First Battle of Gaza, Palestine 27/3/17

1/1st Herefordshire Regiment

At the beginning of 1917 the order was for pressure on all fronts. In Palestine the Turkish position extended from the sea across the front of Gaza, while its left was at Beersheba, away east, at the foot of the central range and on the edge of the desert. The British force was collected at the railhead, on the coast, with its communications running back along the coastal route. To attack in the direction of Beersheba would have meant extending the lines of communications across the enemy’s front, so Sir Archibald Murray decided to attack at Gaza. He therefore reorganized the desert column, which now consisted of the Imperial Mounted Division, less one brigade, the Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division and 53 Welsh Division. With this and 52 and 5 Divisions he intended to strike at Gaza.

The cavalry screen was spread out far towards Gaza and reconnaissances were carried out without molestation, brigadiers, commanding officers and regimental officers all riding out with it, reconnoitering the country. Reconnoitering parties found no difficulty in getting up to and across the Wadi Ghuzze, one of the great features of the country.

In the plan for the first battle of Gaza, the 53rd Division was to cross the Wadi Ghuzze and seize the necessary bridgehead. The Cavalry Division and the 54th Division were to seize and occupy the Sheik Abbas position, the 53rd Division would move forward for the attack on Gaza, its objective being first the Ali Muntar-El Sire ridge as far as El Shelur. from there visual reconnaissance could be made for the attack on the final objective: the enemy’s position about Ali Muntar. The mounted divisions were detailed to cover the flank of this advance.

On 21 March the 1/1st Herefordshire Regiment moved to Rafah, crossing the Palestine boundary at noon, and at night it was on outposts.

Hill states: “On the morning of the 24th a mixed cavalcade cantered through the streets of Khan Unis; it was an advanced party of British Officers seeking out for their units hiding places in the shady fruit groves surrounding the town. It was our first real glimpse of the ‘promised land’. On all sides were groves of fig trees, mish-mish, olives and oranges, protected by high impenetrable hedges of prickly pear. On the north this green gem ends abruptly in a golden setting of sand hills, beyond which lies the deep blue of the Mediterranean. An old crusader’s fort raises its tower above the surrounding squalor of mud huts. As we clattered through the lane, for it was scarcely a road, running through the centre of the town, savage looking but stately Bedouins gazed at us with curious eyes, and no doubt spies on the roof tops took a more technical interest in our passage.

“That evening the battalion bivouacked in the groves north-east of Khan Yunis, being again on outposts. Late the following evening it moved out of its cover, and crossing the Wadi Ghuzze at dawn worked its way up the spur leading to Mansura. By 11.30 a.m. the whole brigade was concentrated in a covering position north of the village and about 4,500 yards from the enemy’ 5 position. It had been a beautiful starlight night, but at daybreak a rolling fog came in from the sea, which delayed the advance so that the force was two hours behind its scheduled time, the brigade being caught by the fog just as it was going to make the difficult crossing of the wadi.

“In the attack on Ah Muntar, 158 Infantry Brigade was in the centre, with 159 on its right, but this brigade had been behind them and though they strained every nerve to catch up, their leading units were echeloned well to the right rear of 158’s. 160 Infantry Brigade was on the left, attacking up the El Sire Ridge, and there was a considerable gap between it and 158, which had been increased by the fact that the leading battalions of the latter had gone too far to the north.

“The battalion was in reserve at first, but 5th RWF on the left was soon held up by fire from Green Hill on its left, this flank being exposed. The battalion was consequently ordered up and at 1.12 p.m. it was deployed, C being on the right and D on the left, with A and B in support. The advance was carried out with the regularity and coolness of a manoeuvre. Almost at once the battalion found that its own left flank was not strong enough and a platoon of B was sent up to prolong the line, while two platoons of A were moved across further to support the left flank. The very gallant advance of the leading companies managed to establish the firing line about 500 yards from Ah Muntar. There, however, all progress was stopped by hostile machine-guns and rifle fire, and by the fact that the Green Hill trenches were as yet unassailed. By 2.00 p.m. the brigade was definitely held up all along its front. 161 Infantry Brigade had been brought up and was put in late in the afternoon, but before this reinforcement could make itself felt a very gallant charge was made by Capt. Walker of 7th RWF with about forty men. This took the Turks by surprise, penetrated their position and with 161 Brigade attacking Green Hill in a most determined manner the whole line was able to go forward at a little before sunset. When the advance was first held up the cavalry were despatched round the enemy’s left to attack Gaza from the rear, and as there was thought to be no water for them they had to be withdrawn by 6.00 p.m.

“It was now that a tragedy occurred due to the fog of war. Neither Gen. Chetwode nor Gen. Dobell knew of the successful effort of the division and 161 Brigade, which were in occupation of the whole of the El Sire ridge, and that the Turks had retired. A withdrawal to the original concentration position was ordered. After dark there was considerable confusion on the top of the ridge and units were much disorganized and mixed up, but there is no doubt that the position could have been held. However, it was not to be.

“At about midnight, while it was still consolidating and reorganizing, the battalion, to its stupefaction, received the order to withdraw, and by 3.30 a.m. the whole brigade was back in its new position.

“To illustrate the greatness of the tragedy, some of the troops, including Capt. Latham of the 7th RWF, never received the order to withdraw, and it was only at dawn that they did so when they found that no one else, not even the enemy, was there. Also, a party of British troops met some Anzac Cavalry, who had come right through Gaza from north to south. The remnant of the garrison and Gaza itself was simply waiting to be taken.

“In the early hours of the morning of 27 March, Gen. Chetwode realized what had happened and ordered the divisional commander to re-occupy Green Hill and Ah Muntar. Although the troops had had no rest, they responded at once. After a hasty breakfast the battalion moved off at 7.00 a.m. and the leading company actually got on to Ah Muntar, which was found to be held by some of the Essex, but at that moment the Essex were being forced to retire in face of a strong enemy counter-attack from the east, and they and the battalion were forced to fall back along the ridge in a south-westerly direction until a consolidated position occupied by the Essex was reached. This was the second attack that the enemy had made, the first having been repulsed by the Essex.

“The battalion then withdrew to the original concentration position north of Mansura, after suffering heavy casualties – 17 out of 22 officers were killed, wounded or missing. Casualties – Officers, 4 killed, 11 wounded and 2 missing; Other Ranks, 13 killed, 181 wounded and 24 missing.

“As the enemy had succeeded in recapturing Green Hill and Ah Muntar, Gen. Dobell considered that the position then held was not a good one for further operations, and decided to withdraw behind Wadi Ghuzze. So the battalion fell back to a bivouac 1 mile north of Dir el Belah, which was reached at 3.00 a.m. on 28 March, and there it remained till 17 April.”

Hill, Lt Col T J B Manu Forti: A History of the Herefordshire Regiment London 1996