Six months after his predecessor’s second failure, Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby drew up an ambitious plan to take Gaza and break through the Ottoman line into southern Palestine. Allenby, a career cavalryman, sought to make the most of his advantage in mounted troops. Mindful of the lack of water and the strength of the Ottoman positions (now defended by the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth armies), he proposed to attack in three phases over a number of days.
The main thrust would be directed against Beersheba, which would be captured by the Desert Mounted Corps and 20 Corps. The most important goal of this operation was to capture the wells intact. With the horses watered, the second phase would see 21 Corps attack the outer defences of Gaza to pin down the garrison there. Meanwhile, 20 Corps would move against the Hareira–Sheria area while the Desert Mounted Corps captured the wells at Tel el Negile.
Once these objectives were taken the last phase could begin. The Desert Mounted Corps would move westwards to take Huj and reach the coast behind Gaza, cutting off the 46,000 Ottoman troops pinned down along the Gaza–Beersheba axis by 20 and 21 Corps’ attacks. Allenby didn’t want to just break through the Ottoman line – he wanted to destroy the two armies defending it.
Charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba
At 4.30 p.m. on 31 October 1917, 500 riders and horses of the 4th and 12th Australian Light Horse Regiments thundered headlong towards the enemy with bayonets in hand (they were not equipped with swords). This impressive action stunned the 800 or so Ottoman defenders, who managed to inflict only 67 casualties on the Australian horsemen before being literally overrun and surrendering. As well as providing an epic spectacle, the charge ensured that the wells were secured before nightfall. With Beersheba captured, the first phase of the Third Battle of Gaza had been successfully completed.
Unlike Murray, Allenby had been given the extra troops, firepower, supplies and time he needed. In another contrast to the two earlier battles, British Army Intelligence mounted an elaborate deception operation to convince the Ottoman commanders that the attack on Beersheba was a diversion from the main assault on Gaza.
These preparations paid off when the first phase of the attack began on the morning of 31 October 1917. After an overnight march, three infantry divisions of 20 Corps attacked the main Ottoman defences on the western and south-western outskirts of Beersheba. These attacks kept the bulk of the Ottoman garrison on this side of the town for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, the Anzac and Australian mounted divisions rode in a wide arc through the Judean foothills east and north-east of Beersheba in order to attack the town from the rear. To do so they first had to capture two redoubts, Tel el Sakaty and Tel el Saba.
Tel el Sakaty was taken around 1 p.m. after a four-hour fight. Tel el Saba, which had been allocated to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, proved an even tougher nut to crack. It finally fell around 3 p.m. after the Anzac Mounted Division’s reserves and artillery were committed to support the New Zealanders. This unexpected delay caused General Chauvel, who was anxious to secure the wells in Beersheba before nightfall, to take the dramatic step of ordering the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade to attack on horseback straight through the Ottoman trenches and into the town. This epic charge broke the back of the Ottoman defence. The Anzac mounted troops were soon swarming through the streets of Beersheba, which was secured within an hour.
When the second phase of the battle got under way, the focus of British efforts switched to Gaza’s outer defences. A general artillery and naval bombardment had begun on 27 October. After this prolonged softening-up period, the infantry of the 54th (East Anglia) and 52nd (Lowland) Divisions carried out a series of coordinated assaults on 1–2 November against the narrow coastal strip of giant sand dunes on the right flank of Gaza’s defences. These attacks penetrated so deeply into the Ottoman line that it seemed that 21 Corps was about to outflank the Gaza defences single-handed.
But Allenby’s plan now began to unravel through a combination of bad luck and strong Ottoman rearguard actions. The wells at Beersheba were insufficient to meet the demands of the whole Allied force, whose needs had been increased by the ill-timed arrival of a khamsin (a hot, dry wind from the desert).
Logistical problems caused by the lack of water delayed the start of the third phase until 6 November. In the interim the commander of the Ottoman Seventh Army, Fevzi Pasha, regrouped his forces – now augmented by survivors of the Beersheba garrison – and mounted local counter-attacks. Assaults on the Hareira and Sheria redoubts by the infantry of 20 Corps succeeded only after bitter fighting in which both sides suffered heavy casualties.
In the meantime the commander of the Ottoman Eighth Army, Kress von Kressenstein, had finally recognised the danger of his forces being cut off in Gaza. Knowing that he had no more reserves to commit to the battle and doubting the Seventh Army’s ability to hold Hareira–Sheria for long, the German commander ordered his troops to begin evacuating Gaza on the evening of 5 November. By the time the British broke through at Hareira–Sheria late on the morning of the 7th, the evacuation was complete and the retreating Ottoman forces were marching north, leaving rearguards behind at key positions along the road and in the nearby hills.
Allenby had won a great victory. Gaza had fallen, the Ottoman defensive line had been broken and the Seventh and Eighth armies had been defeated in battle. But it was not the total victory he had aimed for – he had not trapped and destroyed the two Ottoman armies. Instead they were escaping to the north, battered but still capable of regrouping to fight another day.