CHAPTER X. THROUGH GAZA INTO THE OPEN
On the Gaza section of the front the XXIst Corps had been busily occupied with preparations for a powerful thrust through the remainder of the defences on the enemy's right when the XXth Corps should have succeeded in turning the main positions on the left. The 52nd Division on the coast was ready to go ahead immediately there was any sign that the enemy, seeing that the worst was about to happen, intended to order a general retirement, and then it would be a race and a fight to prevent his establishing himself on the high ground north of the wadi Hesi. Should he fail to do that there was scarcely a possibility of the Turks holding us up till we got to the Jaffa-Jerusalem road, though between Gaza and that metalled highway there were many points of strength from which they could fight delaying actions. It is very doubtful whether the Turkish General Staff gave the cavalry credit for being able to move across the Plain in the middle of November when the wadis are absolutely dry and the water-level in the wells is lower than at any other period of the year. Nor did they imagine that the transport difficulties for infantry divisions fed as ours were could be surmounted. They may have thought that if they could secure the wadi Hesi line before we got into position to threaten it in flank they would immobilise our Army till the rains began, and there was a possibility of sitting facing each other in wet uncomfortable trench quarters till the flowers showed themselves in the spring, by which time, the Bagdad venture of the German Higher Command proving hopeless before it was started, a great volume of reinforcements might be diverted to Southern Palestine with Turkish divisions from the Salonika front and a stiffening of German battalions spared from Europe in consequence of the Russian collapse.
Whatever they may have been, the Turkish calculations were completely upset. The cavalry's water troubles remained and no human foresight could have smoothed them over, but the transport problem was solved in this way. During the attack on Beersheba XXIst Corps came to the aid of XXth Corps by handing over to it the greater part of its camel convoys and lorries, so much transport, indeed, that a vast amount of work in the Gaza sector fell to be done by a greatly depleted supply staff. When Beersheba had been won and the enemy's left flank had been smashed and thrown back, the XXth Corps repaid the XXIst Corps, not only by returning what it had borrowed, but by marching back into the region of railhead at Karm, where it could live with a minimum of transport and send all its surplus to work in the coastal sector. The switching over of this transport was a fine piece of organisation. On the allotted day many thousands of camels were seen drawn out in huge lines all over the country intersected by the wadi Ghuzze, slowly converging on the spots at which they could be barracked and rested before loading for the advance. The lorries took other paths. There was no repose for their drivers. They worked till the last moment on the east, and then, caked with the accumulated dust of a week's weary labour in sand and powdered earth, turned westward to arrive just in time to load up and be off again in pursuit of infantry, some making the mistake of travelling between the West and East Towns of Gaza, while others took the longer and sounder but still treacherous route east of Ali Muntar and through the old positions of the Turks. These lorry drivers were wonderful fellows who laughed at their trials, but in the days and nights when they bumped over the uneven tracks and negotiated earth rents that threatened to swallow their vehicles, they put their faith in the promise of the railway constructors to open the station at Gaza at an early date. Even Gaza, though it saved them so many toilsome miles, did not help them greatly because of a terrible piece of road north-east of the station, but Beit Hanun was comfortable and for the relief brought by the railway's arrival at Deir Sineid they were profoundly grateful.
But this is anticipating the story of Gaza's capture. The XXIst Corps had not received its additional transport when it gained the ancient city of the Philistines, though it knew some of it was on the way and most of it about to start on its westward trek. On the day of November 4 and during the succeeding night the Navy co-operated with the Corps' artillery in destroying enemy trenches and gun positions, and the Ali Muntar Ridge was a glad sight for tired gunners' eyes. The enemy showed a disposition to retaliate, and on the afternoon of the 4th he put up a fierce bombardment of our front-line positions from Outpost Hill to the sea, including in his fire area the whole of the trenches we had taken from him from Umbrella Hill to Sheikh Hasan. Many observers of this bombardment by all the Turks' guns of heavy, medium, and small calibre declared it was the prelude not of an attack but of a retirement, and that the Turks were loosing off a lot of the ammunition they knew they could not carry away. They were probably right, though the enemy made no sign of going away for a couple of days, but if he thought his demonstration by artillery was going to hasten back to Gaza some of the troops assembling against the left of his main line he was grievously in error. The XXIst Corps was strong enough to deal with any attack the Turks could launch, and they would have been pleased if an attempt to reach our lines had been made.