April 17

This Day in History

World War I

Apr 17, 1917:

Second Battle of Gaza

As the major Allied offensive masterminded by Robert Nivelle was failing miserably on the Western Front, British forces in Palestine make their second attempt to capture the city of Gaza from the Ottoman army on this day in 1917.

In the wake of the failed British assault on Gaza of March 26, 1917, Sir Archibald Murray, commander of British forces in the region, misrepresented the battle as a clear Allied victory, claiming Turkish losses to be triple what they actually were; in truth, at 2,400 they were significantly lower than the British total of 4,000. This led London's War Office to believe their troops were on the verge of a significant breakthrough in Palestine and to order Murray to renew the attack immediately.

Though the previous assault had caught the Turks by surprise, the second one did not: the German general in charge of the troops at Gaza, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, was by now well aware of British intentions. By the time the British launched their second round of attacks on April 17, the Turks had accordingly strengthened their defenses and extended their forces along the road from Gaza to the nearby town of Beersheba.

Still, as in the First Battle of Gaza, British soldiers outnumbered Turkish troops by a ratio of two to one. Moreover, the British employed eight heavy Mark-1 tanks and 4,000 gas shells (used for the first time on the Palestine front) to ensure victory. The tanks proved unsuitable for the hot, dry desert conditions, however, and three of them were captured by Turkish forces, which again put up a blisteringly effective defense despite their inferior numbers. After three days and heavy losses—the British casualty figure, of 6,444 men, was three times that of the Turks—Murray's subordinate commander, Sir Charles Dobell, was forced to call off the British attacks, ending the Second Battle of Gaza with the city still firmly in Turkish control.

As a result of this second failure to capture Gaza, the Allies called in reinforcements, including Italian and French troops, which arrived from Europe in time to join the third and final Battle of Gaza that fall. Under the new regional command of Sir Edward Allenby, the Allies finally broke through and gained control of Gaza in November 1917, leaving them free to move ahead toward Palestine's capital city, Jerusalem, which fell into Allied hands on December 9.

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