18 February 1917

Two weeks after meeting Lawrence in Cairo, Colonel Bremond
arrived in Wejh to see Feisal. Having been briefed by Lawrence, Feisal was able to counter Bremond’s advances, so that …

“… when Bremond came after ten days and opened his heart, or part of it, to Feisal, his tactics were returned to him with improvements …

“Bremond referred gallantly to the question of Akaba, and the real danger to the Arabs in the Turks remaining there: insisting that the British, who had the means for an expedition thither, should be pressed to undertake it. Feisal, in reply, gave him a geographical sketch of the land behind
Akaba (I recognized the less dashing part of it myself) and explained the tribal difficulties and the food problem — all the points which made it a serious obstacle. He ended by saying that, after the cloud of orders, counter-orders and confusion over the allied troops for Rabegh, he really had not the face to approach Sir Archibald Murray so soon with another request for an excursion.

“Bremond had to retire from the battle in good order.”

Events of 18 February 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

Satisfied that Bremond was repulsed for a while, two days later Lawrence returned to Cairo again.

17 February 1917

“Only by means of Auda abu Tayi could we swing the tribes from Maan to Akaba so violently in our favour that they would help us take Akaba and its hills from their Turkish garrisons: only with his active support could we venture to thrust out from Wejh on the long trek to Maan. Since our Yenbo days we had been longing for him and trying to win him to our cause.

“We made a great step forward at Wejh; ibn Zaal, his cousin and a war-leader of the abu Tayi, arrived on the seventeenth of February … with ten other of Auda’s chief followers. He kissed Feisal’s hand once for Auda and then once for himself, and, sitting back, declared that he came from Auda to present his salutations and to ask for orders. Feisal, with policy, controlled his outward joy, and introduced him gravely to his blood enemies, the Jazi Howeitat. Ibn Zaal acknowledged them distantly. Later, we held great private conversations with him and dismissed him with rich gifts, richer promises, and Feisal’s own message to Auda that his mind would not be smooth till he had seen him face to face in Wejh. Auda was an immense chivalrous name, but an unknown quantity to us, and in so vital a matter as Akaba we could not afford a mistake. He must come down that we might weigh him, and frame our future plans actually in his presence, and with his help.”

Events of 17 February 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

Feisal would need the allegiance of many tribes to continue to move his army northwards. At Wejh, their Sheikhs arrived to pledge their support. Among them was an envoy from Auda abu Tayi, chief of the Eastern Howeitat.

6 February 1917

“We had not talked over the problem of Akaba. Feisal knew neither its terrain nor its tribes … It seemed best for me to hurry down there and put my side on its guard … Two days later, in Wejh, I explained myself”.

Events of 6 February 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

During Lawrence’s absence in Cairo, plans had been made in Wejh for the Arabs to capture Akaba through an advance up the coast.

Convinced that mounting an attack from the seaward side would be useless while the Turks commanded strong defensive positions along Wadi Itm, the pass leading inland from Akaba, on Lawrence’s return to Wejh he revealed an alternative plan to advance from
inland, attacking the Turkish outposts along the way.

Possibly it was at around this time that Lawrence also divulged the existence of the Sykes-Picot Treaty to Feisal.

3 February 1917

 “… there came a rude surprise. Colonel Bremond called to felicitate me on the capture of Wejh, saying that it confirmed his belief in my military talent and encouraged him to expect my help in an extension of our success. He wanted to occupy Akaba with an Anglo-French force and naval help. He pointed out the importance of Akaba, the only Turkish port left in the Red Sea, the nearest to the Suez Canal, the nearest to the Hejaz Railway, on the left flank of the Beersheba army; suggesting its occupation by a composite brigade, which should advance up Wadi Itm for a crushing blow at Maan. He began to enlarge on the nature of the ground …

“… In my opinion, Akaba, whose importance was all and more than he said, would be best taken by Arab irregulars descending from the interior without naval help.

“Bremond did not tell me (but I knew) that he wanted the landing at
Akaba to head off the Arab movement, by getting a mixed force in front of them (as at Rabegh), so that they might be confined to Arabia, and compelled to waste their efforts against Medina. The Arabs still feared that the Sherif’s alliance with us was based on a secret agreement to sell them at the end, and such a Christian invasion would have confirmed these fears and destroyed their cooperation. For my part, I did not tell Bremond (but he knew) that I meant to defeat his efforts and to take the Arabs soon into Damascus. It amused me, this childishly-conceived rivalry of
vital aims, but he ended his talk ominously by saying that, anyhow, he was going down to put the scheme to Feisal in Wejh.”

Events of 3 February 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

Lawrence’s position as liaison officer to Feisal was meant to be handed over to Newcombe after the fall of Wejh, and he returned to Cairo. However, a request from Feisal that Lawrence should remain in the Hejaz “as he has given such very great assistance” would lead to his liaison role being extended.

On the evening of 3 February, Lawrence found himself hurrying to catch the 6.15pm train to Suez after a visit from Colonel Bremond necessitated his immediate return to Wejh, to reach Feisal before his French adversary.

25 January 1917

“Vickery, who had directed the battle, was satisfied, but I could not share his satisfaction. To me an unnecessary action, or shot, or casualty, was not only waste but sin. I was unable to take the professional view that all successful actions were gains. Our rebels were not materials, like soldiers, but friends of ours, trusting our leadership. We were not in command
nationally, but by invitation; and our men were volunteers, individuals,
local men, relatives, so that a death was a personal sorrow to many in the army. Even from the purely military point of view the assault seemed to me a blunder.

“The two hundred Turks in Wejh had no transport and no food, and if left alone a few days must have surrendered. Had they escaped, it would not have mattered the value of an Arab life. We wanted Wejh as a base against the railway and to extend our front; the smashing and killing in it had been wanton.”

Events of 25 January 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

On 24 January, Feisal’s army had arrived at Habban to find the ship Hardinge waiting in the bay. Here, Lawrence learned that Wejh had indeed already fallen.

Riding into the town the next day, Lawrence was disappointed by the scale of looting, and to learn of a number of casualties suffered by the British and Arabs.

23 January 1917

“In the morning, early, we marched in a straggle for three hours down Wadi Hamdh. Then the valley went to the left, and we struck out across a hollow, desolate, featureless region. To-day was cold: a hard north wind drove into our faces down the grey coast. As we marched we heard intermittent heavy firing from the direction of Wejh, and feared that the Navy had lost patience and were acting without us. However, we could not make up the days we had wasted, so we pushed on for the whole dull stage.”

Events of 23 January 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

Delays throughout the march meant that the Arab army were late meeting the rendezvous with the British Navy south of Wejh. On 23 January – the date set for the attack – ominous sounds suggested that the battle had begun without them.

 

18 January 1917

“… two horsemen came cantering across from the left to greet Feisal. I knew the first one, dirty old blear-eyed Mohammed Ali el Beidawi, Emir of the Juheina: but the second looked strange. When he came nearer I saw he was in khaki uniform, with a cloak to cover it and a silk head-cloth and head-rope, much awry. He looked up, and there was Newcombe’s red and peeling face, with straining eyes and vehement mouth, a strong, humorous grin between the jaws. He had arrived at Um Lejj this morning, and hearing we were only just off, had seized Sheikh Yu-suf’s fastest horse and galloped after us.

“I offered him my spare camel and an introduction to Feisal, whom he greeted like an old school-friend; and at once they plunged into the midst of things, suggesting, debating, planning at lightning speed. Newcombe’s initial velocity was enormous, and the freshness of the day and the life and happiness of the Army gave inspiration to the march and brought the future bubbling out of us without pain.”

Events of 18 January 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

As Feisal’s army neared Umm Lejj – the halfway point to Wejh – Lawrence got word that Newcombe would meet him there in the next few days, and sailed north from Yenbo in the ship Suva.

A few days later, when Feisal’s army left Umm Lejj on the next stage of its march to Wejh, Newcombe had still not arrived, and Lawrence decided to accompany the Arabs.

A short way into the march, Newcombe caught up with the army on horseback. It seemed that Lawrence’s temporary role as liaison officer to Feisal was about to end.

4 January 1917

“Everyone burst out singing a full-throated song in honour of Emir Feisal and his family. The march became rather splendid and barbaric. First rode Feisal in white, then Sharraf at his right in red head-cloth and henna-dyed tunic and cloak, myself on his left in white and scarlet,
behind us three banners of faded crimson silk with gilt spikes, behind them the drummers playing a march, and behind them again the wild mass of twelve hundred bouncing camels of the bodyguard, packed as closely as they could move, the men in every variety of coloured clothes and the camels nearly as brilliant in their trappings. We filled the valley to its banks with our flashing stream.”

Events of 4 January 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom
(1926).

On 4 January,  Feisal’s army began its advance on Wejh. Lawrence joined the army for the first leg, before turning back to ride the 22 miles to Yenbo in the late afternoon. There, he would liaise with the Navy to have supplies shipped north to the Arabs, while waiting the arrival of Colonel Stewart Newcombe to take over his liaison role.

27 December 1916

“The situation is so interesting that I think I will fail to come back. I want to rub off my British habits & go off with Feisul for a bit. Amusing job, and all new country. When I have someone to take over here from me I’ll go off.”

T. E. Lawrence to Major Kinahan Cornwallis (Lawrence of Arabia, The Selected Letters, edited by Malcolm Brown, published by Little Books, 2005).

Lawrence’s return to Yenbo in mid-December came as a new crisis arose.

Though aerial reconnaissance had confirmed the Turks’ retreat from Yenbo, fears now arose that they might be moving towards Rabegh. Hoping to trap them in a pincer movement in the hills, Feisal took his army inland, while wiring his brother Ali to advance out of Rabegh. But Ali’s troops took fright and retreated, forcing Feisal to fall back again on Nakhl Mubarak.

On 27 December, Lawrence and Feisal met Colonel Wilson on the deck of the Dufferin, moored at Yenbo, to discuss new plans.

Sights were beginning to move 200 miles north, to a new position that would give Feisal easier access to the Hejaz Railway, while hopefully drawing Turkish attention away from Rabegh … Wejh.

A month earlier, Lawrence had resisted taking on the temporary role of liaison officer to Feisal. His letter written this day to Major Cornwallis of the Arab Bureau shows that now he seemed to be enjoying himself in the Hejaz.

11 December 1916

“There was one alarm about eleven o’clock. Our outposts had met the
enemy only three miles outside the town. Garland, with a crier, went through the few streets, and called the garrison. They tumbled straight out and went to their places in dead silence without a shot or a loose shout. The seamen on the minaret sent warning to the ships, whose combined searchlights began slowly to traverse the plain in complex intersections, drawing pencils of wheeling light across the flats which the attacking force must cross …

“Afterwards, old Dakhil Allah told me he had guided the Turks down to rush Yenbo in the dark that they might stamp out Feisal’s army once for all; but their hearts had failed them at the silence and the blaze of lighted ships from end to end of the harbour, with the eerie beams of the searchlights revealing the bleakness of the glacis they would have to cross. So they turned back: and that night, I believe, the Turks lost their war. Personally, I was on the Suva, to be undisturbed, and sleeping splendidly at last; so I was grateful to Dakhil Allah for the prudence which he preached the Turks, as though we might perhaps have won a glorious victory, I was ready to give much more for just that eight hours’ unbroken rest.”

Events of 11 December 1916 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).

As darkness closed in, Yenbo awaited the anticipated Turkish attack. Lawrence was destined to miss the night’s action, however, having boarded the ship Suva in the afternoon bound for meetings in Jiddah and Rabegh.