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Historical research and wargaming (Part 2): Applying the framework to the Third Battle of Gaza (1917)

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead.


Part Two: Applying the Framework

In Part 2, the framework introduced in Part 1 will be used to study debates around a historical battle: the 1917 Third Battle of Gaza. The ‘Gaza School’ counterfactual has been a recurring element of the battle’s historiography since its inception in the immediate aftermath of the battle and was brought to greater prominence in the 1930s with Clive Garsia’s book A Key To Victory which continues to be an influential source for studies on Palestine. The Gaza School therefore remains an intriguing counterfactual possibility amidst continuing debate within the historiography

The Third Battle of Gaza

The ‘Gaza School’ debate revolves around the strategy employed by Edmund Allenby to eject Ottoman forces from their defensive line between the towns of Gaza and Beersheba in southern Palestine through October and November, 1917. Historically Allenby launched attacks on either flank of the Ottoman line between Gaza and Beersheba, drawing Ottoman reserves to both flanks before breaking through the weakly held centre. The inland flank was attacked first with the Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) and XX Corps outflanking, surrounding and capturing Beersheba. Meanwhile XXI Corps diverted Ottoman reserves with a holding attack on Gaza while the formations in Beersheba built up water stockpiles then broke through the Ottoman centre, forcing a full-scale Ottoman retreat.


Garsia champions the ‘Gaza School’ counterfactual in his book, A Key To Victory, which posits Allenby should have eschewed the attack on Beersheba and focussed all resources upon breaking through at Gaza then exploiting with cavalry rather than outflanking the Ottoman line on the more logistically precarious inland flank.[1] This article will use the wargaming research framework laid out in the first part to explore the feasibility of Garsia’s alternative plan. Indeed, the suggestion to use a wargame to model this came as early as the early 1930s in Cyril Falls Official History.[2]


A study of the terrain reveals the difficulty of attacking Gaza with several hills, traditional fieldworks and thick cactus hedges all significant obstacles and made the town difficult to take.[3] Two attacks at the beginning of 1917 had already failed while XXI Corp’s holding attack during Third Gaza did poorly, failing to achieve the modest objectives set.[4]While Garsia argues Gaza could have been masked by XXI Corps while the DMC broke through along the beach even this argument is difficult to qualify. High sand dunes near the coast made the ground unsuitable for wheeled vehicles and would make the movement of three cavalry divisions burdensome.[5] Force to space ratios are also often forgotten and a study of a map reveals the beach route offered a frontage less than a mile wide, through which three cavalry divisions would have to ride. This would necessitate a limited, single Brigade front to overcome the Ottoman positions codenamed Lion, Tiger and Dog positions and then further redeployments and fighting across the Wadi Hesi before the cavalry could cut Gaza’s supply, while a long spread-out column of cavalry might prove vulnerable to artillery fire and Ottoman counterattacks regaining the beach defences.


Adherents to the Gaza School maintain the coast road would have made movement and supply much easier, there are a number of factors which discount this. This road moves directly through Gaza; where the heaviest held part of the entire Ottoman line was located so use of the road would have necessitated decisively shattering the heaviest part of the Ottoman defences, before pushing three cavalry divisions across heavily fortified ground, through a major urban area, across the heavily held Wadi Hesi and all along a single-track road.

Exploitation along the coast would also be harder than supposed with XXI Corps advance following Gaza’s evacuation requiring tractors to move supplies along the coast even with road access.[6] Heavier sand also exhausted the cavalry’s horses and bogged down wheeled transport making rapid movement difficult.[7] There were therefore significant obstacles to cavalry exploitation as a serious study of the terrain demonstrates.

Order of Battle and Generic Capabilities of Formations

Study of the order of battle reveals several insights. Firstly, that while the strength of Ottoman formations was highly variable, and the specifics of the numbers employed still remain unknown, they appear to have concentrated their best divisions on the coast behind Gaza. The historical attack on Beersheba pulled these troops away from the coast, to reinforce the inland flank, although even then there were still sufficient reserves to reinforce Gaza against the holding attack by XXI Corps. To focus the offensive on Gaza would, very likely, have meant that Ottoman forces could have concentrated upon holding Gaza and the terrain behind it even more rather than being split between two axis of advance as they were historically.

Third Gaza also provides an example of how order of battle research can reveal sources ignored by military historians in the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry (ISC) Brigade. Cyril Falls omits the Brigade from the Official History’s Order of Battle, a mistake which future historians have copied and while the absence of a lone Brigade may not seem especially significant the existence of 15 ISC is significant because the brigade’s performance during the battle provides direct evidence of how effectively larger bodies of cavalry would have operated on the coastal flank. [8]  Garsia argues it would have been sufficient to simply mask Gaza with XXI Corps and then slip the cavalry along the beach to cut Ottoman communications.[9] 15 ISC’s war diary, however, makes it clear that opening up a gap, and breaking through, would be no simple matter. The Brigade did actually form up behind the XXI Corps infantry assault but were unable to exploit through as Ottoman counterattacks recaptured the beach defences.[10] Additionally, as discovered in the survey of the terrain the heavier sand on the coast would have exhausted the cavalry. Cavalry tactics also heavily relied upon infantry, artillery and air support. Any unsupported cavalry penetration behind Gaza would struggle against renewed Ottoman defences and counterattacks as shown by EEF cavalry actions at Huj on November 8, Beit Hanun and in the (attempted) crossing of the Nahr el Auja.[11] In all of these cases unsupported cavalry on the advance struggled to overcome what were often weakly held defensive positions and indicates that the cavalry might not even have been able to achieve their objectives even had they broken through.

The EEF’s Decision Making Environment

While the creation of the physical model demonstrates the difficulties with the Gaza Camp approach further analysis of the decision-making environment in the EEF in autumn 1917 further supports a case that the Gaza School approach simply did not align with EEF strategic priorities. Philip Chetwode wrote in October: ‘it is desired to get the enemy on the move from his strongly entrenched positions with as few casualties as possible, relying on our preponderance in cavalry to do the execution.’[12] It is also worth bearing in mind the directive given to Allenby before the battle to capture Jerusalem and ‘occupy the Jaffa-Jerusalem line’ as cheaply as possible.[13] Preponderance in cavalry, and the advantage this gave, was a clear motivation for seeking the open, inland flank. While the EEF had three cavalry divisions, and three independent cavalry brigades the Ottoman cavalry only consisted of one division, barely stronger than a British cavalry brigade. Turning a weakly held flank would also likely be much cheaper than a head-on assault against the most strongly held part of the Ottoman line. The more indirect inland route via Beersheba was chosen because it maximised the EEF’s advantage in cavalry while helping to keep casualties as low as possible. XXI Corps losses in just their holding attack on Gaza were double those of the assault on Beersheba; and for little tangible gain with even the single Brigade of cavalry present unable to exploit.[14][15]

Allenby’s decision to risk the inland attack on Beersheba therefore is as much to do with wider strategic priorities as it is to do with the practicalities of the terrain and force composition.

Integrating wargaming within military historical research, not just within the context of counterfactuals, offers a number of important tools that military historians continue to underutilise. By creating an analytical model of events that aims to conform with the course of historical events military historians can analyse individual factors based on under-utilised (but commonly available) evidence while the successful creation of an accurate model encourages historians to explore the full range of evidence. If the model doesn’t work for whatever reason, then this simply encourages further research to understand why the model doesn’t conform. Extra playtesting and refining of the model is something that can introduce previously unknown or unconsidered factors that suddenly appear more decisive for their effect on the accuracy of the model.[16]

Wargaming military history therefore, while still a tool for support of a wider analytical goal (and as such should be employed appropriately), fills in a number of crucial gaps within a military historian’s toolkit. Design of a wargame encourages rigorous analysis of under-utilised sources in a wider framework and, most importantly, incorporates these into a wider model which must be adapted to fit the historical result. When an initial model doesn’t conform then this just encourages further exploration of why your rigorously researched model hasn’t conformed. Much like wargaming mechanics this creates an important feedback loop, and encourages the researcher to go back and check their sources again: something that the dominant research methodology within history fails to do. Indeed, much of the time in traditional military history contradictory, and inconvenient, sources are often seemingly explained away, ignored or subsumed into wider arguments. Wargaming encourages a more involved research process right from the beginning of a project and, furthermore, relies upon sources that very often can be easily obtained without endless days in the archive. Meanwhile testing the design, especially with a third party, can often lead to fundamental reevaluations of either sides decision space: ‘what constitutes ‘victory’ for either side and what are they willing to risk to attain it?’ are just two questions that applying a gaming approach can encourage. Designing a wargame for a battle at the outset of a project can often produce new priorities on archival research and when new evidence is discovered allows it to be reincorporated into the model: often improving the pursuit of a historically accurate result. While military history is increasingly moving to incorporate more qualitative, and innovative methodologies there are still ways that military historians can integrate more traditionally social science approaches like modelling, and wargaming, to the benefit of their research.[17]

[1] Clive Garsia, A Key To Victory: A Study in War Planning (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1940)

[2] Cyril Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine: From June 1917 to the end of the War Part I (London, 1930), p. 32

[3] SHEA 6/2, The Liddell Hart Centre for Military Studies and JONES, CF, The Liddell Hart Centre for Military Studies

[4] Cyril Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine: From June 1917 to the end of the War Part I (London, 1930)

[5] Lieutenant Colonel, The Honorable, R.M.O, Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps: An Account of the Cavalry Operations in Palestine and Syria 1917-1918 (Boston, 1920), p. 6

[6] Falls, Official History p. 142 and Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816-1919: Volume 5, Egypt, Palestine and Syria (London: 1994) p. 188

[7] Anon. History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 17

[8] Garsia, Key To Victory, p. 206

[9] Garsia, Key To Victory, p. 206

[10] Anon. History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 16

[11] Falls, Official History p. 123, 215 and Anon, History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 16

[12] IWM, P183/1: Chetwode Papers, 1st October Letter: ‘Appreciation of the Situation on the 14th October’

[13] Falls, Official History, p. 67

[14] Wavell, Allenby: Soldier and Statesman p. 178

[15] John Ericksen, Ottoman Army Effectiveness in World War I: A Comparative Study p. 123

[16] Phil Sabin, The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate, Public Lecture at Kings College, 22.11.2019

[17] Jonathan Fennel, Fighting the People’s War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Ben Wheatley, A Visual Examination of the Battle of Prokhorovka (Journal of Intelligence History,), Volume 18, 2019

James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:

Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead. Part 2 can be found here.


Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework 

Wargaming offers a unique methodological toolset to study historical conflicts and while there has been interest in using wargames as an educational tool, there is little focus on what wargaming can offer analytical, military history research.[1] The first part of this article will outline how the structured, and exhaustive, research necessary to design historical simulations can provide unique insights for historical research. Since wargame design needs to account for player decisions that diverge from history there is a need to comprehensively research not just the historical record but counterfactuals too. This analysis is carried out in a structured framework which helps the designer to understand both the environment the battle is fought in, but also the military makeup and performance of both sides and how best to incentivise historical play.[2]

The research for a wargame therefore requires the creation of a very different and, in some ways, more rigorous and encompassing model than many traditional military histories. While there is a strong element of the counterfactual to wargaming this still presents ‘a highly useful way of exploring cause and effect.’ Developing a rigorous and thoroughly analytical representational model of historical conflicts can be of huge value in giving greater prominence to underutilised sources and in understanding contemporary opinions and priorities.[3]

Wargames research utilizes a framework that studies the geographical environment, the orders of battle of the opposing sides, generic capabilities of the formations involved and opposing decision environments.[4] This first section will study these factors individually, exploring exactly why they are important and the consequences that proper examination and integration of these factors can have for understanding of military history.


Studying the ground over which a battle is fought is vital for any study of a battle. Along with the Order of Battle, it is one of the most obvious research benefits of war gaming. Properly modelling a battle’s geographic environment can lead to interesting insights. For example, the German Operation Michael Offensive in March, 1918, against the British Fifth Army and elements of Third Army is often seen as being so successful (at least initially) because of the favourable force to space ratios in favour of the Imperial German Army, better tactics and weak British defences. What is often not considered is the nature of the terrain itself with the British defences lying on a wide, flat plain, with higher ground to the north and south. Approaching Operation Michael as a wargame reveals the nature of the terrain acted against the British defenders and they were forced to give up so much ground, falling back on river lines such as the Somme, partly because of the dearth of defensible features behind Fifth Army’s front line. In turn, these river lines were often only given up when outflanked; meaning that the British Army simply was not able to fall back on terrain favourable to a defence across the entire width of their front line. The German assault against the southern portion of Third Army units to the north of Fifth Army was less successful during Operation Michael and the follow-up, Operation Mars, partly because the British defenders were fighting in much more favourable terrain for defence. Because terrain is such an integral part of the wider model wargames encourage far more engagement than is usual with the characteristics of the terrain on which the historical conflict was fought. With most traditional military histories lacking good-quality maps this can encourage the wider use of easily available sources with a corresponding increase in the level to which terrain is considered as a factor in the historical result.

Order of Battle

Alongside the creation of a proper map, researching an order of battle and the generic capabilities of formations are the basic building blocks in the creation of a rigorously analytical model. This is important to the creation of a wargame because, unlike traditional military history, missing key formations out or incorrectly modelling their capabilities in combat can have important consequences.

The research of an accurate Order of Battle is often nothing much more than a necessary task that doesn’t reveal anything particularly exciting; however, it is still an important step to creating a viable model and therefore something that needs to be properly addressed. Again, like maps, many traditional historical works often give the order of battle only the most cursory of attention. Although orders of battle often do not provide anything particularly revelatory, they undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the wider framework. Knowing exactly which troops were where is an important part of creating a valid simulation and, again, creates a valuable, if incremental contribution to the wider wargame model and can lead to some important, if seemingly minor revelations regarding force to space ratios and the true strength of formations often represented on maps as abstract unit symbols.

However, in some cases the value of proper orders of battle created through commercial wargames have provided interesting revisions to historical works. Dave Parham’s research on the Battle of Stalingrad in the 1980s points out the 76th Infantry Division did not fight at Stalingrad: the assault on the city centre consisting of only two divisions rather than the three that many histories have commonly asserted.[5] Similarly Orders of Battle for Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia in 1914, are obscure and hard to come by, with the most modern, and easily accessible, order of battle found in a commercially published wargame.[6]

Generic Capabilities of Formations

Understanding the generic capabilities of formations which took part in the conflict is really the full marriage of the geographical study and order of battle into a fully realized model simulating the physical capabilities of the military formations involved. Studying the combat record of formations provides a wider appreciation of the generic capabilities of both side’s formations while understanding how the terrain affected the ability of the units collected in the Order of Battle to move and carry out combat introduces completes the basic physical model. The final step is to understand the contemporary military objectives, doctrines and politico-social priorities of participants.

Decision Making Environments

In order to produce an accurate simulation, designers must understand why commanders behaved as they did historically, which requires the priorities and motivations for both sides to be incorporated into the wider model. Historical actors often do not behave rationally to modern perspectives, and what good wargame and historical research does is uncover the reasons that made their choices made appear rational. It is necessary to study the strategic priorities and objectives of both sides to understand why they behaved as they did, and to introduce incentives into the design, to encourage players behave in this way.

For example, in a simulation of the German invasion of France in World War Two, it might seem obvious to the player that they need to attack on either side of any German breakthroughs, neatly cutting off and isolating the Wehrmacht Panzer formations. However, in any accurate simulation of the battle, there will be rules simulating command and control confusion in order to prevent the Allied player from doing precisely this. Similarly, accurately depicting the decision-making environment can also help bridge the gap between military and cultural or social history. A simulation of British and Commonwealth forces in Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 would not just require the accurate modelling of their capabilities but also consideration of the specific style in which they fought battles; to avoid casualties and maintain morale. A successful simulation might, for example, impose heavy penalties on the Commonwealth player for taking infantry casualties and encourage them to use heavy artillery support and set-piece attacks.

Studying the decision environments and the factor’s which the opposing commanders took into account when making their plans can provide very different perspectives from the logical assumptions modern audiences can make when analysing history. This is, of course, something that all good historians should be doing in the first place but the clear analytical framework process that war game design necessitates can often make those perspectives much clearer and assist insight into the wider battle.

Wargames, while utilizing the same skills as traditional military history, research within a framework that provides much more technical and specific understanding of conflicts which can, in turn, challenge many assumptions made by existing histories. It is not so much a radically new way of approaching research but of framing the evidence and creating an emphasis on underutilized, but very accessible, sources such as Orders of Battle or maps. In the second part of this article, this framework will be applied to studying the ‘Gaza School Counterfactual’ that was developed in the 1930s about the Third Battle of Gaza, as an example of the way that this wargaming research framework can benefit historical research by framing underutilized, but easily accessible evidence.

[1] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) and Robert Citino, ‘Lessons from the Hexagon’ in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

[2] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47

[3] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History , (New York, 2013), p. 126

[4] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47-48

[5] John Hill, Battle for Stalingrad Main Rule Book, (Simulation Publications Incorporated: New York, 1980), p. 19

[6] Serbien Muβ Sterberien, (GMT, 2013)

James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:

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