A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

January 24, 1917: Royal Navy and Arab Revolt Take Wejh

Hejaz 1917, showing the rialway and the coast from Yenbo northward
This post should have appeared yesterday to mark the hundredth anniversary of the event, but yesterday was my wife's birthday, so married folks at least should understand.

Last year we examined the early days following the outbreak of the Great Arab Revolt in 1916. After the initial successes in capturing Mecca, Jidda (with the help of the Royal Navy), and Ta'if, advances slowed. The Hejaz Railroad at the time reached only to Medina, but that let the Ottoman forces reinforce the Medina garrison.

In the latter part of 1916, the Royal Navy aided the Sharifian forces in taking the Red Sea port towns of Rabegh and Yenbo (Yanbu‘). Late in the year, a Turkish attempt to retake the two ports was repulsed by the Sharifian Forces and the Royal Navy.

But, particularly in the first year or two of the Revolt, the British media downplayed the role the Royal Navy was playing, fearing the Turks would use it to portray the Revolt as a British-inspired rebellion (they portrayed it that way anyway, and it largely was).

Lawrence at Wejh, 1917
By the end of 1916 it had become clear to the British that of Sharif Hussein's four sons, Faisal, ‘Abdullah. Zayd, and ‘Ali, Faisal was the one with the most successful following. In August 1916, a young lieutenant in the British military intelligence section in Cairo, whom we met in connection with his posting to Cairo in late 1914, T.E. Lawrence. He was posted as a liaison with Prince Faisal for what was intended to be a few months at most. Lawrence, who knew Arabic and Turkish and had studied the tribes, soon began wearing Arab dress and became enamored of what he saw as the romance of desert warfare, also became chief cheerleader for Faisal among the British officers on the scene, most of whom outranked him and who were highly critical of the training and discipline of the Sharifian forces.

By January 1917, Faisal's Army (with Lawrence in tow) was in Yenbo, sheltering under the Royal Navy's guns. Lawrence already had his orders to return to Cairo; his replacement, Stewart Newcombe, was en route to replace him.

Newcombe had previously served with Lawrence at Cairo, but then had left to serve at Gallipoli. Now a colonel, he considerably outranked Lawrence and was about to become head of the whole Military Mission to the Hejaz. But Lawrence trusted him and they would forge a lifelong friendship: Newcombe would be a pallbearer when Lawrence died. But Lawrence had already delayed his return to Cairo, which wanted him back, and he would run out of excuses when Newcombe arrived. 

The decision was made to take the port town of Wejh, well to the north of Yenbo. It would give the British another supply base to support raids on the Hejaz Railway, and allow support for Sharifian operations much farther north. There was a Turkish garrison at Wejh, and the local Balli (or Billi) tribe was considered to be pro-Turkish.

Again, this could not be done without the Royal Navy. It was decided to embark weapons and a small Arab force, to advance on Wejh by sea while Faisal's Army advanced by land. They were to converge January 23rd or 24th. Lawrence would embark at Yenbo and be transported to the coastl town of Umm Lajj, midway up the coast.

The Royal Navy's Red Sea Patrol was commanded by Rear Admiral Sir R.E. Wemyss. The operational group advancing on Wejh consisted of HMS Fox, under Captain W.H.D. Boyle, who would go on to be a Fleet Admiral and the hereditary Earl of Cork in the Irish Peerage; the troopship Hardinge, with 400 Arab fighters on board, and the Espiegle, Suva, and Anne.

By January 21 the ships had set off or Wejh. Newcombe had been delayed in Cairo, which Lawrence took as a sign he should accompany Faisal to Wejh. Only hours after leaving Umm Lajj, Newcombe overtook the column. But Lawrence was in luck, since Newcombe felt he needed time to get to know Faisal, he asked Lawrence to remain with the expedition. Faisal also begged Cairo to leave Lawrence in the field, and the rest is history.

The expedition did not go as planned. The ships arrived off Wejh to find no sign of Faisal's Army. When they had still not arrived on the 24th, Boyle decided to land the troops he was carrying. The Arabs and a naval landing party who had gone ashore on the 23rd near Wejh, advanced on the town early on the 24th. The small Turkish garrison withdrew while the fight in the town continued. The Arab fighters soon descended into looting, but by the end of the day the town was secure. When Faisal and Lawrence arrived the next day, the Royal Navy had won the day. Losses were about 20 Arabs and one British officer killed, and two British seamen wounded.

Of course, the British gave credit to the Arab Revolt, and Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, devotes dozens of pages to a detailed discussion of the march on Wejh, and only about a page to the fact the battle was over when they got there.

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