A best-selling memoir and a brilliant biopic can do wonders for a person’s place in posterity, and the stirring legend of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia to you – definitely owes something to the fictions perpetrated by both. This is generally accepted by modern historians, and has prompted an understandable tendency to play down both the influence Lawrence exerted on the Arab Revolt and the value of his military exploits.
Fair enough, and if all memoirs were treated with the same scepticism we’d be a happier human race, but revisionism (like revolution) has an innate tendency to overshoot. It is true that Arab leaders deserve more credit for their successes than Lawrence himself gave them, and that other British figures at large in the Arab world played important roles in encouraging, fostering and arranging support for the Arab Revolt – but Lawrence was at least partly responsible for some pretty amazing stuff, and shouldn’t be downplayed out of sight.
I mention this because today marks the centenary of the Battle of Aqaba, an engagement that was raised to such improbable glory by memoir and movie that it can be (and sometimes is) dismissed as mythology. To be sure, it wasn’t quite the heroic, crucial victory against massive odds portrayed by David Lean, and Lawrence wasn’t its sole or necessarily its major architect, but it was a very important moment in Arab Revolt’s development as a strategically significant movement, and Lawrence certainly played a resourceful part in making it happen. Before I attempt a moderate, unbiased account of the thing, a little context wouldn’t go amiss.
When I was last there, the Arab Revolt was on the up. From a position of embattled defence against numerically superior Ottoman forces, the Revolt’s principal army had successfully defended the port of Yenbo at the end of 1916, captured the small but important garrison town of Wejh in January and conducted an effective guerilla campaign against Ottoman supply lines to southern Arabia (24 January, 1917: Trains And Boats And Brains).
At this point the Revolt’s two main priorities were maintaining momentum and securing supplies from Britain. Momentum and the high reputation that came with victories were vitally important recruitment tools in a land of war bands whose willingness to fight depended on essentially mediaeval principles of personal loyalty to particular warlords. Military defeat, or even relative inactivity, was always likely to deprive the Revolt’s ‘Sherifian’ leaders of troops and sympathetic help from local populations. Without the help of British weapons, British military advisors and Royal Navy units in the eastern Mediterranean, numbers of troops would hardly matter, because they would be fighting the relatively modern Turkish Army with nothing but swords, spears and the occasional musket.
The extent to which Lawrence was responsible for field commander Prince Feisal’s decision to make a surprise attack on Aqaba remains a matter of opinion, but he certainly played some part in planning a bold enterprise that addressed both priorities. A little-used port at the junction of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia (and now part of Jordan), Aqaba offered a supply route to British bases in both Egypt and Palestine, and could be a base for future Arab Revolt operations in northern Arabia. On the other hand it was well protected from attack by sea, and its desert overland approaches were generally regarded as impassable for attackers, so taking it would be a major boost for the Revolt’s all-important fighting reputation.
Lawrence was among the leaders of a war band that left Wejh on 9 May 1917, at the start of a thousand-kilometre trek to seek approval and assistance for the attack. He helped secure the support of Auda abu Tayi, known (by the British) as the ‘Robin Hood of Arabia’ and the region’s most storied warrior, whose presence helped swell the group’s numbers by about 500 men, most of them mounted. Lawrence also led a diversionary raid into southern Syria – blowing up a bridge in what is now the Lebanon by way of distracting 3,000 Turkish Army regulars stationed at Maan, east of Aqaba – and seems to have been responsible for the decision to attempt the attack on Aqaba by the overland route.
Auda led the party, by now some 5,000 strong, across the desert to Aqaba, and that was the hard part, not least because only about 1,000 Ottoman troops were stationed in or around Aqaba and most of their heavy weaponry was positioned against an attack from the sea. An Arab assault on a fort outside the port on 2 July killed or took prisoner about two-thirds of the garrison, and Auda led a camel charge that overran the port’s sparsely populated inland defences on 6 July. The 300 or so Turkish troops left in Aqaba surrendered without a fight next day. The battle had apparently cost the attackers two casualties, a claim that can never be verified because all Arab manpower figures derive from some kind of guesswork, and the folklore brownie points that came with the victory added around 2,000 more troops to the Revolt’s cause.
Exhausted and hungry after its epic desert sortie, the Arab army was likely to evaporate if it wasn’t supplied in a hurry, and although Lawrence didn’t play much part in the actual fighting around Aqaba he did set off overland for British headquarters in Cairo immediately after the battle. His effort was rewarded by a very positive reception from British c-in-c Allenby, and a rapid supply operation that kept the Arab army intact. Allenby agreed to establish Aqaba as the centre for logistic support of the Revolt’s operations in northern Arabia, and Feisal moved his headquarters there in August.
More importantly from an Arab (or at least a Sherifian) perspective, news of the victory, routinely exaggerated in the telling, boosted support on the ground for the Revolt’s spread into northern Arabia. From now on, a pan-Arabian post-War state seemed within reach to the Revolt’s leaders, as did the more immediate prospect of driving the Ottoman Empire out of the Arab world altogether by sweeping the Revolt into Syria and seizing the main hub of Constantinople’s power in the Middle East, Damascus.
Beyond the Technicolor legend and our national obsession with Lawrence, Aqaba was a watershed in the history of modern Arab independence, and should be celebrated as that… but it was also a fateful turning point in the relationship between modern Arab independence and the British Empire.
As well as supplying the Revolt, Aqaba would soon serve as the eastern base for British advances through Palestine and into Syria, and the British (as well as the French) were very interested in the post-War economic benefits of controlling Damascus. British strategists were happy enough to make promises to Arab leaders about pan-Arabic independence – as they were happy to promise almost anything to any ally or potential ally during this war – but they had no intention of relinquishing their economic ambitions in the region. They were confident that possession of Damascus would secure those ambitions at the post-War conference table, provided they could get to the city ahead of the Arab Revolt.
So capturing Aqaba didn’t just ignite the Revolt in northern Arabia and cement the alliance between its leadership and the British Empire; it turned the unequal allies into unequal rivals. In the short-term, that set up a race to Damascus between Allenby and the Revolt, and once the War was over it inspired a post-War betrayal of the Sherifian cause that, while routine to the great white powers responsible, would have fateful consequences for the future of the world. Important stuff, and for my money well worth a high-concept blockbuster – but I guess it’s short on domestic ‘human interest’ for the heritage market, and it’s way less audience friendly than Anthony Quinn on a camel.