TODAY WE CAN SEE that the Zionists and the Arabs were entering the home stretch of a historic race for position in Palestine. But during the six months prior to release of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, neither party really understood that they were in a race at all, and both parties incorrectly identified their adversary. Zionists in Britain fixed their gaze upon Whitehall, hoping that the use of skillful diplomacy would persuade the British government to support them. Of King Hussein and his armies in the Hejaz and Syria, they rarely thought. Meanwhile the Arabs sought to improve their military capacity and effectiveness against the Ottomans, with British aid. If they thought themselves to be in a race, it was not against the Zionists but against the French, who they knew had designs upon Syria. They believed the British would help them to establish control over that country, including most probably a good bit of Palestine. Zionism they rarely considered.
British officers on the spot who knew something about the Sykes-Picot Agreement may also have thought a race was taking place between the Arabs and the French, with the track tilted in favor of the latter and with Syria the prize. They did not consider Palestine, however, because whatever Sykes and Picot had envisioned, they aspired to assert British influence there after the war. Some British officers undoubtedly hoped the Arabs would win their race against France, or would at least gain meaningful authority in the part of Syria that lay east of Palestine and south of Damascus. That would constitute a buffer between a British-dominated Mesopotamia and a French-dominated Syria and Lebanon and it would be more or less under their control. But they were not yet thinking much about Zionism.
At least one British officer, however, may have seen a little further. He even may have hoped the Arabs would establish something more than a mere puppet buffer state.
It seems likely that T. E. Lawrence had developed genuine sympathy for Arab nationalist aspirations by early 1917. He saw too that they would run up against Zionist, French, and British aspirations. He had met Aaron Aaronsohn in Cairo and learned of Zionist plans for Palestine. These troubled him. He knew enough to suspect that McMahon’s correspondence with Hussein contradicted aspects of the agreement that Sykes had negotiated with Picot, even though he did not yet know the agreement’s details. Like many British officers in the Middle East, Lawrence had concluded, even with only partial knowledge, that Sykes had ceded too much territory to France. In other words, even before he knew its details, he objected to the Sykes-Picot Agreement both for Arab nationalist and for British imperialist reasons.
In July 1917 he interviewed King Hussein and became painfully aware that the latter misunderstood British intentions for Mesopotamia, as well as French plans for the Syrian coastal region. But Lawrence had concluded long since that if Hussein wished to stake any convincing claim to any part of Syria, his troops, led by his son Feisal, must enter Damascus before the troops of any other country did. One night at Wejh he and Feisal and some of the latter’s advisers discussed the matter. “We all swore1 to not go to Mecca till after we had seen Damascus,” Lawrence recorded in his diary. But the evidence about his attitude is ambiguous, as is most evidence about this extraordinary figure. Some months after making this pledge, he wrote to Mark Sykes (in a letter never delivered):
I quite recognize2 that we may have to sell our small friends [Arabs] to pay our big friends [the international Zionist movement and France] or sell [to France] our future security in the Near East to pay for our present victory in Flanders. If you will tell me once more what we have to give the Jews and what we have to give the French I’ll do everything I can to make it easy for us.
He was, he added, “strongly pro-British and also pro-Arab.” But he increasingly came to realize that he could not be both, and the realization wore him down.
Lawrence had met Sykes in Cairo in early May 1917, when the latter arrived on the joint mission with Picot, the one that led King Hussein to conclude erroneously that the French would treat Syria’s coastal region in the same manner that he thought the British would treat Mesopotamia—that is to say, as temporarily occupied territory, generously paid for. This appears to have been when Lawrence concluded, to the contrary, that the Arabs must stir themselves if they did not wish to lose Syria altogether. Shortly after the meeting with Sykes, he embarked from Wejh on the famous expedition north into Syria dramatized in David Lean’s celebrated film. Accompanying him were, among others, seventeen Ageyli soldiers from the towns of central Arabia, and most notably, Auda abu Tayi, sheikh of a section of a northern tribe, the Howeitat, which, with Auda’s help, Lawrence intended to mobilize against the Ottomans.
Auda abu Tayi is the fabled figure portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the movie: a warrior who had once reputedly cut the beating heart from a dying enemy and bitten into it, and who had killed seventy-five men in battle—not including Turks, whom he considered not worth counting. He possessed the ravaged face of a tragedian with “large eloquent eyes, like black velvet in richness,” Lawrence thought, and a mind “stored with poems of old raids and epic tales of fights.” More important, Auda believed in the creation of the greater Arab kingdom envisioned by King Hussein. Lawrence valued him less for his remarkable personal qualities than because he could swing an important tribe, the Howeitat, behind Hussein’s revolt.
Their joint expedition has assumed mythic status. It had several purposes: to recruit to Feisal’s cause northern Arab tribes in addition to the Howeitat; to make contact with the surviving Syrian revolutionaries in Damascus and perhaps spur them to activity (to facilitate this goal a member of the al-Bakri family accompanied them); to further disrupt Turkish communications with Medina by destroying track along the Hejaz Railway. But by far the most important goal was to capture the tiny but strategically crucial port of Aqaba, at the northernmost point of the Gulf of Aqaba, which extends from the northern end of the Red Sea like a finger pointing farther north into Syria. Famously, the Ottoman defenders of the port kept powerful guns facing the water, protecting against French and British warships. Lawrence and Auda (which man devised the strategy is unclear) intended to surprise them by attacking by land from the east, with Howeitat and other tribal soldiers, although to come out on the right side would require an epic trek through the waterless and broiling desert. Once captured, however, Aqaba could become the jumping-off point for further northern campaigns. The Arab forces engaged in them could constitute the right wing of a largely British army that, as Lawrence correctly anticipated, soon would advance northward into Palestine. As the Arabs moved north from Aqaba in parallel to the British, they could assert control, by virtue of military occupation, of a good part of Jordan and Syria, northern Palestine included. Which aspect of this strategy lay uppermost in Lawrence’s mind remains uncertain.
On the afternoon of May 9, 1917, Lawrence and his party left Wejh and headed north into the desert. A report among the papers of General Gilbert Clayton (entitled “Notes on Capt. Lawrence’s Journey”) provides a barebones summary of what followed:
They marched to Abu3 Raga where the force was increased to 36 men and thence to the Railway at km. 810.5 which they dynamited on 19th May … He went west … to Ras Baalbek on June 10th and dynamited a small plate girder bridge there … From Um Keis they went to Ifdein (Mafrak on map) the first station below Deraa and destroyed a stretch of curved rails … thence to Atwi where they failed to take the station but killed 3 out of the 5 of the garrison, captured a large flock of sheep and destroyed a telegraph party of 4 men repairing the wire. They also dynamited a stretch of line.
And so they continued, blowing up or digging up railway track, hitting Turkish outposts in deadly lightning attacks and then vanishing back into the desert, recruiting additional members of various tribes until “from Guweira they marched on to El Kethira (wiping out a post of 3 officers and 140 men) and thence to El Khadra in the North of Wadi Ithm, where the Aqaba garrison surrendered at discretion.”
This utilitarian account doubtless served its purpose as a military report but perforce left out much interesting material. For example, on May 24, as the scorching sun beat down mercilessly and the heat reflected upward from the desert floor so that the men upon their camels could not tell whether it came from above or below but only how much they suffered from it; as the horizon was dissolved in shimmering mirage so that men could not estimate distance either before or behind; and as each man retreated deep within himself simply in order to endure the brutal day, Lawrence suddenly realized that he could not see his personal servant, Gasim. The man had fallen behind and must be lost—a certain death sentence unless someone quickly rescued him. Lawrence wheeled his camel around and began retracing his steps, alone now in the furnace, with only a compass to guide him. After an hour and a half, he found Gasim “nearly blinded4 … his black mouth gaping open.” But he was still alive; Lawrence had saved him.
Another occasion, at night this time: Lawrence and his companions sat by the fire “while the coffee5 maker boiled up his coffee … when there came a volley from the shadowy dunes east of us and one of the Ageyli toppled forward.” Death could come unexpectedly and in an instant. And not only from enemy guns—poisonous snakes proved equally dangerous, if slower: “Twice puff-adders6 came twisting into the alert ring of our debating coffee-circle. Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain and a swelling of the poisoned limb.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this fabled adventure took place inside Lawrence’s head. “I could see,”7 he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his famous book about the Arabian campaign, that
if we won the war the promises to the Arabs [made by McMahon in the correspondence with Hussein] were dead paper. Had I been an honorable adviser I would have sent my men home, and not let them risk their lives for such stuff. Yet the Arab inspiration was our main tool in winning the Eastern war. So I assured them that England kept her word in letter and spirit. In this comfort they performed their fine things: but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together I was continually and bitterly ashamed.
He finally attempted to resolve this terrible contradiction, at least to his own satisfaction. “I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success, as well as handmaid to our Egyptian campaign,” he records in Seven Pillars. He “saw the liberation of Syria happening in steps, of which Aqaba was the indispensable first.” Successive steps, he now realized, must be taken rapidly thereafter. But first he must ride alone much farther north, indeed all the way to Damascus and beyond, to spy out the land and to plot what those steps should be. “Also,”8 he wrote in his book, “a rash adventure suited my abandoned mood.” But at the time, in a message to General Clayton (also never delivered), he wrote: “I’ve decided9 to go off alone to Damascus hoping to get killed on the way. For all sakes try and clear this show up before it goes further. We are getting them to fight for us on a lie and I can’t stand it.”
In this frame of mind, Lawrence embarked upon a journey more extraordinary than the one from which he had just taken temporary leave. His route led from Wadi Sirhan, home base of the Howeitat and their romantic chieftain, Auda, all the way to Ayn al Barida, 130 miles northeast of Damascus, where he made contact with another tribe, the Wuld Ali, whose support would be helpful when it came time to engage the Turks there. From this location he traveled westward into modern Lebanon and then south, to the very gates of Damascus itself. There he met Ali Riza al Rikabi, the Arab nationalist general who had kept his true beliefs secret from the Turks and who had been entrusted by them with defense of this most important Syrian city. The general warned Lawrence that Damascus would not rise up, which would only have confirmed the Englishman in his belief that Feisal’s army must make those next steps north if they were to seize control of their homeland. Next he rode south, making contact with the leader of the Druze people and then, more important, with the sheikh of the powerful north Arabian Rwala tribe. He returned to Wadi Sirhan on June 18, having been gone nearly two weeks. He had exorcised the suicidal mood, if ever it had truly existed, with constructive work.
Finally the advance began. It took place in stages: from Wadi Sirhan to Bair; from Bair to El-Jefer; from that town to Ghadir el Haj, where they carried out extensive demolition work on the railway line; and then to “the low rolling10 grass-covered hills that flank each side of the Aqaba road near Ain Aba el-Lissan.” An Ottoman detachment occupied this town and had to be disposed of before the march could continue. Lawrence and his men held the high ground and pinned them there for a day, but “it was terribly hot11—hotter than ever before I had felt it in Arabia.” Even the hardened Bedouin tribesmen could not take it “and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade.”
At dusk Auda broke the impasse with fifty horsemen in a wild dash down the hill into the teeth of the Ottoman guns. The Turkish defenders broke, just as Lawrence and another detachment rolled in upon them from the flank. A massacre ensued: three hundred Ottoman soldiers dead in just a few minutes. The Arabs lost two men. For once Lawrence wrote of himself not as the hero but as a sort of goat. At the height of the charge, firing wildly, he had shot his own camel in the back of the head. It had fallen as if poleaxed; he had flown from the saddle over its ears and landed hard, and then lay stunned for the remainder of the battle. By contrast, Lawrence records, the Turks had shot Auda’s horse out from under him; their bullets had smashed his binoculars, passed through his holster and scabbard, but never touched his body. He had taken part in the bloody work from beginning to end. We do not know how many Auda killed in this battle, perhaps because, as noted, he did not bother to count his victims if they were Turkish.
Lawrence and his army collected capitulations as they marched south toward a still-unsuspecting Aqaba, finally accepting the surrender of the port’s only defensive outpost on the landward side. As they approached the town itself, “all the Turks12 we met were most happy to surrender, holding up their arms and crying ‘Muslim, Muslim’ as soon as they saw us.” So the epic journey ended on July 4, 1917, with Arab troops splashing in the warm salt water of the gulf, and Lawrence already pondering the next move north—but whether primarily in aid of Arab nationalism or British imperialism, we still do not know.
So: As the Zionists in London moved during the spring and early summer of 1917 to assert control over the British Jewish community and to influence the Foreign Office, the Arabs pushed north from Wejh up to Aqaba. They intended to head into Syria proper and claim their homeland—almost certainly they thought that meant claiming Palestine. Had they reached Damascus before November 2, 1917, it is an interesting point whether the British would have felt confident enough about the future of that territory to release the Balfour Declaration at all. The tragedy from the Arab point of view was that the war in the East moved at a significantly slower pace than diplomacy and politicking now moved in the imperial metropolis. It took Feisal much longer to blow up the Hejaz Railway, raise the tribes, help defeat the Ottoman Army, and enter Damascus than it took for Weizmann to arrange meetings with British politicians and vanquish the Conjoint Committee. Feisal did not know that a Balfour Declaration was being contemplated; he moved as fast as he could. The British seemed happy to help, but they had a very different end in view than he did. In any event, Feisal did not move fast enough. And meanwhile poor Lawrence of Arabia, Britain’s man on the spot, tore his soul into pieces trying to juggle his country’s and Arab interests.
With Aqaba secured,13 Lawrence drew up a plan for those next quick steps. He envisioned seven roughly simultaneous attacks upon Ottoman positions, to take place in late August. One force would capture the fertile area east and southeast of the Dead Sea. Four separate forces would attack along a 350-mile stretch of the Hejaz Railway between Maan (in modern southern Jordan) and Hama (one hundred miles north of Damascus, in Syria). Then the Druze, with whose leader Lawrence had recently conferred, would descend upon Dara, where the east-west and north-south railways of the region intersected. Yet another force would attack that east-west railway a bit west of Dara in the Yarmuk Valley. The track here represented the Ottoman lifeline into Palestine. Lawrence intended to sever it. He hoped additional Arab tribes would be inspired by such a flurry of offensive activity to rise against Turkish rule and that the culmination would be the occupation of Damascus by Arab troops. If Arab soldiers under Feisal had somehow occupied Damascus before November 2, 1917, and thus perhaps caused the British government to withhold the Balfour Declaration, then Middle Eastern and even world history might have unwound very differently.
The former Oxford student turned desert fighter and military strategist made yet another hard journey by camel, this time from Aqaba to Cairo. There he outlined his plan to General Sir Edmund Allenby, who had recently replaced General Sir Archibald Murray as commander in chief of British forces in Egypt. Allenby, fresh from the front in France, “sat in his chair14 looking at me—not straight as his custom was, but sideways, puzzled. He did not ask many questions, nor talk much, but studied the map … ‘Well, I will do for you what I can,’ he said finally.” What he did not tell Lawrence was that he thought he could use him, and London’s growing appreciation of him, to pry men and equipment from the westerner General Robertson, chief of the Imperial General staff (CIGS). “The scheme15 proposed by Captain Lawrence can only be realized in conjunction with the prosecution of offensive operations by me in this theater,” Allenby warned. But he would not be ready to advance into Palestine until mid-September. Thus, the wheels of war were grinding slowly, from the Arab nationalist point of view.
Predictably, Robertson stalled. Convinced that the war could be won only in the West, he begrudged sending Allenby anyone or anything at all. He confided to a friend that he could not stand men who were “dying to go16 to Jerusalem and Damascus and other places.” He thought Allenby should remain on the defensive in Egypt and that British occupation of Palestine would serve no useful purpose. Even the War Cabinet, desperate for a victory in the Middle East since it could not find one in the West, failed to move him. “It is necessary,”17 the War Cabinet instructed, “to strike the Turk as hard as possible during the coming Autumn and Winter.” Still he procrastinated. It took Lloyd George himself to get things moving. British heavy guns should be sent from the Western Front to Egypt, he directed the CIGS. “There they could18 … be employed to reinforce General Allenby and enable him to deal the Turks … a crushing blow.” By now it was September 22, and in the meantime Allenby had postponed his offensive another month.
Lawrence continued with his raiding parties north of Aqaba. He seems to have rethought his schedule of Arab liberation, for we have no evidence that after the initial meeting with Allenby he pressed further for its fulfillment. Perhaps he had concluded that the timetable was unrealistic. The war moved at a pace of its own. He was aware of Zionism but not of its rapid advance in London. Anyway he had developed a malevolent genius for blowing up track and trains, and during the fall of 1917 he gave this talent full scope. Here is an example of his work, in his own words, written at the time for the Arab Bulletin, not polished for his book, which came after the war.
In the afternoon19 of September 18 I laid an electric mine, in about five hours work, over a culvert at kilo. 587, on the outside of a curve towards some low hills, 300 yards away where Stokes and Lewis guns could be placed to rake the lengths of either north- or south-bound trains …
At 1 P.M. a train of two engines and two box-wagons came up slowly from the south, shooting hard at us from loopholes and positions on the carriage roofs. As it passed I exploded the mine under the second engine … the Lewis guns cleared the roof meanwhile. The mine derailed the front engine, smashing its cab and tender, destroyed the second engine altogether and blew in the culvert. The first wagon upended into the whole and the succeeding ones were shaken up. The shock affected the Turks, and the Arabs promptly charged up to within twenty yards and fired at the wagons which were not armored. The Turks got out on the far side and took refuge in the hollow of the bank (about eleven feet high) and fired between the wheels at us. Two Stokes bombs at once fell among them there and turned them out towards some rough country 200 yards N.E. of the line. On their way there the Lewis gun killed all but about twenty of them, and the survivors threw away their rifles and fled … The action took ten minutes.
This was a not-atypical engagement for Lawrence. He returned to Aqaba for a few days, then headed out again on September 27. This time his mines “shattered the firebox20 of the locomotive (No. 153 Hejaz), burst many of the tubes, threw the l.c. cylinder into the air, cleaned out the cab, warped the frame, bent the two near driving wheels and broke their axles.” The mines killed twenty Turks as well.
Slowly—too slowly21 from the Arab nationalist point of view (but the Arab nationalists did not know it)—Allenby prepared his invasion of Palestine. The Arabs moved slowly as well, at least in comparison with the Zionists in London. Hussein’s sons Ali and Abdullah maintained the siege of Medina, which meant they occupied the sidelines. Feisal, who had moved up to Aqaba, built his forces for the northern campaign, but slowly too. He would not rely upon Hejazi tribesmen to take Syria, but rather upon the Syrians themselves—some three thousand Turkish conscripts captured by the British, who had switched sides along with their officers—to form the “Arab Legion.” They trained in Egypt, however, and would not arrive in Aqaba until November. Some of their officers had been active in the secret society al-Ahd. They did not22 get along with the Iraqi officers whom Feisal also employed. Indeed it is a fair point whether they cared about the great Arab empire that Hussein expected to found, or only for an independent Syria. Like the Zionists in London, they sensed the tectonic plates shifting beneath their feet in a direction that might prove favorable to them.
Near the end of October, Allenby launched his offensive. He prepared with care, tricking the Turks into thinking he would repeat General Murray’s ill-conceived direct assault upon Gaza of the previous spring. First he sent Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a former ornithologist turned daredevil warrior, on reconnaissance. The colonel allowed himself to be seen by the enemy and chased. Purposely he dropped several notebooks as he fled; they contained information suggesting a frontal attack like Murray’s. On October 26, Allenby unleashed an extended pounding of Turkish positions in Gaza. The Ottomans, thinking this presaged the main attack, kept most of their troops there. But on October 31 the bulk of Allenby’s force attacked Beersheba, thirty-five miles to the southeast, taking the Ottomans completely by surprise. Fearing encirclement, they retreated up the coast, leaving Gaza undefended. Allenby took it and began to chase the Ottomans. Great Britain had entered Palestine at last. But the famous declaration bearing Lord Balfour’s name had been written six days before Gaza fell; it would be published the day after. The Arabs had lost the race for Palestine already, although they did not realize it.
Likewise ignorant of developments in London, T. E. Lawrence had ridden north once more. Allenby feared that the Ottomans would reinforce their soldiers in Gaza via the railway that branched west at Dara into the Yarmuk Valley some 420 miles north of Aqaba. That railway represented the main artery connecting Damascus to Palestine. It wound up and down the valley in switchbacks and across gorges along track supported by a series of bridges, eminently suited for destruction by explosive. Lawrence had advocated destroying them back in July; now Allenby wanted him to make the attempt. He should do so as near to the date of the attack upon Gaza as possible. Lawrence accepted his most dangerous assignment. This time he took with him, among others, a British explosives expert, C. E. Wood, as backup in case he himself should be killed; also a number of Indian troops who were adept with the machine gun; and also, for the first part of the expedition, George Lloyd of the Arab Bureau.
George Lloyd is the man who had served as honorary consul with Mark Sykes and Aubrey Herbert at the British embassy in Constantinople twelve years before; who had entered Parliament as a Conservative MP just as his two friends had done; and who had joined the Anglo-Ottoman Society and allowed it to use his name to recruit others, including Herbert. He is important here for the revealing discussion he had with Lawrence as the two rode together on the first leg of the trip.
Lawrence liked and respected Lloyd. He was, Lawrence later wrote, “the rare sort23 of traveler who could eat anything with anybody, anyhow and at any time.” Moreover “he was the only24 fully taught man with us in Arabia.” But these two British experts disagreed fundamentally about Arabia’s future. As they rode their camels in the starry night across the desert, Lloyd told Lawrence that he wished to tie “down the Arab movement to its military purpose … and to risk no breach of faith with the Arabs by raising hopes beyond it.” No doubt he was thinking of King Hussein’s various misapprehensions. After all, he had been present at Jeddah when Feisal and Fuad went to Colonel Newcombe with their worries. No doubt, too, his call for plain dealing appealed to Lawrence.
The assumption behind it, however, that the Arabs’ role should be merely military and supplemental, cannot have appealed. Lloyd kept a “Diary of a journey with TEL to El Jaffer,” in which he scribbled Lawrence’s quite different viewpoint. Given that the Balfour Declaration had already been written, it has a rather poignant aspect. Suppose Feisal were triumphantly installed in Damascus as a result of his own efforts, Lawrence posited to Lloyd. Then: “Sharif’s flag flies along coast from Acre northwards … Feisal’s attitude will be non-negotiatory—‘What I have, I will keep.’” Note that this meant keeping northern Palestine, which Zionists now believed the British government would assign to them. Note too that Lawrence had no doubt Feisal would be entitled to keep it—or rather that neither Britain nor France would be entitled to, let alone to give it to the Jews. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lawrence told Lloyd either that night or sometime during the next day, was “at best one between France and England for partition of a country in armed occupation of forces of Sharif of Mecca.”
Lloyd opposed Sykes-Picot for a different reason. Like so many Britons, he thought Sykes had given France too much. Lawrence thought so too, or he may have thought by now that Britain had given both too much to France and not enough to the Arabs. At any rate, both men agreed that the Sykes-Picot Agreement must be revised. Thus Lawrence rejoiced when Lloyd left him three days later, although he would miss his company. Lloyd was headed ultimately for London, where he could work against Sykes-Picot. As Lloyd put it, Lawrence “felt that there was25 a risk that all his work would be ruined in Whitehall and he thought I could save this.” But as far as Palestine was concerned, it had been ruined already.
With Lloyd gone, Lawrence turned his mind exclusively to military matters. Things did not go smoothly. While the Zionists in London were rejoicing at the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence found himself, after yet more hard traveling, in Ain el Beidha, haggling with the sheikh and chief men of the Serahin tribe for recruits. They politely heard him out and then declined to provide any. Lawrence had counted on their help to blow up the Yarmuk Valley bridges. He turned from the sheikh and appealed to the tribesmen themselves, in a “halting, half-coherent speech,” which nevertheless struck a chord. They would go after all, they affirmed. Momentarily cheered, he then discovered that one of his men had deserted and would likely warn the Turks of his mission. “We … decided to push on none the less, trusting to the usual incompetence of our enemy.”
It took another day and night of difficult trekking, part of it in a driving rain, to reach the bridge they intended to take down. When they did reach it, a guard spotted them almost immediately and opened fire. The Serahin tribesmen returned fire. Also they quickly dumped their sacks of gelignite, fearing that incoming fire would detonate them. Lawrence and his men had to retreat, without their explosives. “Our minds were26 sick with failure,” he wrote. It was November 7, two days before the London Timesreported the Balfour Declaration.
The next morning Lawrence realized he still possessed sufficient gelignite to blow up a train, but the wire connecting the explosive to the trigger would stretch only sixty yards. On another rainy day, down that north-south railway line near Minifer, above Amman, Lawrence laid it all out and waited, in the clammy wood above the track. Twice trains steamed by, and twice the exploder failed to work. The day passed uncomfortably, and another night. Finally, after yet another sunrise, a third train approached, “a splendid two-engined27 thing of twelve passenger coaches, travelling at top speed.” Lawrence was ready, but the sixty yards of wire placed him much too close to the track. “I touched off under the first driving wheel of the first locomotive, and the explosion was terrific. The ground spouted blackly into my face, and I was sent spinning, to sit up with the shirt torn to my shoulder and the blood dripping from long ragged scratches on my left arm. Between my knees lay the exploder, crushed under a twisted sheet of sooty iron. In front of me was the scalded and smoking upper half of a man.”
The train had been derailed, both engines irreparably damaged, the carriages zigzagged across the tracks. Lawrence noticed flags flying from one of them. By an extraordinary coincidence, he had blown up the train of Djemal Pasha, who was hurrying to take part in the defense of Jerusalem against Allenby’s advancing army. “His motor car28 was on the end of the train and we shot it up,” wrote Lawrence. Djemal himself did not appear, but four hundred Ottoman soldiers had been riding the train with him, and those who had survived the blast now “were under shelter and shooting hard at us.” Lawrence’s party numbered forty. He had sent back to Aqaba the Indian machine-gunners after the fiasco on November 7. “So we ran in batches up the little stream-bed, turning at each sheltered angle to delay them by potshots … reached the hill-top [where they had left their camels] … and made away at full speed.” Lawrence had been grazed by five bullets; his foot had been badly damaged by shrapnel from the explosion.
Blowing up Djemal Pasha’s train salvaged pride at least, and the Serahin tribesmen could return to Ain el Beidha with something like honor. But nothing could disguise the fact that they had failed in their primary mission: to destroy at least one of the crucial bridges in the Yarmuk Valley. Lawrence holed up, depressed, in Azraq in the ruins of a fourth-century fortress. He and his remaining group suffered from the weather, which stayed cold and wet. But they were not far from Dara, at the junction of the two railway lines. Lawrence knew that either Feisal’s or Allenby’s army must take the town eventually. He decided to scout it, to learn its defenses and how it might best be approached. What followed is perhaps the best known although least believable of the great tales Lawrence told of his exploits in Arabia.
On the morning of November 20, Lawrence writes in Seven Pillars, he and a companion slipped into Dara. Before long, Turkish soldiers accosted them. They let his companion go but brought Lawrence to the local commandant, who first tried to seduce and then to rape him. When Lawrence resisted,29 the commandant ordered that he be whipped. It made an unforgettable scene in David Lean’s film, but historians doubt that it ever occurred. The commandant died shortly thereafter, but his friends and family convincingly disputed the account. The page of Lawrence’s diary that should deal with the episode has been torn out—it is the diary’s only missing page. Most probably, then, Lawrence conceived the scene and wrote about it in his book to satisfy a personal compulsion. He writes that after he endured the lashing, “a delicious warmth,30 probably sexual, was swelling through me.” It emerged years later that during the interwar period before his death, he regularly paid various men to beat him.
After the thrashing, according to the account in Seven Pillars, he escaped from the room in which the Turks had locked him and returned to the fortress at Azraq. There he remained for nearly two weeks, healing either from the beating or from the wounds suffered in the raid upon the railway. When he reappeared in Aqaba in good health on November 26, he learned that Allenby’s army had taken Jaffa on November 14. He left for that town almost immediately to report his failure in the Yarmuk Valley. Then on December 9 word came that Jerusalem too had surrendered. That was exactly a week after the great Zionist celebration at the London Opera House.
The Zionists had closed their deal, or at least had good reason to think they had. Allenby had provided the War Cabinet with the victory it so deeply desired, the Christmas present to the British people that Lloyd George had mentioned when dispatching him to the Middle East. But the Ottomans, although on the run, remained defiant. They retreated to Nablus and Jericho and took up new defensive positions, standing between the Arabs and their great goal, Damascus.
Lawrence would be part of Allenby’s retinue when he made his entrance into Jerusalem. Feisal’s forces did not attend. They continued training at Aqaba and would not move north against the Turks until the following spring. Then they would remain separated from the British in Palestine by the turpentine waters of the Dead Sea. They took Dara, as Lawrence had foreseen would be necessary, but not until September 18, 1918, and they would not occupy Damascus until September 30. They had helped the British, but too late to help themselves.