On August 8, 1918, 314 men emerged out of the desert and prepared to attack.
They were yeomanry - volunteer cavalry - but they didn’t ride horses.
Belonging to the Imperial Camel Corps, they were taking part in a campaign designed to break up the Ottoman Empire.
“At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the majority of Arabia formed part of the Ottoman Empire. The exceptions were the territories included in the British protectorates of Kuwait, Aden and the Hadramawt and Oman coastlines. Today, the Ottoman territories would encompass the modern Arab states of Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. To the north and the north-east, the Arabian region of the Ottoman Empire was bordered by Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq), which were also part of the empire.”
Although they fell under its banner, by 1914, many of the six million settled and nomadic Muslim tribes stretching from Arabia to Syria did not feel, or wish to be, a part of this empire.
They’d been alienated by increasingly authoritarian rule in the capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul).
The Turks had also begun to lose the ability to defend their empire:
“During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had lost control of large areas of its territory following a series of military defeats. Egypt, which had formerly been an Ottoman province, was now effectively in British control… In 1908, Turkey lost Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary*… it lost Libya to Italy and, after the First Balkan War of 1912, it lost control of Macedonia (what is today northern Greece and the Republic of Macedonia). Before the outbreak of World War I therefore, it seemed that the Ottoman or Turkish Empire was on the brink of collapse, an event that had been predicted by many since the mid-19th century.”
(*It would be the assassination Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the next in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne, during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, that would spark the war).
But rather than seeing this growing weakness as a political opportunity, at first, Britain and France were deeply worried about this development.
This is because as it weakened, Turkey was more influenced by Germany.
It was this that caused the British and French to look elsewhere for allies to counter this emerging threat in the region.
When a revolt against the Turks and their allies in the north broke out in the Middle East in June 1916, one man who would be pulled into and then defined by the events that followed would be an obscure lieutenant at Cairo’s Intelligence Department.
His name was T E Lawrence, and he would come to be known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Aiding the breakup
One of five illegitimate sons of the Anglo-Irish baronet Sir Thomas Chapman, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 in Wales and started out his adult life as an academic.
Having travelled widely in the Middle East for his BA dissertation on Crusader castles for Jesus College, Oxford, Lawrence had ended up in the region doing excavation work with the British Museum in Syria after he’d graduated university.
Things had moved in a more military direction with the increasing likelihood of war, and by 1913 Lawrence was down in the Sinai conducting a ‘geographical survey’, which, of course, turned out to be an Army venture.
When war did finally break out in 1914, he was given a temporary commission, something that irritated many other men in the EEF (Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Britain’s regional army). As Murphy puts it:
“His fellow officers often viewed Lawrence with some distain. He was an amateur soldier yet was highly intelligent and opinionated. Some described him as an insufferable know-it-all. In his appearance he was often unkempt and improperly dressed by military standards. Yet he had knowledge of Arab customs and language and he also had some knowledge of areas that were now firmly ‘behind enemy lines’.”
Lawrence was also highly motivated. He’d lost two brothers on the Western Front and wanted to get back at the enemy any way he could.
What he would do, ultimately, was to effectively lead much of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans, although he had never set out with this in mind.
In fact, much of what turned out to be seemed unlikely at first. When the revolt against the Turks had begun, it was led by the Hashemites, the royal family of present-day Jordan.
However, as we shall see, it was not they who would ultimately come to control Arabia.
To give a sense of scale, when the Hashemites first rose up against the Ottomans in Mecca, Medina and Ta’if (all in what is now western Saudi Arabia), it’s thought that 30,000 of them took part.
This is only estimated because it was a remarkably jumbled force.
Many of the men were tough farmers who made good shots, ideal foot soldiers in one sense.
But in the area of discipline and consistency, they fell down. As good fighters, they could be relied upon to raid, but not to participate in large-scale attacks or defensive actions.
They were also reluctant to fight outside their tribal areas, meaning that as the campaign moved northwards, turnover was high with men peeling away to go home and replacements being found to fight now that the war had drifted into their territories.
Payment for these men had to be in gold – early on the British government were making monthly payments to regional allies equivalent to £30,000 (£2.4 million today).
By September 1918, these had risen to £220,000 (the equivalent of £11.5 million now).
Part of this financial effort involved getting up-to-date weapons to the Arabs, who were, in some cases, still using muzzle-loading rifles.
Lee Enfields were supplied as widely as possible and supplemented with light machine guns – the British Lewis gun and the French Hotchkiss.
Later, armoured cars and aircraft would also be supplied.
This is the way it had to be. Both sides were cognizant of cultural sensitivities (read: not wanting ‘infidel’ foreign soldiers to be seen fighting the Muslim world), and it was better to help their Arab allies to fight than to fight for them.
The French had their own Muslim troops that they could deploy from their colonies in Africa, though the British were more limited.
They relied upon troops from Egypt to some degree, then later supplemented these with Indian troops and Gurkhas, and then the Imperial Camel Corps, which was effectively a British desert cavalry force.
Unlike the Allies, the Turkish Army in Arabia was uniform, with over 20,000 men packed into both normal divisions (of which there would have been a few, 8 and 10 Infantry Divisions in VIII Corps) and smaller composite units that could be combined and reconfigured to respond to the revolt as it occurred.
These were two railway companies, a volunteer cavalry regiment, logistics and medical support, and, later, four infantry regiments – 23, 42, 162 and 178 – assigned to railway protection.
The Ottomans had their own planes, as well as later being supplemented with German ones, and their own camel-mounted troops.
‘Johnny Turk’, the Ottoman equivalent of Tommy Atkins, had gone up considerably in the Allies’ estimation owing largely to the hiding he had given them all at Gallipoli (and in Mesopotamia – Iraq today). Lawrence would have to proceed with care.
The revolt breaks out
It had been building for some time. Now, on June 10, 1916, the Arab revolt officially began in Mecca – one of Saudi Arabia’s two holy places – when Hashemite leader Sharif Hussein ibn Ali fired his pistol at the end of that morning’s call to prayer.
Hussein’s men, who had sneaked into the city in twos and threes the night before, burst out of hiding places and attacked the Turkish garrison.
They were battered back inside their barracks and the Jiyad fortress where they awaited resupply from Medina (the second of two holy sites, Mecca of course being the first).
Without artillery of their own, the Arab force could not press home the attack, and things quickly settled into a stalemate.
This was finally broken in July when the Royal Navy conveyed Egyptian reinforcements to the city.
With their own artillery, they soon smashed through the walls and forced the garrison into surrender.
This process repeated itself at the town of Ta’if, with Egyptian support troops again coming to the aid of Arab besiegers, helping to end the siege on September 22.
But at Medina, things went less well. Besieged Ottomans held out, and it was feared that this might be the rock upon which the whole revolt would break.
This garrison, after all, could be reinforced as it was at the terminal of a railroad track that ran from Damascus and Constantinople.
It was at this point that Lawrence was dispatched to aid the situation. He found the Arab force and quickly latched onto Emir Feisal, who he perceived to be the most charismatic of the Arab leaders:
“On Lawrence’s recommendation, Feisal would receive increasing amounts of support from Britain, in terms of both money and military material. He would also be re-directed northwards to satisfy both his own kingly ambitions and British military purposes.”
Later in the year, the Turks would counter-attack, but with help from planes in the Royal Flying Corps, which strafed the attackers, the Ottomans were beaten back.
By December 1916, Feisal was ready to advance on the Turks and attack them again, this time at Wejh’.
As he did so, more and more tribes joined him until his force was 8,000 strong, the largest Arab army in living memory up to that point.
The plan was to crush the garrison at the port town between the Royal Navy on one side and Feisal’s enormous army on the landward side.
But the latter didn’t show up until January 25, 1917, two days after the Navy had already moved into position and begun their part of the operation.
Fortunately for them, this was enough to intimidate the Turkish force there to surrender, and now, with the port in Arab/Royal Navy hands, the next stage of the revolt could begin – the attack on the railway line that ran from Medina to Damascus and Constantinople.
Cutting the Turkish umbilical cord
“All energies have to be concentrated on line smashing.”
So uttered Colonel Joyce, who was in command of logistics at Wejh (or Al Wajh, an Arabian town on the Red Sea) for the following stage of the revolt.
The idea of this next phase was essentially not to destroy the Turkish force at Medina, but to bottle them up.
Without proper resupply, they would not be able to launch a major attack elsewhere, nor strike out on their own across the desert.
The method was simple: Find isolated and exposed parts of the Hejaz railway line, upon which they were dependent for resupply, lay explosives across them, and then detonate the whole lot.
At first, this was done by small indiscrete parties, but later on, raiding units increased in number and might be as small as 40 men or as large as 200.
There were a number of these attacks, many of which were deliberately carried out on corners in the track (because these sections were harder to replace).
Then, in February 1917, attacks were stepped up in intensity.
As Murphy informs us, saboteurs began using “a (kind of) mine with a contact detonating device that had been fashioned from an old Martini-Henry rifle (famous for use during the Anglo-Zulu War)”.
This allowed “teams to place mines that needed no telltale command cord to detonate them”, which allowed not only tracks but moving locomotives to be blown up.
That wasn't all:
“(After February, 1917) demolitions along the railway became more brazen and Arabs and Allied officers pulled up sections of rail, demolished bridges and destroyed water stations.
Such attacks were later facilitated by covering parties that had Rolls Royce armoured cars… (and later) RFC/RAF aircraft.”
When blowing up stone bridges, it became common practice to obliterate either end and leave the middle section tottering precariously, forcing the Turks to blow this up themselves before rebuilding – a dangerous task.
But the real genius of the strategy wasn’t in what was destroyed:
“The Ottoman Army had to devote huge resources to maintaining and guarding the Hejaz Railway.
It was vital for the survival of the Turkish garrisons in Arabia and would tie down Turkish divisions for the remainder of the war.”
Lawrence himself best summed up the emerging doctrine:
“Most wars were wars of contact, both forces striving into touch to avoid tactical surprise. Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, not directed against him, but against his stuff, so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.”
Or, as Colonel Joyce put it:
“The noise of the dynamite going was something grand and it is always satisfactory finding one is breaking things.”
Coming in the back door
Successful as railway sabotage was, the war was destined to move northwards.
That’s because many of those under Feisal’s command were from the north of Arabia, and were more motivated to fight the Turks in their homelands.
There were also strategic and political considerations.
To begin with, the closer one got to Syria and Palestine, the more chance there was of eventually getting access to fertile land.
What’s more, knowing by this point that the British and French were planning to take control of much of northern Arabia after the war, Feisal intended to get there first.
Lawrence, sympathetic to the Arab cause, also hated the idea of, for example, tens of thousands of French troops in Syria (one initial step in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, see below) and agreed to Feisal’s plan.
At this point, three of the four major ports on the Red Sea were in Allied hands: Jiddah (or Jeddah), Rabegh (or Rabigh) and Yanbu.
That left one under Turkish control, one that would be an obvious target for the next attack: Aqaba.
If Lawrence and Feisal could take it, they’d be able to supply his armies throughout the north of Arabia as well as further south. Furthermore, it would deny resupply from much of the Red Sea to the enemy.
The trouble was, the Royal Navy had already shelled the port city and determined that it could not be sufficiently weakened to permit an amphibious attack.
Lawrence proposed a land-based assault, though this would require considerable daring.
First, they’d need to sweep north east of the town to recruit local Arabs for the attack.
Next, a diversionary assault on the Hejaz railway was needed, before, finally, a full-scale assault could sweep into Aqaba from the rear land-based side.
Straight-forward enough on paper, in reality, this meant crossing over 600 miles of desert, including an infamous section known as ‘al-Houl’ or ‘the Terror’, such was the likelihood of death for anyone who tried to navigate it.
But get through it they did, organising a force of 500 plus Arabs that swelled to 1,000 as it fought its way through Turkish outposts on the way to Aqaba.
By the time they plunged into the town on camel back, they found much of the garrison there had abandoned it and it was soon in their hands.
From there, with Palestine now within striking distance, Lawrence rushed across the Sinai peninsula to get to his commanding officers in Cairo.
It was important news, as he soon told the new GOC (General Officer Commanding), General Sir Edmund Allenby.
Confronted by Lawrence in his Arab dress, the General soon realised the importance of the news he was being given and resolved to support the ongoing revolt in any way he could.
Unfortunately, the latter half of 1917 would see events strain the Allied-Arab relationship.
Upon assuming power in Russia, the Bolsheviks aired the dirty laundry of their former allies by releasing the details of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, cooked up by British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Francois Georges-Picot.
James Barr reports in ‘A Line in the Sand’ that Sykes had declared at one meeting that:
“I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.”
Although planning to leave some of Arabia for the Arabs, the north of the Middle East was to be carved up between France, Britain and Russia.
And in typical imperial arrogance, showed no knowledge nor interest in existing communities as borders were arbitrarily drawn for political reasons.
The area now comprising mostly Syria and Lebanon was to go to France, a portion of eastern Turkey (as well as Constantinople) would be sliced off for Russia, and the area largely comprising Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan would be Britain’s spoils.
Palestine would also end up in British hands after the war (though, obviously, Istanbul and eastern Turkey would not be taken by Russia, since it left the war that year).
A further complication was the publication of the Balfour Declaration, in ‘The Times’ on November 7, which proposed the creation of a Jewish state within what was then Palestine.
Lawrence had been continuing the fight on the ground since the capture of Aqaba but was now required to calm Arab rage at these revelations.
Murphy calls attention to the negotiating skills of Lawrence and others who managed to keep the Arabs on the Allied side despite them having been offended by Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration, and despite bribes they’d been offered to switch to the Turkish side.
It may have helped that the Allies captured Jerusalem on December 9, 1917, which made it obvious the Ottomans were still on the way out.
In addition, American ‘soft power’ played a pivotal role, when President Woodrow Wilson declared in his ’14 Points’ speech a month later that, among his aims for the end of the war, should be:
“(That) the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.”
America, the Arabs hoped, would be a friend after the war was done.
The end in sight
1918 began with renewed vigour for the Allied-Arab cause.
Tactics were also being upgraded on the ground, with Rolls-Royce armoured cars being used more frequently. One driver remembered that Lawrence, a speed junkie, urged him on and on until the armoured car they were in hit 113 kph (70 miles per hour).
The armoured cars were later used in raids, especially in the summer, after the spring had seen the war see-saw back and forth, and the German Spring Offensive had pulled support units away from Allenby’s force to the Western Front.
But Lawrence’s revolt would not be slowed. In just May of 1918, 25 bridges were destroyed along the Hejaz railway.
And that was itself just a precursor to what was coming next. As Murphy explains:
“In one of the most spectacular attacks, on 8 August 1918, Major Robin Buxton and his contingent of the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) captured the station at Mudawwarah. (It) was heavily defended and when the ICC had cleared all but one of the Turkish redoubts, RAF planes that were in support bombed the final position and forced its surrender. It is an indication of the level to which the desert forces had evolved by this stage of the war.”
The picture below illustrates the battle in more depth.
The objective, the Mudawwarah railway station, is the building shown top right. Previous attacks on it had been repulsed, but not this time.
This particular attack was led by Major Robin Buxton, who is the officer cresting the bank holding his Webley revolver.
In support were Lewis machine gun teams, shown to Buxton’s right, and, later in the day, the RAF (shown above the Lewis gunner’s head).
These men became part of Lawrence’s campaign in Arabia later in the war. They had been yeomanry (volunteer cavalry) but were retrained as camel-mounted infantry, moving on the animals between battles before dismounting to fight on foot.
The following month, Allenby launched his campaign in Syria, the Megiddo offensive.
Notable during this phase of the Arab revolt is the fact that things took a particularly brutal turn at a village called Tafas.
Turkish troops are known to have massacred civilians in reprisal for attacks at nearby Deraa.
(Incidentally, the Turks are also known to have committed the 20th Century’s first genocide, the Armenian Massacres, beginning around the time of the start of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. However, the Turkish government still disputes this).
What may have also happened at Tafas is Allied war crimes.
Lawrence later said that he gave a ‘no prisoners’ order before his men engaged Austrian and German troops fighting along with the Turks.
Consequently, those who surrendered were stabbed or shot upon having done so.
What’s more, about 250 men, including some of the German and Austrian troops, who were captured alive may have been machine-gunned.
Murphy says it’s not clear if Lawrence sanctioned this, as he claimed in a letter to one of his brothers. However, he certainly did claim in ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ that:
“In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony.”
Murphy theorises that a rape that may have been committed on Lawrence when he was briefly in captivity at Deraa in 1917 could have played a role in brutalising him. (This, however, has been disputed by some historians).
Living in the shadow of the revolt, and of Sykes-Picot
After the Megiddo campaign, the Turkish line was rolled up and smashed relatively easily, with resistance melting away as it became clear to the Ottomans that the game was up. They were granted an armistice on October 31.
Though it would not end all Turkish resistance until early 1919.
Turkish resistance and Western imperialist intentions aside, Arabic forces also went on fighting amongst themselves.
Emir Feisal may have done much of the fighting with Lawrence, and represented the Hashemites at the 1919 peace conference, but he was not the only major player in Arabia.
Just as Lawrence had made contact with Feisal in late 1916, the British government had sent another Arabist, Harry St John Philby, to meet Abdulaziz ibn Saud:
“For Philby, Ibn Saud seemed to be the leader most capable of uniting the ruling Arabia and, although vehemently opposed by Lawrence, it was Philby’s view that eventually held sway with Government leaders in Britain. The Hashemites themselves were divided and could not resist the force of emerging Saudi power in Arabia. Despite the wartime assurances of the Allies governments, the Hashemites were left to fend for themselves in the face of increasing Saudi opposition.”
It was, as we know, Ibn Saud who established control of much of Arabia in the mid-1920s. (Saudi Arabia would officially be formed in 1932).
What is significant about this to modern-day westerners is not Ibn Saud so much as the political alliance formed by the House of Saud with the Wahhabi tribe in the 18th Century.
The ideology thus brought into the Saudi Kingdom, known by some as Salafism, is more generally called Wahhabism.
This strict fundamentalist view of Islam has been claimed by the European Parliament and the US government to be “a source of global terrorism” in that it has inspired ISIS. (It’s also claimed to have inspired Al-Qaeda).
For his part, Feisal tried repeatedly to become recognised as the king of Syria instead, but the French refused to allow it, sticking doggedly to their claims in Sykes-Picot. Things came to a head at the Battle of Maysalun in 1920.
There was though, unfortunately for the Arab cause, no contest. Outnumbered three to one, and outmatched by tanks and aircraft, Feisal was promptly defeated.
Instead, he would come to prominence as the king of Iraq, something for which he was recommended by Lawrence.
He would oversee the country’s independence from Britain in 1932 only to die rather prematurely at the age of 48 the following year.
As for Transjordan (i.e. Palestine and Jordan), the other area of British control, the history of this area would also have ramifications for the present day:
“(Palestine) was governed by Britain… and became the focus of a new phase of Jewish settlement in the decades that followed. This process was in keeping with assurances made by Britain from the Balfour Declaration onwards. By 1935, over 60,000 Jewish settlers had settled in Palestine. The subsequent tensions that developed between the Jewish and Palestinian communities destabilized the region and this remains the case up to today.”
As for the man at the heart of the campaign, Lawrence soon became disenchanted with what he saw as political betrayals of the Arabs, particularly the Hashemites and Feisal.
Having survived the dangers of war and the desert, it would be his love of speed that would kill him. At the age of 46, Lawrence crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home.
The 5’5” insurgency leader has since, of course, become larger than life after having been immortalised by the 6’2” Peter O’Toole in 1962s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
His resting place is in sharp contrast to the majestic treatment he received in the film - he is today buried in a quiet churchyard in the tiny village of Moreton, Dorset.
To learn more about the real Lawrence and his mission in the Middle East, read ‘The Arab Revolt 1916-18: Lawrence sets Arabia ablaze’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, both by David Murphy. For more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.