A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 15, 2017

Origins of the ‘Aqaba Campaign, Part II

It has now been almost a week since my first post on the origins of the ‘Aqaba expedition in 1917.

After the occupation of the Red Sea coast port of Wejh by the Royal Navy and the Arab Revolt in January 1917, the gradual advance up the Red Sea Coast had been put on pause, while the main British force out of Egypt advanced across Sinai, extending both the railway and a freshwater pipeline as it moved. In the meantime the Arab Revolt troops, advised by British advisors Stewart Newcombe, P.F.Joyce, and a diminutive young intelligence officer from Cairo named T.E. Lawrence, had begun a series of raids against the Hejaz Railway, the main Ottoman supply link to its garrison in the holy city of Medina.

But David Lloyd George was impatient to speed up their advance into Palestine; and after the Second Battles of Gaza, between May and July 1917, the Arab Bedouin forces under Prince Faisal ibn al-Hussein would embark on a campaign which would capture the imagination of the world, even if its military significance was limited. This was the capture of the last Ottoman seaport town on the Red Sea, ‘Aqaba, at the southernmost tip of Palestine (Jordan today). ‘Aqaba was a small village — it would take multiple wars in Iraq to turn it into the giant shipping center it is today — Jordan's only seaport.

The idea of taking ‘Aqaba was self-evident. It would complete the Royal Navy's control of the Red Sea, allow closer supply by sea to the Arab Revolt, and cover the rear right flank of General Murray's (soon to be General Allenby's) campaign.  But who would take it?

The idea found an early advocate in France's military advisor to the Arab Revolt, Édouard Brémond, proposed landing French troops from British ships. Reginald Wingate in Egypt liked the idea, but Murray was fiercely opposed, saying it was premature. Sykes-Picot was already in existence, but the British, suspicious of French motives, wanted to protect their options in ‘Aqaba, which they considered a potential forward defense for the Suez Canal. They and their Arab allies also suspected France wanted to use ‘Aqaba as a means of blocking the Arab Revolt from expanding into Syria, where France had colonial ambitions.

So conflicting colonialisms were blocking a decision to take ‘Aqaba, though there was little military impediment to doing so. 

Prince Faisal also had ambitions toward ‘Aqaba. But he was suspicious of British and French intentions (justly so), while they did not want the Arab Revolt in‘Aqaba without them.

Late in 2017 British ships had put a landing party ashore at ‘Aqaba, and taken some prisoners, but they continued to resist occupation.

Meanwhile, Newcombe had devised a new strategy in lieu of occupying ‘Aqaba. The Bedouin Arab Army, working with Egyptian troops, would occupy a position along the Hejaz railway, near the Nabatean ruins at Mada'in Salih in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Here, they could blockthe railway and cut Medina off from Syria, leaving it to be picked off.

Lawrence at Wejh, 1917
T.E. Lawrence opposed the idea. A short, physically unimpressive captain in military intelligence, he had met Faisal late in 1916 and Faisal had become depend on him for military advice.

Lawrence is surrounded by much mythology (for which he is partly but not exclusively responsible), but he was undeniably an innovative military thinker. He sought to apply military theory to traditional desert warfare. As a student hr had closely studied Crusader castles, and as an archaeologist/covert intelligence officer he had familiarized himself with many of the sites, including ‘Aqaba, where he would campaign.

Lawrence was convinced the Mada'in Salih campaign was misguided. The tribes and the Egyptians would not work well together; the force would be open to Turkish attacks from all four directions; and Lawrence was opposed to taking Medina outright, preferring to leave it in Turkish hands and bleed them through attrition, attacking and reducing their rail supply line without cutting it entirely. The Ottomans would not voluntarily give up the second holiest city in Islam, and it would cost little to keep them tied down.

But Lawrence could still not sell an ‘Aqaba alternative. On March 8 Gilbert Clayton, the intelligence chief in Cairo, explicitly ordered Lawrence and others that a move by Faisal on ‘Aqaba "was not desirable at this time."

But there were some who had other ideas. That will be Part III.

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