Topic: BatzP - 2nd Gaza
The Second Battle of Gaza
Palestine, 19 April 1917
Gullett Account Part 1
The following is extracted from the book written by HS Gullett called Sinai and Palestine, Chapter XVIII Second Gaza.
Chapter XVIII Second Gaza
Both Dobell and Murray were clearly determined to put the best possible complexion upon the engagements of March 26th while they applied themselves to preparing a second attack with all the resources at their command. They aimed at achieving a decisive victory over the Turks in a pitched battle, and by this triumph to smother up the fiasco of March 26th. During this time Dobell repeatedly advised the Commander-in-Chief that the outlook was exceptionally bright, and Murray unfortunately appears to have accepted these assurances without question. At a time when all or nearly all the other generals on the front, including Chetwode and Chauvel, took a very grave view of the gathering Turkish resistance, the Commander-in-Chief and the leader of Eastern Force entered with light hearts upon their preparations.
In the controversy which followed the Gaza fights, Murray's sympathisers have blamed the War Office for urging him to renew his offensive immediately after the failure of March 26th. " It was at this time (the end of March)," writes General Murray in his official dispatch of June 28th "when the hitherto adverse situation in Mesopotamia was rapidly changing in our favour, that the War Cabinet again changed the policy in this theatre. In a telegraphic communication dated March 30th, I was instructed, in view of the altered situation, to make my object the defeat of the Turks south of Jerusalem and the occupation of Jerusalem. I replied, drawing attention once more to my never varying estimate of the troops required, that a rapid advance could not be expected unless I were fortunate enough to inflict a severe blow on the enemy, and that heavy fighting with considerable losses would have to be expected if the Turks held, as I anticipated, a series of strong positions between the Gaza-Beersheba and the Jerusalem-Jaffa lines. After consideration of this reply by the War Cabinet, I was informed that the War Cabinet relied on me to pursue the enemy with all the rapidity compatible with the necessary progress of my communications and was anxious that I should push my operations with all energy, though at the same time 110 additional troops were to be sent to me, since it was considered that, in view of the military situation of the enemy, my present force would suffice. At that time, as always, I had fully appreciated the importance of offensive operations in this theatre, and, having failed to take Gaza by a coup de elan, I was anxious to take it, if possible, by more deliberate operations before the enemy was further reinforced, chiefly on account of its water-supply. I was therefore ready, as I stated at the time, to attack Gaza with my present force before the end of April, and had good hopes, provided the enemy was not heavily reinforced, of capturing the town."
In consequence of these messages, it has been suggested that the War Office was responsible for the second attack on the Gaza defences. But in fairness to the War Cabinet Murray's cabled reports of the engagement of March 26th must be taken into consideration. Reading the Commander-in-Chief 's messages, the Cabinet might very well have taken a cheerful view of the prospect of a second assault. In fact, the statements made by both Murray and Dobell immediately after March 26th might have been specially designed to secure approval, the one from his Commander-in-Chief, and the other from the War Cabinet, for the attack which was made in April. The War Cabinet, believing what it was told, took the only course open to it. The full responsibility for the second attempt on the Gaza-Beersheba defences must rest with Murray and Dobell.
The position early in April was that the Turks had a force of between 20,000 and 25.000 rifles on a sixteen-mile front extending towards Beersheba from the sea west of Gaza. East of Gaza the line, which roughly followed the Gaza-Beersheba road, ran along a low, irregular system of ridges, which the enemy had been for a long time engaged in digging trenches and constructing redoubts. The approach to this chain of ridges from the south was up long and gentle slopes devoid of either fences or trees. From their entrenchments the Turks had the country for many miles to the south and south-west always under detailed observation, and their fire swept every immediate approach to their lines. Considering their position in more detail, it was flanked on the north-west by the sea, and then ran across about 4,000 yards of sand dunes slightly to the south of Gaza, whence it was carried across the face of the town through a maze of cactus hedges on to an elevation known as '' Samson's Ridge." It then ran through the Maze, the Labyrinth, and Green Hill to Ali Muntar. Immediately east of Ali Muntar there was a gap about 800 yards wide-bare plain, across which part of the 53rd Division had advanced under destructive fire on March 26th. This gap, known as " Delilah's Neck," the Turks always left practically open, as it was completely dominated by the Ali Muntar defences on the west, and by the beginning of the chain of ridges towards the south-east, along which the line was then continued. A feature of this system of ridges was that it contained a number of rough semi-circles open to the south and south-west, which, with the heights in Turkish hands, brought attacking troops under enfilade-fire as they advanced to close quarters. From Gaza towards Beersheba the formidable redoubts in the system were the " tank " system (as it was afterwards known), Atawineh, Hareira, and Sheria. Two great wadis, the Imleih and the Sheria, with their many bays and tributaries, effectively covered the left flank of the Turkish position.
This line being almost unassailable at the Gaza end, and its flank towards Beersheba being protected by country containing little water except in the rainy season, the enemy was on ground highly favourable in itself for defence, and easy to improve by digging and wiring. Always great workers with their picks and shovels, the Turks laboured strenuously, in the days which followed the British failure of March 26th, to make themselves unassailable; at the same time they brought down every available man, machine-gun, and field-piece from the country as far north as Damascus. Faithfully served by the superior German aircraft, they were fully aware of Dobell's active preparations for another attack. Observation was easy. Dobell's infantry divisions (including the 74th, which had been brought forward from El Arish) and his mounted divisions were in the open around Belah and along the Ghuzze towards the south-east, and concealment was no longer possible. Dobell had still a marked superiority in numbers. His effective troops probably outnumbered the Turks early in April by at least two to one. Nevertheless a more experienced and less impetuous leader would have paused before coming, as Dobell did, to the decision to avenge the failure of March 26th by an assault with all his strength against the great Turkish stronghold. But Dobell's confidence was boundless, and he found Murray only too willing to accept his estimate of the outlook. "When your next move takes place," Murray wrote to Dobell at this time, " I have every confidence it will be most successful. Every detail for the attack should be worked out before assuming the offensive. All gas preparations should be carefully prepared in case it is necessary to use them, and an overwhelming supply of shells should be at hand. A two days' preliminary bombardment is strongly recommended, even at the risk of the enemy evacuating Gaza, in which case the cavalry must pursue with the greatest vigour." Murray also advised the War Office; I' We are in close touch with the enemy, who now occupies a strong position west of Gaza. Preparations are proceeding satisfactorily. With a view to turning the enemy out by deliberate attack, the heavy artillery and tanks have been brought up."
Dobell was even more sanguine than his leader. Both he and Murray placed great confidence in the tanks, of which six were to be employed; and the two generals were so satisfied about the position that they were for some h i e in doubt as to whether it would be necessary to use gas although 2,000 gas-shells were now at Belah. Dobell therefore asked the chief of Murray's staff whether the Commander-in-Chief ' I wished me definitely to use gas-shells except in case of urgent necessity." "Neither the enemy's numbers nor the strength of his positions," Dobell wrote, "are likely to force the necessity upon me, so far as I can judge." He added that he was uninfluenced by any doubt whatever as to the ability of his force "to defeat the enemy in front of me." He was not in the dark about the strength of the Turkish positions, for he pointed out to Murray that " the ~7holeof the cup. of which the line El Sire-Mansura-Sheikh Abbas-Sharta-Um Jerrar is the rim, is under artillery fire from the position of the enemy, who has admirable observation all over it from Ali Muntar and its neighbourhood." But despite that, lie was convinced of his " very favourable situation in comparison with the enemy, as regards armament and equipment." Meanwhile the engineers were busy developing water-supply at Belah and in the Wadi Ghuzze, where a good source was discovered at a depth of twenty-two feet. At Um Jerrar a number of large empty cisterns were discovered, and camel-trains operating by night were employed to fill these with water; an advanced base of 67,000 gallons was established there for the use of the infantry when they moved forward. The British airmen, both of the land forces and the Royal Naval Air Service, were active in reconnaissance over all the country as far north as Beisan, south of the Sea of Galilee, where "the very bright railway lines" told their story of great activity along the Turkish line of communications. On the night of April 8th 1,400 pounds of explosives were dropped on the German aerodrome at Ramleh, some sixty miles north of Belah and three direct hits were obtained on hangars.
The scruple about the use of gas is difficult to understand after the shells had been brought all the way from England to Belah. Perhaps Murray hesitated about being the first to introduce the terrible new weapon on a front where it had been until then a stranger; but towards the middle of April, when even Dobell became impressed by the rapid growth of the Turkish forces and defences, its employment was definitely decided upon. Murray personally presided at a conference attended by Dobell, Chetwode, and the divisional commanders. at which the final plans for the attack were adopted; after explaining his scheme he concluded by emphasising the significance of his two additional weapons, the gas-shells and the tanks.
Dobell's plan was simple. The infantry divisions were to crush the enemy on his main position around Gaza, while the mounted divisions pressed back his flank towards Beersheba, prevented the withdrawal of reinforcements from there to Gaza, and held themselves in readiness for the pursuit. In the infantry attack the 52nd Division was to assault Ali Muntar and its surrounding defences, while the 54tIi, crossing the Gaza-Beersheba road on the right of the 52nd, was to capture the enemy's works at Khurbet el Bir, and then swing round and seize Anzac Ridge. At the same time the 53rd was to attack to the south-west of Gaza on the sand-dune sector between Samson's Hill and Sheikh Ajlin on the west. It was therefore a plain frontal attack against the full strength of the great Gaza position, and the adoption of such a scheme is conclusive evidence of the remarkable confidence of Murray and Dobell.
The plan was to be worked out in two stages. In the first stage the infantry was to advance across the Ghuzze to a line running from the northern slopes of the Sheikh Abbas Ridge along the Mansura Ridge to the El Sire Ridge south of El Sheluf, and this line was to be extended across the sandhills towards the sea north of Tel el Ajjul. As soon as the position was occupied, it was to be wired and made as strong as possible, the heavy artillery was to be moved forward, and the main attack against the Gaza defences was then to be launched.
The preliminary bombardment began at 5.30 on the morning of April 17th. Shooting from the west of the Ghuzze, Murray's heavy guns made good practice on the Turkish positions, which were now well known. Simultaneously the French cruiser Requin and two British monitors joined in the attack from the sea. But the bombardment, although heavier than anything known up to this time in Palestine was quite inadequate against such earthworks as existed at Gaza. Murray lacked the guns-and especially he lacked the munitions-for a long-sustained barrage calculated even to keep the enemy down in his trenches during the advance of the British infantry. Moreover, the sand-dunes between Gaza and the sea, and the cactus hedges and sandy soil from the edge of the sand-dunes round to Ali Muntar, served to smother the shell-bursts and make them relatively harmless. Furthermore, Murray, although lie had now a number of heavy batteries, had not guns enough to engage in effective counter-battery work and at the same time to bombard the Turkish trenches.
It has been explained in the preface that this volume deals with the British troops on the front only so far as it is necessary to make clear the work of the Australians. In none of its chapters does it attempt to set out in detail the work of the British forces. From this time forward, as those forces are increased, the relative neglect of troops other than Australian will become still more marked, and readers should keep in view the fact that this is due solely to the Australian character of this work.
Chetwode's Desert Column command was now limited to the mounted troops; the whole operation was under the direct control of Dobell, whose headquarters were at Belah. It has already been said that the scheme commended itself to neither Chetwode nor Chauvel, the two most experienced leaders on the front; and it is interesting to record that one British commander. after outlining the details of the attack to his brigadiers, concluded with the remark; " That, gentlemen, is the plan, and I might say frankly that I do not think much of it." But Dobell, who now commanded a substantial army, appears to have had no such misgivings when, shortly after 7 o'clock on the evening of April 16th, the infantry moved from their camps west of the Ghuzze, and advanced towards the wadi crossings.
By 7 o'clock on the morning of the 17th the 5md and 54th Divisions had made good the line Sheikh Abbas-Mansura Kurd Hill. So far the Turks had not seriously resisted the march and the only casualties were six men shot by outlying enemy snipers. One tank, however, which was in support of a brigade of the 54th Division on the right, came under heavy artillery fire soon after dawn, and after receiving three direct hits was set on fire and put out of action. As soon as the infantry reached their positions they commenced vigorously to dig themselves in, and the enemy now opened upon them with many guns and during the day inflicted 150 casualties. Most of the line was painfully exposed in full view of the enemy, whose gunners also easily covered the wadi and so were enabled to harass the British communications.
The Desert Column troops had been early astir on the right. Two hours after midnight Anzac Mounted Division was in position at Shellal, the Imperial Mounted Division was concentrated at Tel el Jemmi, while the Camel Brigade remained for the time being at Abasan el Rebir. By free reconnaissance during the day the two mounted divisions, assisted by McKenzie's light car patrol, located the enemy's line on the flank, which, running roughly parallel with the Gaza-Beersheba road, extended from Khurbet Sihan through Atawineh and Urn Adrah on to a point two miles east of Hill 420, south-west of Hareira. The advanced patrols did a little skirmishing with the enemy, but were never seriously engaged, and had only about thirty casualties. That night the two mounted divisions left a line of outposts extending from the right of the 54th Division to El Gamli on the Ghuzze, while the main force of horsemen was withdrawn to the west of the wadi.
During these preliminary operations enemy aircraft many times bombed the mounted troops. On April 17th a bomb was dropped into a camp of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade limbers and spare horses at Shellal. Six troopers were killed, and Captain C. C. Easterbrook' and twelve other ranks wounded. The horses always suffered severely from these raids, and here seventeen were killed and thirteen wounded.
All day the infantry had worked hard at the consolidation of the new line; the heavy guns were advanced, and munitions and water brought forward in preparation for the second and decisive phase of the operation. The enemy was perhaps never in doubt as to the British plan of attack; but this necessary preliminary movement to the Mansura position confirmed his belief that Gaza would be the main British objective, and gave him two full days in which to complete his defences, study his zones of rifle and machine-gun fire, and register the ranges for his artillery. The 53rd Division, which had not yet crossed the wadi, during the morning pushed forward strong reconnaissances in the direction of Samson's Ridge and Sheikh Ajlin.
On the 18th the two mounted divisions repeated and extended their reconnaissance of the previous day. The two days' probing had convinced Chetwode that, if his brigades were to make a dismounted attack, they would be unable, unless aided by the infantry, to pierce the line on the flank. He communicated this opinion to Dobell, and asked that, when a general advance was ordered, part of the 74th Division (which was still in reserve) should be directed against the Atawineh Redoubt. On the infantry line the 18th passed quietly, except that the enemy continued to shell the advanced trenches and the communications and reserves about the wadi. In the evening the Camel Brigade was withdrawn from Desert Column, and placed under the orders of the 54th Division. Dobell had now decided to attack all along the line early on the morning of the 19th, and final orders were issued.
Despite Murray's assurances to the War Office that all ranks had been aroused to a pitch of "great enthusiasm" by the engagement of March 26th, the army which awaited the dawn on the morning of April 19th was one filled with forebodings. Men who have been for some time in the field are quick to perceive the true feelings of their immediate leaders, and infantry and mounted troops alike had at this time little faith in the High Command or in their own capacity to overrun the Turkish position. Nevertheless there was no doubt about the morale of Dobell's army. All brigades were strong in numbers, and the men were in excellent condition; three of the infantry divisions, with the exception of one brigade, had not been in action for a long time; and, if officers and men regarded the adventure ahead of them as one unlikely to be attended by success, they were none the less determined to strain human endeavour to breaking-point. The night was fine but very cold, and the men waited impatiently for daylight. At 5.30 a.m. on the 19th Dobell's artillery opened its bombardment of the enemy's positions. Gas-shells were freely used against Ali Muntar and other strong points, and the Requin and the British monitors (Nos. 21 and 31) fired all their guns at Ali Muntar and the surrounding positions. The gunnery from the ships appeared to be effective. " This accurate and sustained fire," Dobell wrote afterwards in his report, " must have rendered the task of observation from Ali Muntar mosque a precarious task to the enemy," but, if it did, it certainly did not interfere with the effective shooting which the Turkish and Austrian batteries maintained throughout the day's fighting. At 7.15 a.m., after nearly two hours' bombardment, the 53rd Division on the extreme left advanced towards Samson's Ridge and Sheikh Ajlin, and a quarter of an hour later, in order on the right, the 52nd Division, the 54th, the Camel Brigade, the 4tli and 3rd Light Horse Brigades, and the 5th Mounted Brigade were all pressing forward. The Anzac Mounted Division, which was to protect the right flank, also advanced briskly.
The Camels and the brigades of the Imperial Mounted Division had a considerable distance to travel after dismounting, and therefore, with the exception of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, did not immediately come under fire. But the 52nd and 54th Divisions Suffered heavy punishment immediately they left their trenches. The 52nd Division, striking for Ali Muntar and its surrounding defences, had charge of the most difficult sector of the whole line; and unfortunately Major General Smith was contained by the El Sire Ridge, along which he was advancing, to a very narrow front, on which it was practically impossible to use more than one brigade. At a little after 8 a.m. this brigade (the 155th) captured Lee's Hill, on the ridge 3,500 yards from Ali Muntar, but on attempting to continue the attack the brigade came under very heavy machine-gun fire from Outpost Hill only 1,000 yards away on its direct front. This reduced the rate of progress, and the 156th Brigade on its right, which could not come into action until the 155th had made further progress, was kept almost idle for some hours.
On the right of the 52nd, the 54th Division was making good headway despite severe casualties, and soon its left flank, the 163rd Brigade, was in front of the 156th. This left the 162nd open to heavy enfilade fire from the direction of Ali Muntar. At g a.m. a battalion had reached the Gaza-Beersheba road and cut the telegraph wires, and further to the right part of the 54th was closing on the sector known as " Beer Trenches " and the strongly defended position afterwards known as Tank Redoubt. On their right, again, the Camels were also rapidly approaching Tank Redoubt, and the 4th and 3rd Light Horse Brigades were within a few hundred yards of the enemy's main front line.
But although the attack had everywhere been marked by the greatest dash, and most of the brigades were now close to the enemy's positions, the Turks were nowhere seriously menaced. From Atawineh, where the light horse riflemen were securely held, to the sand-dunes in the west where the 53rd Division was arrested on Samson's Ridge, the Turks with their machine-guns and artillery never lost control of the situation. With one single exception at Tank Redoubt, every attempt by the infantry and the mounted men to reach the enemy trenches was shattered and frustrated.
The five remaining tanks, which were handled with great skill and gallantry by their individual commanders, moved simultaneously in advance of the infantry and made some progress for a while in the morning. Had they been concentrated on a narrow sector they might have enabled the infantry to make at least one serious breach in the enemy's line. But they were scattered along the front, and, advancing singly on the naked slopes, became in turn targets for a great number of the enemy's guns. So heavy was this fire that, even where the tanks for a time escaped destruction, the infantry following was practically destroyed by the bursting shells. One tank in front of the 52nd Division was boldly driven forward and reached Outpost Hill; but the infantry was unable to follow, and the tank, after demoralising the enemy and causing considerable losses in his trenches, was set on fire by his artillery and burnt out.
The Turks began to counter-attack as early as 9.30, when two battalions were thrown against the exposed left of the 54th Division. Four British machine-guns were at once rushed forward, and the gunners, after inflicting heavy losses, smashed the advance. Several times during the day enemy aggression was similarly checked, but the readiness of the Turks to seize every opportunity for the offensive was clear evidence of their strength and superior positions.
The problem before the infantry was a very plain one, and divisional commanders and brigadiers, having given their battalions their objectives, could do little or nothing more. There was no opportunity for manoeuvre or changing tactics. If the troops, supported by the artillery, were not strong enough to cross the bare country in the face of the concealed enemy, the operation must fail. Dobell was nobly served that day by his British infantry. For nearly twelve hours the brigades of the 52nd and 54th Divisions, on whom fell the brunt of the assault, faced their hopeless task with splendid courage and sustained endeavour. Time after time the leading waves were annihilated by the deadly machine-guns, and time after time the succeeding waves pressed forward only to be destroyed in their turn. The artillery shooting on the infantry sectors was good, although gunners from the lower ground had observation inferior to that which favoured the enemy, and unfortunately the light clouds, which during most of the day overhung the battleground made the work of the airmen who were cooperating with the batteries difficult and unsatisfactory. Nothing but a barrage sufficiently heavy and accurate to keep the Turkish machine-guns and rifles temporarily out of action could have enabled the infantry to reach the Turkish lines. Consequently, although platoon and company commanders threw away their lives with utter recklessness, and the Lowlanders of the 52nd Division and English Territorials of the 54th followed them unflinchingly, their heroic endeavour was in vain.
While the infantry was striving so finely but to no purpose, the Camel Brigade and the 4th and 3rd Light Horse Brigades were similarly engaged on the right. The enemy had foreseen that the main British blow would fall on Gaza; but, knowing the quality of Chetwode's mounted troops, and fearing a dash at his rear, had taken no chances as to his flank towards Beersheba. On the morning of the 19th his line of trenches and redoubts in that direction was held in strength by infantry supported by many batteries, while out on his extreme left he had the 3rd Turkish Cavalry Division. Before Gaza, where the British infantry advanced, the terrain, although bare of surface-cover, was to some extent relieved by small wadis and a number of ridges; but further east, where the right flank of the 54th Division, the Camels, and the two light horse brigades were assaulting, the long slopes up to the enemy line were, except for slight undulations, almost as even as a floor. Scattered crops of barley, just coming into ear, and splashed with patches of red poppies, provided the sole cover for the advancing troops; and the barley favoured the enemy rather than the British and Australians, inasmuch as it concealed his forward posts and snipers.
Dobell had decided to keep the 74th Division in general reserve to the west of the Ghuzze, and therefore refused Chetwode's request for reinforcements for the mounted troops in the attack upon the Atawineh position. But early in the morning of the 19th the 161st Brigade of the 54th Division was placed under the command of the Imperial Camel Brigade, and this added somewhat to the strength of the assault towards the right. The 161st Brigade had on its sector the knoll which afterwards was known as Tank Redoubt. Then came the Camel Brigade between Tank Redoubt and the 4th Light Horse Brigade, which was marching roughly with its centre on the Wadi Sihan, with Sihan and the country between that place and Atawineh as its objective. The 3rd Light Horse Brigade was directed on Atawineh, with the 5th Mounted Brigade on its right pushing for the Beersheba road between Atawineh and Sausage Ridge. Hodgson, of the Imperial Mounted Division, kept the 6th Mounted Brigade in reserve near Mendur and Munkheileh. Anzac Mounted Division, demonstrating against Sausage Ridge, was to prevent the enemy from enfilading the attack of the 5th Mounted Brigade. Smith's Camel Brigade had in immediate support its battery of mountain guns, while two Royal Horse Artillery batteries of the Imperial Mounted Division were on the slopes of Sheikh Abbas to the right and " B " Battery of the Honourable Artillery Company was on the right with the 5th Brigade. In addition, Smith and Hodgson were promised general support from Dobell's main artillery force, much of which had its objectives within effective range. The bombardment of the positions began at 5.30, simultaneously with the gunning of the entrenchments about Gaza, but the shooting on the right was very faulty. Most of the shells passed across the front of the Imperial Mounted Division and pitched on to unoccupied territory; while, when the batteries of the division came into action from Sheikh Abbas, their light metal was harmless against the strong enemy earthworks.
The Camel Brigade crossed the Ghuzze in darkness, dismounted about 4,000 yards from the enemy's line, and moved forward after daylight to the Sheikh Abbas Ridge. The 1st and 3rd Australian Battalions, which were to attack, were then about 3,000 yards from Tank Redoubt, which they were to pass immediately on their left. The 1st Battalion, under Langley, was on the left of the Camel line, but the infantry was deployed for action about zoo yards in advance of his flank. When at 7.30 the order for the attack was given, the infantry moved off strongly, with that 200 yards' start, and Langley recognised that, if his companies were to conform, they must travel fast. Each man carried a pick and shovel in addition to 300 rounds of ammunition. No. 2 Company, under Captain A. E. G. Campbell, was on the left, with No. 3, led by Captain F. H. Naylor: in support, while NO. 4, under Captain H. R. Denson,' was on the right, in touch with the 3rd Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel N. B. de Lancey The 2nd Battalion (British) was in reserve.
The two leading companies of the 1st Battalion attacked on section fronts in three extended lines, with their Lewis guns on the right of the second line. The ground sloped gradually up to the enemy, and offered no cover except an occasional slight undulation and little local wadis, worn by flood waters. For the first mile casualties were slight, although both battalions came under considerable shrapnel fire immediately they moved. Campbell's men on the left moved swiftly, but the spirited English infantry was frequently at the double, and the Camels found it hard to catch up the 200 yards and straighten the line. Tank Redoubt, which was now in a cloud of smoke and dust from the bursting of British shells, loomed up vaguely, slightly to their left, but the well placed enemy line in front of the Camel sector was still indefinite. When the leading men were about 1,200 yards from the redoubt, a British tank, " The Nutty," took up the lead on a track between the infantry and the Australians, and, going on surely and boldly, quickened the pace of the battalions that followed it. But no sooner did it appear than every enemy gun within range switched, as though automatically, on to it, and in a few minutes it was obscured by dozens of bursting shells. The troops on either side had swung instinctively into the wake of the tank, and so caught much of this fire. Machine-gun and rifle fire also became very active, and began to cause gaps in the already thin ranks of the attackers.
The British, still in the lead on the left, were the first to receive this heavy punishment, and, as their leading wave dwindled, the Australians pulled up abreast of them. About half-a-mile from the redoubt, Campbell, with No. 2 Company lost touch with No. 4 Company on his right, which had become separated by a slight but increasing ridge. This exposed his flank, but he pressed on in conformity with the infantry. About 350 yards from the redoubt a slight ridge, running parallel to the advancing line, offered a little cover, and here Campbell halted his leading men. So far, not a shot had been fired by the Camels, but, as the men threw themselves down, they came into action. The following waves, which had closed up on the first line during the march, were quickly on the position, and Campbell sent back for the No. 3 Company, under Naylor, which was in support 500 yards away. He then decided that it would be impossible to follow his orders, pass Tank Redoubt on his left, and leave it to the infantry. Unless the infantry at once carried the position which in their exhausted state was highly improbable-such an attempt must have exposed the Australians to cross-fire at point-blank range. Campbell therefore decided to make a dash with his slender force at the redoubt as soon as No. 3 Company came up; and, while the Camels were endeavouring to build up a line for this heroic attempt, the infantry on the left were held for a similar purpose.
Meanwhile the tank had been in difficulties in a patch of broken ground; after getting clear, its crew temporarily lost direction, turned sharply to the right, and moved along immediately in front of the Camel line. Discovering his error, the dashing officer in charge returned over his tracks. This movement took place on the top of the little ridge; the vast, cumbersome machine, silhouetted on the skyline, and the Australians, now ready with fixed bayonets within a few yards of it, mere swallowed up in a barrage of shell-fire, and many men were hit.
When the advance began, Nos. 2 and 3 Companies had a total strength of about zoo of all ranks, including Lewis gunners, signallers, and stretcher-bearers. By the time the No. 3 Company had joined Campbell on the ridge, and the line had suffered the shelling brought down by the tank, about IOO of these had been killed or wounded. The redoubt was now seen to be an entrenched knob a couple of acres in extent, protected by light barbed-wire entanglements. It stood a few hundred yards in front of the main line of Turkish trenches extending towards Atawineh, and was linked up with that system by a communication trench. Standing thus, as an outpost of cleverly constructed earthworks, it was designed to enfilade any approach from either side towards the main line. Campbell sent back messengers to say that he was joining the infantry in their assault on the redoubt, and urged that the 2nd Camel Battalion in reserve should be immediately sent up.
By this time the tank had recovered its position and was heading again for the redoubt. Campbell rushed forward six Lewis gunners fifty yards in advance of his line, where they opened fire on rows of Turkish heads which showed up above the parapets "like cabbages on a wall." As the Lewis gunners commenced shooting, the Australians rose and dashed forward with their bayonets. Two enemy batteries of four guns each were now shooting point-blank at the tank at a range of only about 400 yards, but with miraculous luck the great vehicle rolled on, followed by the Camels and the British infantry. It was now apparently almost red-hot, and belched forth great volumes of smoke; but its heroic crew, with shells bursting all round them, and half-lost in a cloud of smoke and dust, drove it on through the wire entanglements, over the outer circle of trenches, until it reached the centre of the redoubt, the highest point over several square miles of country. There, hit several times in quick succession by the enemy gunners, it broke down and burst into flames.
The gallant crew had nobly fulfilled their task. If the tank had drawn a terrific fire on the Australians and British infantry, it had served them as a lead and an inspiration. Of the hundred survivors of the Camel companies who attempted to follow it over that last terrible 350 yards, about seventy fell before the hail of Turkish fire. But the surviving remnant, undaunted, charged shouting with their bayonets at the Turkish trenches. At the same time that the thirty Australians, sustained by the super-strength which is given to men in close mortal conflict, began to use their steel on the Turks, twenty gallant men of the British infantry also reached the redoubt. At that moment the position was occupied by about 600 Turks, with some German and Austrian officers. But with the Australians and British it was now an affair of wild desperation, and each man fought with the spirit of ten. The Turks, their nerves shattered by the amazing spectacle of the burning tank, and the fire directed upon it by their own guns, panicked and broke. Many were killed and wounded, forty were made prisoners, and the remainder, to the number of about 500, threw down their rifles, scrambled out of the trenches, and ran across the open for their main line about 600 yards away.
Campbell, a thick-set young Queenslander of great physical strength and activity, was shot several times through his uniform and equipment, but continued to show magnificent leadership. His six Lewis guns were still intact, and he ordered them into a position in the open where they could fire upon the fugitive enemy mass. The gunners mowed down the Turks in swathes, and continued to destroy them until they reached the shelter of their trenches. Campbell then assembled the forty prisoners, led them to the British side of the redoubt, and told them to run for safety. The Turks needed no urging. Already the enemy had opened concentrated gun-fire upon the position, and swept it with machineguns and rifles from his main line. Moving back across the redoubt, Campbell found himself covered by a German officer with a revolver at a few yards' range. He snatched for his own weapon; but, before the German could pull, a shell pitched into the loose, pounded earth between them, When the dust cleared, Campbell was alone.
The splendid fighting remnant of Englishmen and Australians then hung on to the infernal knoll for upwards of two hours. For a while they lined the trenches facing the Turks, and opened a futile fire against utterly hopeless odds. A German officer was seen walking about on the parapet of an intermediate Turkish trench about 300 yards away, beckoning the Turks to follow him in a counter-attack. The Turks, however, would not come out. Several Australians fired at the German, but all missed him. Pounded with shells and swept by machine-gun and rifle fire, they melted away until nearly every man had been killed or wounded. But at no time had they any sure prospect of holding the position, and by about z o'clock the situation had become desperate. Support was not in sight, nor could fresh troops have joined them without suffering heavy losses; and, unless the attack was to succeed all along the line, the redoubt must be evacuated at nightfall at latest. Campbell had placed his six Lewis gunners in the open to the right of the trenches, where they had a clear zone of fire, and for some time they continued to do effective shooting against the Turkish batteries and enemy formations which could be seen assembling for a counterattack. One body of Turks, about a battalion strong, began to march in column of route towards the redoubt from the right; the gun-fire was still increasing, and the last of the English and Australians in the position were being shot down. Campbell, during the last stages of the approach and while he was in the redoubt, had sent back six runners with messages. So intense was the fire that four were killed and the other two wounded; none of the messages reached the rear. " I then issued orders," said Campbell afterwards, " to the few remaining men to retire to a small wadi on our right rear as best they could. I also communicated my order to the Englishmen. At that time I got a message from a Bants officer on the other side of the redoubt to say that he considered the position hopeless, and was going to surrender." Campbell next went to warn the Lewis gunners of the evacuation. He found them all on their guns; but five were dead, and the sixth, a lad named Barry: had his right arm shattered. " I told the wounded boy, Barry," said Campbell, " to save his life as best he could. Barry asked, ' What about my gun, sir?' I told him to leave it and save himself. He replied, ' I think I can carry it '; and he carried it out on his left shoulder, with his right arm hanging broken."
Campbell then returned to the redoubt, where (in his own words) he found Quartermaster-Sergeant H. L. D. Malcolm,' " who should have been away at the rear, but had joined in the charge for the fun of it. He had no business there at all, but I found him helping wounded, giving men their direction out, and using a rifle between times. A little later, he and Lieutenant E. J. Aylwin* were the only two Australians left. I told Malcolm to go first, which he did only after an argument. He was deaf, and did not seem to hear the intensive firing." Campbell and Aylwin had enlisted in Toowoomba together at the beginning of the war. As the Turks drew very close, Aylwin made his dash, followed by Campbell, under very heavy fire. Aylwin was hit as he ran, but Campbell's luck still stood, and he was one of only five men, out of the 102 who made up the company in the morning, who did not become casualties. Five or six Australians and most of the surviving British were taken prisoners, nearly all of them having been previously wounded. Lieutenant W. M. Fender: who was wounded in the redoubt, also fell into the hands of the Turks. Captain Naylor, a fine soldier, who had fought at Gallipoli, was wounded while leading his men up to the position, but persisted in going on, and was afterwards killed in the trenches. Nine officers reached the redoubt, and, in addition to Naylor and Fender, Lieutenants L. G. C. Young, B. A. Clark, E. J. Aylwin, V. Allan, B. N. Wells, and F. Matthews were wounded.
While No. 2 and No. 3 Companies of the 1st Camel Battalion were advancing on Tank Redoubt, the 3rd Battalion, tinder de Lancey Forth, was progressing well on the right.
With two companions in the firing line, one in support and one in reserve, the men moved forward under heavy fire from the Turkish batteries. Before the tank which reached the redoubt had taken up its position between the 1st Battalion and the English, it had followed the course of the 3rd Battalion, and the artillery fire upon Forth's men was in consequence greatly increased. Conforming to the 1st Battalion, despite the gap caused by the check to No. 4 Company, the 3rd Battalion rushed a trench on some high ground to the right of Tank Redoubt, and captured a number of prisoners. The leading company then continued its advance across the Beersheba road to some commanding ground, where the Camels were joined by a squadron of the 11th Light Horse Regiment, which came up on their right. This marked the extreme point reached by British troops. General Headquarters was afterwards disinclined to credit the claim of the Australians to have penetrated so far, but towards the end of the year the bones of three men of the 3rd Battalion were found on the ridge, grim testimony of the valour of the " Fighting Camels."
With Lewis guns and a machine-gun placed on one of two little mounds (afterwards known as "Jack and Jill ") to the north of the Beersheba road, this body of Camels and light horsemen found a good target in the Turks who were massing on their left for the counter-attack against Tank Redoubt. They also shot a number of horses in the gun-teams of an enemy battery, which, startled by the British advance, was limbering up to retire; but all the guns escaped.
The men on Jack and Jill were deep into the enemy line; but the success was purely local, and in the absence of strong and immediate support could not he exploited. Moreover these Australians had suffered severe casualties, and the squadron of the 11th Light Horse soon received orders to withdraw in conformity with the rest of the 4th Brigade line.
Captain A. R. Norris, who led the Camels, had been wounded on the march up, and Lieutenant J. Davidson (who succeeded him) ran across to the officer commanding the squadron of the 11th, and asked him to stand his ground. But the light horseman had definite orders, and Davidson with a single Camel company was therefore left in the air. Forth, who during his distinguished associations with the Camel Brigade was never far behind his foremost men, held the position until the Turks, after heavy shelling, assaulted with infantry in crescent formation. The order was then given for a withdrawal sufficient to straighten the line, and the company fell back a few hundred yards. Forth was wounded at this stage, but remained with his men, and continued to direct the fight.
Citation: The Second Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 19 April 1917, Gullett Account Part 1