets and come into action. At the same time again owing to the darkness and the fog-there was some confusion among the brigades after their crossing, and the British commander decided to wait near the wadi until the fog had cleared. He therefore held up his division for nearly two hours.
Meanwhile Anzac Mounted Division, advancing surely and rapidly despite the fog, had thoroughly aroused the enemy garrison. The delay at the wadi had cost Dallas his opportunity of a surprise assault. When the infantry did move, the brigades made good progress; by 8 o'clock the 160th had reached El Sheluf, and half-an-hour later the 158th was in possession of the high ground at Mansura. The enemy wisely withheld his fire, and it was not until much later, when the leading battalions were within easy range of Ali Muntar, that he disclosed his resistance. At 9 o'clock Dallas conferred with his advanced leaders at Mansura, and decided upon his plan of action.
The delay at the crossing was unfortunate, but the brigades were now so near their objective that, with energetic action, it should not have proved fatal to the day's undertaking. The loss of time at the wadi, however, was only the beginning of a waste of opportunities which was continued for some hours, arid has never been satisfactorily explained. As the brigades advanced from the wadi, the fog had lifted, although for another hour the indefinite light still made effective shooting impossible; in consequence Dallas had ordered his brigadiers to move slowly, as artillery support would be difficult if the mist suddenly cleared. But by 8 o'clock the light was good, and the batteries had crossed the wadi hours before; but no attempt was made to bring them into action until 9 o'clock. Chetwode and Dobell, who had their headquarters together at El Breij, were impatiently waiting for the attack by the 53rd to develop: at 9.30 Chetwode sent a message to Dallas, urging him to "push his attack vigorously." But Dallas about this time had gone forward with his staff to the headquarters of one of his brigades, and for over two hours his own headquarters were deserted by all his staff officers. A little after 9 o'clock a cloud of dust was reported to be moving on the Beersheba road towards Sheria, and this added to Chetwode's anxiety. An hour later his chief of staff again urged Dallas to speed up his advance. "The General Officer Commanding," ran the message, “wishes me to press on you the extreme importance of the capture of Gaza before reinforcements can reach it. Heavy clouds of dust on road from Sheria." At about the same time reports from deserters and aircraft reconnaissance roughly confirmed the British estimate of the strength of the Gaza garrison.
At 11.30 the 53rd Division was still practically stationary, and Chetwode's chief of staff sent the following message to Dallas;
"I am directed to observe that (1) you have been out of touch with Desert Column and your own headquarters for over two hours; ( 2 ) no gun registration appears to have been carried out; (3) that time is passing, and that you are still far from your objective; (4) that the Army and Column Commanders are exercised at the loss of time, which is vital; (5) you must keep a general staff officer at your headquarters who can communicate with you immediately; (6) you must launch your attack forthwith."
Still another hour passed without movement by the 53rd Division. Chetwode at 12 o'clock again addressed himself sharply to Dallas, "No message from you for two hours. When are you going to begin your attack? Time is of vital importance. No general staff officer at your headquarters for two hours."
The dust on the Sheria road proved to be a number of wagons travelling away from Gaza. But half the daylight available for the operation had now slipped away, and the 53rd Division had not closed in on the enemy. Dallas's brigades were already about five hours behind time. He had been promised the support of the 161st Brigade of the 54th Division, which had crossed the wadi at El Breij, and also a brigade of that division's 18-pounders. Just before 12 o'clock he asked Desert Column. "Where are infantry brigade and field artillery brigade which are to come to my support if required? I should like them at Mansura now, as I am not sure what the enemy strength is." It was now clear to Chetwode that, if the 53rd Division should meet with serious resistance, it would be unable to reach Gaza before nightfall. With the exception of the regiment of the 5th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade, which was engaged with the enemy to the south-west of Huj, neither the Imperial Mounted Division nor the Camel Brigade had yet been seriously approached by enemy reinforcements, and the British airmen reported at midday that there was no sign of enemy movement from any direction.
At 12 o'clock, therefore, Chetwode instructed the two mounted divisions “to reconnoitre immediately, with a view to closing in on the enemy at Gaza to assist the infantry if ordered." At 1 o’clock it was definitely decided to use the horsemen in a dismounted attack upon the town. Chauvel was placed in command of the two mounted divisions. Hodgson was ordered to take over the line occupied during the morning by Anzac Mounted Division, so as to enable Chauvel to push forward his three brigades towards the town, and also to relieve the Anzac patrols at Huj, Nejed, and Deir Sineid. The Camel Brigade was ordered to move to the position vacated by Hodgson at Khurbet er Reseim, and watch the whole area between Huj and Khurbet el Aseiferiyeh. At about 1 o’clock the 161st Infantry Brigade, together with the artillery brigade promised to Dallas, was ordered to Mansura Ridge. Although the brigade had only about three and a half miles of level ground to cover, it had not reached Mansura Ridge at 2.30, more than two and a half hours after Dallas asked for it.
A few minutes before 12 o'clock the 158th and 160th Brigades moved from the position in which they had been since early morning to the attack on Gaza. The advance of the 158th on the right lay over a naked plain, while the 160th moved north along the almost equally exposed El Sire Ridge. They had upwards of 4,000 yards to travel against an enemy in a high situation and absolutely concealed in earthworks and cactus hedges; and the many Australians and New Zealanders of the mounted regiments who watched the attack appreciated for the first time in the war the splendid steadiness of British infantry and the fine quality of its regimental leadership under the most galling conditions. The long, regular lines, extended in open formation, soon became a good target for the enemy's guns; but they pressed on unshaken for nearly two miles. Up to this stage scarcely a shot had been fired by the Turkish riflemen or machine-gunners, and it was not even certain that Ali Muntar was held in strength. But when the infantry came within about 1,000 yards of the knoll and its cactus entanglements to the north and south, the silence of the ridge was broken by a fierce outburst of rapid rifle-fire and the sinister voice of many machine-guns. Exposed on the plain to the east and the bare slopes in the south, the British lines immediately showed many gaps, and the enemy artillery, bursting with great accuracy, added heavily to the losses. But the battalions, changing their tactics to a series of rushes, and very gallantly led by platoon and company officers, struggled gamely on under deadly punishment.
Unfortunately the 18-pounder batteries which supported the infantry were making very poor practice; many of their shells were passing right over the Ali Muntar position and falling into a cemetery to the north-east of the town, which was not occupied by enemy troops or batteries. This was at once reported by the airmen, but a long time passed before the range was corrected. Communications and response to intelligence were throughout the engagement exceedingly faulty and slow.
Soon after 1 o’clock General Dallas, now recognising the seriousness of his task, threw in the 159th Brigade, which had been in reserve; and the battalions, swinging round the right of the 158th, attacked Ali Muntar from the north-east, and endeavoured to roll up the enemy's left flank. By some lamentable failure in staff work - the day was full of them - the 201st Artillery Brigade of the 54th Division did not open fire against Ali Muntar until 3 o'clock, three hours after Dallas had asked for it. At 1 o’clock some of the battalions were within a few hundred yards of Ali Muntar; but the intensity of the enemy's fire, which was suffering practically no embarrassment from the British artillery made it difficult to build up a line for the final assault. As the fight developed, it was discovered not only that Ali Muntar was strongly held, but that the positions on either side of the hill were equally difficult to approach. A maze of little cactus fields, afterwards known as the "Labyrinth," about 1,000 yards to the south of Ali Muntar was entered by the 160th Brigade at 3 o'clock. This brought the infantry under shelter of the cactus hedges, but progress in the maze proved slow, for the men had to hack their way through the cactus with their bayonets under point-blank fire from the Turks. It was very difficult to keep touch; every hedge contained snipers; and the British were constantly enfiladed. Almost due west of Ali Muntar a flat green knob (afterwards known as "Green Hill ") was occupied by a large body of Turks, who poured in a devastating enfilade fire against the left flank of the 158th Brigade. Shortly before 4 o'clock Dallas, now wide-awake to the critical nature of the struggle, gave orders that this hill should be assaulted by three battalions of the 161st Brigade of the 54th Division, which now for the first time came into action; no attempt was made to bring up the remaining two brigades of the 51st Division. Dallas had now committed all his troops; his casualties had been severe; his men were exhausted, and the sun was low down over the Mediterranean.
This attack of the 161st Brigade was launched at 4.20 and after complicated and bloody fighting through the hedges the hill was occupied. At about the same time the 159th, on the right flank, gained a cactus-covered hill north-east of Ali Muntar. The main knoll was then brought under intensive cross fire, but it was not until just before dusk that it was carried. Still, the enemy, although he was now being driven off the heights of his main position, had, thanks to the hedges, withdrawn in good order, and was still fighting strongly. His casualties had been light; and Dallas, with his brigades spent, reduced, and disorganised, was not yet in a position to exploit the belated success.
At 1 o’clock Chauvel received orders to take over the command of Imperial Mounted Division, and to be in readiness to advance upon the town. But, before the attack could be launched, extensive changes had to be made in the dispositions of the two divisions and the Camel Brigade. His first step was to extend the line of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade westward across the sand-hills to the sea, and the 7th Light Horse Regiment reached the beach early in the afternoon. Soon after 1 o’clock Chetwode gave him a definite order for the attack, and added that the matter was urgent. There was little or no prospect that the extended squadrons of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade would be able to keep touch, owing to the great length of the front and the complicated nature of the country. But both the Australians and the New Zealanders received their orders with light hearts. After their glorious morning gallop they had been for some hours almost entirely idle, and they had evidence that Tala Bey had withdrawn most of his troops from their front to resist the onslaught of the infantry. Only once had the enemy moved in their direction. Soon after noon a battalion of infantry, marching in close formation along a road through the cactus hedges to the north-east of Gaza, came within 800 yards of a troop of the 5th Light Horse Regiment supported by machine-guns. The gunners opened upon them, and inflicted very heavy casualties before the Turks could get to cover.
The battalion was completely broken up.
At about 3 o'clock Chauvel removed his headquarters to a hill near Jebalie, and completed his arrangements for the advance. Chetwode, who saw his opportunity vanishing again, urged Chauvel to launch his attack as soon as possible. "The success of the operation at Gaza," he wired, " depends largely on the vigour of your attack. It is imperative that the position should be ours before dark." But it was not until 4 o'clock that the brigades were ready to move. When the advance began, the line of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade extended from Jebalie for three miles almost due west to the sea; the New Zealanders were along Anzac Ridge, from a point east of Jebalie to a point due east of the town; the 22nd Mounted Brigade was between the New Zealanders and the right flank of the infantry attacking north of Ali Muntar. Everywhere, and especially on the 2nd Light Horse Brigade sector, on which only the 5th and 7th Regiments were engaged, the line was very thin.
For a time the opposition was slight, and some Australian squadrons rode forward at the canter. A squadron of the 7th, under Major W. Chatham, with bayonets used, galloped down the Jaffa-Gaza road towards an olive-grove, closely followed by a squadron under Major Newton. Before they reached the shelter of the olive trees, heavy fire was opened on them from the cactus hedges and native villages on their right. Most of the troops then dismounted and swung to the right in the direction of the enemy fire. Fine work was done in covering their advance by the machine-gun squadron of the 2nd Brigade, under Captain J. R. Cain,' which, operating at the end of the line, again and again packed its guns on to the horses, and trotting forward, was able to enfilade the opposing Turks. The squadrons were quickly engaged at close quarters among the cactus hedges, through which gaps had to be cut with the bayonet while under fire from Turks a few feel away on the other side. One troop under Lieutenant F. M. Waite kept to their horses, jumped a number of hedges, and charged several Turkish parties. Waite shot many of the enemy with his revolver, and continued fighting until he had been three times wounded. Meanwhile Major A. G. Bolingbroke advanced dismounted with two troops of the third squadron of the 5th (which had been operating with the 7th Regiment towards the beach) on a raid against a Turkish artillery observation-post at Sheikh Redwan, a knoll to the north-west of the town. He surprised and captured the observing party, and stayed in the position until he was strongly counter-attacked by a Turkish force with machineguns at close range, when he rejoined his regiment. Throughout the fight this dashing Queenslander led his men with splendid daring. At one stage he reached a thick hedge with a Turkish trench on the other side, and Australians and Turks blazed at each other through the cactus. Bolingbroke then ordered gaps to be cut with the bayonets, led his men through, and shot several men with his revolver; the rest were killed with the steel.
The advance of the 5th Regiment continued with the greatest spirit. The Turks, taken by surprise at an attack from the north so late in the day, offered only piecemeal opposition. In the maze of the cactus there was much snap shooting. " The Turks," said one of the officers afterwards, " ran in and out like rabbits, and we shot them as they ran." One old farrier-sergeant, who had joined in the charge, was finally cornered in a field with impassable cactus ahead of him; and while his horse nibbled at the grass, he continued sniping over the hedges from the saddle. “Why not get off?" a passing officer asked him. "I can see them better from here," he answered, and went on with his shooting.
On the right the advance of the 7th had been equally fine. The light horsemen knew it was a gamble against the approaching darkness, and, admirably led by their officers, went with all their heart and soul for the town. Perhaps it was that Gaza, with its towers and minarets and white houses showing clear on the hill above the dark plantations, seemed, after the wilderness of Sinai and the hovels of the coastal villages from El Arish to Belah, a civilised place greatly worth winning. But whether it was the seeming richness of the prize (which in reality was as squalid as any of the filthy native villages) or the joy of the rush, or a simple sense of duty, the men, laughing and jesting as they went, dashed on with a fiery impulse which, had it been allowed to continue, promised speedily to overrun the town. When night fell the pale light of a moon in its first quarter relieved the darkness; and the troops and squadrons, maintaining a rough touch by means of whistles and lamps, pressed on through a number of native villages to the very threshold of Gaza.
The advance through gaps cut with bayonets in the cactus had to be made in single file. Lieutenant H. I. Wikner a troop-leader of the 7th known to his men as “Uncle Henry," pressing at the head of his troop through one of these holes, found himself alone in a tiny field surrounded by Turks. He levelled his revolver and called on his men and, as they scrambled through with their bayonets already blooded, twenty-three Turks surrendered. “Uncle Henry gave his war-whoop," said one of the troopers afterwards, "and we all sailed in." Turks and Australians had now become very mixed, and, as the town was approached, the fight went out of the enemy. Even men with led horses had pushed as far as they could through the hedges after the riflemen, and one party of these shot a number of Turks and took twenty prisoners.
The New Zealanders galloped in from the east across Anzac Ridge to a point slightly south of Jebalie, dismounted, and pressed down the ridge towards Gaza. The Wellington Regiment was on the right, the Canterburys on the left bearing towards Ali Muntar, and the Aucklands in support. As the riflemen advanced, the two regiments came under hot fire from cactus hedges in the valley between them and Gaza, and were also enfiladed from Ali Muntar. Progress was impeded by scattered hedges; but the ground was more open than that in front of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, and the New Zealanders pressed on in good formation. Like the Australians, they knew it was a fight against time, and all ranks were eager to get to close quarters before dark. Most of the fighting fell to the Wellingtons, who mere at grips with the Turks less than half-an-hour after the brigade received the orders to advance. They overran an ambulance station, and captured four officers and 125 other ranks, twenty vehicles, and a quantity of other material. The enemy opposed the advance with shrapnel and rifle-fire, but his shooting was indifferent, and the attack went briskly through an olive-grove up to the cactus enclosures near the town. Here, as the Wellingtons hacked their way through the hedges with their bayonets, they were checked by fire from a shallow trench on the further side of a small lagoon; but two troops under Lieutenants Allison and Foley rushed the position. Some of the Turks raised their hands as the New Zealanders closed upon them, but most of them resisted, and thirty-two were killed with the bayonet.
Further to the right two 77-mm, Krupp guns in action were located on the edge of the town, and Major Somerville with his squadron was ordered to attack. The swoop of the New Zealanders was irresistible; forty-six Turks were bayoneted about the guns, arid twenty more captured. The enemy then opened rifle and machine-gun fire on Somerville’s squadron from a house only seventy-five yards away; at the same time a considerable force advanced in a counterattack. Fortunately this body was observed by Lieutenant Snow of the 7th Light Horse, who was on the right; he ran into the open with a Hotchkiss gun, placed it over the shoulder of one of his troopers, and shot down many of the enemy at short range.
The New Zealanders then dispersed the rest of the party with rifle-fire, and, joined by some of the Australians, turned one of the captured guns on to the house occupied by the enemy machine-gun party. Sighting the piece through the open barrel, they loaded and fired two shots into the building. A great number of Turks were killed, and twenty more came out in a dazed state and surrendered. Teams were then improvised and brought up, and the guns were pulled back to brigade headquarters. In these two little bayonet encounters the Wellingtons had only one man killed and four officers and fifteen other ranks wounded.
On the left two squadrons of the Canterburys closed on the town with the Wellingtons, while the third squadron pushed along the ridge to the south. This squadron, anticipating the advance of the 22nd Yeomanry Brigade, joined up with the right of Dallas's infantry, and the two forces reached the sheikh's tomb, on the height of Ali Muntar, simultaneously at 6.40. The honour, however, was all to the infantry. There was no fighting on the summit, the Turks having withdrawn as the British closed in.
The position, then, was that the troops of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Brigade were entering Gaza from the north and east, while the infantry had carried the key of the enemy's main defences at Ali Muntar, as well as the maze of cactus and trenches on its immediate south and south-west. In other words, the Turk had been jolted from his front line on the east and south-east by the fine sustained fighting of the 53rd Division, and the Anzacs were among his gun-positions behind. But at about 6 o'clock General Dobell, after full consultation with Chetwode and Chauvel, and against the strong protest of the Australian leader, decided to break off the engagement and make a general withdrawal.
The message to withdraw reached Ryrie and Chaytor at about 6.20, some twenty minutes before the infantry and Canterburys gained Ali Muntar. To the Australian and New Zealand leaders the order seemed at that stage incredible. Their regiments had made a great advance into the very base of the enemy's strength, had found the Turks demoralised and disinclined to fight, and had suffered practically no casualties. Even in the failing light they had not the least fear as to continuing their advance, since every indication pointed to a rout and general surrender at any moment. Chaytor expressed his opinion of the order by exercising his right to have it sent to him in writing before he acted upon it; and Ryrie, conscious that if it was immediately obeyed he must leave behind and sacrifice a large number of his widely scattered men, bluntly told his staff officers that there was to be no withdrawal until every trooper had been collected. "Not a man is to be left behind." As the order was slowly communicated from brigade to regiment, and on to the distant squadrons and troops, it was everywhere received first with doubt and then with disgust. Again and again the astonished and puzzled officers ordered their signallers to have it repeated; and, when its truth was beyond question, they felt as men could only feel who were ordered to accept defeat, when in their opinion the battle was won and the objective actually in their hands.
But if the order to withdraw was bitter to the Anzac brigades, it was still more bitter to General Dallas and the brigadiers and regimental officers of the 53rd Division. If the 53rd Division had failed in not pressing on through the fog, and if, owing to some unaccountable reason, there had been a most unfortunate delay in advancing to the attack after the brigades reached Mansura and El Sheluf, the work after their belated beginning at noon had upheld the finest traditions of British infantry. Advancing over bare plain and ridge against galling opposition, and supported by very poor shooting on the part of their artillery, much of which did not come into effective action, all battalions had shown a complete carelessness of life and a high resolve to carry the position. Some time before the actual order to the mounted troops was given, Dallas had known that withdrawal had been decided upon if the enemy did not collapse before dark. Chetwode and Chauvel had been fully aware of the risk that was taken when three of the mounted brigades were withdrawn from positions in which they were watching for enemy reinforcements, and thrown against the town. During the afternoon the aeroplanes and cavalry patrols had reported increased Turkish activity in the surrounding country. At 4 o'clock, as the mounted attack was being launched, 300 Turkish infantrymen were seen advancing in the neighbourhood of Deir Sineid, and a force of enemy cavalry was observed on the Hareira road about five miles from Gaza. Shortly before 5 o'clock 3,000 infantry and two squadrons of cavalry were noticed moving south-west from Huj, and a little later four converging columns of infantry, to the number of about 7,000, were reported marching from the direction of Hareira.
“Towards sunset," said Dallas, in his subsequent report upon the operation, "to the best of my recollection, General Chauvel pointed out that my right was in the air, and that he could give me no protection during the night." Chetwode had then pointed out the gap between Dallas's right and the left flank of the 54th Division, and had ordered Dallas to draw back his exposed flank and join up with the 54th. But Dallas, like Chaytor and Ryrie, found it hard to accept defeat when, as he believed, Gaza was won. “I explained," he said, " that it was quite impossible to do this without abandoning the positions the division had taken, and urged that other troops might be sent to fill the gap, and that I might be allowed to hold the position gained. I asked for time to consider. Finally I received definite instructions that I must swing back my right arid get in touch with the 54th Division." While, therefore, the New Zealanders and the 2nd Light Horse Brigade were collecting their men, and preparing for the march out from the north and north-east of the town, Dallas's brigades were withdrawn from the stronghold for which they had paid so great a price in endeavour and life. The 54th Division closed in about two miles, and joined up with Dallas's withdrawn right flank, and the blood-stained battleground around Ali Muntar was for some hours a No-Man's Land.
The march back of the mounted brigades from Gaza was one of the sorriest movements undertaken by Australians and New Zealanders during the war. When the order to break off was received by the 7th Light Horse Regiment, on the extreme right, Onslow concentrated his men upon the beach. Ryrie stood firmly to his declaration that he would not move as long as a single man was unaccounted for. The state of the Turks was shown by the fact that nowhere did they make any effort to follow the retiring light horsemen. But, even without any activity on their part, the squadrons had, in the dark, for the moon had now set, the greatest difficulty in collecting their men. Happily the casualties had been light, and there was very little trouble in their transport. The 2nd Brigade had only one man killed and five wounded, and the New Zealand Brigade only two men killed and four officers and twenty-five men of other ranks wounded.
It was nearly midnight before the 2nd Brigade was assembled. With Ryrie's regiments as rear-guard, the Anzac Mounted Division marched, by a long circuitous route, to the east of the two infantry divisions, before reaching the Ghuzze. So confident were the brigadiers of Chauvel's division that they were in no danger from the enemy, that no precautions were taken against noise or lights, and the course of the column was clearly marked by the striking of matches as the men lit their pipes and cigarettes. As usual, the men, in the excitement of their advance, had lost all sense of weariness, and had charged with the freshness of perfectly fit athletes. But they were now in their third night without sleep. "As we groped our way back," said one of the squadron leaders, “all ranks were almost comatose from exhaustion." The bodies of the few Anzacs who had been killed were strapped to limbers and carried back to Belah; and so thorough had been the search, that at dawn only one man of the and Brigade was missing - and it was remembered that he had been seen asleep close to the point of re-assembly. Many of the Turkish prisoners straggled and escaped into the darkness, despite the vigilance of their guards. Trooper Tattam an Australian drover, had thirty Turks in his care. A man of simple mind, but a good soldier, he believed that court-martial awaited him if any of his men escaped, and several times during the night he “tallied " them over, as he had been accustomed to do with his sheep and cattle at home. On one count he was two Turks short; he made up his “mob" to the correct number by picking up two Bedouins.
The infantry battalions of the 53rd Division received the order to withdraw with the same amazement as the mounted troops, and interpreted it to mean that the enemy was pressing in strength from the east and north. In the intense darkness the effect of this impression upon troops exhausted by long fighting, and shaken by heavy casualties, led to some loss of control by their officers. Part of the division withdrew in confusion, and a considerable number of machine-guns and other material were abandoned. Having made touch with the 54th Division, which was entrenched on a line running north of Mansura down the Burjaliye Ridge, Dallas dug in and waited for the dawn. The gap between the right of the 54th Division and the Ghuzze was partly filled by the Camel Brigade; and the Anzac and Imperial Mounted Divisions, crossing the wadi during the night and early morning, remained in readiness for action if the Turks should attack the infantry.
The strength of the advancing Turkish reinforcements on the evening of the 26th has, since the engagement, been the subject of much heated controversy. But the overwhelming opinion of officers who were actually on the watch for the enemy's approach is that a greatly exaggerated view of the menace was taken by Chetwode and Dobell. At 9.30 at night the three main advancing bodies were still several miles from Gaza. One force was crossing the Wadi Hesi, at Deir Sineid, eight miles north of the town, where they were opposed by part of the 6th Light Horse Regiment; a larger force was exercising some pressure against the 3rd Light Horse Brigade and the 6th Mounted (Yeomanry) Brigade at Beit Durdis; while a third column was held up at Khurbet el Baha by the 10th Light Horse Regiment. Some time before nightfall the 6th Yeomanry Brigade had been pressed near Beit Durdis, but, when it was joined by the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, the Turkish advance was stopped. The 5th Yeomanry Brigade had been sent to fill the gap between Beit Durdis and the left flank of the Camels, but had in some way got out of touch, and that gap was subsequently filled and held by the 10th Light Horse Regiment under Todd. Chetwode, in his report, emphasised the prompt and highly efficient work done by the regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade; but the regimental officers of this body are unanimous in the opinion that they were at no time dangerously pressed.
Every brigadier believed that the enemy could have been held without trouble during the night, while the occupation of the town was completed. Ryrie, who was in close touch with his squadrons at Deir Sineid, strongly maintained the opinion that the withdrawal was a blunder. “When we got the order to pull out," he said, “the town was undoubtedly ours. The New Zealanders held ground from which they dominated the whole position, and my men were actually in Gaza." Chetwode, in his report, referring to the time taken in collecting Anzac Mounted Division after the engagement, explains that some of the men were "collecting wounded, etc., in Gaza." The officers of the 6th Light Horse at Deir Sineid stated that, when they were withdrawn, there was no pressure from the enemy on their front. “I was not able to collect my men," said Ryrie, "until nearly midnight, and during that time there were no signs of the enemy, which shows the value of the information that a large force of Turks, marching to the relief of Gaza, was close upon us." Prisoners taken afterwards said that the Turks were ready to surrender at dawn, and white flags had been distributed for hoisting. Some months later a captured Syrian doctor, who was in Gaza on March 26th, asked Ryrie: “Why did you pull out from Gaza on the first attack?" Ryrie, with characteristic bluntness, replied, “You can damn well search me!" The Syrian added that when Tala Bey (the garrison commander) discovered in the morning that the British had withdrawn, he "laughed for a long time."
The 9th Light Horse Regiment, which was the rear-guard for the 3rd Brigade, remained some miles east of Gaza until 3 o'clock on the morning of the 27th; but though Scott's men were “in the air," they were not troubled by the enemy until they began to retire. Even then the Turks advanced with caution. The regiment had only four men wounded during the night, and the troops took it in turn to cover the retreat, smoked and laughed as they alternately dismounted, used their rifles for a while, and then cantered on. Towards morning the Turks, now sure that the British force was going right back, pressed more vigorously. Royston, who was delaying their advance without becoming actually engaged, was some time after daylight retiring along the track from Sihan to the Ghuzze crossing at Mendur. His brigade there came under considerable shrapnel-fire, and the enemy, recognising that the wadi would delay his march, became aggressive and dangerous.
At this time, however, Lieutenant McKenzie came across from the direction of Gaza with five of his cars of the 7th Light Car Patrol. This dashing little unit had spent an exciting night. McKenzie's narrative, as told in his personal diary, supplies a good example of the work of these units. “The mist was very dense," he says, "as, on the morning of the
26th, we approached the Wadi Ghuzze, which we crossed at about g o'clock. I was leading in my car, followed by the two light armoured batteries and my own patrol. We were shelled from Ali Muntar as we proceeded towards Khurbet Sihan and one man of the Light Armoured Motor Battery was killed. At 5 o'clock I was sent with my patrol to Deir Sineid, to get into the place, if possible; but I was sent too late in the day. It was dusk when I reached Sineid, and the place, which was a mass of prickly pear, was full of Turks. A detachment of the 6th Light Horse was in the vicinity, but was unable to get into the village. I retired, and got orders from Anzac Mounted Division to move back across the Ghuzze. It was already dark, and the country was broken with wadis and many pits and wells, although the going was hard. The cars fell into a number of holes, and we had to lift them out. One car smashed an axle. We towed it until that became impossible, and then stripped it and left it. We occasionally came on to odd parties of our horse and Camels groping in the dark. We then struck a wadi, which kept heading us off towards the west, till I found myself in a very distinct danger zone, with gun-fire close, and Ali Muntar towering above me. We were so absolutely physically done, that we decided to stay there the night, and make a dash for safety at dawn. All night long our troops were passing back south-east of us.
"At dawn we saw we were in a sticky position if discovered. We slipped out on to the Gaza-Beersheba road, every now and then meeting small parties of British 'lost ones,' whom we directed towards the wadi, and then hit up the pace towards Sihan, where we hoped to meet the armoured cars. They were not there. Instead, we found the 3rd Light Horse Brigade retiring before a huge enemy force, who were bearing in heavily on them. General Royston galloped over and asked me if I could cover his retirement. This is just the kind of job we are most suited for. We ran the cars into likely positions along the ridge, and, while the brigade went by, we waited until the enemy came within range. When they were some 1,200 or 1,500 yards off, we opened fire with five machine-guns. It was immense. General Royston was greatly pleased, and he asked if we required a squadron to cover our retreat or to stand by in support. We said, ' No,' so he wished us good luck, and galloped after his brigade. We were now on our own. It was the time of our lives. We placed the cars (never attempting to dismount the guns) in such positions that enemy parties, trying to avoid the fire of one, would come under the fire of another; but we could not stem a force of thousands. They kept advancing, and we retired from one ridge to another comfortably, while the 3rd Brigade got clear away across the wadi, and was secure. We had targets of mounted men and infantry, and killed at least 150 of them, and they must have had very heavy casualties altogether.
We suffered no losses.
"When we reached the ridge close upon Mendur, we found General Smith's Camel Brigade making breakfast, in total ignorance of the proximity of the Turks. I reported at once to the brigadier. He almost refused to believe me, and asked me to go out and make sure. I was tickled, because I had been scrapping with those fellows for the past hour; but I went to please him, and the Turks, as soon as I got within three-quarters of a mile of them, lobbed a bunch of shrapnel shells fairly over the cars. How we escaped I don't know. We slid back, and found the brigadier thoroughly satisfied. He was good stuff, and decided to hold on to his corner, which he did all day.... When we reached General Chetwode he was greatly relieved to find us safe, as we were long overdue, and he gave me a mighty good lunch of cold beef and tomatoes."
At 10.30 on the night of the 26th, Dobell's wireless operators intercepted the following message from von Kressenstein to Tala Bey, the commander of Gaza:-" Having regard to the disposition of Turkish troops and leaders, can an attack be successful at early dawn? I beg you to do your utmost to hold out so long." Tala Bey immediately replied to von Kressenstein, “Your telegram received. Please attack, at all costs, at 2 o'clock to-night." At the same time Tala sent the following wireless to headquarters, Turkish Expeditionary Force;-" Position lost at 7.45." By “position," Tala Bey meant the main Ali Muntar defences, which had been carried at dark by the 53rd Division. These messages-which confirmed so strongly the opinion of Chauvel, Chaytor, and Ryrie, that, when the fight was broken off, the battle was actually won-were not without effect on Dobell. Tala Bey, so far from counter-attacking on the withdrawal of the British force, was, when he sent these messages three or four hours afterwards, under the impression that Gaza was still closely invested, and he apparently believed that it would be rushed with the bayonet at dawn.
Soon after daylight on the 27th, Dallas was ordered to reconnoitre Ali Muntar, and to re-occupy it at once, if it was next held by the enemy. Dallas, with feelings which may easily be imagined, acted promptly. Patrols pushed rapidly up on to Ali Muntar and the other positions evacuated on the previous night; but they had scarcely reached the ground when the Turks advanced against them in force, and drove them off before supports could be sent up. Dallas had now a dangerous salient in his line, which, as the Turks re-occupied their trenches, became exposed to heavy fire. He therefore decided, as a further assault on Ali Muntar could give him no lasting results unless he was substantially reinforced, to reduce this salient by pulling his advanced line back to a point half-way between Ali Muntar and El Sheluf. By this time the Turkish reinforcements from the east had occupied Sheikh Abbas, and from that position began to assail the rear and right flank of the 53rd Division. The engagement had unequivocally failed. During the 27th the enemy threw strong reinforcements into Gaza, and continued to increase his pressure on the 53rd and 54th Divisions, the 2znd Yeomanry Brigade, and the Camel Brigade, all of which remained east of the Wadi Ghuzze.
On the night of the 20th, when Smith, with the Camel Brigade, had been ordered to a line running towards the north from Urn Jerrar, he had been told that the 54th Division was on his left. But at daylight on the morning of the 27th, he found his flank exposed, and no sign of the infantry. He then slightly withdrew his line to an improved position; but before he moved a German aeroplane had flown over his brigade, and soon afterwards enemy artillery fire opened on the evacuated position, and continued shelling it all day. This was conclusive evidence, if it was needed, that there was even then very little resolution behind the advance of the Turkish reinforcements. But at nightfall the enemy began to close in. and at g o'clock Smith received orders to withdraw across the wadi. The enemy was within listening distance. The mounting of the Camel Brigade was usually accompanied by “a noise which could be heard all over Asia." But that night the men, in Smith's words, "excelled, first in their withdrawal, and afterwards in the silence in which they got the camels on to their legs and led them out." The withdrawal of the infantry and the two mounted brigades occupied most of the night, and the infantry bridge-heads were not evacuated until after dawn on the 28th.
"This action," said Dobell, in his report to Murray upon the day's work, "has had the result of bringing the enemy to battle, and he will now undoubtedly stand with all his available force, in order to fight us when we are prepared to attack. It has also given our troops an opportunity of displaying the splendid fighting qualities they possess. So far as all ranks of the troops engaged were concerned, it was a brilliant victory, and had the early part of the day been normal victory would have been secured. Two more hours of daylight would have sufficed to finish the work which the troops so magnificently executed after a period of severe hardship and long marches, and in the face of most stubborn resistance." This statement will, perhaps, stand as a classic example of the manner in which all commanders are tempted to deceive themselves, or allow themselves to be deceived. But, construe it as Dobell might, this first Gaza engagement was an unqualified failure. The troops had certainly displayed splendid fighting qualities; they had done all the work and taken practically all the ground necessary to gain complete success. From dawn, when the Ghuzze was reached, until dark, when the fight was broken off, the British leadership had been deplorably weak and chaotic. In his dispatch to the War Office, Murray, inspired no doubt by Dobell's report, made a strong point of the delay caused by the fog. Certainly the fog delayed the 53rd Division for two hours, and two hours' more daylight in the evening would have given Dobell a very brilliant little victory. But Chetwode, in his very clear and frank report upon the day's work, said shrewdly: "The dense fog which came on just before dawn, and which did not entirely clear until 8 o'clock, while undoubtedly delaying the operations very materially, since the General Officer Commanding 53rd Division did not consider it advisable to advance his infantry till gun support could be counted upon, at the same time gave immunity from gun-fire to my troops during the time they were crossing the wadi, and enabled the mounted troops to work forward some distance before their presence was detected."
The day, in its effect upon the progress of the 53rd Division, was unfortunate, and neither Chetwode nor Dobell could be held responsible for that delay. Higher commands must and should allow their subordinates a substantial measure of discretion. But when the fog cleared, between 7 and 8 o'clock, there still remained ample time for the capture of Gaza. The enterprise failed, not because of the fog, but because of the unaccountable delay after Dallas's brigades had reached Mansura and El Sheluf. These places are not more than 4,000 yards from Ali Muntar, and-as was shown later-the intervening country offers no physical obstacle to a rapid advance. Dallas has been blamed for that delay, and also for the faulty use of his artillery. “Up to a point," says Chetwode's report,” General Dallas's arrangements appear to have been good; but it would appear that the attack of his brigades was not properly synchronised, and consequently that brigades, to a certain extent, went in piecemeal.... The 53rd Division attacked and took the position with the greatest gallantry, and the 161st Brigade (of the 54th Division) also behaved admirably. It would appear, however, that, owing to faulty communications, or for some other reason, the infantry at times was not given that artillery support which it should have received, and that at critical periods during the day whole batteries were not shooting at all, being unaware of the requirements of the infantry."
Before 9.30 in the morning, nearly two hours after the brigades of the 53rd reached El Sheluf and Mansura, Chetwode-as is shown by his message to Dallas at that time-was manifestly concerned about the delay which had taken place after the lifting of the fog. From that time until noon he continued to show his anxiety by his repeated urgent messages to Dallas; his subsequent orders to the mounted divisions to close on Gaza made it clear that he was conscious the 53rd Division had failed to carry out his orders. For two hours during the morning Dallas was away from his headquarters and out of range of Chetwode's orders. Yet neither that, nor the fact that the advance, on which the whole day's operations depended, was halted for four hours, appears to have been deemed of sufficient importance to make either Chetwode or Dobell ride forward and definitely order the advance of the division. Dobell and Chetwode were together all the morning just north of Inseirat, and only a few miles from Dallas. At 12 o'clock, when he asked for the 161st Brigade, Dallas was "not sure what the enemy's strength was." But he had not at that time, nor until an hour afterwards, advanced his brigades close enough to the enemy position even to draw their lire and test their strength.
His orders had been explicit; he was to have advanced on Ali Muntar immediately after crossing the Wadi Ghuzze at dawn. In the circumstances, it would appear that only two courses were open to Dobell-either to ride forward himself, or to send Chetwode. It was clear that the operation suffered from a foolish duplication of leaders, the blame for which must rest with Murray. No sound military reason could justify the existence of two commands, Eastern Force and Desert Column, at that time with the Commander-in-Chief at El Arish also responsible for the conduct of operations.
So much for the delay in the morning after the fog had lifted. The withdrawal at dark was equally unfortunate; and here again the only possible explanation is that it was brought about because the leader or leaders responsible for the orders were too far from the ground of operations. The telephone and telegraph were Dobell's undoing at Gaza. There was no reason why the two British leaders should not, during the day, in one of the cars of the Light Car Patrol, have covered the whole front occupied by the mounted troops; if necessary, they could have done so more than once. It was essentially a fight needing personal observation, which would have ensured in an operation so scattered the coordination essential for success. Chetwode, Dobell, and Murray urged in their subsequent reports that the necessity for watering the horses, apart from the advance of the enemy reinforcements, made the withdrawal imperative. Chetwode wrote; "At 6.10 p.m., the majority of my mounted troops having been unable to water their horses during the day, I, with the approval of the General Officer Commanding Eastern Force, instructed General Chauvel to break off the engagement and retire his divisions west of the Wadi Ghuzze." Dobell justified the withdrawal of the mounted divisions in these words: "Very few of the horses had been watered during the day, and it was necessary to withdraw the mounted divisions for this reason." As a matter of fact, there was a considerable supply of water in the country occupied by the horsemen. Half of the horses of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade were watered without difficulty during the day, and Hodgson had reported to Desert Column at 10 o’clock in the morning that one of his brigades had already watered.
There is on record no message to Desert Column or Eastern Force which expresses any serious apprehension as to the enemy reinforcements. Three columns were, it is true, in sight; but only near Beit Durdis, where the 6th Mounted Brigade was pushed off Hill 405, was the pressure ever strong, and even there the Turks were arrested and firmly held as soon as the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, sent forward by Chauvel, went to the assistance of the yeomanry. Dobell, of course, gave the actual order for the withdrawal; but it is clear from the despatches that Chetwode fully concurred. General Chauvel was opposed to the movement. When Dobell told him over the telephone that it was proposed to withdraw, the Australian leader protested; “But we have Gaza!" Dobell replied; “Yes; but the Turkish reinforcements are all over you." In the day's fighting, 47 British officers and 350 other ranks were killed, 2,900 wounded, and 200 reported missing. Nearly all these casualties were suffered by the infantry.
In itself the engagement was a severe blow to the British Army, since it affected the troops on both sides to a degree out of all proportion to the casualties suffered, or to the negative victory gained by the Turks. There was not a single private in the British infantry, or a trooper in the mounted brigades, who did not believe that failure was due to staff bungling and to nothing else. The men were convinced that, owing to the almost unbelievable folly of the Higher Command, they had been robbed of a victory they had actually gained. On the Turkish side the story of Tala Bey "laughing for a long time" when he discovered on the morning of the 27th that the British had withdrawn during the night, whether it is true or not, expressed the feeling of all ranks. To the Turks and their leaders the saving of Gaza was a miracle of good fortune, a special act of grace by Allah; and it cheered and fortified the enemy as no ordinary hard-fought victory could possibly have done. But the effect of the failure went much further than that. The fight served to disclose to the enemy the whole British plan of advance, and prompted him to make his dispositions accordingly. Had he ever, as Dobell and Murray believed, contemplated a withdrawal, he would certainly have hurried on his retirement if Gaza had been torn from him. But now, with his troops elated, and with a very low opinion of the quality of the leadership opposed to him, he could have no hesitation about standing on the strong Gaza-Beersheba line.
Worst of all the consequences of this wretched fight was the effect it had upon the minds of General Dobell and Sir Archibald Murray. With their hopes so high before March 26th, the two leaders found it impossible to accept that day's work as destroying their plans for an immediate advance to the north as far at least as the Wadi Hesi. Their despatches immediately after the fight show that they had no intention of abandoning their original scheme. They made very light of their tragic failure. Dobell's report has been quoted; Murray's message to the War Office was an equally curious pronouncement. ' I We have advanced our troops," he cabled, "a distance of fifteen miles from Rafa to the Wadi Ghuzze, five miles west of Gaza, to cover the construction of the railway. On the 26th and 27th we were heavily engaged east of Gaza with a force of about 20,000 of the enemy. We inflicted very heavy losses upon him. It is estimated that his losses were between 6,000 and 7,000. We have in addition goo prisoners, including the General Commanding and the whole of the staff of the 53rd Turkish Division. This figure includes four Austrian officers and thirty-two Austrian and five German other ranks. We captured two Austrian 4.2 howitzers. All troops behaved splendidly, especially the Welsh, Kent, Herefordshires, Middlesex, and Surrey Territorials and Anzac and Yeomanry Mounted troops."
The War Office asked the Commander-in-Chief for further particulars, and Murray replied: "By dusk on March 26th Gaza was enveloped, and the 53rd Division had taken the first line of trenches. The enemy blew up the wireless station (at Gaza), reporting to von Kressenstein that they must surrender. At 1 o’clock von Kressenstein started relieving columns from Beersheba, Huj, and Sheria, and the 53rd Turkish Division arrived at Mejdel. Our armoured cars and mounted troops, brilliantly led, fought a delaying action against all these support columns, capturing the commander and the staff of the 53rd Turkish Division. Enemy casualties are estimated at over 5,000. Chetwode, to prevent his cavalry being enveloped by the converging Turkish columns, withdrew...." Murray further informed the War Office that the Camel Corps on 27th nearly annihilated a Turkish cavalry division," and that the enemy's casualties in that engagement were 3,000. He added that “on March 28th the enemy occupied Gaza defences, and would not advance to the attack." The report of Smith's Camel Brigade upon the engagement makes no reference at all to the destruction of a Turkish cavalry division, or to any serious engagement. Murray was apparently misinformed. Concluding his second message to the War Office, Sir Archibald said: “It was a most successful operation, the fog and waterless nature of the country just saving the enemy from complete disaster. It has filled our troops with enthusiasm, and proved conclusively that the enemy has no chance against our troops in the open." General Murray in his final dispatch upon the engagement (dated 28th June, 1917) estimated the Turkish casualties at 8,000, while the British were “under 4,000." Those actually engaged in the fighting were of the opinion that the Turkish losses were light, and less than half those suffered by the British.
The First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917
The First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917, Allied Forces, Roll of Honour
The Palestine Campaign, 1917 - 1918
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: The First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917, Gullett Account