The Hejaz railway

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The Hejaz railway connecting Damascus with the Holy Cities of what is now western Saudi Arabia had been built by the Ottoman rulers, and financed by subscriptions from Muslims, in the early years of the twentieth century to ease the difficult journey across the desert for the huge numbers of pilgrims on the annual hajj. Although originally intended to reach as far as Makkah (Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed), opposition from local tribes – who made an excellent living transporting the pilgrims across the last section of desert – prevented the final leg from being built. Consequently, the line ran from Haifa, on a branch line on the Mediterranean coast, to Damascus, the capital of what is now Syria, and south through the desert to Madinah (Medina), nearly 1,000 miles away. The terminus was still 300 miles short of Makkah but nevertheless made it much easier for Muslims to reach their two holiest cities. The journey to Makkah took a couple of weeks using the railway rather than the arduous five- or six-week journey by caravan.

While the religious reasons for its construction were emphasized by the Ottoman ruler, Abdulhamid II, the railway, like so many others, also had both an imperial rationale, as it was a way of cementing together the disparate elements of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and an economic one, since there was the hope that the desert would yield up valuable minerals. It was, therefore, vital for the Turks to protect and maintain the line after the outbreak of war, which they had joined on the German side in October 1914. In 1915, the British decided to open up a second front, in the Middle East, to take pressure off the Western Front, landing at the Dardanelles to force the Germans to divert resources there. It was a disastrous failure, with delays and uncertainty allowing the Turks to reinforce their positions over the beaches, resulting in the abandonment of the attack by the end of the year. Britain was left with two armies in the Middle East, in Palestine and Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq). In Palestine their main role was to guard the vital Suez Canal but in Mesopotamia the war against the Turks, which was primarily about protecting oil supplies from the Gulf, had initially resulted in a humiliating defeat for the British at Kut Al Amara in April 1916. The British had over-extended themselves by trying to occupy Baghdad, running too far ahead of their largely river-based supply lines, a problem which was eventually remedied through the construction of a large network of narrow-gauge railways. Kut was retaken from the Turks early the following year and Baghdad was seized in March 1917, finally giving the initiative to the British in the Mesopotamian campaign.

By the summer of 1916, the British saw that the best way of putting extra pressure on the Ottomans would be through encouraging the Arab tribes, led by Ali, Abdullah and Feisal, three sons of Sherif Hussein, the Emir of Makkah, to rise up against Turkish rule. With tacit encouragement from the British through diplomatic channels, the Arabs started harassing the Turks in June, targeting the Hejaz railway as the focus of their attacks. Initially their efforts were crude, involving ‘tearing off lengths of the metals with their bare hands and tossing them down the bank’. Since the Turkish army had efficient repair teams and large reserves of track, these attacks did little to hinder their war effort.

The Arabs needed explosives and better organization. Enter T. E. Lawrence. Captain – he later became a colonel – Lawrence arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in October with no official mandate but his timing proved perfect. An Arab-speaker who had travelled extensively in the Middle East, Lawrence had only managed to take time off his desk job in Cairo (Egypt was a British colony at the time ) by applying for leave. He never went back to the paperclips. Instead he was sent unofficially by the British military to meet Prince Feisal in the desert, because the Arabs’ attacks had petered out, and came back convinced that with supplies, especially guns and ammunition, and support the Arabs could make a significant difference to the war in the Middle East. An overt all-out attack on the Turks was ruled out by the British high command, but the idea of a war conducted cheaply and with little direct British involvement by offering support to the Arabs proved appealing. The British Army was so taken with the suggestion that it funded Lawrence to the tune of £200,000 per month, which he used to buy supplies and camels and to enlist the support of the Bedouin tribes.

Lawrence returned to Cairo and, having persuaded his superiors of the value of supporting the Arabs, rejoined Feisal’s irregular army as liaison officer in December 1916 to launch a series of attacks on the Hejaz Railway. In January 1917, the British seized Wejh, a port on the Red Sea, to use as their base for attacks further inland on the Arabian Peninsula. The takeover of Wejh was crucial not only in ensuring that the anti-Turkish forces could be supplied, but also in thwarting any Turkish notion of further attacks on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, and from this point their military ambitions were limited to retaining control of the Hejaz Railway in order to keep Madinah supplied.

The first attack on the railway was actually carried out not by Lawrence but by Herbert Garland, an eccentric major (bimbashi) attached to the Egyptian Army, and a party of fifty tribesmen, who blew up a troop train in February at Towaira. The gang had been fortunate as the guides had taken them close to a blockhouse protecting the line but hey had not been overheard as they laid their charges. Indeed, the railway was well protected by a series of blockhouses at key structures such as bridges and tunnels, and therefore the attacks were focussed on remote areas of the line. Simply blowing up the track was futile as the repair work could be effected quickly, especially as there were plenty of spare rails in Madinah that had originally been intended for the extension of the line to Makkah which was never built. As he explains in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence instead devised tactics that were designed to cause maximum disruption to the Turks while avoiding an all-out confrontation and he deliberately targeted trains with specially devised mines that he normally laid himself.

By the time Lawrence arrived, the Arabs had already taken over several towns in the Hejaz, including Makkah, but the Turks still held Madinah at the end of the line which could only be supplied by the railway. Lawrence ruled out the idea of trying to take the town because the Arab irregular forces were no match for the well-organized Turks in set-piece battles. Instead, the tactic was to launch a series of raids along the length of the railway, similar guerrilla methods to those employed by the Boers against the British in South Africa: ‘Our idea was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort… The surest way to limit the line without killing it was by attacking trains.’20 Lawrence led his first raid on the railway at Abu Na’am in March and there were some thirty more attacks in the following months, most carried out by Arab forces led by Prince Abdullah and supported by forces of the Egyptian Army and a small French contingent. They were supplemented by a few bombing raids by aeroplanes on the railway, which was at the limit of their range from their base in Egypt. Lawrence’s attacks took a disproportionate toll on the Turkish forces. Very few of the attackers were killed in these engagements, while the Turks usually lost dozens, if not more, each time. The attacks kept the Turks on the defensive and prevented Fakhri Pasha, the commander of the Turkish garrison at Madinah, from launching an attack to try to regain Makkah. This was vital since the fact that the Turks had lost control of the holiest of cities, after 600 years of Ottoman rule, was a great spur to the continuation of the Arab Revolt. While the railway was rarely closed for more than a day or so by the attacks, the number of trains was reduced from the peacetime level of two daily to two every week, which created food and fuel shortages in Madinah, stimulating internal dissent. About half the population fled northwards on the railway – one train of such refugees, mainly women and children, would have been blown up by Lawrence but for the good fortune that his mine did not go off.

Meanwhile Lawrence turned his attention to the Port of Aqaba. His little army left Wejh in July 1917 and cleverly attacked the railway on several occasions as he headed north to fool the Turks into thinking that was the purpose of his mission. The Turks expected that any attack on Aqaba would come from the sea. Instead, Lawrence and Feisal, with a force of 2,000 men, mostly on camels, for once took on a static army head on but triumphed easily thanks to the element of surprise and the lack of proper defences in what was then a small fishing village. The Turks put up little resistance and the bloody side of this desert war was exposed by the subsequent massacre of more than 300 Turkish soldiers by the vengeful Arabs, the kind of incident which, as Lawrence relates in his book, was repeated several times during this campaign. There were virtually no casualties on the Arab side, though Lawrence nearly killed himself by accidentally shooting his own camel in the head and being thrown off at full speed, but suffered only cuts and bruises.

Now the focus of the revolt turned north, with the idea of chasing the Turks out of what is now Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The capture of Aqaba helped protect the British right flank in Palestine, where a different type of war was taking place, one which involved building a railway rather than destroying it. Having initially only sought to defend the Suez Canal, the British, led by Lawrence’s hero, General Edmund Allenby, decided to go on the offensive across the Sinai towards Palestine but they needed a railway to supply them, just as Kitchener’s army had when reconquering Sudan. The aim was to push through from Egypt to Palestine, and chase the Turks out of Gaza, and then Jerusalem, with the ultimate goal of Damascus. The railway was started at Kantara, on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and was gradually extended eastwards during 1916 and the early part of 1917. It made slow but steady progress, reaching the front at Gaza, 125 mile s from its terminus, where the Turks were entrenched, supplied by their own railhead at Beersheba and later a specially built branch just out of range of the British guns. It would take Allenby three attempts to dislodge the Turks from Gaza, but when he finally did, and marched on to capture Jerusalem at the end of 1917, it was celebrated as one of the few genuine victories by British forces in the war.

Lawrence had used Aqaba as a base for repeated attacks on the Hejaz railway until the winter, when there was a lull in the fighting. Allenby’s progress towards Damascus was delayed, too, as two of his divisions (around 25,000 men) were redeployed to the Western Front. In the spring, when the drive to Damascus finally began, the policy towards the railway changed. It was imperative to cut off the line up from the Hejaz so that the Turks could not use it to bring reinforcements from Madinah against Allenby’s forces. Consequently, Lawrence’s group attacked the railway in various places, having developed a more sophisticated type of mine inappropriately called ‘tulip’. This was a much smaller charge, a mere 2lb of dynamite compared with the 40lb or 50lb ones used previously, and involved placing the charge underneath the sleepers, which would blow the metal upwards ‘into a tulip-like shape without breaking; by doing so it distorted the two rails to which its ends were attached’, which was impossible to repair and consequently forced the Turks to replace the whole section of track. In early April 1918, the last train between Madinah and Damascus made it through but after that the line was blocked by successive attacks which left more Turkish troops stuck in the Hejaz protecting a line that was now of no strategic use than were facing Allenby in Palestine. In the decisive attack at Tel Shahm, led by General Dawnay, Lawrence showed his regard for the railway by claiming the station bell, a fine piece of Damascus brass work: ‘the next man took the ticket punch and the third the office stamp, while the bewildered Turks stared at us, with a growing indignation that their importance should be merely secondary’. The Turks had clearly never met any British trainspotters with their obsession for railway memorabilia.

Attacks against the northern part of the railway continued, and the line was cut off in several other places, either by Lawrence or the British forces coming from Palestine. The attacks on the Hejaz railway had been an exemplary case history of guerrilla warfare. It was not all about Lawrence, as he readily admits in the Seven Pillars, but without his ability to stimulate the Arab revolt, General Allenby’s task in sweeping through Palestine would undoubtedly have been harder. Although in the later stages some armoured vehicles and even air support became available, the basic tactics remained the same throughout: ‘The campaign remained dependent on the speed and mobility of the irregular Bedouin forces, and on the inability of the better trained, well-equipped Turkish troops to follow the raiding parties into the desert… As Glubb Pasha (of later Trans-Jordanian Arab League fame) remarked: “the whole Arab campaign provides a remarkable illustration of the extraordinary results which can be achieved by mobile guerrilla tactics. For the Arabs detained tens of thousands of regular Turkish troops with a force scarcely capable of engaging a brigade of infantry in pitched battle”.’

The Turks, too, were equally courageous and in their stubborn defence of the line there is another side to the more famous Lawrence story, which is the difficulty of putting a railway permanently out of action. There was no shortage of difficulties for railway operations. Fuel was a constant worry and by the end of the war the houses in Madinah had been stripped of all timber and even the city gates and wooden sleepers from the track had been removed to keep the locomotives running, which required constant improvisation in the face of the constant attacks. While even today a few wrecked locomotives can still be seen in the desert, for the most part the Turks rescued damaged engines and repaired them in their works yards. The historian of the lines, James Nicholson, remarks that the foot soldiers were genuinely heroic: ‘Confined to their stations and a narrow strip of land, they were cast adrift in a vast and hostile country, far from the main centres of command.’ They were dependent on the railway for all their needs and therefore by 1918 ‘many were close to starvation, clothed in rags and ravaged by scurvy’. And yet, despite that, they managed to keep the railway operating until nearly the end of the war.

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One thought on “The Hejaz railway

  1. Pingback: 20/2/1917 Attacking the Medina railroad | World War 1 Live

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