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

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 the World War I Arab Revolt, and because it allowed the Arabs to link with British forces in Egypt and begin receiving British weapons, supplies, and money to put toward 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 Arab leaders who London believed could be convinced to turn on the Ottomans. But none of them became famous for writing about their experiences, and consequently none of them had major Hollywood films made about them. And really, 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 army 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, capturing Jeddah in June, Mecca in July (the Ottomans fired artillery on the city of Mecca itself during that operation, which was a hell of a propaganda coup for the Hashemites), 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. However, the Arabs were able to defend their gains, and began looking for a new target. Emir Faisal, the son of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, Hussein b. Ali, and the overall commander of the Arab army, set his sights on Aqaba, which at the time wasn’t much more than a village but whose location, on the Red Sea between Arabia and Egypt, would, if it were taken, allow the Arab army to link up with British forces to the west. Aqaba also had some strategic importance to the Brits, as it was the last Red Sea port still under Ottoman control, and a force stationed there would be able to harass the flank of any British column that tried to advance north 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 advancing north toward Damascus. Second, he set upon a land assault rather than an amphibious attack. This was crucial because most of the Ottomans’ defensive positions were oriented toward defending the village from attack by sea. By attacking Aqaba overland, instead, Lawrence and Auda literally caught the Ottomans looking the other way. They got some help in the form of a British bombardment from sea.

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, and the actual (rather anti-climactic) Arab entrance into Aqaba looked more like this:


As far as Lawrence was concerned, instead of rushing headlong on his horse at the Ottoman lines, he was lucky to have survived the fighting after accidentally shooting his own camel in the head (!) and taking an obvious tumble. His next move may have saved the Arab revolt, however. There were now ~5000 Arabs in Aqaba who were desperately short on food, so 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 operation into something that demanded serious attention from Istanbul. The Arab army disrupted rail traffic, provided British forces with important intelligence, and forced the Ottomans to tie up forces that might otherwise have been used to oppose the British northern advance. And for all their effort leading the revolt, the Hashemites mostly wound up getting double-crossed by the Brits 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 (and believe me, he complained; I’ve seen some of the correspondence), London wound up leaving him at the mercy of the Saudis. But those are all stories for another time.

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