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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to Colonel C. E. Wilson


January 8th, 1917

Route notes


On January 2, 1917, I left Yambo and rode across the plain to the mouth of Wadi Agida in five hours. From the mouth of Wadi Agida to the watershed into the Wadi Yambo basin was one hour, and thence to Nakhl Mubarak was one hour; all done at a four miles an hour walk. The lowest third of the ascent of Wadi Agida was over sand: soft, slow going. The upper parts were harder and better: the divide was low and easy, and it gave at once to the eastward, on to a broad open valley, coming from the left with only very low hills on each side (Jebel Agida?), down which the road curved gently into Nakhl Mubarak. The 'Sebil' stands about 400 yards east of the watershed.

The road down to Nakhl looked very beautiful today. The rains have brought up a thin growth of grass in all the hollows and flat places. The blades, of a very tender green, shoot up between all the stones, so that looked at from a little height and distance there is a lively mist of pale green here and there over the surfaces of the slate-blue and brown-red rocks. In places the growth was quite strong, and the camels of the army are grazing on it.

In Nakhl Mubarak I found Feisal encamped in tents: he himself was in his private tent, getting ready to go out to his reception. I stayed with him that day, while rumours came in that the Turkish force had evacuated Wadi Safra. One reported that from Bir Sheriufi to Bir Derwish was one great camp, and that its units were proceeding to Medina; another had seen a great force of camelmen and infantry ride East past Kheif yesterday. We decided to send out a feeler towards Hamra, to
get news.

On January 3, I took thirty-five Mahamid and rode over a dull tamarisk- and thorn-grown plain past Bir Faqir (not seen) to Bir Wasit, which is the old Abu Khalaat of my first trip. We waited there till sunset, and then went to Bir Murra, left our camels with ten of the men, and the rest of us climbed up the hills north of the Haj road up to Jebel Dhifran, which was painful, for the hills are all of knife-like strata which are turned on edge, and often run in straight lines from crest to valley. It gives you abundance of broken surface but no sound grips, as the strata are so minutely cracked that almost any segment will come away from its socket in your hand.

The top of Dhifran was cold and misty. At dawn we disposed ourselves in crevices of the rocks, and at last saw three bell tents beneath us to the right, behind a spur at the head of the pass, 300 yards away. We could not get round to them to get a low view, so put a few bullets through their top. This turned out a crowd of Turks from all directions. They leaped into trenches and rifle pits each side of the road, and potting them was very difficult. I think they suffered some loss, but I could not be sure. They fired in every direction except towards us, and the row in the narrow valley was so awful that I expected to see the Hamra force turn out. As the Turks were already ten to our one this might have made our getting away difficult, so we crawled back and rushed down into a valley, almost on top of two very scared Turks, who may have been outposts or may have been at their private morning duty. They were the most ragged men I have ever seen, bar a British tramp, and surrendered at once. We took them with us, and bolted off down the valley for another 500 yards. From there we put a few shots into the Turks, which seemed to check them, and so got off gently to Bir Murra by 6.30 a.m. The prisoners could speak only Turkish, so we mounted them and raced up to Nakhl to find an interpreter. They said it was the 5th Coy. of the 2/55th Regiment which was posted on Dhifran, the rest of the battalion and two companies of the first battalion being at Hamra village. The other companies of the 1/55th were guarding the Derb el-Khayaa from Hamra to Bir Ibn Hassani; 3/55th in Bir Derwish; O.C. 55th Regiment, Tewfik Bey.

At Nakhl Mubarak I found letters from Captain Warren saying that Zeid was still in Yambo, and that the Dufferin would wait in Sherm Yambo till I came. As Feisal was just starting for Owais, I changed my camel and rode down with him and the army to the head of Wadi Messarid by 3 p.m. The order of march was rather splendid and barbaric. Feisal in front, in white: Sharaf on his right in red headcloth and henna dyed tunic and cloak; myself on his left in white and red; behind us three banners of purple silk, with gold spikes; behind them three drummers playing a march, and behind them again, a wild bouncing mass of 1,200 camels of the bodyguard, all packed as closely as they could move, the men in every variety of coloured clothes, and the camels nearly as brilliant in their trappings, and the whole crowd singing at the tops of their voices a warsong in honour of Feisal and his family. It looked like a river of camels, for we filled up the Wadi to the tops of its banks, and poured along in a quarter of a mile long stream.

At the mouth of Wadi Messarid I said goodbye to Feisal and raced down the open plain to Yambo by 6 p.m. I was riding Feisal's own splendid camel, and so managed to do the twenty-two miles fairly easily. To my great relief I found the Dufferin had already left for Rabugh with Zeid, and so I was saved a further ten miles' march to Sherm Yambo.

Arab forces

The troops in Nakhl Mubarak were mostly camel corps. There were very many - according to Feisal’s figures, over 6,ooo - but their camps were spread over miles of the Wadi and its tributaries, and I could not manage to see all of them. Those I did see were quiet, and I thought in fair spirits. Some of them have now served six months or more, and these have lost their enthusiasm but gained experience in exchange. They still preserve their tribal instinct for independence of order, but they are curbing their habit of wasting ammunition, have achieved a sort of routine in matters of camping and marching, and when the Sherif approaches near they fall into line and make the low bow and sweep of the arm to the lips which is the official salute. They do not oil their guns - they say because they then clog with sand, and they have no oil handy - but the guns are most of them in fair order, and some of the men know how to shoot. They are becoming separate but coherent units under their sheikhs, and attendance is more regular than it was, as their distance from home increases. Further, they are becoming tempered to the idea of leaving their own diras, and Feisal hopes to take nearly all to Wejh with him. As a mass they are not formidable, since they have no corporate spirit or discipline, or mutual confidence. Man by man they are good: I would suggest that the smaller the unit that is acting, the better will be its performance. A thousand of them in a mob would be ineffective against one fourth their number of trained troops: but three or four of them, in their own valleys and hills, would account for a dozen Turkish soldiers. When they sit still they get nervous, and anxious to return home. Feisal himself goes rather to pieces in the same conditions. When, however, they have plenty to do, and are riding about in small parties tapping the Turks here and there, retiring always when the Turks advance, to appear in another direction immediately after, then they are in their element, and must cause the enemy not only anxiety, but bewilderment. The mule mounted infantry company is very promising. They have got Mulud, an ex-cavalry officer, training them, and already make a creditable appearance. The machine-gun sections were disappointing. They say that the Egyptian volunteers are improving these and the artillery details.
[39 lines on Camp life, here omitted, are virtually reproduced in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.]


Feisal's table talk

Talking one day about the Yemen, as they call anything south of Mecca and Jiddah, Feisal remarked on the great docility and reasonableness of the Southern tribes, compared with the Harb, Juheinah and Ateibah of the North. He said that no Arabs of his acquaintance were so easy to hold and to rule. To imprison an officer, his sheikh had only to knot a thin string about his neck and state his sentence, and the man would henceforward follow him about with protestations of innocence and appeals to be set at liberty. Another good custom is that of naming boy or girl children after a favoured guest. They then belong literally to their name-father, who can dispose their actions as he pleases, to the exclusion of parental authority; they even incur their part-responsibility of the blood feuds of the name-parent. He was down south between Taif and Birk and inland up to Ebhah for months, and says that now whole tribes of boys are called Feisal, and that, over them and indirectly over their fathers, he has wide personal influence. Particularly he spent four months fortifying Muhail for the Turks, and made great friends of Suleiman ibn Ali and his family. He says that, given ten days leave, he would undertake to raise every fighting man in Asir against Muhieddin. Ebhah he says is not formidable to an attacking force with a battery of field-guns. The present bar on action is that Nasir is not weighty enough to counterpoise the Idrisi. The tribes all believe that Idrisi would egg on his friendly sheikhs to attack them in the rear, if they moved openly against the Turks. The presence of Feisal or Abdullah would allay these fears.

Feisal says that Abdullah, though quick when he does move, is rather luxurious in taste and inclined to be lazy.

Stotzingen told Feisal in Damascus that, from the Yemen, arms and ammunition were to be shipped across to Abyssinia, and an anti-foreign war begun in that country. He himself was going afterwards to German East Africa.

Frobenius (calling himself Abd el-Kerim Pasha) turned up in Jiddah one morning by sea from Wejh soon after war had begun, Feisal was in Jiddah, and headed him off from Mecca. British naval activity dissuaded him from going on further south.
Feisal, therefore, got him a boat, and gave him a letter of recommendation, and sent him back north again. When he got to Rabugh, however, Hussein Mubeirik took suspicion of him and locked him up in the fort. Frobenius had some difficulty in getting out, and made great complaints of his treatment when he got back to Syria.

In March, 1916, Jemal Pasha took Feisal to a cinema in Damascus. The star film showed the Pyramids, with the Union Jack on top, and beneath them, Australians beating the Egyptian men and raping the women, and, in the foreground, an Egyptian girl in an attitude of supplication. The second scene showed a desert, with camel-convoys and a Turkish infantry battalion marching on for ever and ever. The third scene returned to the Pyramids with a sudden appearance of the Ottoman Army in review order, the killing of the Australians and the surrender of General Maxwell, the joy of Egypt, the tearing down of the British flag from the Pyramids, and its replacement by the Turkish flag. Feisal said to Jemal: 'Why go on troubling my father and myself for recruits for your army if this film is true?' Jemal said: 'Well, you know it encourages the people. We do not expect or try to conquer Egypt yet. Our policy is to hold the British forces there with the least cost to ourselves; and Germany has promised us that the last act of the war shall be the conquest of Egypt by Germany and its restoration to the Ottoman Empire. On these terms I agreed to join her in arms.'

Oppenheim came to see Feisal in Constantinople in early 1915. He said he wanted to make rebellions. Feisal asked of what and why? Oppenheim said there were to be rebellions of Moslems against Christians. Feisal said the idea was sound. ‘Where did he propose to start them? Oppenheim said, 'everywhere' - in India, Egypt, the Sudan, Java, Abyssinia, North Africa. Feisal said they might consider India first. There was the technical difficulty of lack of arms. Oppenheim said that would be put right by a German-Turk expedition into Persia. He asked if the Sherif would be prepared to co-operate with the Indian Moslem societies. Feisal said his father would want to know whether, afterwards, the Indian Moslems would be independent and supreme, or would Hindus rule them, or India fall to another European Power? Oppenheim said he had no idea: that it was previous to think so far ahead. Feisal said he was afraid his father would want to know all the same. Oppenheim said, 'Very well, how about Egypt? We can arrange to give your family office there, when it is conquered.' Feisal quoted the Koran to the disparagement of Egyptians, and said that he had lately been in Egypt, and had been offered the crown by the Nationalist party. (This took place in Piraeus.) Egyptians were weather-cocks, with no political principle except dissatisfaction, and intent only on pleasure and money getting. Any Egyptian who talked of raising a rebellion in Egypt was trying to touch you for something on account. Oppenheim said, 'Well, then, the Sudan?' Feisal said 'Yes, you are right. There is in the Sudan material to cause a real rebellion: but do you know the Sudan?' Oppenheim said, 'Why?' Feisal said, 'They are ignorant negroes, armed with broad-bladed spears, bows and shields. He, who would try to stir them up against the English and their rifles and machineguns, is no good Moslem. The men, however, are sound material. Give me arms, money and the command of the Red Sea for about six weeks, and I shall be Governor-General of the Sudan.' Oppenheim has hardly spoken to him since.

In January, 1915, Yasim, Ali Riza, Abd el-Ghani, and others approached the Sherif of Mecca and suggested a military rebellion in Syria. The Sherif sent Feisal up to report. He found Divisions 25, 35 and 36 ready to revolt, but public opinion less ready, and a general opinion in military circles that Germany would win the war quite rapidly. He went to Constantinople, and waited till the Dardanelles was in full blast. He then came back to Damascus, judging it a possible moment: but he found the well disposed divisions broken up, and his supporters scattered. So he suggested to his father that they delay till England had been properly approached, and Turkey had suffered crippling losses, or until an Allied landing had been effected at Alexandretta.

Source: DG 214-21
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 9 January 2006

 

 

 



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