Friday, February 20, 2009

Arab revolt 1917, Lawrence of Arabia : Art of Maneuver and Insurgency

Map : Aqaba location nowadays

The Turks enter WW I on the side of Germany . Their main enemy in the Middle Eastern theater were British , who were based in Egypt, but by 1917 they had arrived at a comfortable stalemate : The Turks controlled a strategic 800 miles stretch of railway that ran from Syria to Hejaz (the southwestern part of Arabia). Due west of the central part of this railway was the town of Aqaba , on the Red Sea , a key Turkish position from which they could quickly move armies north ans south to protect the rail way.

The Turks had already beaten back the British at the famous battler of “Gallipoli , a huge boost to their morale. Their commanders in the middle east felt secure. The English had tried to stir up a revolt against the Turks among the Arabs of Hejaz , hoping the revolt would spread north : the Arabs had managed a few rides here and there but had fought more among themselves than against the Turks. The British clearly coveted Aqaba and plotted to take it from the Sea with their powerful navy , but behind Aqaba was a mountain wall marked by deep gorges. The Turks had converted the mountain into a fortress. The British knew that even if their navy took Aqaba, they would be unable to advance inland, rendering the cities captured easily. Both the British and the Turks saw the situation the same way, and the stalemates endured.

In June 1917 The Turkish commander of the fort guarding Aqaba received reports of strange enemy movement in the Syrian dessert to the north east. It seemed that a 29 years old British British Liaison officer to the Arab name T.E Lawrence had trekked across hundreds of miles of desolate terrain to recruit an army among the Howeitat , Syrian tribes renowned for fighting on camels. The Turks dispatched scouts to find out more. They already knew a little about Lawrence : unusually for British officer of the time , he spoke Arabic, mixed well with the local people, and even dressed in their style. He had also befriended Sherif Faisal, later of the Arab revolt. Could he be raising an army to attack Aqaba? To the extent that this was possible, he was worth watching carefully. Then word came that Lawrence had imprudently told an Arabic chief , secretly in , that he was heading to Damascus to spread the Arab revolt . This was Turk’s great fear, for a revolt in the more populated area of the north would be unmanageable.

The army Lawrence had recruited could not have numbered more than 500 , but the Howeitats were great fighters on camel , fierce and mobile. The Turks alerted their colleagues in Damascus and dispatch troops to hunt Lawrence down , a difficult task given to the mobility of Arabs and the vastness of the dessert.In the next few weeks , the Englishman;s movement were baffling. To say the least :his troops move north toward Damascus but south toward the railway town of Ma’an, site of a storage depot used to supply Aqaba forty miles away . No sooner had Lawrence appeared in the area of Ma’an , however , than he disappeared , reemerging over a hundred miles north to lead a series of raids on the railway line between Amman and Damscus. Now the The turks were doubly alarmed and sent 400 cavalries from Amman to find him.

For a few days there were no sign of Lawrence . In the mentime an uprising several miles to the south of Ma’an surprised the Turks . An Arab tribe called the Dhumaniyeh had seized control of the town of Abu el Lissal , directly along the route from Ma’an to Aqaba .A Turkish battalion dispatched to take the town back found the blockhouse guarding it destroyed and the Arabs gone . Then suddenly something unexpected and quite disturbing occurred : out of nowhere Lawrence’s Howeitat army emerged on the hill above Abu el Lissal.

Distracted by the local uprising the Turks has lost track of Lawrence . Now linking up with the Dhumaniyeh , he had trapped a Turkish army at Abu El Lissal . The Arabs rode along the hill with enormous speed and dexterity., goading the Turks into wasting ammunition by firing on them. Meanwhile the midday heats took its toll on Turkish riflemen., and having waited until the Turks were sufficiently tired. The Arabs , Lawrence among them, charged down the hill, the Turkish closed their ranks, but the swiftly moving camel camel Cavalry took them from the flank and rear. It was a massacre :300 Turkish were killed and rest were taken prisoner.
Now Turkish commander at Aqaba finally saw Lawrence’s game : he had cut them off from the rail way line on which they are depended for supplies . Also seeing Howeitats’s success ,other Arab tribes around Aqaba joine up with Lawrence, creating a powerful army that began to wend its way through the narrow gorges toward Aqaba.
The Turks had never imagined an army coming from that direction. Their fortifications faced the other way, toward the sea and Arab fighters had a reputation for ruthlessness with enemies who resisted , and the commanders of the forts back in Aqaba began to surrender . The Turks sent out their 300- man garrison from Aqaba to put a stop to this advance but they were quickly surrounded by the swelling numbers of Arabs.
On July the 6th the Turks finally surrendered, and their commander watched in shock as Lawrence’s ragtag army rushed to the sea and takewhat had been thought to be an impregnable position . With this one blow T.E Lawrence had completely altered the balance and power in the middle east. His mission was a perfect example on the successful Insurgency / Guerilla warfare and an efficient use of Manouver tactics.

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