Topic: AIF - DMC - British
The First Battle of Gaza
Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917
Egyptian Expeditionary Force Dobell Letter 7 March 1917
Dobell Letter 7 March 1917.
The following is a transcription of the Dobell Letter of 7 March 1917 from the War Diary of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force detailing the discussion formulating the battle plan for the First Battle of Gaza, Palestine, 26 to 27 March 1917.
Chief of General Staff,
With reference to your GSZ58 of 5th March, I have always realised the vital importance of placing myself in a position, if possible, to prevent the enemy from retiring out of reach, or at any rate to make him pay for doing so.
Unfortunately on this particular occasion the country in which we have been operating was against us. We can only be said to emerge from the desert after passing a mile or so beyond Sheikh Zowaiid. Every effort was accordingly made to hasten the construction of a loop on the railway a short distance beyond Sheikh Zowaiid station, which loop is just now being completed. Had the enemy remained in his position at Weli Sheikh NURAN for very little longer it would probably have been possible for the mounted troops, at any rate, to have inflicted some damage on him as he retired. As it was, however, to have attempted anything would only have been to waste the energies of the mounted troops with no reasonable prospect of effecting anything which would have made it worth while.
2. At present the enemy, disposed on the Gaza - Tel el Sheria - Bir es Saba line to practically out of reach. Nevertheless, since first his retirement began to appear likely I have been perfecting plans with the object of increasing the radius of action of the Desert Column in every way possible, and of concentrating in the hands of General Chetwode a large proportion of the most mobile troops available.
In accordance with these plans I am now reconstituting the Desert Column so that it will consist of the A & NZ Mounted Division (less one brigade), the Imperial Mounted Division (less one brigade), the 53rd Division, and all available light armoured car batteries and light car patrols. For the moment I consider that this force should be all that is required. At the same time should there be the least indication that any opportunity might be offered to a greater concentration of machine gun units, I should not have a moment's hesitation in attaching a number of additional machine gun companies to the Desert Column. At the moment the 53rd Division is at Sheikh Zowaiid. BY tomorrow the 52nd Division (which in accordance with the above will now cease to form part of the Desert Column) will also be at Sheikh Zowaiid. Part of the 54th Division is already at El Burj, and I propose to move forward the whole of this Division shortly. Additional machine gun units will therefore be very easily available at any time.
In anticipation of the Commander in Chief's views I have taken no steps in the matter either of bringing up the heavy machine gun unit or of providing lethal shells. It would assuredly be well that these should come as a surprise to the enemy when - and not till when - the time Come for putting out the whole of our strength.
3. The latest information available appears to indicate that the enemy retirement will not stop on the Gaza - Tel es Sheria - Bir Saba line. It is now reported that he has blown up the wells at Gaza and that he is endeavouring to deport the population of that place. Further, it would appear that the force at the enemy's disposal is wholly insufficient to hold a line of so great extent. Should he endeavour to hold such a line it would probably be open to us to break it anywhere and to operate with a view to the envelopment of one wing of his force while the remainder was so scattered, and part of it so far distant, that it would be unable to prevent the attainment of our object. It may also be presumed that some considerable time will elapse before Turkish troops in Arabia can join the enemy forces south of Jerusalem. They have far to go, the carrying capacity of their railway is small, and I presume that they will have to come up to Amman on the Hejaz railway and to march thence by Jericho to Jerusalem. In these circumstances it would appear that the enemy commander will be obliged to continue his retirement beyond his present line while preparing to concentrate for the defence of Jerusalem and to oppose our advance on whatever line it may be made. It would always seem likely, however, that the enemy may leave rearguards on the Gaza - Saba line, both in order to retard our advance and to make his own intention less evident.
4. With regard to the final paragraph of your letter under reference, if the enemy should in fact attempt to stand on the Gaza - Tel es Sheria - Bir Saba line, I submit that we should select Gaza offensively at the earliest possible moment, and that we should select Gaza as an objective. I hope to be able to operate against Gaza by the end of the present month practically in full strength - that is - with two Mounted Divisions, the I.C.C. Brigade and three divisions. If the enemy is dispersed along the extended lines indicated we should have every prospect of completely defeating the right flank of his force, while at the same time holding off any of his troops that may be as far back as Tel esh Sheria, and of completing the operation before there would be any possibility of the arrival of Turkish troops from Bir Saba and that neighbourhood.
With this end in view I hope to be able to organise, by the time the railway station at RAFA is completed, three echelons of trains for each of the major formations under my command. This I hope to do as follows:
For each Mounted Division, a “Train" formed of caterpillar tractors and Ford Cars, carrying one day's supplies; a Camel Train, carrying one day's supplies and an improvised Horse Transport Train, carrying one day a supplies. For each Division its own Divisional Train, carrying one day's supplies; an improvised train formed from the residue of the 1st line horsed transport, carrying one day's supplies; and a Camel Train, also carrying one day's supplies. By this means I calculate that two Mounted Divisions and three divisions can be maintained at twenty miles distance from Railhead - that is to say, Railhead being Rafa, that the whole force can be maintained at Gaza.
5. In view of the foregoing, it would appear desirable - apart from other considerations of which I cannot judge - that the railway should be carried on to Gaza. When the railway reaches that place the arrangements which I have outlined should ensure that my forces has a very consider radius of action. This radius I hope will be sufficient to enable me to take advantage of any favourable opportunity which may arise even though the further construction of the railway may be delayed owing to the greater difficulties of the country, or though it may be adjudged desirable to await the arrival of the further reinforcements expected, before definitely undertaking a major operation further north. To some extent, at any rate, these matters must depend on the development of the situation, but in the meantime, the present force of two Mounted Divisions and three divisions in the neighbourhood of Gaza, completely mobile and organised so as to have a wide radius of action, should ensure the less to the enemy of the whole of Southern Palestine south of, say, the Hebron - Wady el Hesy line, with all the attendant political advantages which that may entail.
Commanding Eastern Force
7th March 1917
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