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Second Battle of Gaza 

British Isles Genealogy | The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

If the first battle of Gaza was a legitimate gamble—the second was foredoomed to failure from the start. Given fair warning and three weeks in which to strengthen their position—and probably no army in the world can beat the Turks at spade work—given moreover a natural stronghold, reinforcements and innumerable machine-guns, the enemy could certainly withstand a frontal assault by the same troops as he had already beaten off in a surprise attack, strengthened only by one newly formed Division, while the great prolongation of the Turkish line to the west made any turning movement out of the question. Our artillery was utterly insufficient to deal with carefully constructed trenches among cactus hedges, more terrible than barbed wire, of whose positions they were not really certain, while our two trump cards, tanks and gas shell, were certainly not sufficient to make up for other defects and to win us the game.

Still all this is of course mere wisdom after the event. We certainly did not believe ourselves preparing for a forlorn hope and we went into the second battle in perfect confidence that we should be bivouacked among the Gaza olive trees at its close.

Typical Small Nullah Near Wadi Ghuzzeh

There was, however, a good deal to be done first. On March 29th we rested, and a welcome shift in the direction of the wind helped us to get even with our thirst. The next day a supply of gas masks arrived, of the old appalling flannel kind, which went all over the head, and their mysteries were explained to us by Lieut. Gray, assisted by private instruction from those who had served in France. On the 31st the Battalion moved to a new bivouac area closer to the wadi, screened from prying eyes at Gaza by a gentle rise in the ground. Rations were a bit thin at this time, with the railhead so far behind us and so large a force to be fed, but the situation was greatly eased by the fact that we could now employ wheeled transport with little difficulty. The men were kept well employed. We had to supply parties of 300, 500 and finally 600 for work in the wadi under R.E. direction, or to act as covering parties for such work. The former consisted either in cutting ramps to enable traffic to get down the precipitous banks or in digging wells in the wadi bottom. The work was hard and progress slow, especially with the wells. A large square hole had to be dug to a depth of some four feet, when a shelf would be left, and another four feet taken out, and so on, till the bottom man was working in the bowels of the earth, and every shovelful he took out had to be passed up from step to step, so that four or five other men had been employed before it reached the top. Damp patches were sometimes found quite early but the hopes they raised were usually delusive and water was only struck at a considerable depth, and then not in any abundance. Fortunately wells sunk in other parts of the wadi proved more successful, but it was a little trying to read in Mr. Belloc's few paragraphs on our campaign—"of the Wadi Guzzeh, that considerable body of water, just now in full depth, which runs down ... to the Mediterranean which it enters by a small elevation called the calf's hill." One sympathizes with the difficulties of a man who sets out to write of the topography of any part of the world in which there may be fighting as if he was personally familiar with it—and the calf's hill (of which we, who were on the spot, had never heard) was a fine touch. But surely it might have struck Mr. Belloc that if the wadi—in point of fact bone dry—had contained a considerable depth of water, the first battle of Gaza would not have failed through drought.

Covering party work was more attractive, for the Turks kept well to their own side of the valley, where they were doubtless equally fully occupied with pick and shovel, and there was nothing to do except lie in the grass and admire the really beautiful flowers. But as under such circumstances very few men protect very many, it was the digging that most often came our way. The work went on without intermission from six in the morning to ten at night, each man doing a five or six hours' shift, and so hard pressed were we to find the numbers required that some men had sometimes to be put into two shifts on the same day, which, with the marches to and from camp, made as hard a day's work as one could wish to avoid.

On Sunday, April the 3rd, a heavy battery on our side made an unprovoked assault on the Turkish lines, to which they were not slow to respond and several shells fell within the confines of our camp. Most of the men were away however on fatigue, and no one was hurt. On the 7th the Battalion took over a section of the outpost line and the fatigues slackened off, but most men were still employed for a shift by day in addition to their outpost duties. The covering parties were now pushed further out to protect reconnaissance's by senior officers, while in the darkness long camel convoys went out to fill with water the old cisterns which dotted the hills beyond the wadi. The enemy outposts moved forwards at night, and going out at dawn one often saw them withdrawing or watched the distant figures of Turkish cavalry on the sky line towards Mansura. There is a romance about the fighting Turk that one could never feel about the Bosche. One knew all about the latter, the names of the towns in which he lived, and what he did and thought and how he was educated. There was no mystery about him. But the Turk was different. He hailed from strange provinces about whose positions and whose very names we were more than hazy. He spoke a strange language, lived in strange ways on impossible food and uttered strange cries or sudden invocations to Allah in the silence of the night. He was unknown and mysterious and when we went patrolling against him in the dark there was a creepy feeling which was quite distinct from one's natural misgivings about his bayonet or bullet. But as yet we more than kept our distance. Sometimes a patrol working its way along the rough ridges towards Gaza would be met with a shower of long range bullets, but for the most part we did our work undisturbed—and so did he. In fact the real problem of an O.C. covering party was to find out who else on our side was covering too and where they were. On one occasion an officer of the 5th, having posted his own men in the valley, went up the southern ridge, where he discovered some compatriots lying out in the dew with a keen eye on Burjaliye and Apsley House, which they believed to be full of Turkish snipers. On his way back he was nearly shot by some indignant Londoners cautiously feeling their way out on a similar mission, and had the pleasure of informing them that their beautiful patrol work was rather a waste of labor.

On the 9th the 7th H.L.I, began the practice of turning the Turks out of Burjaliye, a little cactus walled orchard perched on the top of the southern ridge that bounded Kurd Valley. The Turks probably never had more than a small post in the enclosure, but they were able to keep up a good fire from their positions behind it and its daily capture caused an enormous amount of noise, if little else. On the 12th "A" Company took their turn in sending in the patrol amid a tremendous waste of ammunition on both sides, our casualty being Lieut. J.S. Agnew, who was hit in the arm and whose services we thus lost for several months. It must be confessed that this daily repeated maneuver was generally considered to be a sign that the Staff had finally and definitely lost their wits, but it was really a scheme of deep cunning, as we afterwards discovered. The Burjaliye ridge and the El Sire-Kurd Hill ridge on its left, together with Happy Valley in between was the tract of country with which we were most familiar. At the bottom of the valley ran a large wadi, broadening out till it reached the Wadi Ghuzzeh a mile south of the Red House. On its way it was joined by innumerable tributary nullahs running down the sides of the two ridges and cutting them into a range of minor peaks. The sides of these nullahs were sheer cliffs often fifteen feet or more in depth so that they became really formidable obstacles to progress, though excellent places for shelter from artillery fire. They were the result, we supposed, of the sudden heavy winter rainstorms rushing down the hill sides, but for 350 days out of the 365 they were completely dry. During this time the Staff were not idle. Pamphlets on the attack, written for trench warfare in France, were liberally issued, and preliminary instructions to lessen the contents of the final orders kept arriving daily. One's brain became confused.

Native Girls, Belah

On April 16th all was ready and we left our outpost line and moved forward for the ill-fated second battle. The ball was opened by "A" Company, which in the afternoon of that day sent the usual daily patrol into Burjaliye, covering it with Lewis guns and flank patrols and suffering no casualties, but getting the recognized rise out of the Turks, whose enthusiastic rifle-fire gave life to the proceedings. On withdrawing from the enclosure, however, the company, instead of returning to camp, halted as soon as they were out of sight of the Turks, and lay up in a convenient hollow till dusk. The true cunning of this daily maneuver was now revealed. Had Burjaliye been visited for the first time on the 16th, the Turks would certainly have had their suspicions roused and would have been specially on their guard, probably patrolling the place during the night. But the daily repetition of the little comedy had led them to suppose that it was a mere instance of the madness sent by Allah upon all unbelievers, and in consequence, when the same patrol issued from cover at nightfall and cautiously reoccupied the enclosure, they found it untenanted, and after sticking their bayonets into the tiny hut and nearly falling down the well, sent back a cheerful message that all was clear. They subsequently confessed to certain qualms when, themselves about 100 yards from the hedge, they perceived, through a gap, the glowing end of a cigarette, slowly waxing and waning as an undisciplined Turk, disobeying all the rules of war, solaced his vigil with tobacco. The escape of a single infidel from the garden, or even his noisy decease, would have given away the whole business, and they were much relieved when some careful stalking revealed nothing more alarming than an inconsiderate fire-fly slowly moving its wings across its luminous body.

As soon as the all clear came through the rest of the company moved up and placed a series of sentry groups along the far side of Burjaliye and down the valley to the west of it. There followed a dreary vigil in momentary expectation of the arrival of a Turkish patrol, which would have to be "sunk without a trace"—as the German diplomat said of the shipping. It was bitterly cold for bare knees and drill shorts. Several times the curious high-pitched cries with which the Turkish outpost keeps up his courage or reports his whereabouts issued from the darkness in front, but there were no developments, and about 11.30 p.m. unmistakable sounds from the rear announced the fact that the Brigade had arrived. How it was that the Turk did not also hear the inevitable disturbance caused by the arrival of some thousands of men, tool limbers, mules and camels, in utter darkness over unfamiliar and very rough country, will always be a mystery. But the fact remains that they appear to have been in complete ignorance of our proximity until made painfully aware of it the next morning. The Battalion had left camp at 8 p.m. on the 16th, and passed the Wadi Ghuzzeh by crossing 23. It then found the rest of the Brigade and formed up in two columns of companies and thirty-two camels (fourteen with S.A.A., sixteen with water and one each with medical and signalling stores), together with the limbers with tools in rear. About nine the Brigade moved off. After a mile, battalions were instructed to proceed independently. The assembly at the Brigade rendezvous and the advance to Burjaliye was an exceedingly difficult maneuver. Each battalion had to form up on a given frontage marked with stakes in a field of standing barley, and as the stakes were not visible in the darkness to locate them was not easy. The forward movement was directed by the Brigade Major marching on a compass bearing in front of the left flank of the left battalion and direction was maintained by frequent halts and accurate dressing. To add to the difficulties of darkness and unknown ground, the line of advance ran diagonally across a ridge running from the Turkish position to the Wadi Ghuzzeh. That the Brigade arrived at its destination without a hitch reflects great credit on the Staff work and is evidence of the benefit we had obtained from night training at el Arish. Soon after ten there was a halt, during which the men were given a drink from the water the camels carried, in order to ensure that their bottles should be full on the morrow. On arrival behind Burjaliye, companies changed their formation so as to be ready to move forward at dawn, "B" and "D" Companies taking the front line, and the men lay down to try and get a few hours' sleep—no easy task considering the cold and the heavy dew. The 6th H.L.I. prolonged the outpost line to the right of "A" Company, who were now pleasantly conscious of the near presence of their friends, but considered them a very noisy crowd. In point of fact the whole operation was carried out with surprising quietness considering its difficulties, but ears strained to catch the faintest sound from the front naturally magnified the disturbance from the rear.

Stand-to was at 3.45 a.m., and there followed one of those "dreary, doubtful, waiting hours"—which to some temperaments seem more unbearable than anything that follows zero hour. There was no rum and of course no possibility of making tea, while even the nerve soothing cigarette was out of the question.

At 4.45 a.m. the Brigade advanced—the 7th on our right, and the 6th on their right again, while the Argylls were in reserve. "B" and "D" Companies moved through "A" Company's picket line and extended by platoons in succession as they got clear—"B" Company being on the left. "A" Company closed immediately the leading line was through and followed on in support to "D" Company, while "C" supported "B." It was beginning to get light and the indignant Turks suddenly perceiving lines of rough looking men advancing upon them, opened a brisk fire, to which was soon added the obscene stuttering of machine guns. They could, however, do little execution in the half light and, completely taken by surprise, they did not wait to try conclusions with us, but decamped, so that we were on our first objective, the line hill 230—Tel el Ahmar—in a very short time. Meanwhile our artillery had begun to join in and were registering Mansura Ridge. Four patrols were pushed forward and found the ground clear to the bottom of the ridge, and as soon as the artillery had finished they scaled the cliffs and looked over the top into open country stretching away to Ali el Muntar. The patrols under Lieut. A.R. MacEwen, who subsequently received the M.C., and Lieut. T.B. Clark pushed on, met by a good deal of sniping, and had the pleasure of sending a Turkish cavalry vedette off at a hasty gallop. The enemy artillery were now beginning to take a hand in the game and having an intimate knowledge of the ground, as well as good observation as the light grew, were able to plaster the nullahs, in which we had mostly taken shelter, most assiduously. One shell fell within a few paces of the C.O. who was calmly moving forward in the open, but he did not so much as turn his head—no bad example for the men of the support companies, who witnessed the incident, and many of whom were under shell-fire for the first time. At 6.30 the two leading companies continued the advance and topped the Mansura Ridge. They were met by shell fire and a good deal of machine-gun fire from the right flank, the direction of Lees Hill and Outpost Hill, but the Turkish infantry had evidently determined to take no further share in the matter and had vanished from the scene.

There was thus no further prospect of a fight and "B" and "D" Companies began the more prosaic business of digging in on a line some way in front of Mansura. The support companies were removed from the wadies round Hill 230, as it was plain that the Turks had these most accurately registered, and moved up under shelter of the Mansura cliffs, where they were free from direct observation though bothered by 5.9s neatly dropped just over the edge. Parties took tools out to the advanced companies, Sergt. Paterson of "A" Company being killed by shrapnel while performing this duty. The digging companies had no kind of shelter until they managed to throw up cover for themselves in the very hard soil and were badly harassed all day by machine-gun fire and shrapnel, though the casualties were extraordinarily light. In the afternoon, the fire having slackened somewhat, they began wiring in front of the position, and "A" Company relieved "B" at the digging, at 8 p.m. "C" relieved "D," and it rejoined "B" under cover of the ridge.

By the evening of the 17th the preliminary stages of the attack had been carried out with complete success. The Turks had been everywhere taken by surprise. On our right the 54th Division had seized the Sheikh Abbas cliffs, a continuation to the westward of the Mansura Ridge. On our left was a considerable gap (filled in at night by two companies of the Argylls) and then came the advanced line of the 155th Brigade who had made good their jumping off place on the el Sireh ridge. Beyond them in the sand dunes the 53rd Division had advanced in the same way, and were ready to attack the Samson Ridge area. But the element of surprise was only to be found in these early stages and by the time the big attack was launched the Turk knew what our intentions were.

There was little sleep for anyone on the night of the 17th-18th. A counter-attack—though not expected—was quite possible, and digging and wiring went on all night, so that by dawn on the 18th, the fire bays were completed, though the trenches round the traverses were in some places still shallow. Water was boiled in the shelter of the cliffs and tea was issued to the men, who were very glad to get it. The whole of the 18th passed quietly as far as we were concerned; the machine-gun and artillery fire having few terrors now that we were dug in. The Staff had determined that this time we should not fail from lack of water, and the whole day was taken up with establishing dumps of this precious commodity, together with ammunition, rations and tools at various suitable points in the country now secured. As a consequence, while we lost the advantage of surprising the enemy, we were never more than moderately thirsty throughout the operations, for which we were duly thankful.

At 10 p.m. on the 18th we began to take down our wire entanglements in order to clear the ground for the advance of the 156th Brigade, and at 4 a.m. on the 19th the 7th H.L.I. took over our trenches. We were withdrawn into the hollow behind Mansura, which was now full of guns; "B" Company was detached to look after the gunners (remaining away from the Battalion till the 21st) and these at 5.30 began a very creditable bombardment of the Turkish lines. Just before this the Battalion, which had been lent to the 155th Brigade, began its devious march across the exposed Kurd Valley, taking advantage of the winding wadies till it reached the el Sireh ridge and lay up in a nullah running up into Kurd Hill, being passed by the rear waves of the K.O.S.B. and R.S.F. advancing to their gallant but ill-fated assault on Outpost Hill. From here we could get no idea of what was going on, but we were able to observe the majestic though noisy and superheated advance of several tanks. The country was too much for them, many of the nullahs being beyond their jumping capacity, and the heat exhausting their crews and defeating their engines. We were supposed to be in reserve to meet a possible counter-attack from the woods to the east of Outpost Hill, but at 10 o'clock word arrived that we were no longer needed, and we recrossed the valley to the familiar Mansura hollow. This we found to be a noisy spot. Several batteries of 18-pounders were cracking away and the Turks were returning the compliment with heavier stuff. Just as we arrived they secured a direct hit on one of our limbers, killing the two wheelers and seriously wounding the driver—the other driver had a miraculous escape. Under the shelter of the cliffs we had some tea and filled our water bottles, and then listened to the noise of battle, wondering vainly what was happening. The position of reserve brigade may have its advantages, but it is trying not to know what you are "for." Our rôle depended entirely on the success of the other brigades, and our orders fluctuated throughout the day. This little scene would be again and again repeated: Company commander to Platoon commanders—"We are going to attack Friar's Hill (or Delilah's Neck or Middlesex Hill, etc.). The company will form the first line on the right. Your platoon, 'N,' will form the first wave." N.—"Very good, sir." General saluting, and N.—having composed his features to a look of blood-thirsty enthusiasm which is quite absent from his heart—goes off to break the news to his faithful N.C.O.'s, who impart it in their turn to their sections. These last, as they are not paid extra for keeping up appearances, express their truthful opinion of attacks and leading waves with great force and point. But each successive order was in turn cancelled.

About 2 o'clock news came in that the Turks were massing in the woods near Dueidar Trench, and that we were required to keep an eye on them. The 6th H.L.I. were already across and the Argylls, followed by the 7th and ourselves, again negotiated Kurd Valley, getting slightly mixed up with a battalion of the 74th Division on the way. The 7th and Argylls now vanished from our ken, being used to support the shattered remnants of the 155th Brigade, who succeeded at dusk in getting a footing on Outpost Hill only to be counter-attacked and driven out in the dark. We came to anchor in a big hollow, peaceful except for a number of "overs"—bullets which topped the ridge in front and wounded a number of men. Many particularly dislike this impersonal manner of attack; they like their enemy to have his shot at him over his sights—hit or miss, trusting him to miss—and object to a blind bullet fired at someone else—and a very bad shot at that—finding them out in the decent obscurity of reserve lines. But in warfare you cannot even choose how you will be killed.

Darkness fell and we received orders to move up to the southern slope of Lees Hill in support of the 7th and Argylls, who had now definitely taken over from the 155th. The journey took us some time, owing to the complete darkness and the difficulties of the country, and was only finally accomplished by the signaling officer going forward with a drum of telephone wire to locate Brigade Headquarters. Having done this the Battalion advanced, guided by the wire, and we were in position by 10 p.m. and dug ourselves shelter pits before going to sleep. The Battalion dump was shifted from Mansura Ridge to Kurd Valley during that night and the ration convoy on its way to Mansura had to be found and led into our new area—difficult work, but most successfully accomplished by our energetic second in command. The dropping bullets were particularly annoying the next morning, two men being killed and four wounded in their shelters during stand-to. At dawn officers were sent out to locate the 7th and Argylls. The latter were found among the wadis of Blazed Hill—but the former, after a gallant attempt to rush Outpost Hill, had dug themselves in less than 200 yards from the Turks with a burnt-out tank on their left and were completely cut off by five hundred yards of open country which no one could cross owing to the Turkish fire. On the right the 156th Brigade, whose advance was dependent on the success of the Outpost Hill attack, had lain out all day under shell-fire unable to move, and, though lighter than those of the 155th, their casualties were also heavy. The 54th Division on the right again, and the 53rd among the sand dunes, had for the most part had their attacks shattered by machine-gun fire, though the 53rd were in possession of Samson's Ridge, while the Imperial Mounted Division and the Desert Column, fighting in a line half-way to Beersheba, had failed to produce anything like a break through. The Turk forewarned and but little troubled by our artillery fire, which was on quite a different scale to what we gave him the following November, held his positions with the tenacity which had long ago made his reputation as a defensive soldier.

Meanwhile at G.H.Q. the momentous decision was being taken, on the recommendation of General Dobell and the Divisional commanders, not to attack again on the 20th, but to consolidate the ground won, and to start trench warfare. Had the decision been different few indeed of us would have seen the evening—but as it was the Battalion got out of the second battle very lightly, our total casualties on April 17th being eight other ranks killed and one officer and thirty-two other ranks wounded, while at the end of the month they had only increased to ten killed and three officers and fifty-nine other ranks wounded. We were thus very much more fortunate than the 7th, but the cases were to be reversed in our next engagement. The force had suffered about 7000 casualties by the 20th and three tanks were knocked out and derelict, while the effects of our gas-shell were certainly not very apparent. We had, in fact, underrated the Turkish resistance, a mistake not uncommon during the war, and had to resign ourselves to a summer of trench warfare with the best grace we could muster.

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry

The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918

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