24 JANUARY, 1917: Trains and Boats and Brains

If they left it up to me, the Great War’s interesting moments would crop up once a week, no more or less – but you may have noticed it doesn’t work like that.  If I was doing this by date and looking at the end of the month, I’d probably have to talk about minor German attacks near Riga, aftermath actions further south in Polish Galicia and Romania, minor Western Front skirmishes or the developing British offensive in Mesopotamia, but none of that really cuts the mustard just now.

It’s tempting to edge forward a day and settle for the German naval bombardment of the Suffolk coast shortly before midnight on 25 January 1917, but there’s not a whole lot say about it.  Two nights after the new moon, German destroyers (and according to some reports a submarine) used the darkness to launch a drive-by shelling of Southwold and the nearby village of Wangford.  Some sixty shells were fired but most fell in fields or marshes, and although three buildings, including the local police station, were hit and damaged, nobody was hurt.  With carnage elsewhere at something of a premium, the incident made more of a propaganda splash than many of the similar raids that peppered the British east coast during the War years, decried as a dastardly attack on civilians by the British press, and lauded in Germany as a daring sortie against a ‘fortified place’.  Laughable yes, but a lot of propaganda was (and is), and not so far-fetched if you’ve ever attempted a frontal assault on the beach huts at Southwold.

Come friendly bombs…

Enough of this trivia, let’s get on to some derring-do, because on 24 January 1917 the legend of Lawrence of Arabia received its first kick start when the Arab Revolt captured the Red Sea port of Wejh.  This was a turning point in the Revolt’s fortunes, and therefore in the development of the modern Middle East, a process so warped by the First World War that I make no apology for returning so regularly to the scene of the crimes.

When I last left it alone, back in the autumn of 1916, the Arab Revolt had looked as if it was running out of steam (10 June, 1916: The Great Game).  Its four armies – a total of about 28,000 troops, many of them untrained, primitively armed youths or old men – were clustered within striking range of Ottoman-held Medina.  Ottoman forces had meanwhile reopened the railway further north and were being reinforced for an attack on the port of Yenbo, 230km southwest of Medina and defended by some 8,000 troops under the command of Prince Feisal, third son of the Revolt’s leader, Sherif Hussein Bin Ali.  Enter Thomas Edward Lawrence, an academically inclined junior British intelligence officer stationed in Cairo.

As part of a British liaison delegation sent to evaluate the Revolt’s progress, Lawrence arrived at Yenbo in October 1916, and took it upon himself to venture inland for meetings with Feisal, whose army was stationed some distance from the port.  The meetings went well, so well that Lawrence reappeared at Yenbo in early November as Feisal’s friend and official British advisor.  At this point, if you haven’t seen the movie, I should mention that Lawrence was one weird individual, and that nobody has ever been quite able to separate the facts of his military achievements from the myths created by Arab lore and his own, hugely successful memoir.  It can be said without risk of exaggeration that – for a man with no previous experience of or apparent inclination to field operations – he proved an energetic, daring, courageous, often inspiring and occasionally brilliant field commander.

Doesn’t look particularly heroic or weird, does he?

By mid-November, Feisal’s force had been provided with modern armament by the British, but Ottoman forces from Medina had outflanked Yenbo’s forward defences, leaving about 5,000 of Feisal’s troops holding a defensive line in front of the town.  Another flank manoeuvre scattered more than half of these in early December, and Feisal was forced to retreat into the town, but when all looked lost the Royal Navy came to the rescue.  A British monitor – essentially a big raft mounted with heavy artillery – and four smaller vessels took station just offshore, and trained their guns on a heavily search-lit area in front of Yenbo’s walls. The prospect of being pulverised was enough to persuade the attackers to withdraw, and a triumph proclaimed throughout the Arab world in typically heroic terms brought an upturn in recruitment to Feisal’s ranks.

Lawrence had played a lively part in the defence of Yenbo, credited with the rapid and effective reorganisation of its fortifications, and he seems to have been the moving force behind Feisal’s decision to spring a major tactical surprise in its aftermath.  So far, the Arab Revolt had been almost exclusively focused on Medina, the most important Islamic shrine after Mecca and the centre of Hussein Bin Ali’s authority, but on 3 January Feisal’s main force – now swollen to about 11,000 men, half of them mounted – began a march on the garrison town of Wejh, some 300km north of Yenbo.

This was a sophisticated operation, designed to demonstrate the breadth of the Arab Revolt’s appeal but again dependent on British support, as organised through Lawrence.  Feisal’s main army incorporated four distinct tribal groups, and was shadowed by a British troopship converted as a floating supply train.  Two more tribes were represented in a secondary force of a few hundred troops travelling by sea, escorted by four British gunships and a seaplane carrier, for an amphibious landing north of Wejh.  Feisal’s brother Ali meanwhile moved his forces up from positions southeast of Medina to keep the city’s Ottoman garrison occupied.

Given that Wejh held only 1,200 Turkish Army regulars, this was a pretty big sledgehammer for a very small nut.  The garrison at Wejh duly gave up the fight in a hurry, so that by the time Feisal’s force arrived on 24 January the town had already fallen to the amphibious operation, launched several hours earlier.

Not much of a battle and a very easy victory, but the capture of Wejh did wonders for Feisal and the Arab Revolt.  Feisal found his reputation as a warlord elevated to the kind of heights only societies with a tradition of dramatic oral networking can conceive, and maintained his headquarters at Wejh for the next six months.  He used the town as a base to spread the Revolt into northern Arabia with a series of raids against the Damascus railway, a guerrilla campaign that ran rings round Ottoman reserves sent from Medina and Damascus, won growing and faithful support from local populations, and transformed the Revolt from a regional uprising of uncertain importance into the acknowledged emblem of Arab independence.

I know that seems like a whole lot of impact for a few attacks on tracks, but railways really mattered in 1917, and they mattered even more in Arabia.  Without the Hejaz Railway running across hundreds of kilometres of desert, and with the sea lanes dominated by Allied warships, Ottoman troop movements and supply operations in Arabia became snail-like or impossible, leaving rebels free to target isolated and often poorly motivated garrisons.

The lifeline

For all their success in the Hejaz during the first half of 1917, Lawrence and Feisal were keenly aware that the Revolt risked stagnation if it lost momentum and that its hopes of northern expansion depended on British support.  Lawrence also recognised that British plans to invade Palestine threatened to downgrade the importance of the Revolt to the Allies, and that the lands north of Sinai stood little chance of securing independence unless Arab forces reached them before the British Army.  Still a restless and ambitious influence over Feisal, he planned to propel the Revolt forward with another surprise move in the summer.  It would come in the heat of July and it would be a doozer, so feel free to watch this space.

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