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Perspective: Lowell Thomas on Akaba

Excerpt from With Lawrence in Arabia by Lowell Thomas, published by Doubleday, New York, N.Y., 1924

Chapter VII: The Battle At The Wells Of Abu El Lissal

“Thoroughly frightened by the news of Arab victories circulated purposely by Lawrence’s secret agents, the Turks, panic stricken fled back to defend their base at Medina and to defend the railway, which was their sole line of communication with Syria and Turkey.

In the North of Holy Arabia, near the head of the Gulf of Akaba, the Turks had another garrison far more important than any as yet taken in the campaign … Before Feisal’s followers could hope to sweep their ancient enemy out of all the Hedjaz, … their important stronghold at the head of the Gulf must be accounted for.

Of all the strategic places along the west coast of Arabia, the most important from a military standpoint is the ancient seaport of Akaba, once the chief navel base of king Solomon’s fleet, and also one of the places where the Prophet Mohammed preached and made his headquarter. For any Army attempting to invade Egypt or strike at the Suez Canal from the east, Akaba must be the left flank, as it must be the right flank for any army setting out from Egypt to invade Palestine or Syria.

It was Lawrence’s intention to capture Akaba, and make it the base for an Arab invasion of Syria! This was a truly ambitious and portentous plan.

On June 18th, 1917, with only eight Hundred Bedouins of the Toweiha tribe.  Two hundred of the Sherart, and ninety of the Kawachiba, he set out from El Wejh for the head of the Gulf of Akaba, three hundred miles farther north. This force was headed by Shereef Nasir, a remote descendant of Mohammed and one of Feisal’s ablest lieutenants. As usual Lawrence went along to advise the Arab commander: he always went along to advise the Arab commander; he always made it a point to act through one of the native leaders, and much of his success may be attributed to his tact in making the Arabs believe that they were conducting the campaign themselves.

The advance on Akaba is an illustration of how ably Lawrence handled Feisal’s Army, in spite of his complete lack of military training and experience. In order to outwit the Turkish commander at Medina he led a flying column nearly one thousand miles to the North of El Wejh: but instead of going right up the coast towards Akaba, he led them far into the interior, across the Hedjaz Railway not far from Medina, where they blew up several miles of track on the way, then through the Wadi Sirhan, famous for its venomous reptiles, where some of his men died of snake-bite…blew up a bridge near Deraa, the most important railway junction just south of Damascus, and mined another several hundred miles behind the Turkish front line trenches, near Syrian industrial city of Homs.

It was possible for Lawrence to conduct such raids on such a grand scale only because of the extraordinary mobility of his forces… When they saw an opportunity to dash in and make a surprise attack, they would do so, and then dash back into the desert where the Turks dared not follow because they neither had the camels, the intimate knowledge of the desert, nor the phenomenal powers of endurance which the Bedouins possessed.

For these expeditions, far to the North and within territory occupied by the Turks, Lawrence divided his men into several different raiding parties, in order to confuse and bewilder the enemy…. It is sixty miles from Akaba to the Hedjaz Railway; and in order to prevent the Turks from guessing that Akaba was his real objective, he made a feint against Maan, the most important fortified town on the railway between Medina and the Dead Sea. At the same time, seventeen miles southwest of Maan, he swooped down upon Fuweilah Station and wiped out its garrison. When news reached the Turks, they dispatched one of their crack regiments in pursuit, but when the regiment reached the Station only the vultures were found in possession; Lawrence and his raiders had disappeared into the blue again and so far as the Turks knew, they had been swallowed up by the desert…

By this time Lawrence and Shareef Nasir had been joined by the Beni Atiyeh tribe, who supplied them with four thousand fresh fighting men, and also by the Abu Tayi section of the Howeitat tribe, made up of some of the finest warriors in Arabia, under the leadership of Auda, a veritable human tiger who was Lawrence’s intimate companion from them onward.

The pursuing Turkish column decided to spend the night in the bottom of a valley near some wells at Abu el Lissal, fourteen miles from Maan, where I camped with Lawrence and Feisal some months later. Lawrence, in the meantime, left his column and galloped off across the desert, to see if he could locate the Turkish Battalion. As soon as he found it he hurried back for his men, brought them on to the heights around Abu el Lissal, and by dawn had the Turks completely surrounded.

For twelve hours the Arabs sniped at the Turks from their positions on the hills around the wells, picking off many of them but Lawrence knew full well that, they could easily fight their way out through his thin line of Bedouins. The Turk commander, however, lacked the courage. So at sunset Auda abu Tayi, with fifty of his follow tribesman crept up to within 300 yard of the Turks and after a moments rest boldly pushed out from under cover and galloped straight into the enemy camp. So surprised were the Turks by his audacity that when the old Bedouin chieftain crashed into their midst their ranks broke, but not before bullets had smashed Auda Abu Tayi’s field glasses, pierced his revolver – holster, nicked the sword he was holding in his hand and killed two horses under him. In spite of these incidents the old Arab was delighted and maintained afterward that it was the best scrap he had had since Ramadan.

Lawrence, who was watching from the hill on the opposite side of the basin, dashed down the slope as fast as his dromedary could carry him and charged into the midst of the now demoralized Turks, followed by four hundred other Bedouins on camels. For twenty minutes a thousand Turks and Arabs were mixed together in a wild, frenzied mass, all shooting madly. In the charge Lawrence accidentally shot his own camel through the head with his automatic: it dropped dead, and he was hurled from his saddle and lay stunned in front of it, while his followers charged right over him. Had he not been thrown directly in front of his mount he would have been trampled to death by the onrushing camels.

The Turks made their fatal error in scattering, just as Lawrence had surmised they would do, and battle ended in a massacre. Although many escaped in the darkness, the Arabs killed and captured more then the total number of their own force. The next morning more then 300 dead were counted around the water-hole. Most of the prisoners were rounded up by Shereef Nasir and Lawrence, because the rest of the Bedouins dashed off to the Turkish tents, as usual thinking of nothing but loot. The desire to loot is an all-consuming passion with Bedouins and is not considered a form of stealing by them but is listed among the cardinal virtues. …

Chapter VIII: The Capture Of King Solomon’s Ancient Seaport

Lawrence had left El Wejh, hundreds of miles to the south, with but two months rations. After giving a part of his supplies to the captured Turks, the food situation became critical. Nevertheless the half starved Arab army, led by this youngster, continued its march through the jagged, barren mountains that bite the North Arabian Sky.  The news of victories traveled ahead of them and when Lawrence arrived at Gueirra, a Turkish post in King Solomon’s Mountains, twenty-five miles from Akaba, at the entrance to an extremely narrow pass known as the Wadi Ithm, the Gueirra garrison came out and laid down their arms without firing a shot. He then proceeded to march his Bedouins on, down the Wadi Ithm to Kethura, another outpost guarding the only land approach to Akaba. There Lawrence charged another garrison and captured several hundred more men. …Trekking through the gorge they came to an ancient well at Khadra where two thousand years before the Romans had constructed a stone dam across the valley, the remains of which can still be seen today. It constituted the outermost defense of Akaba. By the time the Shereefian army arrived in front of this barricade the Bedouins of the Amran Darausha and Neiwat tribes, who lived in the desert near Akaba, had heard of the great victories at Fuweilah and Abu el Lissal and were scampering across the lava mountains by the hundreds to join the advancing Arab forces.

The overwhelming defeat of the Turkish battalion at Abu el Lissal was really the first phase of the cattle of Akaba. The second consisted in the spectacular maneuver when Lawrence accomplished what the Turks thought impossible and succeeded in leading his scraggly undisciplined horde of Bedouins through the precipitous King Solomon Mountains over the old Roman wall, past bewildered Turkish artillerymen, and down into Akaba on the morning of July 6th 1917. But to save the Akaba garrison from massacre Lawrence and Nasir had to labor with their fierce followers from sunset to dawn.

Akaba is picturesquely located at the southern end of the Wide Wadi Araba, perhaps the driest and most desolate valley in the world, which runs down from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Akaba.

After the capture of Akaba, Lawrence and his men lived for ten days on unripe dates and on the meat of camels which had been killed in the battle of Abu el Lissan. They were compelled to kill their own riding camels at the rate of 2 a day to save themselves and their hundreds of prisoners. Then in order to keep his Army from starving, Lawrence jumped on his racing camel and rode continuously for 22 hour across the uninhabited mountains and desert valleys of the Sinai Peninsula. Completely worn out after this record ride…. he turned his camel over to an MP at one of the street corners in Port Tewfik, Suez, walked a little unsteadily into the Sinai Hotel and ordered a bath. For three hours he remained in the tub with a procession of Berberine boys serving him cool drinks.  That day he declares, was the nearest approach to the Mohammedan idea of Paradise that he ever expects to experience. From Suez he went on to Ismailia, the midway station on the Canal.

Lawrence’s arrival in Arabia had been unheralded. Even GHQ in Cairo were ignorant as to his movements. His exploits first became known when he met General Allenby at Ismailia on the arrival of this new leader who had just been assigned to take command of the Egyptian Expeditionary forces.

The incident was dramatic in its simplicity.…

The station was crowed with Staff-officers and a throng of vociferous natives who were welcoming Allenby, when out of the mob stepped this barefooted fair-faced boy in Bedouin garb.

“What news have you brought,” asked Allenby.

In even low tones without any more expression on his face than if he were conveying compliments from the Shereef, Lawrence reported that the Arabs had captured the ancient seaport at the head of the Gulf of Akaba. He gave all the credit for the victory to the Arabs. Making no reference to the part he himself had played in the affair. He conveyed the impression that he was acting as a courier, although as a matter of fact the capture of that important point was due entirely to his own leadership and strategical genius.

The General was immensely pleased.

As a result of Lawrence’s victory at Akaba and his visit to Egypt, the British decided to back the Arabs to the limit, in their campaign to win complete independence. The young archaeologist was sent back to Akaba with unlimited resources, and within a few months he had conducted the campaign in such a brilliant manner that he was raised in rank from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel, despite the fact that he hardly knew the difference between “right incline” and “present arms.””