The second battle of Gaza, 17-19 April 1917, was the second British attempt to capture Gaza in under a week. The first attempt, on 26-2 March, had come close to success before a lack of information forced the British commander, General Dobell, to cancel the attack. The British failure encouraged the Turks to make a stand at Gaza.
The German commander of the Turkish forces at Gaza, Kress von Kressenstein, had a force of 18,000 infantry, with 96 machine guns and 101 guns. The Turks constructed a series of strong fortifications. A continuous line of defences ran from the coast to a ridge two miles south west of the town, then onto the Ali Muntar ridge and long that ridge until it was east of Gaza. East of Gaza five strong redoubts, supported by trenches and barbed wire, stretched out along the road to Beersheba. Each of these positions was able to support their neighbours.
The British outnumbered the Turks by at least 50% in infantry alone. Dobell had three infantry divisions (close to 30,000 men) and two mounted divisions, supported by 170 artillery guns (although only 16 were medium or heavy), the French battleship Requin and two British monitors. For the first time the British deployed tanks in the desert, although only eight rather worn out tanks could be spared. The force was completed by 25 aircraft.
Earlier in 1917 the British War Cabinet had decided not to launch an invasion of Palestine until late in the year. Events in March changed their minds. On 11 March General Maude finally captured Baghdad. The same month saw the first Russian Revolution. Initially it was hoped that the new Russian government would be more efficient that the Tsar, and a new offensive was planned that would combine a Russian advance in the Caucasus with a British advance from Baghdad. The British commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, was ordered to immediately invade Palestine, and capture Jerusalem.
This order forced him to launch a frontal assault on the Turkish positions at Gaza. The British supply line ran along a coastal railway that ran across the Sinai. In April the eastern end of the railway was only eight miles from Gaza, making it relatively easy to supply the army at Gaza, but the desert to the south was waterless.
Dobell decided on a two stage attack. On 17 April, in the first stage of the battle, the British captured a line from the sea to Shah Abbas ridge. This was to be used as a base for the next stage of the attack.
The second stage of the attack came on 19 April. The 53rd Division attacked along the coast. To its right the 52nd Division attacked along the Es Sire ridge toward the Ali Muntar ridge. On the right the 54th Division attacked the redoubts south east of Gaza. Once the 54th Division had cleared the redoubts, it was to wheel to the left and attack the Ali Muntar Ridge.
The bombardment began at 7.15 am. The first infantry attack, along the coast, began at 7.15am, and at 7.30am the 52nd and 54th divisions joined in. The attack was a total failure. At no point were the Turkish lines seriously threatened. The 54th division made the most progress. One tank reached the second redoubt out from Gaza and held part of the line for a short period, but there was no opportunity to expand the area held, and the British were soon forced back. Elsewhere part of the same division reached the Turkish front line, but could not capture it.
The attack was broken off in the early evening. Both commanders planned further attacks on 20 April. Dobell cancelled his planned attacks as more information came in about the days fighting, while Kress was overruled by Djemal Pasha, the Turkish minister of marine and governor of Palestine and Syria. The British had suffered 6,444 casualties during the attack, half of them in the 54th division. Turkish losses were much lower, at only 2,000.
By the time the fighting was renewed around Gaza both sides had new commanders. Sir Archibald Murray was replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby. Kress von Kressenstein remained an army commander, but Field Marshal von Falkenhayn had arrived from Germany to take overall command. The third battle of Gaza (27 October-7 November 1917) would see Allenby finally capture Gaza, and push the Turks back beyond Jerusalem.