The First World War: Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan

It is almost 100 years since the First World War came to the deserts of Arabia, and 50 years since the events of the Arab Revolt were famously dramatised by David Lean in the 1962 epic film “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Wadi Rum, Jordan
Wadi Rum, Jordan

Arabia was one of the most colourful theatres in which the First World War was fought. The desert conflict was marked by a great fluidity of movement; daring raids across vast swathes of arid land by exotically dressed irregulars; and above all in the popular imagination, by the personality of T.E Lawrence (of Arabia).

Modern Jordan was of great regional strategic significance during the First World War and was a key base for operations. Those who are interested in following in the footsteps of Lawrence and discovering firsthand one of the First World War’s more exotic locations will relish the opportunity of exploring this desert jewel. Jordan is also home to some of the finest scenery and cultural treasures in Arabia – including the incredible ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra.

Wadi Rum: Lawrence arrived in the stunning desert valley of Rum having crossed the great waterless Nefud desert to muster the local tribes and capture the port city of Aqaba. Rum is one of Jordan’s great natural wonders and was the location for many of the scenes in David Lean’s epic. There is probably no better way to experience this dramatic landscape and enjoy the amazing scenery described by Lawrence as “Vast, Echoing, and God-Like”than by spending a night under canvas at a tented camp.

Aqaba, Red Sea, Jordan
Aqaba, Jordan

Aqaba and Abu Al Lasan: During the First World War Aqaba (Jordan’s outlet on the Red Sea) was a small village but had great strategic value as a supply base for General Allenby as he moved his forces north towards Jerusalem.  Contrary to David Lean’s film, the actual battle for Aqaba occurred for the most part at the Turkish blockhouse of Abu Al Lasan midway between Aqaba and Ma’an. Lawrence was almost killed at Abu Al Lasan. After the battle, the Arab forces manoeuvred themselves past Aqaba’s defensive lines and the village fell without any further resistance. Aqaba’s Mamluk fortress which was shelled by the Royal Navy during the war can be visited as can Abu Al Lasan blockhouse.

Station on the Hejaz Railway
Station on the Hejaz Railway

Hejaz Railway: A key strategy during the Arab Revolt was to launch guerrilla raids against the Hejaz Railway (a line that passed through Jordan linking Damascus with Medina) blowing up bridges, water tanks and track. Lawrence believed that whilst the Ottoman Turks controlled the railway they would always have the opportunity to supply their key base of Medina. The campaign succeeded in tying down large number of Turkish forces to defend the line. The most spectacular raid that Lawrence led personally was against the railway line at Mudawwara (between Rum and Ma’an) where an entire train was stopped and looted with the loss of only one man.  The old Hejaz Railway station still exists in Amman and can be visited.

Tafileh:  Tafileh is the location of Lawrence’s only pitched battle during the First World War. During the battle, the Arab forces succeeded in destroying an entire Ottoman Turkish battalion. In their retreat the Ottoman Turks had committed a number of atrocities, these actions prompted an Arab backlash at Tafileh, and no prisoners were taken following the battle. The modern village of Tafileh lies to the south of the great Crusader castle of Kerak on the historic and scenic ‘Kings Highway’ ancient trade route that linked Amman with the Red Sea coast.

Azraq Castle, Desert Castles, Jordan
Azraq Castle, Jordan

Qasr Al Azraq: The black basalt fortress of Qasr Al Azraq is Roman in origin and part of a string of ‘castles’ located in the flat stony desert to the east of Amman. Azraq castle commands the only water source in the region. T.E Lawrence made the castle his base for operations during the winter of 1917-1918, an experience he wrote about in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. His office was in the chamber above the gatehouse entrance.

How important was Lawrence’s contribution to the First World War in Arabia? This is a question that will long be debated. Before his arrival in the Arabia the Arab Revolt was running out of steam, after Lawrence’s arrival, the momentum increased enormously and the revolt succeeded in tying down large numbers of Ottoman Turkish troops (an estimated 50,000 men) who were thus unable to assist their comrades in Palestine when General Allenby advanced on Jerusalem. This contribution alone made Allenby’s campaign considerably easier than it would otherwise have been and brought the war in the desert to a swifter conclusion.

Corinthian Travel are specialists in tailor-made holidays to Jordan. Our 8 day / 7 night price tour: Petra & The Arabian Sands which includes a night in the desert of Wadi Rum visits several of the First World War sites in Jordan and leads in at £ 1265.00 per person (based on two sharing a room).   

2 thoughts on “The First World War: Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan

  1. There is a correction needed to your description of the battle of Tafileh, January 1918. Many prisoners were taken by the Arabs and there are two well-known photos (taken by TE Lawrence) showing a long line of them walking into Tafileh village.

    The ‘no prisoners’ killing of retreating Turkish troops by the Arabs occurred during the final allied advance on Damascus September 1918.

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