We are used to thinking of Gaza as a war-torn stretch of ground. A place where life goes grimly on in the face of an intractable conflict. A graveyard not only for civilians caught in the crossfire, but also as a necropolis for peace.
Lying among the ravages of this modern conflict are more than 250 Australians. In a well-maintained Commonwealth cemetery on the northern side of the Gaza Strip are the graves of Australian servicemen from our entanglements in both world wars. Largely forgotten in the focus on Gallipoli, these men also served and sacrificed, but it is doubtful they will get many visitors or poppies this week.
It’s an obscure campaign. But two years after the Anzac landings, and while their fellow diggers were battling the Germans in the mud of the Hindenburg Line, other Australians were fighting the Ottomans in the dust of Gaza. As part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Australian mounted units were part of the effort to dislodge the Ottomans from Palestine and start rolling them back to their Anatolian heartland.
And just like the Gallipoli campaign, these thrusts were a fiasco.
The ‘Eastern Question’ revisited
After initial fears of the Ottomans taking the Suez Canal had receded by the end of 1916, the pressure was on to carry the fight up to “Johnny Turk” (whatever his exact ethnicity) and divest him of his possessions in the Arab world.
Defeat at Gallipoli hadn’t blunted the British ambition of bolstering their control of the east. With the throes of the Russian Revolution beginning in March 1917, it was felt that a rapid advance was needed to shatter the Ottoman forces both in the Middle East and the Balkans and secure Allied dominance in the eastern Mediterranean.
The scale of the stalemate in Europe meant that this was to be done on the cheap, and Britain’s commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Murray, had already needed to give up some of his infantry divisions to the meat grinder of Flanders. He still had plenty of mounted formations though, as well as that old hunt club dream of glorious cavalry charges putting the enemy to flight.
Starting from the Sinai, the first step was to eject the Ottoman forces (stiffened with German officers) from the urban areas of Gaza. As well as containing key infrastructure such as port facilities, Gaza was a strongpoint that needed to be eliminated before further progress towards Jerusalem was to be considered.
If at first you don’t succeed…
The first Battle for Gaza took place at the end of March 1917. It involved some of the most famous Australian units, as well as some of the most obscure. Under the talented General Harry Chauvel, the Anzac Mounted Division contained the legendary Light Horse formations of Aussie bushmen and their doughty Waler nags. But elsewhere in the attack were men of the Imperial Camel Corps, which was built from Australian, Kiwi and British cameleers.
The attack went in well, but right from the outside time started to slip. A flanking move by Chauvel and his horsemen was successful and the town of Gaza was steadily being taken. But as dusk began to fall, General Murray became concerned that his forces were not in firm enough control of the area.
Fearful of Ottoman troops being reinforced in the night and launching an attack from their slightly higher positions to the east, plans for withdrawal started to gather pace. The seemingly typical scenario of muddled and asynchronous information ensued and, to the Australian general’s amazement, the gains of the day were abandoned in a confusing retreat.
Casualties were relatively light by first world war standards. But the troops would have to do it all again. And this time the Ottomans knew what was coming.
… try, try again
The second Battle of Gaza took place from April 17-19 and was a much bloodier defeat. Worried that a wide encircling move to the east would be difficult to support due to lack of water, Murray opted for the standard Great War plan of a direct frontal attack on the enemy line.
Supported by aircraft, tanks, artillery and gas, Murray felt he had the means to crush the Ottoman defences.
The same Anzac horse and camel formations were involved in this battle. While the British infantry ground in from the south, the mounted units were waiting out east to block reinforcements and to exploit any breakthroughs. However, heavy artillery fire and attacks by Ottoman cavalry (including Bedouins) meant that the Anzacs suffered steady losses without making any major impact on the course of the battle.
Over the next three days some progress was made. Several Ottoman strongpoints were taken. But these were often unable to be held in the face of determined counter attacks. After three days of mounting casualties and dwindling supplies, Murray called it quits. Little territory had been gained and some of that had to be quickly abandoned because it was too exposed to enemy shelling.
This second battle for Gaza had cost more than 6000 casualties and 500 lives for the Allied forces and, more importantly, put paid to any short-term plans for further offensives. More than 100 of the Anzac Mounted division were killed and the Camel Corps had three times that.
Of those men, around 50 Australians are buried in the main Gaza cemetery. Another 50 or so are buried at Deir el Balahh cemetery, also within today’s Gaza Strip.
The failure was a huge boost for Ottoman morale and a consequent blow for the Allies’ expectations. It was the end of General Murray’s field service. He was recalled to the mother country and given a training depot to look after. His replacement was the more successful (and flexible) Edmund Allenby. But it was to be another six months before Gaza was in British hands.
The next wars
During the second world war Australian forces went through an uncanny repeat of their Great War role in Palestine, albeit facing the Vichy French rather than the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. The connection between Gaza and Australians continued – the theatre headquarters of the 2nd AIF were based there. Several hospital units were stationed in Gaza, which contributed greatly to the number of Australian men buried there.
In 2006 and 2009, the cemetery was badly damaged by Israeli fire in their offensives on Gaza. On the earlier occasion Israel paid in compensation for the destruction, a poignant irony for the living residents of Gaza rendered homeless.
These days, the little oasis of green and calm is sometimes used as a peaceful mediation or picnic spot for local families.
As we move past the 98th anniversary of the Second Battle of Gaza and into the mass commemoration of Gallipoli, it is appropriate to consider these forgotten Anzacs of a forgotten corner of the first world war. There is a direct historical connection between the capture of this territory by the British and the manner in which the Middle East was divided afterwards. The ensuing decades of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities knock on from there.
But for the Australian horsemen and cameleers there was never a right of return. Gaza will forever be their home.