Centenary of the First Battle of Gaza


Gaza, Palestine. 1917-04. Horseholders watering horses from a well while the servicemen were away as infantry during the second battle of Gaza which took place on 19 April 1917. (Donor N. MacDonald).

Sunday 26 March 2017 marks the centenary of the First Battle of Gaza; the first in a series of allied attacks to capture Gaza and advance into Palestine. The Allies believed that if Turkish forces could be forced from the Sinai Peninsula in January 1917, a British-led force could capture Gaza and advance into Palestine.

The coastal city of Gaza was an important strategic post for Turkish forces in Southern Palestine and the Turkish Government deployed more than 18,000 troops to defend it. However Allied forces outnumbered the Turks two to one. The core of the British force, commanded by Sir Charles Dobell, was assembled 8km from Gaza near the coast.

As there was no other practical entry into Palestine, it was necessary for Turkish forces to be dislodged from their commanding positions on a series of ridges between Gaza and Be’er Sheva to make a push into Palestine possible.

Advancing under the protection of a dense sea fog, Dobell’s cavalry was successful in cutting off the rear of Gaza and in doing so were able to prevent any reinforcements entering the town.

Towards the end of the day, and with victory in sight, Dobell astonishingly ordered the withdrawal of his cavalry forces mistakenly thinking that the infantry advance was failing. In a strange twist of fate the Turkish Commanding Officer, Kress von Kressenstein, arrived at the same conclusion and cancelled his own call for reserves believing that Gaza was lost.

On resumption the following day the British command found that Kressenstein had hastily reinforced the town’s permanent garrison with 4,000 men. A combination of determined Turkish counter attacks and a lack of water supplies finally persuaded Dobell to call off the attack.

In this first Battle of Gaza, Dobell suffered 4,000 casualties set against the Turkish losses of 2,400 men.

The Battle for Gaza would continue three weeks later but would again fail, the Turkish forces having enough time to extend and improve their defences. Gaza would not fall to British-led forces until later that year with a combined artillery attack at Gaza and the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Be’er Sheva, the most eastern extremity of the Turkish defensive line.