October 31

This Day in History

World War I

Oct 31, 1917:

Third Battle of Gaza

Early on the morning of October 31, 1917, Allied forces under General Edmund Allenby launch an attack on Turkish positions at Beersheba, in Palestine, beginning the Third Battle of Gaza.

After two earlier attacks at Gaza failed amid heavy Allied casualties, the British brought in Allenby from the Western Front in June 1917 to replace Sir Archibald Murray as commander of Allied forces in Egypt. Reinforcements were also called in, including Italian and French troops, to support a renewed offensive against the Gaza-Beersheba line, which stood formidably between the Allies and the all-important city of Jerusalem. By the fall of 1917, the Turkish forces along the line were presided over by the recently arrived Erich von Falkenhayn, the former chief of staff of the German army.

After moving his headquarters from a Cairo hotel to the front line in a symbolic move aimed at boosting Allied morale, Allenby prepared to launch the attack, concentrating first on amassing enough men, artillery and tanks to make victory as certain as possible. By mid-October, seven infantry divisions had been assembled, plus a cavalry unit with both horses and camels, for a combined total of some 88,000 men. Facing Allenby’s troops along a 40-kilometer-long front were the Turkish 7th and 8th Armies, numbering just 35,000 men.

For nearly a week before the attack, three artillery divisions with over 200 guns bombarded the Turks in order to trick the latter into believing that a full frontal attack—similar to the first two Allied offensives at Gaza—would follow. The bombardment was the heaviest artillery attack of the war outside Europe, featuring as many heavy guns per yard of front as during the Battle of the Somme, with aerial support from above that ensured the artillery fire hit its marks. Instead of a frontal attack, however, Allenby’s men launched a surprise attack in the dawn hours of October 31, sending some 40,000 troops against the damaged Turkish lines. Beersheba and its crucially important water supply (previous Allied attacks on Gaza had failed partially due to lack of sufficient water in the hot desert climate) were captured that same day, as Falkenhayn was forced to pull his Turkish troops back into the hills north of Jerusalem. On the heels of their victory at Gaza, Allenby’s forces would enter that holy city on December 9, meeting with little resistance.

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