Monday 26 March 1917 – We Lost 1,147
After eight months of painstaking advances, the British have succeeded in driving the Turkish forces from the Sinai Peninsula where they had been attempting to menace the Allied supply route through the Suez Canal. The British now are trying to advance into Palestine with the goal of cutting off the Turkish forces in Mesopotamia and on the Arabian Peninsula. As a first step, they need to capture the stronghold of Gaza which dominates the southern coastal route into Palestine. The First Battle of Gaza is the first predominantly infantry assault of the campaign and is a costly defeat for the British.
The estimated Turkish strength in the Gaza-Beersheba area is about 15,000 troops; of which 4,000 are believed to be in Gaza itself, perhaps 2,000 in Beersheba with the remainder in the surrounding country. The British forces involved in the attack number 22,000 and comprise the 53rd and 54th Divisions, two brigades from each of the Anzac and Imperial Mounted Divisions plus the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade.
The assault on Gaza is to be a swift attack with all units, including artillery, advancing during the night which involves crossing the deep Wady Ghuzze. The advance which starts at 02:30 is hindered by a thick fog which does not dissipate until 08:00. The main assault will be carried out by the 53rd Division, under the command of Major General A.G. Dallas, with the support of one brigade (the 161st Brigade) of the 54th Division. The two mounted divisions and the camel brigade would provide screens on the flanks; the Anzac Mounted Division would surround Gaza to the east and north while the Imperial Mounted Division and camel brigade were positioned on the eastern flank to hold off Turkish reinforcements from elsewhere in the Gaza-Beersheba line. Despite the fog, the mounted troops complete their encirclement of Gaza without mishap. While the fog makes navigation difficult, it also shielded the horsemen’s movements from observation. The advance completely surprises the Turks; two German aircraft are destroyed on the ground, a number of isolated Turkish posts are surrounded and the commander and staff of the Turkish 53rd Division are captured while travelling to take command of the Gaza garrison.
The advance of the infantry is less successful. The plan is for the 53rd Division to have crossed the Wady Ghuzze by 05:00 and be in position to assault Ali Muntar, south-east of Gaza, at 08:00 after a preparatory bombardment from the artillery. The 158th Brigade would attack from the right (east) and the 160th Brigade from the left (west) with the 159th Brigade in reserve. However the infantry are not in position until 08:30 and the artillery does not commence the bombardment until 09:00 by which time any element of surprise is lost.
General Dallas delays the attack as uncertainty about the Turkish strength makes him hesitate and he leaves his headquarters to go forward and view the battlefield. Dallas and his staff are absent from the 53rd Division’s headquarters for two hours or more, during which time General Philip Chetwode is trying to contact him with orders to commence the attack immediately. Sightings of raised dust in the distance suggest to Dallas that Turkish reinforcements are approaching making him even more nervous to commit to the attack, though it turns out to be a false alarm.
Around noon finally Dallas commences his infantry attack. He receives support from the 161st Brigade and the 54th Division artillery at 13:00. Meanwhile, recognizing that the available daylight is slipping away, Chetwode orders General Chauvel, commander of the Anzac Mounted Division, to attack Gaza from the north and east with his two mounted brigades. The infantry attack across 4,000 yards of open ground under continuous Turkish shrapnel fire. When the line approaches to within 1,000 yards of the Ali Muntar position, the Turkish machine guns and riflemen open fire and the attack begins to falter. At 13:00 Dallas sends in his reserve brigade, the 159th. At 15:00 some of the British reach the cactus hedges on the slopes of Ali Muntar and a close-quarters melee begins. At 16:20 the 161st Brigade, having arrived from reserve, is sent in to assault the hill with three battalions. At this point the British commit all their infantry to the battle. The Turks are driven from the summit of Ali Muntar around dusk but make an orderly retreat towards the Gaza Township.
Shortly after 13:00 the Australian 2nd Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade move in towards Gaza from the north and east respectively. The Turks have been lulled by the inactivity of these brigades and had withdrawn troops from these flanks to face the British attacking from the south. Consequently the soldiers are able to ride close in to Gaza before dismounting and are quickly amongst the cactus hedges. By 18:00 the Turkish position has become perilous with the ring closing tightly around Gaza. However, in a decision that dismays most of their soldiers, Dobell and Chetwode decide to call off the attack and retreat, delivering victory to the Turks. Brigadier General Ryrie of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade is so incensed by the order to withdraw that he enforces his right to receive it in writing.
Both Dobell and his superior, General Archibald Murray, portray the battle as a success in their reports to the British War Office and excuse the withdrawal by claiming the approaching Turkish reinforcements were a threat and that the horses of the mounted troops had not been watered all day. However, the reinforcements that had engaged the defensive screen of light horsemen had been repulsed with relative ease and the claim of watering the horses was false as a number of the brigades had found water supplies on the battlefield and were in no immediate need of relief. The failure to capture Gaza on his first attempt is fatal for General Murray’s ambitions in Palestine. Where Turkey had previously been demoralized by the retreat through the Sinai, and are contemplating withdrawal towards Jerusalem, it is now motivated to defend the Gaza-Beersheba line. A second attempt will be made to capture Gaza on 19 April by which time the Turkish defenses are more formidable and the task confronting the British more difficult.
A patrol consisting of Lieutenant Cyril Ernest Scott, Sergeant Henry Armstrong Hammond, Sergeant Joseph Gahan and Corporal Edward Gordon Ogg of the Australian Light Horse encounters a Turkish officer with fifteen men who immediately throw up their hands to surrender at Gaza. Upon seeing how few Australians there are, the Turks pick up their rifles and shoot Sergeant Joseph Gahan dead and bayonet Corporal Ogg in the leg. Lieutenant Scott shoots five of the Turks while Sergeant Hammond gets one before the Turks again surrender.
British and Australian casualties include 467 killed, 2,900 wounded and 500 missing against Turkish losses of less than 2,500 killed, wounded, missing and prisoners.
Today’s losses include:
- The son of a man who served in the India Mutiny
- Multiple families that will lose two and three sons in the Great War
- A football player
- A battalion commander
- A man whose son will be killed in the Second World War
- Multiple sons of members of the clergy
- Brothers killed together
Today’s highlighted casualties include:
Among those killed in the Battle of Gaza are:
- Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Stirling Ashworth (commanding 4th Sussex Regiment) age 42, Lieutenant Colonel Ashworth’s son will be killed in the Second World War.
- Captain Ivor Thomas Lloyd-Jones (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) and Lieutenant Vivian Gwynne James (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) all killed while leading their men into action at age 28. Captain Lloyd-Jones brother was killed on Gallipoli in August 1915 and they are sons of Reverend David Lloyd-Jones while Lieutenant James is wounded and while he is being carried back to the Casualty Clearing Station is killed by a bursting shell. He is a graduate of the University of Wales and an Assistant Master in Science at Callington County School, in Cornwall.
- Captain Stanley Jackson Snowden (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 25. His younger brother Lieutenant H J Snowden will be accidentally killed in August. Captain Snowden joined the Inns of Court OTC on the outbreak of the War, and received a Commission in the Middlesex Regiment in October 1914. He was sent to Gallipoli in July 1915 and was wounded at Suvla Bay the following month. He was invalided home, but rejoined his Regiment in Egypt in February 1916.
- Lieutenant Claud John Pym (Irish Guards) dies of wounds at age 24. His brother was killed in July 1916.
- Lieutenant Denis Noel Tyrrell-Green (Sussex Regiment) is killed. He is the son of the Reverend Professor Edmund Tyrrell-Green.
- Second Lieutenant Vivian Unsworth Green (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 33. He is the middle of three brothers who are killed in the Great War.
- Second Lieutenant Arthur Rogers (Welsh Fusiliers) is killed at age 20. He is the son of the Reverend John Rogers.
- Second Lieutenant Evelyn Llewellyn Hustler Jones (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) is killed in Palestine at age 43. He is the son of the late Reverend Owen Jones.
- Second Lieutenant Arthur Llewelyn Williams (Welsh Fusiliers) is killed. He is the son of the Reverend John Williams.
- Second Lieutenant Charles Vincent Edmunds (Essex Regiment) is killed at age 33. He is the son of the Reverend Charles Edmunds Vicar of Broomfield.
- Lance Corporal Ernest Carpenter (Sussex Regiment) is killed. His brother will die as a prisoner of war in June next year.
- Lance Corporal Charles Payne (Sussex Regiment) is killed. His brother will be killed in July 1918.
- Private Arthur Roland Hill (Essex Regiment) is killed at age 23. His brother will die on the Western Front 4 days before the Armistice.
- Private William Roger Crabb (Essex Regiment) is killed at age 23. His brother died of enteric fever in November 1915.
- Private George Jenner Andrew (Essex Regiment) is killed at age 25. His brother will be killed in March 1918.
- Brothers and Privates Theodore Frederick (age 25) and Wilfred Richard Wicking (age 26) (Royal Sussex Regiment) are killed together. Their brother was killed on Gallipoli in August 1915.
- Private Arthur Papworth (Suffolk Regiment) dies at home after being discharged as medically unfit after a long illness at age 42. His brother was killed in March 1915.
Killed on the Western Front this day are:
- Second Lieutenant Francis Gore (Middlesex Regiment) killed in action at age 37. He is the son of the Honorable Emily Gore and his father Lieutenant Augustus Frederick Wentworth Gord served during the India Mutiny.
- Gunner Bernard Christopher Rance (Royal Field Artillery) is killed at age 21. His brother will be killed in June.
- Corporal David Collie Martin (Black Watch) is killed at age 27. He was a successful football player for Brechin Hearts, Brechin City, Dundee and Dundee Hibs. He was the first player to score five goals for Dundee Hibs. During the 1914-15 season he completed the season with an amazing twenty-nine goals in 25 league matches.