The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Avram Pelunsky

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 9 February 2006

The area concerned is the Sinai Desert which lies between Turkey and Egypt and formed part of the Ottoman Empire that extended as far west as Libya until 1911 when Italy seized it. Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman state but after the British bombarded Alexandria in 1882 it took effective control of the country. The strategic significance was the 120 mile Suez Canal. A garrison of about three divisions comprising UK and Indian troops was provided.

The Ottoman Empire (The sick man of Europe) underwent a revolution in 1908 led by young army officers (the Young Turks) in an attempt to revive the country. When general hostilities broke out in 1914 Turkey was assiduously courted by both the Allied and Central, but decided to join the latter as they feared the covetous eyes of the British and French and of the Russians for then Constantinople. The Turkish army mustered 2.5 million men, mainly Turks but included Arabs, Kurds, Bosnians and other subjects. German officers were appointed as advisers, but kept a line open to Berlin.

In 1915 Turkish forces attack Canal. Imperial forces under Gen Maxwell on west side repel attack using canal as a moat and a new defensive line formed 10 km from canal to keep ships out of gun range. Turks withdraw towards Gaza and create defensive line to Be'er Sheva. These two towns form the gateway between Egypt and the then Palestine.

For rest of year skirmishing occurs and army is reorganised but is still mandated to the defense of Egypt New commander Gen Murray decides to form a line from El Arish to Kossaima and to use this as a base line to attack Turks. This operation requires construction of railway and water pipe line.

March 1917 Gen Murray was ready to attack Gaza with 3 infantry divs, 2 cavalry divs plus unattached units. His plan was to surround the town and take It in one day (logistics played a major role), The attack was planned to start in early morning but delays occurred due to fog so that some units only got going at 10 am. By late afternoon it appeared that the town was about to fall but imperial troops withdrew due to misunderstandings, delays etc. and grooming of horses

Thus ended the First battle of Gaza due to muddle, confusion, incompetence.

The next month was spent by both sides in augmenting their forces and by the Turks in strengthening their defences. The imperial forces outnumbered the Turks by 50% in infantry and guns and greatly in mounted troops An allied flotilla led by a French battleship appeared off the coast.

The Turkish positions extended well to the east of Gaza thus preventing encirclement. The Turkish position was strong but a major attack on the city would be difficult to hold due to lack of mobility.

The instructions from London were now to clear southern Palestine and take Jerusalem. Some commanders beloved that the Imperial forces should advance through the open eastern flank and by cutting off Gaza a battle would be unnecessary. This idea was rejected.

The first phase of the attack was launched on 17 April after a heavy naval bombardment that had little effect. The next day a full frontal attack went in but did not breach the line.

A third attack was launched on the 19th but was held. By then supplies were running low and Imperial forces were withdrawn. Bad planning, incompetence and resolute defence caused the failure of Gaza 2.

The Turks strengthened their line anchoring the east end in Be'er Sheva, about 50 km from Gaza. Kress wished to anchor his line further north in the Judean hills to prevent it from being outflanked but was forbidden to do so. A reshuffling of field commanders was implemented and the commander of Eastern force (Gen Dobell) was relieved. Raids and skirmishes continued.

The Imperial War Cabinet had to decide on whether to now remain on the defensive or strike out and hope to win success. They chose the latter option as a morale booster was needed alter the failures, both here and on other fronts of 1916 and early 1917.

They decided at the end of June to appoint a new commander of the EEF and chose Gen Allenby the commander of the Third British army in France. He had a good record and did not get on well with his boss (to A's credit).His Intelligence officer was Col Meinertzhagen.

By this time the Imperial forces had been strengthened with more troops, tanks and aircraft. The Turks had also reinforced their positions and were awaiting the arrival of additional forces. Although the morale of the Turkish forces had dropped they planned a forward attack. The morale of the Imperial forces rose with Allenby's arrival. His instructions from the Imperial war cabinet were "Jerusalem for Christmas."

He was an impressive and highly intelligent personality and actually moved in and camped with the troops. Although appearing gruff and impatient he was sensitive to the condition and needs of his men. Having personally surveyed the field he decided that stratagem and guile was required to unbalance the Turks. He realized that Gaza was the key to his objective but thought that if he were to indicate an attack at Be'er Sheva first the Turks would have to draw forces away from Gaza. He believed that with his superiority he could break through there and fold the Turkish line while attacking Gaza itself.

Raids and decoys were mounted but had little effect except for that carried out personally by Meinertzhagen. He rode out towards the Turkish lines carrying a haversack containing carefully prepared documents indicating a forthcoming attack on Gaza. As he rode out he was fired on by a Turkish patrol. He hastened back to his own lines but made out as if he had been wounded and dropped his haversack. This was captured and examined by Turkish intelligence who recognised it as a fake. Kress decided he could not disregard the possibility.

In the meanwhile Imperial troops and supplies were brought towards Be'er Sheva at night, and hidden from the Turks. The preparations were complete by the night of 30-31 Oct and the attack went in that morning with the intention of capturing the town and its wells. Despite fierce resistance it was captured that day mainly due to the efforts of the Australian Light Horse.

For four days prior to this Gaza had been subject to the noise and smoke of artillery bombardment from land and sea. On learning of the success at Be'er Sheva the outer defences of Gaza were attacked and consequent to the disarray on the left flank the Turkish forces withdrew on the night of 6-7 Nov.

The coastal road to Jaffa-Tel Aviv was now open but the Turks put up a vigorous rear guard defence and Gen Allenby entered the surrendered city on 4 Dec 1917.

The third battle of Gaza was won at Be'er Sheva or on the playing fields of Melbourne.

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