Inside Lawrence of Arabia’s triumph at the Battle of Megiddo
although the Ottoman Empire had secretly allied with Germany on 2 August 1914, it was with a bombing raid on Russian ports in the Black Sea on 29 October that year that it really entered World War I. With an army of 210,000 men and, in Enver Pasha, a war minister hellbent on keeping the ‘sick man of Europe’ from dying, the Ottomans were a formidable foe.
Recognising the threat the Eastern power posed, Britian tried to tackle it head on but this resulted in the disasterous Gallipoli Campaign. Having failed to force a passage through the Dardanelles, Britain took a different tact, deciding to exploit the resentment fomenting within the Ottomans’ own borders.
When an Arab leader by the name of Hussein bin Ali declared an uprising against his Ottoman overlords on 10 June 1916, the British spotted an opportunity to hamper the enemy war machine
by forcing it to concentrate soldiers on crushing the revolt, thereby deflecting troops away from the Suez Canal. Having promised the Arabs that Britain would ensure their independence once the war was won, Hussein’s son initiated the revolt by attacking the Ottoman garrison in Medina.
With the rebellion under way, British authorities in Egypt decided to send a young officer by the name of Thomas Edward Lawrence to Hejaz (now a region in Saudi Arabia) in October 1916 to aid the rebels. It was a relocation that would prove stunningly successful as Lawrence embarked on a glittering guerrilla campaign.
Having become a close advisor to Hussein’s son Faisal, the man who would become known as Lawrence of Arabia helped the smaller guerrilla force wage an efficient war against important Ottoman positions. They sabotaged vital communications and supply routes, preventing thousands of Ottoman soldiers from training their sights on the British forces fighting in the region under the command of General Edmund Allenby. A particularly clever strategy saw the tribal warriors repeatedly attacking the Hejaz railway line running south from Damascus, thereby forcing the Ottomans to continually defend the area and expend time and energy repairing sections of the line.
Yet while such small-scale successes did damage the Ottoman war effort, Lawrence’s first major victory wouldn’t come until the fall of Aqaba, a strategically vital port on the Red Sea.
Having proven that a well-organised guerrilla force could hamper a far larger, better-armed enemy, Lawrence’s efforts were supported by the British authorities, who by September 1918 had set their sights on Damascus.
Despite the legend of TE Lawrence liberating Damascus with his Arab army behind him (a myth popularised by the Hollywood film on his life), it is often argued that the Australian Light Horse brigade entered the city walls first, and the city’s governor offered its surrender to the Australians. An Indian regiment had also apparently passed through, meaning that TE Lawrence would have ridden into well-trodden ground.
Whoever entered the city first, the capture of Damascus on 1 October was relatively straightforward given that the Ottomans were already retreating.
However, the city was only there for the taking due to a combination of Lawrence’s campaign and the decisive Allied victory at the Battle of Megiddo, an encounter fought in the Holy Land, which paved the way for the capture of Aleppo.