The First Battle of Gaza, 26 March 1917 (First Gaza)
In the early hours of the morning of 26 March, the Anzac Mounted Division crossed Wadi Ghuzze and, giving Gaza a wide berth, moved towards the Mediterranean so that it could attack Gaza from both the north and the east. The Imperial Mounted Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade made a wider circle and faced outwards to prevent enemy reinforcements from approaching. The encirclement of Gaza was completed by the 53rd (Welsh) Division supported by the 54th (East Anglia) Division, which would attack Gaza from the south.
The infantry attack was delayed because of unseasonable fog and it was nearly noon before the 53rd Division, which had not been in action since Gallipoli in 1915, attacked. At 1 pm Chauvel was ordered to make a dismounted attack on Gaza from the flank and rear. The order took some time to reach Chauvel and the attack went in at 4 pm. At first progress was slow in both operations, but, as sunset drew near the Australians entered the northern outskirts of the town and the infantry captured the main heights at Ali Muntar, south-east of the town. The Turkish defences seemed to be crumbling, with many prisoners being taken.
In the afternoon, the British commanders Dobell and Chetwode had decided that unless Gaza was taken by sunset, the mounted troops should be withdrawn. Their decision was based on concern about the water supply for the horses and in the knowledge that Turkish reinforcements were converging on Gaza. At 6 pm, shortly after sunset, the mounted troops were ordered to withdraw. Too late, Dobell and Chetwode learned of the capture of Ali Muntar, that the Turkish relief columns had halted and that the Gaza garrison had been beaten and if further pressed would surrender. Both the infantry and the mounted troops who had located water found the recall unbelievable. However, there was no doubt about the order, and it had to be obeyed. There was no attempt to impede the withdrawal and the mounted troops brought back their very few wounded and some of their dead. Henry Gullett in the official history wrote:
So confident were the brigadiers of Chauvel’s division that they were in no danger from the enemy, that no precautions were taken against noise or lights, and the course of the column was clearly marked by the striking of matches as the men lit their pipes and cigarettes.
The infantry withdrew from the Ali Muntar heights and found them unoccupied when ordered to re-occupy them the next morning. However, they were driven off the heights before the position could be consolidated. British casualties for the battle, mainly suffered by the infantry, were 4000, while the Turks lost 2500.
Following the capture of Gaza it was planned for the Royal Australian Navy Bridging Train (RANBT) to land from the troopship Proton and construct piers for the unloading of supplies. The RANBT had maintained and operated several bridges over the Suez Canal throughout 1916. On 22 December the detachment had landed at El Arish and built two piers for landing supplies to the advancing troops. On the day Gaza was attacked the RANBT was briefly involved in salvaging a ditched British aircraft, but this was its last task. The RANBT was officially disbanded on 27 March 1917 and its men were either transferred to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) or sent home for discharge.
The errors of First Gaza were compounded after the battle when Murray reported to London that the attack had been ‘a most successful operation ... it has filled our troops with enthusiasm’. Murray’s report was received in London two weeks after profound events had affected the other two fronts on which the Turks were engaged. On 9 March 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out and the Allies, not realising the war weariness of the Russian people, thought that the Turks would face more pressure on the Armenian front. Two days later the British Army in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) captured Baghdad and the end of the campaign in Mesopotamia was in sight. In this mood of optimism London sent Murray orders indicating that Jerusalem was the immediate objective of the Egypt Expeditionary Force.