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Perspective: Aldington on Akaba

Excerpt from Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, 1955

“It was the capture of Akaba which first brought Lawrence out of the obscurity of the Arab Bureau, and in view of the extensive claims made by himself and his friends, certain questions arise which are worth discussing even if defiant conclusions are hard to reach. Was Lawrence the originator of the “strategy of occupying Akaba?” Was Lawrence the originator of the idea of taking it from inland with the Howeitat? Was Lawrence the commander of the expedition, which set out from Wejh with Nasir? And was he “the general” who really planned and directed their operations?….

Two successful landing assaults were conducted at Akaba with out casualties before Lawrence ever saw the Hejaz; one (February 1915) by the French Cruiser Desaix, and the other (April 1916) by a British Cruiser whose landing party of 50 men destroyed mines and two small vessels brought overland, and took 12 prisoners. On each occasion the garrison fled….

Akaba was being used to launch mines on the Red Sea and might possibly even be used by a submarine. An immense amount of shipping went through the Suez Canal. The threat had raised marine insurance rates in the Red Sea from one half to two percent. Hence the two navel raids….

And as early as the 6th of July 1916 the War Committee in London had ordered the occupation of Akaba but the Foreign Office intervened…. Their Hashemite allies were extremely suspicious of their new British friends…. King Hussein refused to allow the landing of any European troops.

Akaba, Robert Graves assures us (in Lawrence and the Arabs, 1927), was “so strongly protected by hills, elaborately fortified for miles back.” That a division of Allied troops could not take it ….

Lawrence himself gave out that Akaba was another Gallipoli.…

“The port of Akaba” he says in a chapter heading, “was so naturally so strong that it could not be taken, only by surprise from inland.” Yet it had been taken from the sea twice already during the war. As for the ‘elaborate fortifications.’ for ‘miles back’, they never existed….

The build up of the taking of Akaba is even more vociferous than that of the Hejaz railroad demolitions and of course is almost impossible to check since Lawrence is practically the only witness. But the preliminary drums beat loud. Akaba, Lowell Thomas tells us, was the most important strategic place north of Aden, with a large garrison “far more important” than any yet captured, (The Akaba garrison was 300)….

Graves beats the tom-tom as loudly as his American predecessor “there was a need for true epic action if Akaba was to be taken” he assets, “for it was a feat beyond the scope of unheroic twentieth –century soldiering. Well it hadn’t been beyond small landing parties of British and French sailors….

It seems as if this is the moment to take a look at the Arab view of these transactions. Mr. Antonius devotes several years of research to his book, The Arab Awakening, traveled and enquired in Arabia, knew and had the confidence of Feisal. While he is no more infallible than any other “authority” he undoubtedly gives us the Arab, probably King Feisal’s version. Auda, who is described at some length, is said by Antonius to have “sent a thrill through the camp” on his arrival, and it is added that he and Feisal soon came to an understanding: Auda gave Feisal a sweeping promise that, for his part, his only feud now was with the Turks; and in the same breath, he proposed an attack on Akaba which, he boasted, he and his tribesmen could capture unaided.

As this proposal was in harmony with Feisal’s own plans, he at once agreed, and Auda there upon arranged to collect his followers, (he was sheik of 200 tents of the Howeitat) and to ‘Storm the Turkish posts guarding Akaba.’ It just so happened that just at this time, Feisal was sending off a political mission ‘to preach insurrection’ in Syria: and chose Nesib el Bekri as his political emissary. Feisal’s own cousin, Sharif Nasir, was ‘to lead the expedition as his personal representative.’

So far no mention of Lawrence, but at this point ‘Lawrence asked to be allowed to go, offering his services as an emissary to the Arab leaders in Damascus.’ Thus, according to the Arab account, Lawrence did not plan the Akaba raid, but Auda spontaneously suggested it to Feisal, and Lawrence merely went along on his own suggestion as a volunteer, not to lead the fighting men but to carry Feisal’s instructions to Damascus. Antonius then gives an account of Lawrence’s movements and the people he met, which corresponds very closely with Lawrence’s suppressed report to the Arab Bureau which was first published by David Garnett in the Letters after Antonius’ book appeared….

The Akaba fights are described very briefly in this (Lawrence’s) suppressed report, which harks back to political matters, and ventures the opinion that, with sufficient material assistance, dispositions of Arab forces could be made by the end of August….

And after their victory their troubles were not over, the food at Akaba is said to have been insufficient. Lawrence determined to make his way at once to Egypt to ask for supplies, and may have foreseen the advantages of personally bringing the news that Ababa was taken and giving it his own words. He set out with a small party on the old Egyptian pilgrim road; and in Seven Pillars Lawrence says that at 3 p.m. on the 8th of July, 49 hours after leaving Akaba, the party had covered the 257 kilometers to Shatt, on the side of the Canal opposite Suez. (Author’s note adds) So dated in Seven Pillars and in Liddell Hart, but Lawrence’s original suppressed report says he arrive July 9th. So the journey really took 73 hours. Baedekar (1912) gives the distance as about 60 camel hours.…

This (suppressed) report is dated Cairo, 10th July 1917, obviously written the day he arrived and containing his full report, as it goes down to his arrival at Shatt on the 9th of July. But later on, in August, the Arab Bureau published another and very different report, describing at length and with picturesque phrases the purely military operations from June 18th on. From which it looks as if the original political report was suppressed by the Arab bureau, and a military one substituted for reasons best known to the. Clearly, it was on the second report that Lawrence’s supposed military conduct of the expedition was based….

The Arab Bureau made the most of this success of Hogarth’s protégé, a success which they entirely attribute to him….

Lawrence afterwards confessed that his original report had been suppressed from publication in the Arab Bulletin and from the knowledge of the War Office and Foreign Office, while his claims to have conceived and directed the expedition are denied by Antonius on the authority of Arab sources, including King Feisal….

In conclusion, let me call the reader’s attention to the remarks of Antonius [The Arab Awakening by George Antonius]: “His (Lawrence’s) summing up is that ‘Akaba had been taken on my plan by my effort’ – a claim that will perplex the historian…. The Arab evidence is that the plan was first suggested to Feisal by Auda at their first meeting at Wejh; that Lawrence was not made privy to it until Feisal had given his consent; and that it was carried into execution by Auda and his Howeitat tribes men independently of all outside help…. Sharif Nasir and Lawrence had accompanied the expedition and taken some part in the fighting, but neither as leaders nor advisors.””