Palestine campaign

Page 4 – Second Battle of Gaza

The British gamble on winning a quick and daring victory at Gaza in March 1917 had failed. The commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Murray, now drew up a more cautious plan for a second attempt to take the town, three weeks later.

Three of the EEF’s infantry divisions, the 52nd (Lowland), 53rd (Welsh) and 54th (East Anglia), would attack together in a set-piece frontal assault, supported by as much firepower as Murray could scrape together. Extensions to the British railhead from El Arish allowed him to add 16 heavy guns to his artillery brigades’ 92 18-pounder field guns and 24 4.5-inch howitzers. Gaza’s proximity to the Mediterranean coast enabled naval support from the French coastal defence ship Requin and two Royal Navy monitors. Murray also managed to get a shipment of eight tanks and 4000 gas shells from the United Kingdom. This would be the first time that gas was used in the Middle Eastern theatre.

Murray’s infantry would need as much artillery support as they could get. Cemal Pasha, commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army, and his German chief of staff, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein, had strongly reinforced Gaza after their close-run victory in the first battle. They had also built a 20-km-long series of fortified outposts and strongpoints along the Gaza–Beersheba axis to prevent mounted divisions outflanking Gaza.

Four Ottoman infantry divisions, supported by 100 field guns and howitzers, manned the entrenchments of the Gaza–Beersheba line. The newly arrived Ottoman 3rd Cavalry Division was held in reserve at Huj. For the first time in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, the battlefield was beginning to resemble the static trench warfare of the Western Front.

The dramatic change in British tactics is best illustrated by the much-reduced role assigned to the horsemen and cameleers of the Desert Mounted Column. Rather than spearheading the action as they had in all the major battles since Romani (August 1916), the mounted units were to make diversionary attacks on Ottoman positions at the south-eastern end of the Gaza–Beersheba line. Their goal was to pin down the defenders and prevent reserves from the Ottoman 3rd Cavalry Division reinforcing Gaza.

New Zealand Casualties

NZ Mounted Rifles Brigade casualties:

  • 7 killed in action
  • 81 wounded

The Second Battle of Gaza was the first time New Zealand horses suffered heavy casualties in the Middle East campaign. In addition to the killed and wounded of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, 40 New Zealand horses were killed and a further 60 wounded during the fight. Enemy aircraft found the stationary horses easy targets and they were subjected to bombing and shelling throughout the day. Corporal Jim McMillan of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles feared that ‘many of the troops in the battle line would be without mounts when, and if, they returned to collect them.’ [1] Read more.

The first phase of the British attack began on 17 April 1917. Infantry cleared the area south of Ali Muntar of Ottoman outposts and secured their start lines for the main assault. Meanwhile, the Desert Mounted Column successfully carried out its masking operation to the south. These objectives were achieved against minimal opposition at a cost of 300 British casualties and one tank (hit by Ottoman artillery fire). The next day was spent consolidating these positions. Gaza and its defences were subjected to a preliminary bombardment by the small naval flotilla and the heavy artillery batteries.

At 5.30 a.m. on 19 April the naval flotilla and heavy artillery renewed their bombardment, this time concentrating on the defences of Ali Muntar and other key Ottoman strongpoints. This was the signal to begin the main assault.

At 7.30 a.m., the 18-pounder field gun and 4.5-inch howitzer batteries joined in the barrage and the leading waves of infantry advanced. But though the spectacle was impressive, the Allied firepower was inadequate. The guns were spread too thinly to adequately cover the frontage being attacked. Gaza’s trenches, bunkers and machine-gun nests remained largely intact. The same was true of the gas. There were not enough gas shells available to deliver a lethal concentration of phosgene over the area covered. The Ottoman defenders barely noticed it. The tanks too failed to have the desired impact, again because there were simply too few of them.

The result was carnage. The attacking British infantry were decimated by Ottoman artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire. In spite of these losses, by midday some battalions had managed to gain footholds in the Ottoman defences and vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The Imperial Mounted Division and Imperial Camel Corps Brigade were drawn in to support the infantry in the late afternoon but suffered similar punishment for similarly meagre gains.

By nightfall the cost of these brave but futile efforts had become apparent. Murray cancelled orders to renew the attack the following day. The defeat cost the British 6444 casualties, of which 5291 were suffered by the three infantry divisions. Ottoman casualties amounted to just over 2000. The defeat also cost Lieutenant-General Murray his post as commander of the EEF. He was replaced by Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby two months later.

[1] J. McMillan, ‘Forty Thousand Horsemen: being the memoirs of 7/1322 Cpl Jim McMillan, Canterbury Mounted Rifles, First NZEF, on service in Gallipoli and Palestine, WWI’, unpublished manuscript, property of C.B. McMillan and family, Whangarei, pp. 153–154, quoted in Terry Kinloch, Devils on horses: in the words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916–19, Exisle, Auckland, 2007, p. 170.  

How to cite this page

'Second Battle of Gaza', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-Nov-2017