Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Aqaba (1917)

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Though not a particularly large battle (the Arab rebels had about 5000 men with them against less than a thousand Ottoman defenders), the Battle of Aqaba was important because it came shortly after the Arabs had suffered their first serious defeat of their World War I revolt, and because it allowed the Arabs to link with British forces in Egypt and begin receiving British weapons, supplies, and money to support their rebellion. It’s also noteworthy for its role in turning the real-life British Captain T. E. Lawrence into the half-legendary Lawrence of Arabia.

Historians, it seems to me, are somewhat divided on Lawrence’s proper place in the history of British and Arab involvement in World War I. It’s true that he made key inroads with the Hashemite clan in the Hijaz and that Edmund Allenby, the commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, later called Lawrence “the mainspring of the Arab movement” and credited his strategy with the revolt’s success. But it’s also true that Lawrence was just one of several British officers who were sent to Arabia to cultivate relationships with and serve as advisers to those Arab leaders London believed could be convinced to turn on the Ottomans.

The thing is, none of those other officers became famous for writing about their experiences the way Lawrence did, and consequently none of them had major Hollywood films made about them. There’s a very strong case to be made that British archeologist-turned-spy Gertrude Bell was more important to the success of the Arab Revolt than any of the British officers who participated, including Lawrence. Bell eventually did get a major Hollywood film made about her, but unlike Lawrence’s movie, hers wasn’t any good. So Lawrence’s legacy as the man behind the Arab Revolt is part fair interpretation of history, but also part showbiz hype.

The Arab revolt started off with a bang in 1916. The rebels captured Jeddah in June, Mecca in July, and several towns along Arabia’s Red Sea coast in the subsequent weeks. They were also able to carry out frequent raids against the Ottomans’ Hejaz Railway, which ran from Medina all the way north to Damascus. But an Arab assault on Medina in October was thoroughly beaten back by the city’s Ottoman defenders, who then looked poised to go back on the offensive. The Arabs cast about for a new target, in part so as not to lose momentum.

Emir Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca and overall commander of the Arab army, set his sights on Aqaba. At the time Aqaba wasn’t much more than a village, but its location, on the Red Sea between Arabia and Egypt, would allow the Arab army to link up with British forces to the west. Aqaba also had strategic importance to Britain, as it was the last Red Sea port still under Ottoman control, and if the Ottomans kept it they’d be able to harass the flank of any British column that tried to advance north from Egypt along the Mediterranean coast.

Lawrence was able to make contact with a northern Bedouin chieftain named Auda Abu Tayi, who agreed to lead the attack on Aqaba with a large number of the men under his command. Lawrence also drew up the plans for the attack, which involved misdirection on two fronts. First, Lawrence himself rode north and sabotaged a bridge in Lebanon to convince the Ottomans that the Arab rebel army was further north, advancing toward Damascus. Second, he set upon a land assault rather than an amphibious attack. This was crucial because most of the Ottomans’ defensive positions in Aqaba were oriented toward the sea. By attacking Aqaba overland, instead, Lawrence and Auda literally caught the Ottomans looking the other way. The British navy was involved the operation, but only to bombard Aqaba from offshore.

Although Aqaba fell to the Arabs on July 6, the bulk of the fighting was done on July 2, when Auda led his men in a charge against a nearby Ottoman fortification, killed around 300 men, and took another 300 prisoner. As with most things, the Hollywood version of the Battle of Aqaba is a lot more interesting than the real thing. In the movie, Lawrence and the Arabs make a very dramatic cavalry charge on Aqaba, like so:

In truth, there was a cavalry charge, but it was against that Ottoman position on July 2, not against Aqaba itself, and the actual (rather anti-climactic) Arab entrance into Aqaba looked more like this:

As far as Lawrence was concerned, his performance in battle was something less than Hollywood later described. Instead of rushing headlong on his horse at the Ottoman lines, like the film suggests, he accidentally shot his own camel in the head (!) and was lucky to survive after tumbling to the ground. To his credit, though, what Lawrence did after the battle may have saved the Arab revolt. Understanding that there were now some 5000 Arabs in Aqaba who were desperately short on food, Lawrence gathered a small company and immediately made the long overland trek to Cairo. There, he informed Allenby that the attack had been successful and that supplies were needed ASAP.

The capture of Aqaba and the linkage of Faisal’s Arab army with the British command in Cairo allowed the Arab Revolt to grow, with British support, from a relatively small Arabian nuisance into a major threat to the Ottoman Levant that demanded serious attention from Istanbul. The Arab army disrupted rail traffic, provided British forces with important intelligence, and made Ottomans redeploy forces that might otherwise have been used to oppose the British northern advance from Egypt. But for all their hard work leading the revolt, the Faisal and Hussein mostly wound up getting double-crossed by Britain in the end. British promises of a pan-Arab kingdom were jettisoned, Syria was handed over to France, the less said about Palestine the better, and when Sharif Hussein complained about all of this, London wound up leaving him at the mercy of the Saud family.