Third Battle of Gaza - Conflict & Dates:
The Third Battle of Gaza was fought October 31 to November 9, 1917, during World War I (1914-1918).
Armies & Commanders:
- General Sir Edmund Allenby
- 82,500 infantry, 17,000 cavalry, 460 guns
- General Kress von Kressenstein
- General Eric von Falkenhayn
- 35,000-45,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, 500 guns
Third Battle of Gaza - Background:
Beginning in early 1916, British forces under General Sir Archibald Murray began pushing across the Sinai Peninsula with the goal of attacking the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. To support this endeavor, Murray built rail lines and a freshwater pipeline across the desert to support a base south of Gaza. With this base in place, he ordered his subordinate, General Charles Dobell, to begin operations to take Gaza in early 1917. Moving forward, Dobell attacked the city on March 16 and was repulsed. A second assault on April 19 met a similar end and a stalemate ensued.
Third Battle of Gaza - The British Plan:
To break the deadlock, British War Office dispatched General Sir Edmund Allenby to take command in the region. Replacing Murray, Allenby opted to oversee military operations directly rather than delegating them to a subordinate. After reorganizing the troops under his command into three corps (XX Corps under Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode, XXI Corps under Lieutenant General Edward Bulfin, and the Desert Mounted Corps under Lieutenant General Henry Chauvel), Allenby began devising a scheme for breaking through the Turkish defenses. The basis for his plan was originally the brainchild of Chetwode, and called for a flank attack at Beersheba.
Third Battle of Gaza - Attack at Beersheba:
Situated 30 miles from the coast, at the extreme eastern end of the Turkish line, Beersheba was lightly defended as Ottomans believed that extreme desert conditions precluded major operations in the area. Seeing an opportunity, Allenby and Chetwode began quietly moving water forward, creating "water dumps" and refilling ancient Roman cisterns near Beersheba. To divert the Turks' attention, XXI Corps actively demonstrated against Gaza. This ruse achieved its desired effect as the Turks' German commander, General Kress von Kressenstein, became convinced that the city was Allenby's primary objective.
Allenby's plan called for turning the Turkish flank at Beersheba and moving to encircle the forces defending Gaza. It was believed that the attack would force the Turks to shift their reserves away from Gaza, allowing an assault to be made there after the attack on Beersheba. The key to the entire plan was the rapid capture of the town on the first day of the offensive. On October 29, XX Corps and the Desert Mounted Corps began movements toward Beersheba. XXI Corps' demonstration proved so effective that Kressenstein believed this to be a minor movement.
Beginning on October 31, infantry from XX Corps began attacking Beersheba from the west, while the troopers of the Desert Mounted Corps advanced from the south and east. While the infantry took its objective on schedule, the cavalry was delayed by fierce resistance at Tel el Saba, just east of Beersheba. With the dusk approaching, Chauvel ordered the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade to charge the Turkish positions. Under fire for four miles, the Australians succeeded in breaking the Turkish lines and forcing them to retreat. By nightfall, the town, and its wells, were secured.
Third Battle of Gaza - Striking Gaza:
Though the wells at Beersheba were taken, the water situation limited British actions and the mounted brigades could only operate away from the town for one day at a time. The delay imposed by this allowed the Turks to swing their line back from Hareira to Tel el Khuweilfe. Over the next four days, British mounted units rotated daily while attempting to take Tel el Khuweilfe. Though it would not be taken until November 8, the battle achieved the goal of drawing the Turkish reserves away from Gaza. On the night of November 2, Allenby began operations against Gaza with a night attack along the coast.
Advancing two miles, the British were able to hold their gains against determined Turkish counterattacks. The next assault came on the 6th, when Chetwode's XX Corps attacked the middle of the Turkish line near Sheria. Breaking through, Chetwode's men captured their objectives and were moving on the hill of Tel el Sheria when the Turks detonated a nearby ammunition dump, delaying their advance. The next day, XXI Corps captured Gaza, with the 52nd Division pursuing the retreating garrison up the coast. All along the British line Allenby's forces were advancing, however their efforts to encircle the retreating Turks were thwarted through series of sharp rearguard actions.
Third Battle of Gaza - Aftermath
In the fighting along the Gaza-Beersheba line, the British lost a total of 18,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Turkish casualties numbered around 25,000 killed, wounded, and captured. Allenby's successful breaking of the Gaza-Beersheba defenses opened the road to Jerusalem which he occupied on December 9, 1917.