A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

April 17-19, 1917: The Second Battle of Gaza, First Use of Tanks and Poison Gas in Middle East

Of eight Mark I tanks at 2nd Gaza, Turkish fire destroyed three
The past three days mark the 100th anniversary of the Second Battle of Gaza, part of the Palestine Campaign in World War I. In an ironic echo of the present, it also marked the first use of poison gas in the Middle East campaign, as well as the first use of tanks.

As we saw in discussing the First Battle of Gaza in March (Part I and Part II), the British command in effect snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by ordering a retreat, despite the fact that ANZAC Mounted troops were already in the midst of Gaza town. They feared the arrival of Turkish reinforcements and the fall of darkness.

The overall commanders, Egyptian Expeditionary Force commander General Sir Archibald Murray, and Eastern Force Commander General Sir Charles Dobell began preparing for another attempt. Both minimized the first loss in their reports and predicted a successful second attack. Both men in effect were putting their reputations on the line.

After the first battle, the Ottoman forces had be reinforced. There were now three regiments defending Gaza proper, with additional regiments at Hareira (now Tel Haror in Israel)nd others at other points along the road between Gaza and Beersheba. The Ottomans and their German allies had fortified a series of trenches interspersed with strong defensive redoubts and enfilading fire. New German aircraft had arrived, making the air war component more equal. Both sides had discovered the advantages of aircraft in open desert reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, the British had been reinforced with two weapons already in use on the Western Front: a supply of poison gas shells, in this case containing a 50/50 blend of phosgene and chlorine gas; and eight Mark I tanks. The Mark I was the British first generation tank introduced in 1915. Though history would prove desert to be excellent tank country in future wars, the gullies and arroyos around Gaza and the Turkish trenches made it hard to pass; and the Mark I had a maximum speed of only six kilometers per hour and a tendency to break down. Of the eight tanks, two were knocked out in the opening attack and a third later. And though the Turks had no gas masks, the gas attack, when launched, reportedly dissipated in the desert air without significant effect.

Dobell favored a direct frontal attack, accompanied by a swing to the right around the main Gaza lines by the Desert Column. Desert Column Commander Sir Philip Chetwode and ANZAC Commander Harry Chauvel expressed doubts, favoring an attack on the coastal flank of the Turkish lines.

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.
The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.


With its manpower depleted, the EEF campaign to take Jerusalem was put on hold. Murray decided to make the Canadian Dobell the scapegoat. He was relieved of command and packed off to India. Chetwode, a better and more experienced general, replaced him ans head of Eastern Force; and Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC Light Horseman, took over the Desert Column. In August it would be renamed the Desert Mounted Force, and Chauvel, one of the last great cavalry commanders, would lead it in a series of charges at Beersheba, Megiddo, and into Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo. The Light Horse would win fame for Australian arms, and Chauvel would become Australia's first full General.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
But not under Murray's command. Murray has been a patron of the Arab revolt, a sponsor of T.E. Lawrence (the David Lean film does him an injustice), and a victor over the Senussi (Sanusi) and in the Sinai. But the two defeats at Gaza in two months, after his confident predictions, was too much and he was recalled and given command of the Army training center at Aldershot. He continued to recive promotions, but held no more field commands.

Though the military high command continued to believe that victory would be won on the hemorrhaging Western Front, the man who had become Prime Minister the previous December, David Lloyd George, was an enthusiast for the Eastern Front, and particularly for taking Jerusalem. The Bible-quoting Lloyd George favored naming a "dashing" sort of commander for the Palestine Front.

Allenby (Seven Pillars)
The search for a new commander was not smooth.  General Jan Smuts, Commander of the South African Army and a member of the Imperial War Council, refused the assignment. In June, a former cavalry commander and Boer War veteran (though in that war he was the opposite side from Smuts), but who had been enjoying a rapid rise on the Western Front until suffering a setback. Still a believer that the West was the real war, he first considered it a joke, but accepted. His name: Edmund Allenby.

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