The first battle of Gaza, 26-27 March 1917, was an unsuccessful British attack on Gaza, designed to clear the way for an invasion of Palestine later in 1917. During 1916 the British had steadily advanced across the Sinai desert from Egypt, building a railway as they went. On 9 January 1917 they had defeated the last Turkish force in Egypt, at Rafa, and were poised on the borders of Palestine.
The British had three infantry (52nd, 53rd and 54th), two cavalry divisions (Anzac and Imperial) and the Camel Corps Brigade in the Sinai, under the command of General Dobell. Part of this Eastern Force was organised into the Desert Column, under General Philip Chetwode. The Desert Column contained the 53rd infantry division, both of the cavalry divisions (each minus one brigade) and two Light Car Patrols.
General Dobell’s plan used all of these forces. The 52nd Division would remain in reserve. The Desert Column would make the main attack on Gaza – the 53rd Division would attack the main defences of Gaza while the mounted forces would form a screen to the east and north of Gaza, protected the troops attacking Gaza from any Turkish counterattack. The 54th division would take up a position to the east of the 52nd, anchoring the southern end of the cavalry screen. The screen forcing would thus contain 11,000 mounted troops and 8,000 infantry, while the assault force would contain 12,000 infantry.
The Turks, under the command of Kress von Kressenstein, had around 16,000 men in the vicinity of Gaza. The garrison of Gaza was 3,500 strong, supported by seven artillery batteries (two Austrian, two Turkish and one German), with 20 guns. The Germans also had more modern aircraft than the British, giving them aerial superiority over the battlefield.
The key defensive position at Gaza was the Ali Muntar ridge, east of the town. This would be the target of the British infantry attack. Behind it Gaza was protected by a maze of thick cactus hedges.
The British plan came close to success. During the morning of 26 March the British cavalry screen was established, and by noon the 53rd division was engaged on the Ali Muntar ridge. Progress against the defended ridgeline was slow, and so at 1 p.m. General Chetwode ordered the Anzac Cavalry Division to attack Gaza from the north.
This attack did not begin until 4 p.m., demonstrating the central problem with the British plan – slow and unreliable communications. By 6 p.m. the infantry of the 53rd division had captured the Ali Muntar ridge, but the news had not yet reached their divisional HQ. At the same time the Anzac Division had entered the northern suburbs of Gaza, and had joined up with the right flank of the infantry. In Gaza the German commander, Major Tiller, destroyed his wireless set and prepared to surrender. Outside the British cavalry screen Kress von Kressenstein allowed the relief columns to halt for the night, believing Gaza had fallen.
Unfortunately neither Dobell or Chetwode knew of this. According to the information available to them, the infantry was still struggling against the Ali Muntar ridge and the progress of the cavalry was unknown. At 4 p.m. the first Turkish reinforcements were sighted, and by 5 p.m. Dobell knew that 10,000 Turkish troops were approaching Gaza from the east. From their perspective the attack on Gaza had bogged down, and there was a real danger that the Turkish reinforcements might punch a hole in the cavalry screen and cut off all of the British troops north of Gaza.
At 5.30 Dobell ordered the 54th division to move north west, from their position on Shah Abbas ridge, to Khan Mansura, to protect the escape route. At 6.00 pm, acting entirely correctly from the information in hand, Dobell ordered the cavalry to withdraw from north of Gaza. This exposed the right wing of the 53rd division, and so at 7 p.m. General Dallas, commander of the division, was ordered to pull his right flank back to make contact with the 54th division. Unfortunately, he had not been informed of that division's new position, and so ordered his men to abandon the Ali Muntar ridge. By the time the error had been discovered, it was too late.
On the morning of 27 March, the two British infantry divisions were formed up back to back on two of the ridges south of Gaza. An attempt to recapture Ali Muntar ridge briefly held the top of the ridge before a Turkish counterattack drove the British back. That evening the British pulled back to the Wadi Ghuzze, five miles south west of Gaza.
The British suffered 4000 casualties during the battle (523 dead, 2,932 wounded and 512 missing), the Turks only 2,450 (300 dead, 1,085 wounded and 1,061 missing). The victory encouraged the Turks to defend Gaza with more determination, while the realisation of how close they had come to victory encouraged the British to believe that a second attack might succeed. The resulting second battle of Gaza (17-19 April) was a heavy British defeat.