CHAPTER III. DIFFICULTIES OF THE ATTACK
General Allenby's first problem was of vital consequence. He had to pierce the Gaza line. Before his arrival there had been, as already stated, two attempts which failed. A third failure, or even a check, might have spelt disaster for us in the East. The Turks held commanding positions, which they strengthened and fortified under the direction of German engineers until their country, between the sea and Beersheba, became a chain of land works of high military value, well adapted for defence, and covering almost every line of approach. The Turk at the Dardanelles had shown no loss of that quality of doggedness in defence which characterised him in Plevna, and though we know his commanders still cherished the hope of successfully attacking us before we could attempt to crush his line, it was on his system of defence that the enemy mainly relied to break the power of the British force. On arriving in Egypt General Allenby was given an appreciation of the situation written by Lieut.-General Sir Philip Chetwode, who had commanded the Desert Column in various stages across the sands of Sinai, was responsible for forcing the Turks to evacuate El Arish, arranged the dash on Magdaba by General Sir Harry Chauvel's mounted troops, and fought the brilliant little battle of Rafa. This appreciation of the position was the work of a master military mind, taking a broad comprehensive view of the whole military situation in the East, Palestine's position in the world war, the strategical and tactical problems to be faced, and, without making any exorbitant demands for troops which would lessen the Allies' powers in other theatres, set out the minimum necessities for the Palestine force. General Allenby gave the fullest consideration to this document, and after he had made as complete an examination of the front as any Commander-in-Chief ever undertook - the General was in one or other sector with his troops almost every day for four months - General Chetwode's plan was adopted, and full credit was given to his prescience in General Allenby's despatch covering the operations up to the fall of Jerusalem.
It was General Chetwode's view at the time of writing his appreciation, that both the British and Turkish Armies were strategically on the defensive. The forces were nearly equal in numbers, though we were slightly superior in artillery, but we had no advantage sufficient to enable us to attack a well-entrenched enemy who only offered us a flank on which we could not operate owing to lack of water and the extreme difficulty of supply. General Chetwode thought it was possible the enemy might make an offensive against us - we have since learned he had such designs - but he gave weighty reasons against the Turk embarking upon a campaign conducted with a view to throwing us beyond the Egyptian frontier into the desert again. If the enemy contemplated even minor operations in the Sinai Desert he had not the means of undertaking them. We should be retiring on positions we had prepared, for, during his advance across the desert, General Chetwode had always taken the precaution of having his force dug in against the unlikely event of a Turkish attack. Every step we went back would make our supply easier, and there was no water difficulty, the pipe line, then 130 miles long, which carried the purified waters of the Nile to the amount of hundreds of thousands of gallons daily, being always available for our troops. It would be necessary for the Turks to repair the Beersheba-Auja railway. They had lifted some of the rails for use north of Gaza, and a raid we had carried out showed that we could stop this railway being put into a state of preparedness for military traffic. An attack which aimed at again threatening the Suez Canal was therefore ruled as outside the range of possibilities.
On the other hand, now that the Russian collapse had relieved the Turk of his anxieties in the Caucasus and permitted him to concentrate his attention on the Mesopotamian and Palestine fronts, what hope had he of resisting our attack when we should be in a position to launch it? The enemy had a single narrow-gauge railway line connecting with the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway at Junction Station about six miles south-east of Ramleh. This line ran to Beersheba, and there was a spur line running past Deir Sineid to Beit Hanun from which the Gaza position was supplied. There was a shortage of rolling stock and, there being no coal for the engines, whole olive orchards had been hacked down to provide fuel. The Hebron road, which could keep Beersheba supplied if the railway was cut, was in good order, but in other parts there were no roads at all, except several miles of badly metalled track from Junction Station to Julis. We could not keep many troops with such ill-conditioned communications, but Turkish soldiers require far less supplies than European troops, and the enemy had done such remarkable things in surmounting supply difficulties that he was given credit for being able to support between sixty and seventy battalions in the line and reserve, with an artillery somewhat weaker than our own.