Topic: BatzP - 1st Gaza
The First Battle of Gaza
Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917
Falls Account Part 1
Falls Account Part 1, Sketch Map 14.
The following is an extract of the Falls Account from the the Official British War History volumes on Egypt written by Falls, C.; and, MacMunn, G., Military operations: Egypt and Palestine, (London 1928), pp. 279 - 325 detailing the British role at the First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917.
Falls, Chapter XVI The First Battle Of Gaza
The First Battle of Gaza.
The Situation in Late March, 1917.
SIR A. MURRAY'S general instructions still remained sketch B. the negative ones contained in the War Office telegram of the 11th January: that the projected advance into Palestine and capture of Jerusalem had been postponed until the autumn. (See Falls, Vol 1, p. 272) The departure of the 42nd Division had left him with three infantry divisions only, the 52nd, 53rd and 54th. Pressure on the enemy was, however, about to be renewed on all fronts; in this the War Cabinet desired that he should take his share, and it was aware that he had in contemplation an attack on Gaza. (On the 26th February, in continuation of conferences in the previous October and November, an Angle-French Congress assembled at Calais and decided upon the details of a great series of offensive operations to take place that spring. On the 11th March Baghdad was occupied by the British and an Allied offensive in Macedonia was begun. On the 9th April, the British in France began the series of operations known as the Battles of Arras, 1917, and on the 16th the French "Nivelle offensive" on the Aisne opened. The Russian Revolution, which accentuated the need of Allied activity on other fronts, broke out in March.)
By the 1st March railhead had reached Sheikh Zowaiid, 30 miles from Gaza. By the 21st Rafah Station was open (It appears, however, that it was not ready for unloading supplies till after the First Battle of Gaza.) and the line had been extended to the neighbourhood of Khan Yunis. The pipe-line was following it closely, though, owing to a temporary shortage of 12-inch piping, smaller gauges were being employed between El Arish and Rafah. The local water supply was now improved, Khan Yunis in particular containing one remarkable well which afterwards, when a pumping engine had been installed, produced an almost unlimited quantity. But though it was now possible to concentrate the whole of the Eastern Force at Rafah or even further forward, there was not sufficient transport to permit of the conduct of operations at any considerable distance from railhead. There were no supply columns except those improvised from the Camel Transport Corps as required. The infantry divisions had their new horsed trains, the mounted troops still their camel trains; but there were as yet no roads fit for motor transport, even had this been then available in Egypt in sufficient quantity.
The Turkish forces were disposed in the vicinity of their railway, with a detachment at Gaza. Their locations were believed to be Abu Hureira, 10 miles south-east of Gaza, Huj and Tell en Nejile, respectively 8½ and 17 miles due east of Gaza. The force holding Gaza was, then, more or less isolated, and the situation resembled that at the moment when the successful attack on Rafah had been made, except that in this case considerably stronger columns might be expected to move to the aid of the detached outpost if it were attacked. The total enemy forces at Gaza or in a position to intervene in its defence were estimated to be two and a half weak divisions. (The Historical Section of the Turkish General Staff gives the strength of the forces which took part in the First Battle of Gaza, including one regiment of the 53rd Division which advanced from the north to intervene in the battle, as 16,000 rifles.)
As a result of the advance along the coast, the British line of communications now overlapped the Turkish. The question whether the Force should follow the coast line or turn inland towards Auja on the Turkish railway had previously been discussed and the former alternative had been chosen. Now that Rafah and Khan Yunis, from which tracks left the coast route and ran towards Beersheba, had been reached, the problem required reconsideration. Sir A. Murray, however, again came to the conclusion that to turn inland was inadvisable:
since by so doing he would be drawing his line of communications parallel to the enemy's front, and there was no technical advantage to be gained by linking up the military railway with the [Turkish] Central Palestine railway, either at Beersheba or Tell esh Sheria. The true line of advance, he decided, was still along the coast, since the enemy was no less effectually threatened thereby, while his own line of communications was more easily protected and railway construction was more rapid, owing to the absence of gradients.
Both the Commander-in-Chief and Sir C. Dobell were concerned lest the enemy should evacuate Gaza and withdraw out of reach before a blow could be struck at him. It was therefore necessary to act swiftly, and the only effective action within the immediate power of the British appeared to be a repetition on a larger scale of the operations which had proved so successful at Magdhaba and Rafah; that is to say, a cutting-out expedition against Gaza, after which it might be necessary temporarily to withdraw the whole force or a part of it to railhead. Sir A. Murray set three objects before Sir C. Dobell, to whom the operation was entrusted: to gain the line of the Wadi Ghazze in order to cover the advance of the railway, to prevent the enemy from withdrawing unmolested, to capture Gaza and its garrison by a coup de main.
Gaza, one of the five cities of the Philistine Alliance, and one of the most ancient in the world, possibly 4,000 years old, (The earliest mention of Gaza is in the Tell el Amarna tablets, in a letter from the governor who then held it for Egypt. The date of these letters is about 1,400 B.C.) has always been the gate of Palestine. It has been taken over and over again, especially by Egyptian invaders from the west, but also by armies from the north. Among its famous captors are Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (731 B.C.), Alexander (332 B.C. Alexander's siege lasted two months, and he was wounded in its course by a bolt from a catapult.), Khalif Omar (635 A.D.), Saladin (1187 A.D.), Napoleon (1799 A.D.). The Gaza of Omar, Saladin, Napoleon and the present day is not, however, on the same site as that of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Greeks, the city having been completely destroyed in 96 B.C. and rebuilt under Aulus Gabinius forty years later, slightly further south. At the time of the outbreak of war it had a population of 40,000, and carried on a considerable export of barley to Great Britain, though it had no harbour, ships anchoring a mile out to take aboard their cargoes.
The country between Rafah and Gaza, east of the coast belt of sand-dunes from half a mile to three miles broad, is a gently rolling plateau of light but firm soil, rising slowly inland and traversed by watercourses, which are dry except in the rainy season but then often become torrents.
In the spring, when covered by young crops or fresh grass following the whiter rains, it has a pleasant, verdant appearance, but the summer sun scorches it brown.
Five miles north-east of Khan Yunis and 8 miles southwest of Gaza are the ruins, shrine and native village of Deir el Balah, with palm and olive groves, the only wooded area between the gardens of the two towns. Half-way between Gaza and Deir el Balah the great Wadi Ghazze runs to the sea, cut wide and deep by storm-water borne to it by innumerable tributary wadis from all the country round, but especially from the toe of the Judaean Hills, the Shephelah, and the plateau of Edom. Its bed is sandy, with steep mud cliffs on either bank, cut by numerous vertical clefts, which run for varying but oftenn considerable distances into the higher ground beyond the banks. These nullalis were found to afford admirable cover, their sides being as steep and firm as those of well revetted trenches, while exits were easily cut in them. But they made movement in the vicinity of the wadi dangerous in the dark, and at all times demanded vigilant ground scouting from mounted troops.
After crossing the wadi the coast road passes along the western slope of a low ridge on the edge of the sand-dunes. East of this ridge is a narrow valley, from which rises a longer and higher ridge. This latter (hereafter referred to as the Es Sire Ridge) is part of a high feature east of Gaza and running from north-east to south-west, which is continued almost to the right bank of the Wadi Ghazze. Parallel to the Es Sire Ridge and separated from it by a broad valley is another tongue from the high ground east of Gaza, known as the Burjabye Ridge. On the crown of this ridge, 3 miles south of Gaza, is what may be described as an abrupt step, a slight but cliff-like ascent at Khirbet (Khirbet = ruins. This prefix, common in a land of dead civilizations, is hereafter shortened to "Kb.") Mansura. On the highest point of the Es Sire Ridge, half a mile south-east of that quarter of Gaza known as the East Town, and overlooking it by 300 feet, stands the shrine of Ali el Muntar on the hill to which Samson bore the gates of the city. West and south-west of Ali el Muntar, between it and Gaza, and extending to a mile west of the Rafah road, lay olive groves, gardens and fields, surrounded and intersected by a maze of cactus hedges. The ridges and the valleys between them 1917 were without cover and practically treeless till this area of grove and garden, extending in places over 2,000 yards from the town itself, was reached. To the east of Gaza the ground rolled away in open down, cut here and there by watercourses, yet ideal for the employment of mounted troops. But all approaches to the city were covered by the cactus hedges, which were particularly formidable on the southern side. They were of great height and thickness, destructible only by high explosive or prolonged work with cutting tools, and obstacles as efficient as any that defenders could hope to construct.
The artificial defences at this date, though they would not have been serious in face of a deliberately organized attack supported by registered artillery, and though there was little wire in them, were considerable obstacles to an assault to be carried out in the special conditions alone possible in this case. The trenches south of Gaza commanded bare slopes; the absence of any cover until close to the city, and then the high hedges, gave the position its strength and made of it a little pleasing prospect to infantry attacking from the south and south-east.
Sir C. Dobell proposed that the Desert Column, under the command of General Chetwode, should carry out the attack, while the remainder of the Eastern Force moved up so as to be ready to give support if required.
Eastern Force was rearranged for the operations, the Desert Column now comprising the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division (less the 1st L.H. Brigade), the Imperial Mounted Division (less the 4th L.H. Brigade), and the 53rd Division. The remaining troops, directly under the command of the G.O.C. Eastern Force, were the Imperial Camel Brigade, the 52nd and 54th Divisions, and the 229th Brigade, the only formation of the 74th Division as yet available.
The plan of operations drawn up by G.O.C. Eastern Force received the approval of G.H.Q, on the 19th March.
Its essence was that, after making good the line of the Wadi Ghazze, the Desert Column should carry out the coup de main against Gaza, while the 54th Division moved out and stood by to protect it against a Turkish counter-stroke from the east, of which General Dobell was apprehensive. The operation orders of the Eastern Force,' issued on 214th March, directed the G.O.C. Desert Column to
"dispose his mounted troops so as to block the enemy's lines of retreat from Gaza, and to watch for any movement of his [the enemy's] main body from the neighbourhood of Huj or Tell esh Sheria; and then to attack the enemy's force occupying Gaza."
The attack was to be carried out on the 26th March. The operation would involve an approach march, carefully planned to secure surprise and fit in with the difficult arrangements for the supply of water. To give the mounted troops a radius of action of 20 miles from railhead, it had been necessary to transfer to them the newly-formed horsed trains of the infantry divisions. The 53rd and 54th Divisions were given the camel trains which had been employed in the desert. It was arranged that the Navy should undertake the landing of stores and supplies at Deir el Balah as soon as they were required, pending the nearer approach of railhead to the Wadi Ghazze.
Desert Column's orders were issued on the 25th March, on which date the Wadi Ghazze was reconnoitred by the divisional and brigade commanders of the Desert Column. Crossings were prepared and exits from the wadi selected, the work being covered by the A. & N.Z. Mounted Division, which put out a line of patrols, kept as thin and invisible as possible. These patrols moved some distance beyond the wadi, and under their cover Major-General A. G. Dallas, commanding the 53rd Division, made a reconnaissance of the ground between the Rafah-Gaza road and the sea, and also of the lower portion of the Es Sire Ridge.
The enemy's position had previously been reconnoitred and photographed by the R.F.C. The existing maps, based on the Palestine Exploration Fund map made by Lieutenants C. R. Conder, R.E., and H. H. Kitchener, R.E. (afterwards Field Marshal Lord Kitchener), were uncontoured but showed the features of the country by means of brush-hachuring. They gave an excellent general idea of the ground, but were deficient in detail for tactical purposes. Map 12, of the First Battle of Gaza, is based on these maps, form-lines being substituted for the brush-hachuring. By the time the second Battle was fought a partially contoured map had been prepared, on which Map 13 is based. Comparing the maps for the First and Second Battles, it will be seen that the former was substantially accurate, though lacking in detail.
The 53rd Division was to cross the wadi at 5 a.m., seize the high ground on the Es Sire and Mansura Ridges, and attack Ali Muntar as soon as reconnaissance and artillery registration had been completed. The Eastern Force was at this date very short of artillery. The third artillery brigade of each division was without howitzers, and in the case of the 53rd and 54th Divisions even the 18-pdr. batteries of these brigades were still in the Canal Defences. The whole force had only three heavy batteries (twelve 60-pdrs.), while to economize transport only one section (two guns) of each of these batteries was brought up for the First Battle of Gaza. The ammunition supply was by no means large. Great as had been the expansion in the production of guns and ammunition, the demands of the Western Theatre had grown correspondingly, and the secondary theatres of war were still pinched in this respect.
To support General Chetwode, the 54th Division (less one brigade in Eastern Force reserve) had been ordered by Sir C. Dobell to cross the wadi immediately after the mounted troops and take up a position at Sheikh Abbas, the next ridge east of the Burjabye Ridge, to cover the rear of the 53rd Division and keep open the corridor along which it was to attack.
General Chetwode estimated the garrison of Gaza at 2,000, unaware that recent reinforcements had nearly doubled it. The actual date of the reinforcement is unknown; it may have been only on the night previous to the issue of General Chetwode's orders.
The orders of Major-General A. G. Dallas, commanding the 53rd Division, directed the 158th and 160th Brigades to begin crossing the wadi at 3.30 a.m. and to advance up the Burjabye and Es Sire ridges respectively, the 158th to a covered position behind Kh. Mansura, the 160th to the neighbourhood of Kh. esh Sheluf. The 159th Brigade was to follow the 158th across the wadi and remain on the right bank until it received further orders. A detachment (hereafter described as Money's Detachment - This detachment, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel N. Money, consisted of that officer's battalion, the 2/4th West Kent (160th Brigade), the Gloucester Hussars (5th Mounted Brigade, Imperial Mounted Division), and two 60-pdrs. 15th Heavy Battery.) was to cross the wadi nearer its mouth and take up a position in the sand-dunes between the Rafah--Gaza road and the sea.
Its mission was to divert the enemy's attention on this flank and to cover one section of the 15th Heavy Battery. A section of the 91st Heavy Battery was to enter the wadi on the Rafah-Gaza road, covered by the divisional cavalry. The third section of 60-pdrs. (10th Heavy Battery) was to form part of the 160th Brigade Group. Instructions issued with the orders explained that the position was not strongly held and that it was intended to press the attack with vigour. They also stated that the supply of artillery ammunition was limited and that it would be chiefly devoted to the bombardment of “the Labyrinth," a group of trenches due south of Gaza on the edge of the area enclosed by cactus hedges.