The Arab Revolt: In the tracks of T E Lawrence

David Tresilian , Friday 19 Mar 2021

Nicholas Saunders, Desert Insurgency: Archaeology, T E Lawrence, and the Arab Revolt, Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press, 2020, pp369


There have been many books about the British archaeologist-turned-intelligence-officer T E Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia” owing to his activities in the region during the First World War, but perhaps there has never been one quite like Desert Insurgency, the latest such volume to hit library shelves.

The result of nine years of archaeological work along the Hejaz Railway in what is now Jordan and Saudi Arabia as part of the British Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), the book presents a detailed record of excavations carried out along 113 km of the Jordanian section of this railway line from Ma’an to Mudawwara near the Saudi border in order to find out more about the role it played and the attacks against it during the First World War.

The Railway was built on the orders of the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II between 1900 and 1908 as a way of ferrying pilgrims into the Hejaz, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, and connecting together its Arab provinces. It ran from Medina to Istanbul via Damascus with connections to Cairo and other places at Jerusalem. There was another Ottoman railway line running from Istanbul to Baghdad.

The Hejaz Railway was targeted by guerilla-style attacks carried out by Arab forces with British help during the First World War. As well as patiently reconstructing these attacks, in some cases led by Lawrence himself, Desert Insurgency also contains a detailed account of the Railway’s construction before 1914 and a deal of other material on Lawrence, the Railway, and the GARP project to excavate parts of it between 2006 and 2014.

While Lawrence books generally have a restricted readership, this one could attract a much larger group of readers interested not only in the Hejaz Railway and the attacks on it during the First World War, but also on the use of archaeological techniques to reconstruct the military history of the Middle East and the intersection of such “battlefield archaeology” with other techniques including the use of documentary archives.

As the book’s author, Nicholas Saunders, a leading figure in the GARP project, writes, while archaeological techniques are routinely employed at ancient sites, where the resulting finds are used to supplement often sparse archival sources, there is no reason why they should not also be used at more modern ones, particularly in cases where written sources are lacking or where there is contemporary interest in what such sites can reveal.

The networks of trenches that snaked across northern France during the First World War have been extensively investigated by battlefield archaeologists, for example, sometimes in order to discover additional information about the conduct of the War and sometimes to reconstruct parts of the trenches to provide educational experiences for visitors.

Attempts to rebuild the Hejaz Railway in the 1960s were not completed, and any such project would probably hit obstacles today. But some of the Railway is still functioning, and the Jordanian government has restored some of the original Ottoman stations, some particularly important because of their association with the Arab uprising during the First World War. There is also an ongoing Saudi project to develop the Hejaz for tourism, notably the area around Al-Ula through which the Hejaz Railway originally ran, and this could also see the development of parts of the Saudi portion of the Railway.

Lawrence himself described the attacks on the Railway in his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, recounting how British intelligence based in Cairo encouraged Arab forces led by the emirs Faisal and Abdullah, sons of then governor of Mecca Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, to rise up against Ottoman rule as part of the larger war effort between Britain and its Arab allies and the Ottomans and Germans.

Anyone who has seen the British film director David Lean’s epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia will be familiar with the story, re-enacted for the cameras in the desert sands.

The great value of Saunders’s book and of the GARP project that it describes is that it puts such scenes back in context, reconstructing not only the history of the Hejaz Railway and the role that the attacks on it played in the First World War, but also showing how battlefield archaeology can help to bring this history home for later generations and contribute to the restoration of such sites for educational and other purposes.

“Some of the varied features of the conflict landscape [around the Railway] were often either difficult to see or invisible” before the project started, Saunders writes. “This meant that many Turkish sites and Arab-British ones melted into the landscape after 1918 and were overlooked during the short time when the Railway was repaired and in operation during the 1920s and for the far longer period of abandonment.”

“By putting physical locations to place names known from military archives and Lawrence’s Seven Pillars and providing an archaeological signature for each, a deeper understanding of the Revolt emerged. Sometimes this supported the historical records, at other times not, but it always added texture and insight into the big events as well as revealing other actions which appear to have slipped through the net of history.”

MATERIAL FINDS: Desert Insurgency makes ample use of maps and photographs to tell the history of the Hejaz Railway and its role during the First World War.

Saunders comments that whereas the Arab and British forces had found an effective way of weakening their Ottoman adversaries through guerilla attacks on the Railway, the Ottomans were effectively engaged in trying to defend the indefensible, with British and Arab forces appearing out of the surrounding desert to lead attacks on trains along its enormous length or sabotaging tracks, blowing up bridges, and tying down thousands of Ottoman troops that were needed elsewhere.

Documentary evidence of some of these attacks exists, especially when they were planned with British advice, but often they took the form of ongoing skirmishes for which few records exist. It is here that battlefield archaeology can come into its own, since excavation of still-existing or vanished areas of track, aerial surveys, satellite images, and other techniques can help to reveal the systems of trenches and other fortifications that Ottoman troops built in their attempts to defend track and stations. There are also the objects the defenders or attackers left behind.

Archaeology, Saunders says, is always concerned with the rubbish of previous periods, with the items that people threw away sometimes paradoxically being among those that time has best preserved. As a result, the Railway excavations have yielded scatterings of discarded cartridge cases, their locations and patterns revealing the number of defenders or the direction of attackers, along with discarded food containers, utensils, uniform buttons, tobacco paper, and other items, all of which can help to bring the past alive.

Many readers may be struck by the ways in which the excavations have been able to supplement documentary accounts of attacks on the Railway. The book proceeds north to south from the Ma’an to the Mudawwara stations in its reconstruction of the attacks of the First World War, in each case comparing what the documentary accounts say with the archaeological evidence on the ground.

A substantial attack took place on the Tel Shahm station on 19 April 1918 by mixed British and Arab forces, for example, the former using armoured cars. The outer defensive trenches were easily overwhelmed, sending their Ottoman defenders flying, and several railway bridges and stretches of track were detonated. British air force pilots watched the destruction from above.

Revisiting this area nearly 100 years later, Saunders and his excavators discovered fragments of artillery shells from the initial assault, along with scattered shards of railway track and sleepers. The original Tel Shahm station, looted following the surrender of its Ottoman garrison, still stands, though it was much restored in the 1960s. On higher ground, there are the remains of Ottoman defensive fortifications.

Another example might be the British and Arab raid on the Batn al-Ghoul station on 9 May 1918 during which the Ottoman garrison was overwhelmed, the track around the station destroyed, the station building detonated, and a nine-metre railway cutting demolished. “The archaeology of Batn al-Ghoul reflects these events as a revealing example of horizontal stratigraphy,” Saunders comments, though almost no trace of the original buildings or track remains.

There is also the 9 March 1918 attack on the Wadi Rutm fort and station by British biplanes and armoured cars. Today, the remains of these buildings are little more than heaps of stones, but their excavation has helped to answer important questions. “The likely size of the garrison corresponds to occasional references by Lawrence concerning the number of Turkish soldiers encountered during attacks on railway stations,” Saunders writes.

“Investigations revealed tent-pegs, crushed tin cans, coloured glass fragments… but significantly few signs of close-quarters combat […] This was a military site which saw little exchange of fire and only slightly more evidence of bombardment. Given another recorded attack on the station on 22 April 1918, it is possible that despite its strategic position the camp was either empty or only partly occupied at the time. As with so many of the other Arab Revolt-period Turkish sites we investigated, this one is invisible in the historical sources.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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