Conflict & Date:
The First Battle of Gaza was fought on March 26, 1917, and was part of the Middle Eastern Campaign of World War I (1914-1918).
Armies & Commanders:
- General Sir Archibald Murray
- 16,000 infantry, 6,000 mounted troops
- Tala Bey
- Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein
- 15,000 men
First Battle of Gaza Overview:
Having advanced across the Sinai in the wake of victories at Romani, Magdhaba, and Rafa, British forces prepared to attack into Palestine. Blocking their path were approximately 15,000 Turkish troops defending a line stretching from Gaza southeast to Beersheba. As there were no reliable water sources between the two towns, General Sir Archibald Murray elected to focus his assault on Gaza which was held by a garrison of 4,000. Assembling his strike force behind the Wadi Ghazi, approximately 5 miles from Gaza, Murray delegated command of the offensive to his subordinate, Lieutenant General Charles Dobell.
Dobell's plan for the attack called for the Anzac Mounted Division to circle around Gaza and take positions to the north and east, while the Imperial Mounted Division assumed positions to the east to block Turkish reinforcements. Led by Lieutenant General Sir Philip Chetwode, the mounted forces were to screen the main attack which would be made by Major General A.G. Dallas' 53rd Division, with support from the 54th Division. Moving out at 2:30 AM on March 26, 1917, Chetwode's men encountered heavy fog as they moved around the city.
Despite these difficulties, the horsemen were in position on time and surprised those Turkish outposts they encountered. Dallas' men were delayed and were half an hour late reaching their assault positions near the Ali Muntar ridge. As a result, the preparatory bombardment, which had been scheduled for 8:00 AM, did not commence until 9:00. With the element of surprise lost, Dallas became hesitant and withheld his troops. Departing his headquarters, he moved forward to survey the Turkish positions while Chetwode sent numerous messages encouraging him to attack.
After being spooked by a dust cloud to the east, which he believed to be Turkish reinforcements, Dallas finally sent the infantry forward at noon. As this attack went in, Chetwode's mounted troops advanced from the north and east. Crossing 4,000 yards of open terrain, the infantry met heavy resistance and the assault bogged down. Committing his reserves, Dallas was able to get the attack moving forward, and by 3:00 British troops were battling the Turks at close quarters atop Ali Muntar.
While the fighting raged, Chetwode's troops were able penetrate into the city's outskirts as Turkish troops had been withdrawn from their sector to reinforce the lines at Ali Muntar. At 4:20, the 161st Brigade was committed to Ali Muntar, and the British were able to drive the Turks off the heights. Though victory was in sight, Dobell, incorrectly believing the infantry assault was failing, issued orders to Chetwode to withdraw his mounted troops around 6:00. Though angered by Dobell's command, Chetwode's men complied and fell back.
Ironically, the opposite conclusion was being reached by the Turkish commanders who believed Gaza to be a lost cause. As a result, reinforcements were withheld from the area. Realizing the British mistake, General Kress von Kressenstein rushed troops to Gaza during the night. The following morning, Dobell sought to restart the offensive, however water shortages and determined Turkish counterattacks forced him to end the fight.
The First Battle of Gaza cost Dobell 467 killed, 2,900 wounded, and 500 missing, while the Turks suffered 2,447 casualties. Dobell's failure to take the town gave the Turks heart that the Gaza-Beersheba line could be defended. Rushing troops to the area, they constructed a formidable defensive line. The defeat badly discouraged British troops who were convinced that victory could have been won if the commanders had better handled the battle.
A second attempt to take Gaza failed in April and Murray was sacked in favor of General Sir Edmund Allenby that June. Preparing another offensive, Allenby succeeded in breaking the Turkish lines that November during the Third Battle of Gaza.