The Battle of Aqaba: 100 Years On

An analysis of the battle that birthed 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Photograph: 'Camels in the Desert'

A century ago, this very month, one of the bloodiest battles in human history began. The Battle of Passchendaele began on July 31st, 1917. It raged on in all its carnage for three long months. The objective was the capture of the main ridge lines, to both the East and the South, of the Belgian city of Ypres in Western Flanders. It saw the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of men on both sides. One hundred years on, historians continue to scrutinise and write in great detail about this bloody campaign, and understandably so.

Halfway across the globe, that same month a battle would take place that would see the tide of war changed dramatically for the Allies. The year 1917 was one of difficulty, deadlock, and disaster for the Allies in Europe. It saw many striking and heartening successes for the cause in the Near East. The first of which would be the small, but significant Battle of Aqaba. As the first real victory for the British in the Middle East, the Aqaba offensive has the air of legend surrounding it.

‘EL ORENS’: THE PROPHET FROM THE WEST

July 6th, 1917 was the day that the battle commenced. The fight took place in Aqaba, a Red Sea port in what is modern day Jordan. The skirmish between the Arab forces and the Ottoman Empire was a decisive turning point in the Great War.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, a junior member of British intelligence and expert on Arabia, was recruited as an adviser. The Commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, General Archibald Murray, tasked him with finding a leader for the Arab Forces. The man Lawrence would choose was Emir Feisal, a former Ottoman politician and third son of Hussein Bin Ali; the Grand Sharif of Mecca. He would evaluate Feisal and the Arabs, gain their support and attempt to unite them. The plan was for Lawrence to muster a true Arab force of rogue Bedouin tribesmen robust enough to attack the Turks. The group would become, as many historians have charted, a signature achievement of guerrilla tactics in the history of warfare.

A NEW FRONT LINE

The Middle East had, thus far, been neglected as a military zone of operations and therefore strange tactical land. Lawrence himself wrote in his epic book, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, published after the war of the apparent disinterest of the British in his previous battles with the Arabs against the Turks; noting that the skirmishes in the Middle East were little more than “a sideshow to a sideshow”.

The Allied forces noted Aqaba as of vital interest due to its proximity to the Suez Canal, the Hejaz Railway and the left flank of the Beersheba army. Utilised by the Turks effectively, the city could be used as a flanking point, to manoeuvre their men into Palestine. Interestingly the city port had previously been a point of contention between the British and Ottomans in 1906 when the two nearly went to war over it.

AN OPPORTUNITY MISSED?

The port was considered for a joint Anglo-French invasion in January 1917 by French Colonel Eduoard Bremond. Bremond plan was to capture the port, advance up the Wadi Itm to deliver a crushing blow to the Turks based in Maan. After analysis, General Murray strongly opposed Bremond’s idea as unrealistic, fearing another disaster similar to that of Gallipoli. Lawrence openly opposed Bremond’s assault plan. He could not support the motion due to Emir Feisal’s demand that French forces remain firmly out of Arab affairs. Feisal’s concern was of French imperialism, along with the French demand for the retention of land it gained in the Middle East after the war.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

The city itself was a little obstacle. It was a challenge to reach by land, and thus thinly guarded. The lack of a harbour and suitable landing beaches made an amphibious assault far more challenging. The only option was thus by land. For the excellent chance of a successful attack, Lawrence sought to approach Aqaba from the weakest defended Eastern side.

A MINOR SETBACK

However, there was one small disadvantage to Lawrence’s plan. To reach Aqaba’s Eastern side unnoticed he and his Arab troop would have to cross over 600 miles of scorching desert. Lawrence led an initial fifty-man scouting team around the Nefud Desert, which was to be followed by the rest of the melting pot of tribesmen. Beginning in May, the journey would take two months, and despite the scorching heat the group encountered few obstacles; losing more men to snake and scorpion attacks than to enemy action.

Fearing that the Turks may have heard of his planned attack of Aqaba, Lawrence attempted to dupe them into believing that the actual objective was Damascus, not Aqaba. To do this, he conducted several surprise attacks on the Hejaz railroad along the way. The group then reached Deraa and proceeded to capture a Turkish railway station there. However, this confirmed for the Turks that Damascus was not, in fact, the exact target, but that the Arab rebel group was heading towards Aqaba. 400 Turkish cavalrymen were sent to hunt them; they were unsuccessful.

THE BATTLE COMMENCES

Upon reaching the outskirts of Aqaba, the fighting began. A group of separate Arab rebels had managed to seize a Turkish blockhouse. In less than 24 hours the Turkish recaptured it and slaughtered those same Arabs in retaliation. On hearing this upon arrival, Lawrence’s 600 strong group attacked the blockhouse. Hours of sniping Turks, followed by a headlong charge ensued. The charge was a success. Resistance was weaker than expected.

After hours of fighting, a small band of British navy ships arrived off the coast and began to shell the remaining Turkish emplacements. Lawrence’s men totalled over 5’000 with the help of local Bedouin forces who joined the growing attack. The men sliced headlong through the Turkish defensive line and approached the city gates, and the garrison was not long to surrender.

A BLOODY REVENGE

The Arabs in revenge for their fallen brothers brutally massacred those Turks they caught. Many Ottomans fled in the face of defeat. 300 Ottomans died. 160 taken prisoner. Only 2 Arab tribesmen killed. Lawrence nearly died during the fight all be it by his hand. He had accidentally shot the camel he was riding in the head with his pistol. He escaped with only a few bumps and bruises.

The actual seizure of Aqaba was, according to Lawrence “anti-climactic”. The Ottoman garrison commander surrendered later the same day. The battle concluded with “barely a shot fired”. In celebration, Lawrence along with two guides rode across 150 miles of Sinai Desert to report to the British in Port Suez of the success of the attack. Upon hearing this news, British troops landed supplies to Aqaba before the Ottomans could retaliate.

THE AFTERMATH

The strategic importance of the battle has been downplayed in the annals of history. The victory at Aqaba was the greatest the Arabs would achieve throughout the war and allowed for the movement of the Arab army further north. It enabled them to meet the British military.

Operations resumed, and vital logistical support gained. The victory removed all danger for the British communications in the Sinai Peninsula, vastly reducing the pressure faced by the British in Palestine. The shock of defeat spooked the Turks into diverting troops away from the British front; bolstering the lines under attack by Lawrence and the Arab force. The result of this isolated those Turks remaining in Medina.

A NEW PATHS OPENS

Overall the capture of Aqaba opened a vital new pathway into Syria and Jordan and allowed for a third attempt at taking Gaza. Word of the success of the raid soon spread, resulting in a significant surge of men joining Lawrence’s rebels in furthering the charge north against the Turks.

Their incredibly efficient use of cavalry demonstrated to the Allied Generals the real potential in the use of mounted troops. In his 1934 ‘War Memoirs’ David Lloyd George reflected upon Lawrence’s successful strategy. He concluded that had a more elite cavalry been used in Flanders “things may have been different”.

A HOPE IGNITED

The victory at Aqaba shined a bright spot in the Allies’ recent gloomy track record of operational endeavours. The encouragement and morale boost from the outcome at Aqaba was vital. With the losing of Baghdad in March, two major battles in Gaza, the failure of the Nivelle offensive, the mutiny of French troops at Chemin des Dames, the collapse of Russia after its February Revolution, the massacres at Passchendaele and the Italian humiliation and defeat at Caporetto, the victory at Aqaba was a welcome scrap of news.

Lawrence used the victory at Aqaba to route for the Arab cause of independence and freedom to Sir Edmund Allenby. Understandably impressed, Allenby pledged immediate financial support for the Arab cause which rocketed to $500’000 per month, or $2 billion annually. These funds proved vital in the continued Arab fight against the Turks.

BROKEN PROMISES AND A BROKEN MAN

It was at the conclusion of the Battle of Aqaba that the legend of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was solidified. A title that has proved worthy to some and controversial to others. There can be no doubt as to Lawrence’s leadership, courage, initiative and inspirational actions. The broken promises of independence and freedom made by the British weighed heavily on Lawrence. The shame, the growing legend and the wide spread renown drove him to seek anonymity in the post-war world. He felt he had betrayed Feisal and the Arab men of Arabia. It would be an irremovable feeling, as much as he tried to forget it.