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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.

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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]

Geography

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.

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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:  youstupidboy.wordpress.com

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