A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, 1917: Part I: Opening Moves

The next few days will see the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, the opening clash of the Palestine Campaign in World War This will be a multi-part post.

We saw in January how the Sinai campaign ended with the Battle of Rafah and the retreat of the Ottomans behind their own frontier.

The advance across Sinai had been slow, as the British had to extend their railway line and a freshwater pipeline as they advanced. Initially, the British Commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, intended to proceed slowly, but after a meeting between the British and French, it was decided to advance on multiple fronts; Maude's advance on Baghdad was one; Murray was ordered to move on Gaza, while other advances were launched on the Western and Macedonian Fronts. The February Revolution in Russia had undercut the Eastern Front. By March, the rail line had reached Khan Yunis, and the Turks were entrenched south of Gaza.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
By advancing along the coast to Gaza, the British avoided the main Ottoman concentration around Beersheba (where the Turkish railway ran) and allowed for naval resupply. The plan was to seek to capture the Gaza garrison by a single stroke, using the mounted to envelop the town and screen against Turkish reinforcements.

Murray entrusted command of the operation to the Commander of his Eastern Force, Sir Charles Dobell, a Canadian. Dobell in turn entrusted the main effort to the highly mobile Desert Column, consisting of the ANZAC Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division, the Imperial Camel Corps, and the 53rd Welsh Division.

The plan was to advance the rail line to the Wadi Ghazzeh, which cuts as a deep ravine a few miles south of Gaza. A network of ravines around the wadi made the land difficult to pass and the open, barren country south of the town gave a lack of cover and a clear field of fire to the Turkish defenders in their trenches. (See the map at bottom.)

The Desert Column was commanded by General Sir Philip Chetwode.

The defending forces were under the command of General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, the German Chief of Staff to Turkish Fourth Army Commander Djemal (Cemal) Pasha.

Kress von Kressenstein
As already noted, the main German concentrations were around Beersheba. In the advance on Gaza, Dobell estimated there were only 2,000 defenders in Gaza; the British had a total force of 22,000. In fact there were already 4,000 defenders, with reinforcements on the way.

In the open, arid country, both sides were able to use aircraft to good effect; the British made bombing raids on Beersheba and a rail junction through February and March, and both sides flew reconnaissance missions.
Bombing raid on Gaza..

The British appear, in retrospect, to have underestimated not just the Turkish numbers but also their morale. Unlike the advance across Sinai, Gaza was clearly Ottoman territory, and in both the First and Second Battles of Gaza, the British would fail, at least in part due to a precipitate retreat.

More to come.

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