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.

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


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