A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 31, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, Part II: Snatching Defeat from Victory

It has been a week (because I was down with a bug and on deadline) since I published Part I on the First Battle of Gaza. If you haven't already read that post, I would urge you to do so today before reading this one.

The main events of the battle took place on March 26, 1916, with some final movements the next day so we're slightly past the 100th anniversary.

By the morning of the 26th, the British were deployed for attack. As noted in Part I, the British lines were extended along the coast as the rail and water lines advanced. This left their right flank hanging in the air and vulnerable to an attack from the Ottoman forces at Beersheba. To protect his flanks and secure his lines of communication General Sir Charles Dobell, Commander of the Eastern Force, kept significant forces around Rafa and elsewhere along the line. (For the dramatis personae, see Part I.)

The British plan of attack called for a frontal assault by infan try to seize Gaza before the Turkish garrison could withdraw, The frontal assault would be carried out by the 53rd (Welsh) Division  and one brigade from the 52nd (East Anglian) Division.Meanwhile the ANZAC Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division would envelop the Turkish line and hold off any attempts to reinforce the garrison by Turkish troops from Beersheba or Jaffa. The Turkish defenders were already 4,000, while the British expected only 2,000.

The infantry attack met with stiff resistance; the Turks were well-dug in and the arid terrain provided open fields of fire. Adding to the British problems, a heavy fog set in before dawn, preventng visual reconnoitering of the Turkish lines.

The infantry attack, delayed by the fog and a generally slow start had as its initial objective the shrine of ‘Ali Muntar. But difficult communications between 53rd Division Commander Maj. Gen. A.G. Dallas and Desert Column Commander General Sir Philip Chetwode created much confusion, as did delays in bringing up the artillery and a failure to register the artillery on the Turkish lines.

bell and Chetwode sent Dallas his orders to launch his attack; orders were sent at 11, again at 11:30, and with increasing urgency at noon. Still without adequate artillery, Dallas finally attacked.n

The infantry assault did eventually make progress, reaching the Turkish defenses around ‘Ali Muntar.
They captured German and Austrian troops as  well as Ottoman.
Situation 2:00 PM
Meanwhile, Chetwode named Harry Chauvel of the ANZAC Mounted Division to command both it and the Imperial Mounted Division for the day. The Imperials were to patrol the approaches in the east to block reinforcements, while the ANZACs attacked Gaza from the north.

Dobell and Chetwode were increasingly worried, however, that Gaza would not be taken before dark due to the morning delays, and that the British right flank might be vulnerable to an attack in the darkness.

By 5:30 PM. the Infantry had finally taken ‘Ali Muntar, wile to the north, the ANZACs managed to actually enter the town of Gaza. By a bit after 6:00 PM. the British Empire forces seemed to be nearly victorious.
Situation 6;00 PM
Ottoman reinforcements had meanwhile arrived on the east in the afternoon, further raising concerns.

Sunset on March 26 was expected at 6:00 PM. Neither Dobell nor Chetwode yet knew that the infantry had taken ‘Ali Muntar.

At 6:10 PM, Chetwode, after consulting with Dobell, ordered the withdrawal of the mounted divisions. Even when he learned the British position was better than he realized, he did not change his position.

And thus, not for the first time, caution and bad intelligence managed to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory.

No comments: