WWI Centennial: Arabs Take Aqaba, Kerensky Offensive Fails
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 281st installment in the series.
JULY 1-6, 1917: ARABS TAKE AQABA, KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS
In mid-1917 the leaders of the Arab Revolt, Prince Faisal and his chief advisor, the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, faced a conundrum. While they hoped to raise all the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire in rebellion and eventually capture Damascus as the capital of a new Arab state, to achieve these sweeping ambitions they required more supplies including rifles, machine guns, explosives, and armored cars, not to mention ammunition, food, medicine, and fuel.
Britain’s mighty Royal Navy, with its unchallenged control of the seas, could supply all this and more, if only the Arabs could gain control of a suitable port on the Red Sea with a harbor deep enough to admit cargo ships and transports. Just as important, the port had to be close enough to the main theater of the Arab Revolt (northwestern Arabia, the modern country of Jordan, and their immediate surroundings) for the supplies to reach the itinerant Arab Army fast enough to make a difference; other ports already under Arab control, such as Duba and Al Wajh, were simply too far away in a region with no modern infrastructure aside from the Hejaz Railway, still under Turkish control.
There was just one port that fit the bill: Aqaba, a protected harbor that gave its name to the Gulf of Aqaba, one of two northern inlets of the Red Sea along with the Gulf of Suez, between which lay the arid Sinai Peninsula (see map above). However Aqaba was a formidable target to say the least, protected on the landward side by the trackless wastes of the An Nafud, an impenetrable desert hundreds of miles wide, and on the seaward side by heavy guns (and in any event the warships of the Royal Navy’s local squadrons were too busy guarding the approaches to the Suez Canal against enemy U-boats to attempt an amphibious assault).
And so the Arab Revolt seemed doomed to wither on the vine, a small conflict on the fringes of a secondary theater of the First World War – that is, until Lawrence had a clever idea. The Arab Army simply had to do the impossible.
ACROSS THE DESERT
The decision to attack Aqaba from the landward side by crossing the Nafud was widely considered suicidal, even by the Bedouin nomads: temperatures in July can reach as high as 54° Celsius or 129° Fahrenheit during the day, and without water even the camels would begin dying after a few weeks, at which point the human beings would be doomed as well. Thus Lawrence received permission to take only a small, expendable group of warriors with him, and would have to try to recruit more tribesmen living in the vicinity of Aqaba once – or rather if – they arrived.
Of course Lawrence had his own strategic reasons for wanting to capture Aqaba: in addition to allowing the British to supply the Arab Army, taking the town would deprive the Turks of a base from which they could threaten the advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a combined British and Egyptian army, across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine under Edmund Allenby, who took command on June 27, 1917. From the British perspective the whole Arab Revolt was just another gambit in their chess game with the Turks, and Lawrence shared their priorities – but secretly hoped to make it something more as well.
Climate wasn’t the only adversary during their epic journey across the Nafud, forcing them to confront natural and human foes in combination. Although the Arabs usually avoided battle in unfavorable conditions, the small band of warriors led by Lawrence and the fierce Howeitat chieftain Auda Abu Tayi, an ally of Faisal (above), were forced to attack a Turkish outpost blocking a key pass on the way to Aqaba. Lawrence recalled the desperate fight over sharp rocks in blazing desert heat:
Then we began to snipe them steadily in their positions under the slopes and rock-faces by the water hoping to provoke them out and up the hill in a charge against us… This went on all day. It was terribly hot, hotter than ever before I had felt it in Arabia, and the anxiety and constant moving made it hard for us. Some even of the tough tribesmen broke down under the cruelty of the sun and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade. We had to run up and down, supplying our lack of numbers by mobility, ever looking over the long ranges of hill for a new spot from which to counter this or that Turkish effort. The hillsides were steep and exhausted our breath, and the plants and grasses twined like little hands about our ankles as we ran and plucked us back. The sharp ground tore our feet, and before evening the more energetic men were leaving rusty prints upon the ground with their every stride. Our rifles grew so hot with the sun and shooting that they seared our hands… The rocks on which flung ourselves to get our aim were burning with the sun, so that they scorched our breasts and arms, from which later the skin peeled off in ragged sheets.
After this battle for a Turkish outpost the attack on Aqaba itself was almost anticlimactic, in part because the Arabs soon enjoyed numerical superiority thanks to the arrival of local tribesmen eager for plunder, along with the advantage of surprise:
Unfortunately for the enemy, they never imagined attack from the interior and of all their great works not one trench or post faced inland. Our advance from so new a direction threw them into panic, and wisely they did not progressively resist us. The attempt if made would have availed them nothing, for we had the hill tribes with us, and by their help we could occupy the sheer peaks with riflemen whose plunging fire would render the gorge untenable for troops without overhead cover.
With the outskirts now under Arab control, over 1,000 Bedouin warriors were left facing around 300 unhappy Turkish defenders dug into trenches a few miles from Aqaba, and it was only a matter of time; in fact Lawrence’s main concern now was to prevent a massacre of the holdouts. A parlay with the Turkish commander yielded a tentative agreement to surrender at daylight, but chaotic combat soon erupted again, until Lawrence restored order with considerable personal bravery:
Next day at dawn fighting broke out on all sides, for hundreds more hill men, again doubling our number, had come about us in the night and, not knowing the arrangement, began shooting at the Turks, who defended themselves. Nasir and I went out… to the open bend of the valley below our men, who ceased fire not to hit us. The Turks also stopped at once, for they had no more fight or food left in them, and thought that we were well supplied. So the surrender went off quietly after all.
Among the prisoners was a hapless German engineer who, like so many people caught in up in the whirlwind of war in a foreign land, freely admitted had no idea what was going on and generally seemed grateful just to be alive:
As the Arabs rushed in to plunder the camp I noticed one of the prisoners in field-grey uniform, with a red beard and puzzled blue eyes, and spoke to him in German. He was the well-borer, and knew no Turkish and was amazed at the doings of the last two days. He begged me to explain what it all meant, since he had not understood the officers. I said that we were a rebellion, of the Arabs against the Turks. This took him time to appreciate. He wanted to know who was our leader and I said the Sherif of Mecca. He supposed he would be sent to Mecca. I said rather to Egypt, and he enquired the price of sugar there, and when I told him it was cheap and plentiful he was glad.
Aqaba had no direct communications with Egypt, so Lawrence was now forced to embark on another epic desert journey, this time across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, to inform his superiors in Cairo that the Arab Army had performed a miracle, totally changing the outlook for Allenby’s planned advance into Palestine as well as the prospects of the Arab Revolt.
KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS
The fall of Aqaba was an unexpected, but much-needed, piece of good news for the Allies following another unmitigated disaster on the Eastern Front. This time it was the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, which would prove to be Russia’s last major effort of the First World War, as the vast realm quickly descended into the chaos of civil war.
The offensive, named for the Provisional Government’s charismatic minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, was intended to show the Allies that Russia’s new revolutionary government was committed to continuing the war effort, as well as enhance its prestige in the eyes of the Russian people. Like his fellow cabinet ministers Kerensky was worried about the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet, a popular assembly dominated by socialists, which seemed determined to sideline the Provisional Government under Prince Lviv; they hoped that a big victory would shore up their legitimacy and check the ambitions of the Soviet’s radical members, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Things didn’t turn out the way, however. The Kerensky Offensive got off to a promising start, but this was largely due to the choice of a soft target – the demoralized, disorganized Austro-Hungarian armies facing the Russians in Galicia. After a fierce two-day bombardment from June 28-30, on July 1 troops from the Russian Eleventh, Eighth and Seventh Armies began a short-lived advance, and in some places made considerable progress towards Lemberg, which had already traded hands countless times over the course of the war – but then the wheels came off.
On July 3 many of the Russian troops, figuring they had made enough progress, simply stopped advancing, and their officers – stripped of their authority by the Soviet’s famous Order No. 1 in March – were powerless to enforce any kind of discipline. By July 16 the advance had stopped in its tracks. The pause not only gave the Habsburg forces a break, but also allowed their formidable German allies to dispatch reinforcements who immediately staged a counterattack beginning on July 19, turning the Russian advance into a rout (below, Russian troops fleeing after the failure of the offensive).
By early August the Germans and Habsburg armies had advanced over 150 miles in places in pursuit of the retreating Russians, with no prospect of serious resistance; on the road to this debacle the Russians had sustained 200,000 casualties, including 40,000 killed and many more taken prisoner, as units surrendered en masse. The demoralization of the Russian Army was complete, and mass desertions and mutinies would undermine whatever was left of the once-mighty “steamroller” in the months to come.
Everyone immediately recognized the enormity of the disaster, which helped set the stage for the militant Bolsheviks’ first attempt to seize power, further destabilizing the already weak government. On July 25, 1917, an anonymous English diplomatic courier believed to be Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary:
The news from the Front is too terrible to think of – two Army Corps surrendered, and all the towns lost which were so lately won. Thank God, the Huns will find nothing to eat. I know what that is, as we are starving here. [The loss of] Tarnpol is a great disaster, and really last night… when that news came, we were all disheartened. You have no idea how tired it makes one; I sleep eight hours, only to wake up much more tired. There is nothing to eat, either; I am always hungry. For the moment all is quiet here, but there may yet be a pitched battle between those who want to maintain order and carry on the war, and those who don’t want to do either.
GREECE JOINS ALLIES
The Allies had received another very modest piece of encouragement with the belated entry of Greece into the war on July 2, 1917. The decision came after months of paralysis resulting from the rift between King Constantine, the country’s pro-German monarch, and Eleftherios Venizelos, its pro-Allied senior statesman and most popular politician.
Greek neutrality had already been violated in 1915 when the Allies landed at Salonika, where Venizelos soon set up a rival pro-Allied government and worked to marginalize King Constantine with the full encouragement and support of the Allies. Under intense pressure from the Allies, who had enforced a naval blockade and financial embargo against his regime, King Constantine finally resigned on June 11, 1917 and went into exile with his eldest son George, making way for his second son, Alexander, who now took the throne and ruled as a figurehead under the thumb of Venizelos.
Venizelos wasted no time declaring war on the Central Powers, including the Bulgarians, who had occupied parts of northern Greece alongside German, Habsburg, and Ottoman forces, and who still laid claim to the ancient city of Salonika despite their disastrous defeat in the Second Balkan War. However the Greek contribution to the war effort was symbolic at best: for most of the conflict the main body of the Greek Army remained encamped far to the south of the frontlines in Thessaly, and just 5,000 Greek soldiers died in battle, a pinprick by the standards of the First World War. Many more would die in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, when the Greeks, at the encouragement of the Allies, tried to detach Turkish territory without success.