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In the aftermath of their two unsuccessful attempts to capture Gaza in the spring of 1917, the British War Cabinet decided to reinforce the army in Egypt, replace its commander and renew the invasion of Palestine. The new commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, arrived in Egypt on 27 June. The main problem he faced was the strength of the Turkish positions around Gaza. The first attempt to capture Gaza had exploited large gaps in the Turkish defences. The second had been a direct frontal assault on much improved defences and had been a costly failure.
On his arrival in Egypt, Allenby found that his new staff had been already been working on a plan to break the deadlock, by attacking Beersheba, ten miles beyond the end of the Turkish lines. This would require a great deal of work to be carried out to create the necessary infrastructure, but if it could be carried out in secret promised to outflank the Turks and force them to abandon their position at Gaza. After examining the situation, Allenby approved this plan.
The Germans too were taking an increased interest in Turkey. At the end of April 1917 a high level German delegation, led by General von Falkenhayn, was dispatched to Turkey, arriving in May. After a period of negotiations it was decided to create a new Seventh Army at Aleppo, and use it to push the British out of Baghdad (captured by them in March). This operation would be known as “Yilderim”, or “Lightning”. The new army formed slowly. By the end of the summer of 1917 it contained three divisions but four headquarters. Relations between the Germans and the Turks were poor and Falkenhayn did not adapt his plans to suit local conditions.
This was well demonstrated in September, when concern about the vulnerability of the Palestine front forced the cancellation of the Baghdad campaign. Falkenhayn proposed a rapid transfer of the army from Aleppo to Beersheba, to launch an attack around the British right. A good idea in theory, in practice the limited Turkish rail network meant that very few of Falkenhayn’s troops reached the front before the British attacked. Falkenhayn himself did not leave Aloppo until 4 November, by which time his new base at Beersheba had already been lost. The only result of this plan was that the armies on the Gaza front were in the middle of a reorganisation when the British struck.
The British put in place an elaborate deception operation. Patrols approached Beersheba every couple of weeks, in the hope that the Turks would take the real attack for another patrol. Much effort went into convincing the Turks that the British were planning to land an army on the coast behind their lines. A staff officers notebook was “found” by the Turks, complete with notes on a failure to establish water supplies at Beersheba. As the troops of the striking force moved to Beersheba, their camps were left intact at Gaza, well lit at night, while they remained hidden during the day. Even the construction of the railway extension and water supply pipes to the Beersheba front were delayed until the last moment. On the day before the attack a Turkish report suggested that there were not more than two divisions close to Beersheba.
The plan required a massive material effort. The cross-Sinai railway was doubled, and extra branch lines constructed. A 500,000 gallon reservoir was built, to protect the water supply. New Bristol Fighters were supplied to the RFC in the desert, winning back control of the air, and preventing the Germans from flying low level reconnaissance.
The British force was split into three. The striking wing consisted of the Desert Mounted Corp, containing the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisons and the 7th Mounted Brigade and XX Corps, with four infantry divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. This force contained 47,500 infantry, 11,000 cavalry and 242 guns.
On the left of the British line was XXI corps, containing three infantry divisions and two brigades, a total of 35,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 218 guns. The Yeomanry Mounted Division (5,000 cavalry) guarded the gap between the two main forces.
The Turks had nine infantry divisions and one cavalry division spread along from the coast to Gaza, a total of between 35,000 and 45,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry and 500 artillery guns. Kress von Kressenstein reported his own Eighth Army, at Gaza, to be around 25,000 strong, so the lower overall figures is probably correct, as the British found under 5,000 men at Beersheba.
A key element of the British plan was a genuine attack at Gaza. The artillery bombardment of Gaza started on 27 October, four days before the attack at Beersheba. That attack was made on 31 October (battle of Beersheba). While two of the infantry divisions attacked the strong south-west defences of the town, the cavalry attacked from the east, seizing the town after a dramatic cavalry charge by the Australian Light Horse.
The plan now required an attack at Gaza, while the forces at Beersheba prepared for their next attack. It was hoped that the follow-up attack could happen on either 3 or 4 November. According the attack at Gaza was launched on the night of 1/2 November. A two stage attack succeeded in pushing back the Turkish lines west of Gaza, but at the cost of 2,700 casualties (350 dead, 340 missing and 2,000 wounded). The Turks were forced to move a reserve division into the defences around Gaza.
Despite this success, the Turks did launch a counterattack, ten miles to the north of Beersheba, at Tel el Khuweilfeh, a dominating hill that also commanded a water supply. Fighting continued here from 2 November until the Turks were forced to pull back by the general retreat further west. This fighting, and a water shortage at Beersheba, delayed the second phase of the attack until 6 November. It also restricted the routes available for the cavalry when they came to make their attempts to cut off the Turkish retreat.
The Turkish left consisted of a series of fortified positions protecting Sheria, running from Hareira, to Rushdi and then to Kauwukah at the east of the line. The British attack began at 5 a.m. on 6 November. By 4.30pm the eastern two positions had been captured. Hareira and Sheria itself fell early on 7 November.
With their left broken, on 7 November the Turks pulled out of Gaza. That day XXI corps on the British left occupied the town. The cavalry envelopment failed to develop as hoped, despite a determined pursuit that lasted until 9 November. Even so, 10,000 Turkish prisoners were taken during the chase, probably somewhere around 25-33% of their total force. The British advance continued into December, and on 9 December captured Jerusalem.
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