The bombardment of Abu el-Naam began in the morning. As
artillery shelled the station, a locomotive parked in the siding got up steam and puffed off towards Medina.
“We watched her hungrily as she approached our mine, and when she was on it there came a soft cloud of dust and a report and she stood still … while the drivers got out, and jacked up the front wheels and tinkered at them, we waited and waited in vain for the machine-gun to open fire. Later we learned that the gunners, afraid of their loneliness, had packed up and marched to join us when we began shooting. Half an hour after, the repaired engine went away towards Jebel Antar, going at a foot pace and clanking loudly; but going none the less …
“Meanwhile the wood, tents and trucks in the station were burning, and the smoke was too thick for us to shoot, so we broke off the action. We had taken thirty prisoners, a mare, two camels and some more sheep; and had killed and wounded seventy of the garrison, at a cost to ourselves of one man slightly hurt. Traffic was held up for three days of repair and
investigation. So we did not wholly fail.”
Events of 30 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
On the morning of 26 March – at the same time as Sir Archibald Murray was mounting his first (failed) attack on Gaza – Lawrence was at last sufficiently recovered to set out on his first raid against the railway. With a reconnaissance party of about 30 Arabs, he
departed Abdullah’s camp for the station at Abu el-Naam.
Lawrence found around 300 Turks at the station. So when Sherif Shakir arrived with 300 reinforcements – too few to attack the station – a hurried change of plan was forced. Instead, the Arabs set out to mine the railway line to the north and south.
“I dismounted and fingered its thrilling rails for the first time during the war. Then, in an hour’s busy work, we laid the mine, which was a trigger action to fire into twenty pounds of blasting gelatine when the weight of the locomotive overhead deflected the metals. Afterwards we posted the machine-gunners in a little bush-screened watercourse, four hundred yards from and fully commanding the spot where we hoped the train would be derailed. They were to hide there; while we went on to cut the telegraph.”
Events of 29 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
Reaching Abdullah’s camp at Abu Markha in Wadi Ais on 15 March, Lawrence delivered letters from Feisal explaining the situation in Medina and pressing the urgent need to block the railway; then succumbed to the bout of dysentery and malaria that had begun during his journey from Wejh. Lying incapacitated for days, he began to think out a new strategy for the Arab campaign.
“I had now been eight days lying in this remote tent … The fever passed: my dysentery ceased; and with restored strength the present again
became actual to me … So I hurried into line my shadowy principles, to have them once precise before my power to evoke them faded.
“It seemed to me proven that our rebellion had an unassailable base, guarded not only from attack, but from the fear of attack. It had a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts. It had a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority. The active rebels had the virtues of secrecy and self-control, and the qualities of speed, endurance and independence of arteries of supply. They had technical equipment enough to paralyse the enemy’s communications … Final victory seemed certain, if the war lasted long enough for us to work it out.”
Events of 22 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
“I should have written before but have been ill. However things are quite alright now …
“Please see Sidi Feisul for me and tell him I have not been able to do my job here because I have been ill. I hope to go down to the railway tomorrow for a preliminary reconnaissance and after that will be able to say what can be done, but in any case I will stay here a bit as it is most important that the Turks should not be able to concentrate much of their Medina force at El-Ula against him, and I am afraid if I do not stay here not much will be done.
“Please beg him not to remain in Wejh unless it is absolutely necessary. The effect both on Arabs and Turks of knowing him to be near the line would be very great…”
(Letter to an unnamed British officer written on 22 March 1917,
reproduced from Lawrence of Arabia: The Selected Letters edited by Malcolm Brown.)
One of the Ageyl was lying dead with a bullet through his temple. The remaining Ageyl blamed Hamed the Moor. Hamed confessed.
“Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself.
Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.”
It would take three shots for Lawrence to carry out the execution.
“I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.”
Events of 13 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven
Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
“I lay down under the rocks and rested. My body was very sore with headache and high fever, the accompaniments of a sharp attack of dysentery which had troubled me along the march and had laid me out twice that day in short fainting fits, when the more difficult parts of the climb had asked too much of my strength …
“… while I was lying near the rocks a shot was fired.”
Events of 12 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
Lawrence’s journey to Wadi Ais proved hard going when he was
beset by attacks of dysentery, malaria and boils. There was also much quarrelling among his Arab travelling companions – an odd lot thrown together in haste by the urgency of Clayton’s orders.
Overnight at Wadi Kitan, the eruption of tensions between the Arabs would result in one of the most terrible experiences in his life.
“Dear Colonel Wilson,
“Please excuse what is going to be a hurried note. MacRury got here this morning, and his news is rather sudden. I hoped to get it up to Newcombe, but cannot, as he is coming in, without saying by what road …
“In the circumstances … I got Feisul to take action. In spite of General Clayton’s orders I told him something of the situation. It would have been impossible for me to have done anything myself on the necessary scale. One must inform one’s G.O.C.! …
“I’m afraid it will be touch and go.
“I am taking some Garland mines with me, if I can find instantaneous fuse, and if there is time, will set them, as near Medina as possible: it is partly for this reason that I am going up myself, and partly with a view to smashing Hedia, if it can anyhow be done.
“Feisal will do everything he can. Only it’s fearfully short notice.”
(T. E. Lawrence to Colonel Wilson, The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, edited by David Garnett, published by Jonathan Cape, 1938)
In the evening of 8 March, an urgent message from General Clayton in Cairo announced that intelligence had been received suggesting that the Turks had been ordered to evacuate Medina and take up a new defensive position near Maan.
For General Archibald Murray, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, who was planning an imminent attack on Gaza, the
arrival of a large Turkish force in the area posed an unforeseen nuisance! Clayton issued orders that every effort must be made to hold the Turks within Medina or to destroy them as they withdrew.
In Wejh, Lawrence found himself temporarily the senior officer. He decided to ride to Wadi Ais to spur Abdullah into action against the nearby railway.
“Fakhri Pasha [commander of the Turks within Medina] was still playing our game. He held an entrenched line around Medina, just far enough out to make it impossible for the Arabs to shell the city … The other troops were being distributed along the railway, in strong garrisons at all water stations between Medina and Tebuk, and in smaller posts between these garrisons, so that daily patrols might guarantee the track. In short, he had fallen back on as stupid a defensive as could be conceived. Garland had gone south-east from Wejh, and Newcombe north-east, to pick holes in it with high explosives. They would cut rails and bridges, and place automatic mines for running trains.”
Events of around 3 March 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).
Lawrence arrived back in Wejh to find that, during his absence, Newcombe and Garland had begun raids on the Hejaz Railway.
In the next few days, the railway would suddenly demand everyone’s urgent attention.
“I have now been made a Captain and Staff Captain again, which is amusing. It doesn’t make any difference of course really, as I am never in uniform in Arabia, and nobody cares a straw what rank I hold, except that I am of Sherif Feisul’s household. Can’t think of anything else to say, as have become a monomaniac about the job in hand, and have no interest or recollections except Arabian politics just now! it‘s amusing to think that this will suddenly come to an end one day, and I take up other work.”
T. E. Lawrence to his family (The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers, edited by M. R. Lawrence, published by Blackwell, 1954).
Writing from Cairo, Lawrence had some news for his family.
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.
“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.