Saturday, November 10, 2007
Lawrence Of Arabia: The Attack On Aqaba, Film vs Reality
Following an unsuccessful attack on Medina, forces of the Arab Revolt under Emir Faisal I were on the defensive against the Turks. Lawrence, sent by General Archibald Murray, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to act as a military advisor to Feisal, convinced the latter to attack Aqaba. Aqaba was a Turkish-garrisoned port in Jordan, which would threaten British forces operating in Palestine; the Turks had also used it as a base during their 1915 attack on the Suez Canal. It was also suggested by Feisal that the port be taken as a means for the British to supply his Arab forces. Though he did not take part in the attack itself (his cousin Sherif Nasir rode along as the leader of his forces), Feisal lent a large number of his men to Lawrence. Lawrence also met with Auda ibu Tayi, leader of the northern Howeitat tribe of Bedouin, who agreed to lend himself and a large number of his men to the expedition.
Aqaba was not in and of itself a major military obstacle; a small village, it was not actually garrisoned by the Turks, though the Turks did keep a small garrison a short way from the town to protect from landward attack via the Sinai Peninsula. The main obstacle to a successful landward attack on the town was the large Nefud Desert, believed by many to be impassable.
The expedition started moving towards Aqaba in May. Despite the heat of the desert, the seasoned Bedouins encountered few obstacles aside from occasional harassment from small bands of Arabs paid off by the Turks; they lost more men to attacks by snakes and scorpions than to enemy action. During the expedition, Auda and Lawrence's forces also did severe damage to the Hejaz Railway.
Auda and his men reached the Wadi Sirhan region, occupied by the Rualla tribe. Auda payed 6,000 pounds in gold to their leader in exchange for allow his men to use Wadi Sirhan as a base.
Lawrence's plan was to convince the Turks that the target of his attack was Damascus, rather than Aqaba. At one point in this expedition, he went on a solitary reconnaissance expedition, destroying a railroad bridge at Baalbek. Lawrence did this largely to convince the Turks that the Arab force - of which they had received vague reports - was moving towards Damascus or Aleppo.
The expedition then approached Daraa, and captured a railroad station nearby. This action confirmed for the Turks, who had heretofore been misled as to the Arab army's intentions, that Aqaba was indeed their target. A squadron of 400 Turkish cavalry was sent after them, but Auda's men were easily able to avoid them.
The actual battle for Aqaba occurred for the most part at a Turkish blockhouse at Abu el Lissal, about halfway between Aqaba and the town of Maan. A group of separate Arab rebels, acting in conjunction with the expedition, had seized the blockhouse a few days before, but a Turkish infantry battalion arrived on the scene and recaptured it. The Turks then attacked a small, nearby encampment of Arabs and killed several of them.
After hearing of this, Auda personally led an attack on the Turkish troops there, attacking at mid-day on July 6. The charge was a wild success. Turkish resistance was slight; the Arabs brutally massacred hundreds of Turks as revenge before their leaders could restrain them. In all, three hundred Turks were killed and another 150 taken prisoner, in exchange for the loss of two Arabs killed (a small number were also apparently wounded in the action). Lawrence was nearly killed in the action; he accidentally shot the camel he was riding in the head with his pistol, but was fortunately thrown out of harm's way when he fell. Auda was grazed numerous times, with his favorite pair of field glasses being destroyed, but was otherwise unharmed.
Meanwhile, a small group of British naval vessels appeared offshore of Aqaba itself and began shelling it. At this point, Lawrence, Auda, and Nasir had rallied their troops; their total force had been quadrupled to 2,000 men by a local Bedouin who, with the defeat of the Turks at Lissal, now openly joined Lawrence's expedition. This force manuveured themselves past the outer works of Aqaba's defensive lines. approached the gates of Aqaba, and its garrison surrendered without further struggle.
The seizure of Aqaba allowed for the transport of Feisal's army further north, where it could again begin operations with the logistical support of the British military. It also relieved pressure on British forces in Palestine and effectively isolated the Turkish forces in Medina, and opened a pathway for possible military operations into Syria and Jordan.
The campaign and battle were depicted in the film Lawrence of Arabia, though the film's depiction of a sweeping charge by the Arabs against Aqaba itself is quite false.