Battle of Aqaba
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|Battle of Aqaba|
|Part of the Arab Revolt on the Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War|
Thomas Edward Lawrence — a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia.
| Arab Rebels
|Commanders and leaders|
| Auda ibu Tayi
T. E. Lawrence
assistance from British naval forces
|300 men (garrison); one infantry battalion (approximately 450 men)|
|Casualties and losses|
|2 killed, ? wounded||300 killed after surrender
The Battle of Aqaba (6 July 1917) was fought for the Red Sea port of Aqaba (now in Jordan). The attacking forces of the Arab Revolt, led by Auda ibu Tayi and advised by T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), were victorious over the Ottoman defenders.
Following an unsuccessful attack on Medina, forces of the Arab Revolt under Emir Faisal I were on the defensive against the Ottomans (or Turks). In the spring of 1917, Arab forces moved north to seize the Red Sea ports of Yenbo and Wejh, allowing them to regain the initiative, but neither the Arabs nor their British allies could agree on a subsequent plan of action. The Arabs began a series of attacks on the Hejaz Railway, and contemplated another campaign against Medina, but with British troops stationary in front of Gaza, it seemed they were not in a position to succeed. The Ottoman government had sent Arab divisions of its army, which held many pro-Revolt units, to the front lines, depriving Faisal and his allies of much-needed reinforcements.
Lawrence, sent by General Archibald Murray, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to act as a military adviser to Faisal, 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 First Suez Offensive on the Suez Canal in 1915. It was also suggested by Faisal that the port be taken as a means for the British to supply his Arab forces as they moved further north. Though he did not take part in the attack itself (his cousin Sherif Nasir rode along as the leader of his forces), Faisal lent forty 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. Lawrence informed his British colleagues of the planned expedition, but they apparently did not take him seriously, expecting it to fail.
Aqaba was not in and of itself a major military obstacle; a small village at the time, it was not actually garrisoned by the Turks, though the Turks did keep a small, 300-man garrison at the mouth of the Wadi Itm to protect from landward attack via the Sinai Peninsula. The Royal Navy occasionally shelled Aqaba, and in late 1916 had briefly landed a party of Marines ashore there, though a lack of harbour or landing beaches made an amphibious assault impractical. The British feared that Aqaba would threaten their flank as Murray's troops advanced into Palestine, or could be used as a base for German submarines in the Red Sea. The main obstacle to a successful landward attack on the town was the large Nefud Desert, believed by many to be impassable.
Battle and campaign
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.
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. 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 able to avoid them.
Abu al Lasan and Aqaba
The actual battle for Aqaba occurred for the most part at a Turkish blockhouse at Abu al Lasan, about halfway between Aqaba and the town of Ma'an. 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 midday on 2 July. 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, 300 Turks were killed and another 300 taken prisoner, in exchange for the loss of two Arabs killed and a handful of wounded. Lawrence was nearly killed in the action; he accidentally shot the camel he was riding on in the head with his pistol, but was thrown out of harm's way when he fell. Auda was grazed numerous times, with his favourite 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 risen to 5,000 men by local Bedouin who, with the defeat of the Turks at Lasan, now openly joined Auda's force. This force manoeuvred themselves past the outer works of Aqaba's defensive lines, approached the gates of Aqaba, and its garrison surrendered without further struggle.
Aftermath and consequences
Lawrence travelled across the Sinai Peninsula with a small bodyguard to personally inform the British army in Cairo, now under General Edmund Allenby, that Aqaba had fallen. Arriving at the Suez Canal, Lawrence phoned Cairo HQ to tell of the success, and also arranged for a naval transport of supplies to Aqaba. Lawrence arrived in Cairo a few days later and conferred with Allenby, who agreed to supply the Arab forces there with arms, supplies, payment and several warships.
Aqaba would not be fully secured for several months; Turkish troops operating through the Wadi Itm recaptured the Abu el Lissal blockhouse in early August and threatened Aqaba itself, precipitating a number of skirmishes outside the city, but the arrival of Arab reinforcements and British warships and aeroplanes dissuaded them from attacking the city outright.
The seizure of Aqaba allowed for the transport of Faisal'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 Arab 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. The defences of Aqaba are exaggerated, with a pair of 12-inch cannons pointing out to sea to prevent a naval attack. Also, the British fleet is absent.
- Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
- Thomas, Lowell. With Lawrence of Arabia (1924).
- Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography."
- Spencer C. Tucker, Aqaba, Battle of (July 1917), The Encyclopedia of World War I, ABC-CLIO, 2005, ISBN 1-85109-420-2, page 115.
- T.E. Lawrence's Original Letters on Palestine Shapell Manuscript Foundation