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James Nicholson, The Hejaz Railway

London, Stacey International; Riyadh, Al Turath, 2005
ISBN 190098881X, 25
31 x 26cm, xiv,194p, index, maps, illustrated in colour and b&w

Reviewed by Jeremy Wilson

The Imperial War Museum's exhibition T.E. Lawrence, the life, the legend stimulated a crop of good-quality publications in 2005-6, including reprints and revised editions. However, for anyone interested in Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, James Nicholson's Hejaz Railway stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is quite simply in a class of its own.

There are several reasons.

First, it fills an important gap. It makes the extraordinary story of the building and destruction of the pilgrim railway accessible to modern readers. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence seems to assume that you will know the historical background - and doubtless some early readers did. But how many people now know that the project to build a railway from Damascus to Medina was of huge significance to Islam; that donations from faithful Muslims paid a large part of the cost; that its construction through hundreds of miles of desert was a truly extraordinary feat? Readers of Seven Pillars today are far more likely to think of it in terms of Turkish military logistics - an enemy target that merited nothing better than destruction. True, military logistics had always been part of its intention - but there was much, much more.

Previous books about the railway have focused mainly on particular aspects such as the political background, the financing, or the engineering and rolling stock. James Nicholson, however, tells the story from a broad perspective. The result is readable - and fascinating.

The publisher's decision to produce the book in a large format does justice to its many photographs - modern and archive - as well as the facsimiles and maps. As a physical object, The Hejaz Railway is a joy. In particular, the images of what remains of the railway in Saudi Arabia are exceptional.  

However, no one should be misled by the high-quality design and illustrations. While The Hejaz Railway might do honour to your coffee-table, it is also a work of scholarship. During his research Nicholson travelled widely, retracing and photographing the route of the railway in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. He draws extensively on historical archives. For a topic that to some might seem relatively narrow, his bibliography is formidable. His advisers included the late St.John Armitage, whose knowledge of the area and period was encyclopaedic.

The book is, in effect, in two parts. The first describes the construction of the railway and its brief golden age before the First World War. Much of this will be new to readers of Seven Pillars. The second part describes the wartime attacks from which the line would never recover. Here, the account breaks fresh ground by covering the achievements of Garland, Newcombe, Joyce, the RAF, and Arab forces, as well as those of Lawrence. It therefore usefully supplements Seven Pillars where, as Lawrence was at pains to point out, he dealt mainly with actions in which he himself had been involved.



  1. Introduction (pp. 2-17)
    A 'wildly improbable' and 'fantastic' scheme - the political background - the decline of the Ottoman Empire - Abdulhamid II's response to European expansion - early railway development in the Ottoman Empire - The Hejaz Railway - birth of an idea - proposals for the railway - preparations for the railway


  1. Building the railway I - the main line - Damascus to Madinah (pp. 18-49)
    Early decisions and difficulties - Western involvement - Heinrich Meissner - the laying of solid foundations - the line advances - early services - manpower and materials - rails and rolling stock - construction - stations - working conditions - technical difficulties - Ma'an, 'Gateway to Arabia' - railway services - Tabuk inauguration ceremony 1906 - Tabuk to Al Ula - Medain Saleh and Al Ula - opposition on the Railway - Al Ula to Madinah 


  1. Building the railway II - the branch lines (pp. 50-61)
    Haifa to Deraa branch, 1905 - Deraa to Bosra branch, 1912 - Haifa to Acre branch, 1913 - extension: Damascus Quadem to Damascus Kanawat, 1911 - Afule to Nablus branch, 1912-15 - First World War branches/extensions - projected branches/extensions


  1. Paying for the railway (pp 62-9)
    The campaign for donations - Ottoman donations - foreign donations - other sources of revenue - the absence of corruption - overall income and expenditure


  1. Running the railway (pp. 70-85)
    Sherif Hussein and the Young Turks - security measures - passenger services - pilgrims - troop movements - freight - rolling stock - maintenance - administration and personnel - economic development - the Hejaz Railway on the eve of the First World War

  2. Outbreak of the First World War (pp. 86-99)
    The Ottoman Empire enters the war - Sherif Hussein and the British -the Stotzingen Mission - the Arab Revolt: first attacks on the railway - the arrival of the British - T.E. Lawrence

  3. The War along the railway I - the Hejaz (pp, 100-119)
    Bimbashi H. Garland: first train derailed, Towaira, February 1917 - Lt Col. S. Newcombe: raids to the north of Medain Saleh, spring 1917 - T.E. Lawrence: first raid on the railway, Abu Na'am, March 1917 - T.E. Lawrence: mining of a train at km. 1121, April 1917 - 'Lawrence's trains'? - Royal Flying Corps: the 'Arabian Detachment' No 14 Squadron - co-ordinated offensive on the railway: Lt Col. S. Newcombe and Lt Col. P. Joyce, July-Aug 1917 - Binbashi H. Garland: raids on the railway, Istabl Antar-Hedia, Aug 1917 - results of the railway campaign in the Hejaz

  4. The War along the railway II - Aqaba and northwards (pp. 120-143)
    The march to Aqaba - T.E. Lawrence: diversionary attacks on the railway, June 1917 -the capture of Aqaba, July 1917 - air attacks, August 1917 - Arab attacks, autumn 1917 -T.E. Lawrence: the troop train, Mudawwara, Sept 1917 - T.E. Lawrence: raid on supply train, Bir Shedia, October 1917 - effects of the raids - the defence of the railway T.E Lawrence: the raid on Tel Shehab bridge, Nov 1917 - T.E. Lawrence: attack on train at km 172, Nov 1917 

  5. The War along the railway III - The Road to Damascus (pp. 144-161)
    Allied offensive, Palestine, Winter 1917 - raid on Tel Shahm, Jan 1918 - Arab raids, Jan 1918 - spring offensives, 1918: the breaking of the railway -cutting the railway: Ma'an to Qatrana, May 1918 - the advance on Damascus, Sept-Oct 1918 - 'tulips' - the final offensive, Sept 1918 - the surrender of Madinah, Jan 1919  


  1. The railway after the First World War (pp. 162-179)
    The end of hostilities, damage assessment - post-war arrangements - the inter-war years - the railway in the modern era: attempts at reconstruction - the railway today

Appendixes cover the modern restoration of Madinah Station and a list the stations on the line.

As a final word on this outstanding book, I would add that publication was sponsored by Chevron Corporation, and the research by Axa-Gulf - Norwich Union. As a result, the price is only 25. I would hazard a guess that, in due course, dealers will be offering it on the antiquarian book market for four or five times as much. So I commend this to you now. If you are interested in Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, it is a 'must-have' publication. 

Jeremy Wilson
January 2007

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