12 March 1917

“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.

9 March 1917

“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.

3 March 1917

“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.

25 February 1917

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.