The words of frustration written by James McCarroll in his diary reflected the feelings of the Anzac Mounted troops on the evening after the attack of 26th March 1917.
Ever since the start of the second campaign in the Sinai Desert in 1916, the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles had spearheaded attacks against the enemy in a series of swift horse mounted routs that had steadily forced the enemy to retreat across the great expanse of the Sinai desert.
Once the desert had been crossed and Rafa had been taken in Southern Palestine, the English Generals insisted it was their turn to show the enemy the combined might of a British Isles Infantry assault. Unfortunately through poor planning and equally poor execution the attack proved a disaster. This first attack and a second similar Infantry failure on April 17th were to have far reaching repercussions. Many of the English military leaders were removed from their posts by the new British Parliament under Lloyd George. These sackings included the Commander of the EEF, General Archibald Murray and his subordinate Lieutenant Sir Charles Dobell.
The first Infantry attack was to commence in the pre-dawn. The Mounted forces of Australia and New Zealand were asked to act in support of the operation and were told to proceeded with an encirclement and to surround the township of Gaza from the North. The Anzac troops were in position unopposed well before the early morning fog lifted. For unexplained reasons the commander of the Infantry attack refused to use the covering fog for his men and delayed the advance many hours until mid-morning - waiting for the fog to lift.
The British Infantry began their advance at noon in flat open country. An advance of over 4,000 yards without a tree for cover, into the face of Turkish artillery shrapnel and entrenched forces manning machine guns.
For the men of the British 32nd (lowland) , 53rd (Welsh) and 54th (East Anglia) Infantry Divisions the attack was a blood-bath.
It was not until 4pm in the late afternoon before the Anzacs were asked to join the fight.
For Light Horseman, Trooper Ion Idriess, the failure of the operation was obvious, he wrote:
"But we massed Australians and New Zealanders for hours were spectators of the fight. It made our hearts bleed. Here we were gazing right down into the city — and not allowed to enter it. Our position was unique, miles of the semicircle battle was spread like a panorama before us. This was the biggest battle the Desert Column had fought in and yet we watched the main affray more plainly almost than a big outpost fight. We could see the shells bursting over miles of country, see the attacking battalions. With the most bewildered, utterly indignant, with the saddest of feelings we watched the huge bulk of Ali Muntar [the high ground of Gaza] turning into a roaring volcano, its cactus crest obliterated by the smoke and earth that vividly showed the crimson-black flame of explosions. Toiling across the exposed country at its base, we watched the little toy men of the 53rd Division plodding in waves towards the grim fortress, roaring under its machine-gun fire...
Stan and I reined in and watched the attack on Ali Muntar through our glasses. The poor Welshmen, coming up the open slopes towards the redoubts were utterly exposed to machine-gun and rifle fire. Shrapnel had merged in a writhing white cloud over the advancing men. They plodded out of a haze of earth and smoke only to disappear into another barrage. It was pitifully sublime. When within close rifle-range line after line lay clown and fired while other lines ran past them to lie down and fire in turn. And thus they were slowly but so steadily advancing, under terrific fire. Every yard must have seemed death to them. We could see in between the smoke-wreaths that when each line jumped up, it left big gaps. Some thousands of the poor chaps bled on Ali Muntar that day. And the pity of it was they should have advanced in the fog and been saved that slaughter."
Sergeant C.G. Nicol wrote in the Auckland Mounted Rifles Official History:
"The brigade came up to Pier El Belah before the attack on Gaza on March 26, and from there moved off at 2.30 a.m. to get behind the town to keep back Turkish reinforcements and attack the position from the flank while the infantry made the frontal attack. Crossing the Wadi El Ghuzze at El Jemmi the brigade moved to Tellul El Humra, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade going further north to cover the ground to the sea. The 4th squadron was detached to oppose reinforcements advancing from the direction of Huj, while the 11th squadron and one troop of the 3rd went on a similar mission towards Tor Dimre, further north. At 4 p.m. the 22nd mounted brigade and the N.Z.M.R. attacked Gaza from El Meshahera, the remaining portion of the A.M.R. being held in reserve. Meeting with little resistance, and impeded only by cactus hedges,
this part of the attacking force entered the outskirts of Gaza, and the town was theirs for the asking. But orders for withdrawal were issued, and when questioned they were made insistent. Accordingly, the mounted men were withdrawn - the most tragic and inexplicable episode of the whole campaign. There was no serious danger of the enemy reinforcements coming into the fight from the rear, nor was there any other reason why the Turks should have been handed back the town, but it had to be done. The A.M.R., less the 4th squadron, got back to Pier El Belah early the following morning."
Major A.H. Wilkie - of the Wellington Mounted Rifles wrote of the action:
"...and at 2 p.m. orders were received from Desert Column Headquarters that the Anzac Mounted Division was to close in on Gaza from the north to assist the Infantry, and that the Imperial Mounted Division, then on observation at Huj, north-east of Gaza, was, with the Camel Brigade, to take over all observation duties and so release the Anzac Division for the attack.
When these posts had been taken over the N.Z. Brigade galloped across an open plain and, seizing Meshahera Ridge, afterwards called "Anzac Ridge," to the north-east of Gaza, it dismounted, and the attack began at four o'clock as follows:
The 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade extending from the sea to the Gaza-Jebelie Road (inclusive) the New Zealand Brigade from the Gaza-Jebelie Road (exclusive) to the top of the Anzac Ridge (which runs parallel to the road and on the southern end of which is Ali Muntar, which the Infantry were attacking), and the 22nd Mounted Brigade, which had taken the place of the 1st A.L.H. Brigade, on the left of the New Zealanders.
An enemy deserter who had been caught confirmed the number of guns and machine guns said to be in Gaza, and he estimated the Infantry at two battalions, 500 Austrians, and 200 cavalry or camelry, with four big-calibre guns. He said that support had been asked for from Jemamah at ten o'clock that morning. There were only twenty-four hours' supplies in Gaza, and all the wells except three had been blown up.
The line of advance of the W.M.R. lay across an open valley on the right of Anzac Ridge, towards Gaza, which could be seen in the distance behind a maze of giant cactus hedges, where the Turks, with two Krupp field guns, were entrenched, and parties of them were concealed behind the forward cactus hedges covering the advance.
The C.M.R. advanced along Anzac Ridge and the W.M.R. along the valley, with the 6th Squadron extended from the right of the C.M.R. in two lines at fifty yards distance, its right being on the Gaza-Latron Road, the 2nd Squadron (less one troop with Divisional Headquarters) following with two troops extended in support, 100 yards behind, and one troop on the right to protect the flank and to gain touch with the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, who were operating on the right of the road. The 9th Squadron followed in reserve, extended on a narrow front in two lines, 150 and 200 yards behind the 2nd Squadron.
The dismounted advance of the Regiment made rapid progress, and at 4.25 p.m. the W.M.R. captured a Turkish ambulance station, with all equipment, the personnel including four officers and 125 other ranks taken. In addition, there were twenty vehicles, besides tents, rifles, and ammunition, all of which were sent to Brigade Headquarters under a small escort, whilst the remainder of the W.M.R. pressed forward.
The enemy shelled the advancing troops, and rifle fire was encountered principally from the cover of cactus hedges in the valley, and from the Ali Muntar position, but the New Zealanders advanced very rapidly. The 2nd and 9th W.M.R. Squadrons reached the outer line of the maze of these cactus hedges, in which many Turks were taking cover and shooting, but our men penetrated them by cutting gaps with their bayonets and engaged the enemy at close quarters.
On the left centre of the W.M.R. a trench manned by the enemy and protected by a shallow lagoon in front offered some opposition, but two troops, under Lieutenants Allison and Foley respectively, charged across the lagoon, which was only from twelve to eighteen inches deep, and put the thirty-two occupants of the trench to the bayonet.
In the centre, the advance under Captain Wilder continued to the cemetery, where strong posts were encountered, and defensive positions were temporarily taken up by our troops there. Meantime the right of the W.M.R. line pressed forward, and a Turkish gun position was located on the edge of the town, south of the Gaza-Latron Road, and close by a small lake. An immediate attack on this position was ordered by Colonel Meldrum, Major J. A. Sommerville being placed in command of the attacking party.
The attack was carried out with splendid energy. The guns were surrounded by the thick cactus hedges already referred to, which afforded ample cover for snipers. Major Sommerville, with two troops of the 2nd W.M.R. Squadron and one troop of the 9th, under Lieutenant Black, engaged the enemy with the bayonet. Lieutenant Snow, of the 7th A.L.H. Regiment, with a party of sixteen men, happening along at this time, was also sent in by Colonel Meldrum On the right flank of the attack. The guns were captured, and the defenders put to the bayonet or shot. The guns were found to be 77mm Krupp field guns; complete.
In this attack the following, with others, displayed great bravery :
Maj or Sommerville, Lieutenant Black, Sergeant.Maj or MacMillan, Sergeant Rouse, Sergeant Roy Mason, Farrier-Sergeant Williams (killed), Corporal C. Nurse, Corporal J. Fraser, Troopers Woodward, C. Tombleson, G. Wood, Green, Hurd and O'Connell. Meanwhile the centre of the Regiment, under Maj or Wilder, were hotly pressing a strong Turkish detachment holding the cemetery. Major Wilder, who was twice wounded, Lieutenants G. Williams and Herrick, also both wounded, were here conspicuous. Defensive positions were then taken up in the cemetery and on the right to protect and hold the captured guns.
At 5 p.m. the C.M.R., on the left of the W.M.R., were pressing forward towards Ali Muntar. The 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, however, on the right of the New Zealand line, was delayed among the sandhills, the 7th Regiment of the Brigade, on the extreme right, meeting with considerable opposition.
At the same hour the Imperial Mounted Division, near Huj, was apparently in difficulties, for at its request the 3rd Brigade (less the 10th A.L.H. Regiment) was sent towards Huj to assist.
A little later the right of the W.M.R. line was some considerable distance beyond the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade's advance, and a counter-attack was threatened.
The position of the W.M.R. at this point was decidedly risky, and it was necessary for all ranks to be prepared to participate effectively in whatever fighting occurred. For this reason, defensive positions had been taken up and the officers had armed themselves with captured Turkish rifles and bayonets. All preparations, in fact, were made to defend vigorously the captured guns and to hold the rest of the line.
Many enemy snipers were firing from buildings in the vicinity, some at a distance of only 75 yards. One large red building in particular drew special attention by reason of the incessant sniping which came from it. To stop this sniping, one of the captured guns was brought into use, and the formation of an extemporised gun crew of Mounted Riflemen was complete in a moment. Though the gun was a Krupp, its intricacies were quickly solved, probably not in conformity with gunnery regulations, but with splendid results. The method adopted to "sight" the gun by Corporal Rouse was of the simplest the gun was directed at the red house till the latter could be seen through the barrel of the gun; a shell was then inserted in the breach and the gun fired. A second shot followed, and twenty terrified Turks covered with debris came bolting out and surrendered. (In addition to these, eighteen Turks were captured in street fighting). Two additional shots were fired up the street in the manner described. The effect of these four shots on the buildings of dried mud was tremendous, and Corporal Rouse, the gunner, was heard to remark that "the New Zealanders have made a new blanky street in Gaza."
A few minutes later a party of the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, advancing in the rear of the Regiment, was apparently not cognisant of the fact that the latter was in Gaza, for they opened fire on the Regiment with a Hotchkiss gun and compelled its men to take cover. This party later joined up with the W.M.R. In the meantime, signalling communications being broken, owing to Brigade Headquarters moving forward, the O.C. W.M.R. sent his signalling officer, Lieutenant Hall, out to Brigade Headquarters to obtain horse teams to remove the captured guns. All the wounded were also removed to a dressing station in the rear.
At 6.10 p.m., owing, it is said, to the lateness of the hour and the strength of the enemy forces reported to be pressing in from the north and east, and the difficulty of continuing the attack in the dark, the General Officer Commanding the Desert Column decided to withdraw the mounted troops, and orders were received to break off the action after dark and withdraw the two Mounted Divisions to Deir El Belah and the Imperial Camel Corps to a position extending from the right of the 54th Division to Wadi Ghuzze. At 6.35 p.m. orders for the withdrawal were issued, the Artillery, which by then were at Divisional Headquarters, to go under escort at once.
At about this time, although the Regiments in the line were quite confident of holding their positions, orders were received from Brigade Headquarters to withdraw. At the time it was difficult to discover the reason, for a withdrawal, but subsequently it was ascertained that the higher commands had been influenced by a report furnished by General Hodgson, of the Imperial Mounted Division, to the effect that he had been unable to hold the Turkish reinforcements in check.
At 7 p.m. two teams of horses arrived at the Regimental Headquarters, where the guns had been captured, and after some trouble, owing to the darkness and enemy snipers, the guns were limbered up in the adjacent roadway. The troops were withdrawn gradually, the guns and prisoners were sent back under escort, the wounded were evacuated from the dressing station, and at 7.45 p.m. the troops began to retire to the led horses.
About 8.45 the Regiment was complete, and began to withdraw to rejoin the Brigade. The batteries had retired from Divisional Headquarters at 7.5 p.m. The great difficulty was to get the 2nd Brigade back, as part of it, the 7th A.L.H. Regiment, was some four miles from their horses.
The W.M.R. joined up with the Brigade at 9.40 p.m., and a few minutes later the Brigade proceeded to rejoin the Division, the latter retiring at midnight for Deir El Belah a tiresome march, the destination being reached at 8.30 a.m. on 27th March.
The Regiment's casualties were:
One other rank killed.
Wounded: Captain A. S. Wilder, Captain J. A. Sommerville, Lieutenant A. B. Herrick, Lieutenant E. G. Williams, and fifteen other ranks.
Horses. Two killed and six wounded.
The prisoners captured by the Regiment were :
Five officers and 193 other ranks, in addition to an estimate of eighty enemy killed and twenty wounded.
Opportunities for machine guns were rare, and during the day oniy one good target presented itself, which was effectively dealt with at a distance of 100 yards.
Corporal Tressider, who mounted his Hotchkiss gun in an olive tree, rendered valuable service in this respect.
A special feature of this fight is the fact that, although the W.M.R. fought practically in the open throughout and at comparatively short ranges, its casualties were light. This was probably due to the celerity with which the attack was prosecuted. The boldness of the men appeared to bewilder the enemy, for on examining the Turkish rifles subsequently it was found that most of them were sighted up to the equivalent of 1500 yards. In consequence, when the final attack was made on the guns from a distance of about sixty yards the enemy fire was too high to take effect.
The circumstances surrounding the heroic death from wounds of Trooper A. A. Fitzherbert, of the W.M.R., on the day following this battle are worthy of special mention. Although 64 years of age, and notwithstanding the fact that he had been previously offered sergeant's stripes to undertake clerical duties, for which his advanced education admirably suited him, Trooper Fitzherbert insisted on remaining as a combatant. Soon after the advance on Gaza commenced, Fitzherbert was shot through the neck, and although bleeding freely he continued to advance with the line. Later, however, loss of blood compelled him to seek medical aid, but whilst en route to the dressing station he stopped to attend a wounded comrade, on whom he was tying a bandage when a burst of shrapnel mortally wounded him. Notwithstanding his fatal injuries, however, Fitzherbert refused to be carried away without his rifle.
The opinion was freely expressed after the fight that had the Infantry taken advantage of the fog (which formed a natural screen in the morning) Gaza would have fallen to them. The advance was commenced too late in the day by both the Infantry and Mounted troops. Many hours, fraught with tremendous possibilities and worth thousands of reinforcements, were wasted. The Mounteds were idle till about 4 p.m., but immediately they began to advance they brought such pressure to bear that the Wellington Regiment was enabled to penetrate a part of the town shortly afterwards. The subsequent orders to withdraw were mystifying, as the enemy seemed to be overcome. A Turkish prisoner, captured later by the 2nd A.L.H. Brigade, confirmed this, as he stated that the Turks were ready to hoist the white flag. The following message, however, was sent by General Chauvel to Major-General Hodgson, of the Imperial Mounted Division, thanking him for his services. (The casualties in the Imperial Mounted Division, it is stated, were eleven)
"I wish to draw special attention to the excellent service rendered by the Imperial Mounted Division, under MajorGeneral Hodgson~ C.B., M.V.O., in holding off greatly superior forces of the enemy during the afternoon of the 26th and the night of 26-27th, thus enabling the A. and N.Z. Mounted Division to assist in the Infantry attack on Gaza, and subsequently to withdraw after dark. Had the work of this Division been carried out less efficiently, it would have been quite impossible to extricate the A. and N.Z. Mounted Division without very serious losses."
General Chauvel's opinion of the situation, as expressed in the above message, was not shared by the majority of those who were further forward in the fight. Reasons were advanced to endeavour to justify the retirement, but the latter is really unexplainable. One excuse was to the effect that the communications had been cut, but that was not possible; otherwise the order of retirement could not have been sent through. In any case, the troops were disgusted when they received the order to withdraw.
There had been a regrettable lack of co-operation between the Eastern Force and Desert Column till late in the day through no fault of Sir Philip Chetwode, and the fact that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Archibald Murray, was fifty miles away at El Arish during this momentous engagement did not tend to improve the situation.