Palestine campaign

Page 3 – First Battle of Gaza

The commander of Eastern Force (the Allied troops east of the Suez Canal), Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Dobell, thought that the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) could capture Gaza in March 1917 using tactics similar to those employed at Magdhaba and Rafah during the Sinai campaign, but on a much bigger scale.

The cameleers and horsemen of Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Chetwode’s Desert Mounted Column, supported by a British infantry brigade, would sweep around behind the town, surrounding it and establishing an outer screen that would repel any attempts to relieve the garrison. The main assault would be undertaken by infantry of the 53rd (Welsh) Division and a brigade of the 54th (East Anglia) Division, supported by two field artillery brigades (36 18-pounder field guns) and an ad hoc battery of heavy artillery (six 60-pounders). The 52nd (Lowland) Division would remain in reserve at Khan Yunis.

This was by far the largest force that had been mobilised by the EEF for a single operation. Though the Sinai railway had now reached El Arish, the number of men and animals required for the attack put a huge strain on the supply chain.

The attackers could be supplied with food, water and ammunition for 24 hours at most. If they did not capture Gaza and its wells by nightfall they would have to withdraw to their starting point – or risk being counter-attacked by Ottoman reinforcements when they were tired, running low on ammunition and unable to make a quick getaway on dehydrated and faltering horses.

The Ottoman garrison was thought to number around 2000 men, but was actually twice that size (at least half of them belonged to the 27th (Arab) Division). The garrison had seven artillery batteries, two of which were Austrian and one German, with 22 assorted field guns and mountain howitzers. Aerial reconnaissance by Turkish and German pilots had given its commanders ample warning of the impending attack. The better part of three Ottoman infantry divisions were ready to converge on Gaza and relieve the garrison.


Total British casualties: 3967
(killed or died of wounds: 523)

Total Ottoman casualties: 2447

Early on the morning of 26 March 1917, the Desert Mounted Column set out to encircle Gaza under cover of darkness. The task of the Anzac Mounted Division was to seize the northern approaches, including the coastal road that linked the town to the rest of southern Palestine.

The Imperial Mounted Division established a defensive line in the foothills to the north-east to block any approach by Ottoman forces from Huj, while the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade and the infantry brigade attached to the Desert Column blocked the road and railway line running south-east from Gaza to Beersheba. All this was accomplished by mid-morning, after only minor clashes with small groups of Ottoman troops.

The main assault on Gaza did not go to plan. The first phase of the infantry attack, on the high ground of Ali Muntar, was delayed from 8 a.m. until midday by a combination of dense morning fog (not unusual on this desert coast), poor staff work and confusion amongst the divisional and brigade commanders. The British artillery bombardment was ineffective and the attacking infantry, advancing with little cover for much of the way, were met by a hail of artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire from the garrison. The 53rd (Welsh) Division suffered heavy losses and the assault quickly bogged down.

At 1 p.m. General Chetwode ordered the Anzac Mounted Division, spearheaded by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, to attack Gaza from the north and north-east at 4 p.m.

The oldest man in the brigade?

Trooper Arthur Fitzherbert was desperate to fight when war broke out in 1914. At 61-years-old, however, he was more than 20 years above the cut-off age for enlistment. He eventually managed to pass himself off as a man of 40 and joined the Mounted Rifles in Egypt at the end of 1915. Arthur died of wounds received in action during the First Battle of Gaza, aged 63 years old. He was likely one of the oldest men who fought with the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.

Meanwhile, the British infantry pressed on despite their heavy casualties and took almost complete possession of Ali Muntar. The Anzac troopers overwhelmed the thin Ottoman defences on the northern outskirts of Gaza and made good progress into the town. A squadron of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles reached Ali Muntar and joined in the final battle to clear it. By 6.30 p.m. soldiers of the 53rd Division were linking up with New Zealand and Australian troopers in the streets of Gaza, as the remnants of the Ottoman garrison prepared to make a final stand or fled for their lives in the failing light.

Despite this apparent victory, General Dobell had already ordered a withdrawal. As far as he and Chetwode were concerned, they had run out of time. The chance to consolidate a victory was outweighed by the threat posed by an Ottoman counter-attack either that night or the next day on a force short of food, water and ammunition. Late in the afternoon the screening force had reported that large bodies of Ottoman troops were heading towards Gaza.

Elements of three Ottoman infantry divisions were on the march, and the lead battalions clashed with patrols of the Imperial Mounted Division as dusk fell. The soldiers on the ground in Gaza did not know this. Feeling that their senior generals had just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the bewildered British, New Zealand and Australian troops withdrew from Gaza and Ali Muntar that evening and returned to Deir el Belah.

How to cite this page

'First Battle of Gaza', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 28-Apr-2023