World War One

Lawrence of Arabia
Ottoman Empire Transport In Palestine
Pre-WWI Chinese-Japanese Conflicts

Lawrence of Arabia

As I have seen, you are an expert in WWI and specially in the Middle East. This is the reason I am writing you, because I would like to know something about Laurence of Arabia.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of those difficult to define characters who is a larger than life hero in the minds of some, yet while history supports some of the legend, is probably over-rated. This is no doubt partially due to the huge Hollywood Movie in which some of the historical inaccuracies were quite laughable, yet over-all was a good film, which always lulls one into a sense of false security.

Let's stick to some historical facts that can be backed up by other sources. This is perhaps the best way. Many years ago as a Police Officer I was trained to gather the evidence, seek out the facts to substantiate it and only then formulate a definative opinion. All Military History should be viewed in the same light....everyone sees things in a different manner. Napoleon can be a hero to one man and a villain to another. Mussolini brought order to some, and was a murderous dictator to others. A neutral view of all the personalities will gain you a better insight into history.

Lawrence had been attached to the British GHQ in Cairo because his knowledge of some areas of Palestine was valuable. He was an Oxford Don and an extremely intelligent young man. Pre-war he had travelled much of the area as an archeologist and no doubt, if he had seen the modern movies would probably have written himself up as an Indiana Jones type character, for he was his own best publicist. Factually his job was probably quite boring for a man of his intellect and even the movie acknowledges he had a small crowded office with the job of gathering intelligence about the Ottoman forces in his region. Intelligence is a vital job, one sadly overlooked by wargamers and often by the military. Lawrence however was a young man and craved more excitement. Cairo must have been a strange place to work in as during much of the early period of WW1 the old boy system was still in force and there were over a hundred officers of Brigadier General and higher, each with his own staff, resident in the city. His notorious lack of care for uniform and the army 'system' would have certainly made him a bit conspicuous.

The story goes that Lawrence was given the opportunity to journey to and make contact with Arab forces, who were already agitating against Ottoman-Turkish rule. He encouraged them to fight various battles, arranged weapons and supplies etc. He is supposed to have led the Arab forces into battle and generally cause mayhem for the Turks. The forces he was with suffered some setbacks and melted away, but he later returned to re-raise them and lead them to a triumphant capture of Damascus and destruction of the Ottoman Armies.

Ok. So thats how the story goes. His contacts with Arab forces are confirmable and he was one of the officers involved in getting arms and supplies to them. In the 'European' racial attitudes of the day he was probably seen by many Westerners as the great white leader helping free the despised Arabs from the even more despised Turks. Yet, in the history of pre-war Ottoman Empire there had been surprisingly few dissenting elements in Arab lands because of a tradition of respect for all religious groups and races. Ottoman rule had not been as all dominating as British rule in parts of their Empire. There were exceptions of course, the Armenians being a particularly dark one. The Balkan wars brought about a more 'European' line of thought in Constantinople and this spread thoughout the Empire with a subsequent devaluation of Arab traditions and values. Since a third of the Empire was Arab, this was not taken well. Secret societies sprang up and resistance to Turkish rule hardened, this brought on tough crack downs and so began a cycle of growing revolt and disatisfaction which was not in the best interests of the Ottoman Army since such a large proportion were Arabs.This unhappiness was not, however, as deep rooted as one might think and is the reason why it took so long to get the Arabs to rise.

The British therefore needed to forment 'trouble' in order to get the Arabs to rebel against the Turks. The 'Arabs' is a very wide term to describe numerous tribes and groups many of who would rather fight each other than the Turks. For this purpose only an Arab leader would suffice and I believe the rise of Hussayn and his personal desire to see independence for Arab Territory provided much more of a leadership base. Sharif Hussayn proclaimed a revolt in 1916 and took over Mecca, then captured various other towns and ports which forced the "Turkish" garrison of Medina to adopt a defensive posture.

Aziz al Masri had served with the Sanussi, although born in Egypt and had the rank of Major when he joined Hussayn. There can be little doubt that he got much of the organisation of the Arab Army of Revolt going well before the arrival of Allied liason officers; including Lawrence. Besides the purely tribal elements of the force, made so popular in the Movie, there had to be a hard core of trained troops and these were mostly ex Ottoman officers and soldiers who either defected, or joined from prisoner of war camps. The British Colonel Joyce, who was actually senior to Lawrence and supposedly in command, is usually linked more with this Sharifian Regular force. He was a pre-war regular officer and as such probably got on better with Aziz al Masri. History has not given him the same PR coverage as Lawrence.

Because Hussayn held Mecca, the Holy City for all Moslems, his call for a Holy War against Turkish rule carried more weight and I believe Lawrence would certainly not have been able to bring on a revolt of the size that occurred, purely for British interests. Besides, although conveniently left out of the movie, the French had quite a bit to do with it and sent troops, while Italian Naval units helped secure the ports and ensure Hussayn's supplies. The Arabs had their own agenda and I believe that the Allies were merely part of it.

Even the Turks themselves had used Arab auxillaries in raids against Egypt in the early part of the war and found them very unreliable. They blame much of the failure of the Sinai expedition on the Arab supporting forces. One can't therefore expect these tribesmen to do a sudden about face and become brilliant horse soldiers all because of the presence of some Allied Officers and one in particular. It is illogical and unlikely. The 'regularising' of some of the forces was therefore vital and although Hollywood again conveniently left them out, we know they marched hard and fought well. One of the best units being the Camel Corps, most of whom were ex Ottoman Camel troops, in which army they had already achieved a high reputation.

Lawrence did however carry out a brilliant raid on Akaba, which resulted in the capture of a town and fortress that should probably never have fallen, were it not for the element of surprise and sheer audacity of his actions and planning. The bulk of his force were local Arabs and it must be remembered that Lawrence never had a continuous command of more than his own bodyguard. As the 'revolt' passed through territories, so the local Arabs took part and then dropped out again when the war moved on. Only a few hundred of the 'Regular' troops of the Sharifian army went all the way to Damascus. The rest were continually coming and going. The fact that these forces were continually changing cannot be stressed highly enough. Most wargamers envisage a force of Arabs that rose up in the Hijaz and swept right across to Damascus. This is quite incorrect.

Arab forces carried out many raids on Ottoman lines of communications but in the early part of the campaign this was confined almost exclusively to the Hijaz region, well East of the area where the main armies of both sides were squaring off against each other. The Allies had not done well against the Turks anywhere until the battle of Beersheba, on the Palestine front turned the Gaza line. Suddenly things were fluid and many Arabs previously unconvinced, could see that the days of Turkish rule might well be numbered. Besides the British General now appointed to the Middle East had the fortunate name of Allenby, which when spoken with the right accent, sounded like the name of a man who had been  prophesised to liberate the Arabs.

Lawrence of Arabia, as he was self styled after the war, had a bad reputation with some of the Australian mounted forces in Palestine. These troops, known as the Australian Light Horse were in the action at Beersheba. Their charge at the end of a battle hanging in doubt and with night rapidly approaching, won the day. Yet the history reports of the unreliabilty of the troops of Colonel Lawrence and of their failure to show up on several occasions. The ALH, unlike many other formations that gravitated back and forth between Palestine and the Western Front, were on the spot for the whole war. They were the spearhead of Allenby's forces. As such they were a proud and battle hard force that naturally resented much of the post war grandstanding by proponents of the "Lawrence of Arabia" stories.

The taking of Damascus is a prime example. In the movie one is left to think this was achieved by Lawrence and he conveniently allows one to think so in his own books. In actual fact, the city had been in a shaky situation for days and in the 48 hours prior to his arrival. The defence had originally been the job of Ali Riza Pasha el Rikabi, who had been born in Baghdad and was himself an Arab who had been trained at the Turkish Military Academy. After years of service he became a Lt.General and although somewhat suspected by his superiors, was given command of Damascus. After planning its defence, he rode forward to meet the oncoming Australian forces under General Chauvel and gave them the plans. He wanted the capture of the city to as bloodless as possible and invited them to push on. It is significant that he approached the "REGULAR" troops advancing on Damascus, not the forces under Lawrence, with whom he could have easily made contact.

The famous Turkish General Djemal Pasha, was however nearby and rode to see if he could do something about it. He called a meeting of the notables but found the situation hopeless as they were also quite decided that the city should pass to British control without any fighting. Emir Said was jealous of the oncoming Hussayn, but none the less devoted to the Arab cause and hearing reports that the Turks intended to set fire to the town as British approached, he prevailed upon Djemal to leave as cavalry were already approaching. Flags of the Hejaz revolt were already flying in the town and seeing the situation was hopeless, the Turkish officer rode off to Beirut, escaping capture as the road itself was cut off by 5th ALH Brigade troops only two hours later.

Damascus remained in a state of uncertainty for the rest of the 30th of Sept. 1918. Some Turkish troops still straggled through, a large garrison remained and a large hospital was overflowing, but the Turkish forces were in no way in control. There was some disorder on the streets overnight.

At first light, troops of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade moved off under orders to cut off retreating Turkish troops on the road to Homs. The shortest way however, appeared to be through Damascus itself. By 5am this was what they were doing with scouts leading well ahead. On the way they passed through the Barada Gorge which was littered with wrecked German and Turkish vehicles and captured a troop train in the course of which they took 480 prisoners and large stocks of gold and coin. Of more interest to them was a stock of fine German Cigars and the horsemen galloped on puffing away on their captured supply. By 6am they were in Damascus having encountered only a few snipers and galloped past the Turkish Barracks where several thousand surpised soldiers were assembling sleepily for breakfast and too startled to resist. Sometime between 6.30am and 7am Emir Said as Civil Governor met with Major Olden (2iC 10th ALH) in the Serai which was packed with notables. The Emir then surrendered the town with great dignity and welcomed the British Army. He then wrote this out formally.

Having more pressing things to do however, the 3ALHB then galloped on with the help of an Arab guide provided by the Emir and were soon beyond the city in pursuit of the Turkish and German rearguard. Not long after they had left, advance troops of the Indian 14th Cavalry Brigade entered the city and Lawrence, followed behind them with his Irregulars. He was nearly two hour behind the 10th ALH. The Arab troops of Lawrence galloped about putting on a great show of celebration and were later followed by Bedouin intent on looting. There is no account of these irregulars doing anything other than loot and ride about noisily. By 8.30am even General Chauvel, Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, to which the ALH, belonged had driven into Damascus without difficulty.

Meanwhile, troops of the 4th and 12th ALH had been pushing into the outskirts of Damascus from 6am but engaged in mopping up the Turkish forces there. A hundred men of the 4th approached the Barracks the 10th had galloped past shortly before and some 12,000 Turkish troops were persuaded to lay down their arms. The Indians swept the streets clear of stragglers and Damascus was secure. The great myth of the capture of Damascus by Lawrence of Arabia, is therefore quite untrue. He was little more than just one of those present. The only fighting, if you could call it that was when civil authorities asked permission to disperse the looting Bedouin, which, once this was granted, they did mostly with warning shots and blows with sticks or the flat of swords.

The fall of Damascus can therefore be accredited to the local Arab leaders who were determined it would not be fought over and to the Australian and Indian troops who not only entered first, but engaged in mopping up the last Turkish troops present. No doubt the presence of the Arab Revolt troops nearby had a dramatic effect on the attitude of the populace but even then, one must allow credit for their own leaders, not just Lawrence.

The role of Lawrence of Arabia is therefore clouded in myths and mystery. Some things are undoubtably true, others are not. If this description gives the impression I am not a fan of Lawrence, that would be unfair. I have no doubt he was an innoventive and imposing personality - the sort of unlikely leader that seems to spring up in any war. That he can be given as much credit as he has been given I seriously doubt and based on my own reading, would deny. He was a man. Like all of us he probably had his good points and his bad. He will, however, always be a special part of the history of WW1.

- Mal. Wright

Ottoman Empire Transport In Palestine

Could you please tell me anything about Turkish transport in Palestine during WWI? I have heard it was mostly run by Europeans, and the vehicles were gotten by them. Were they no good at it? Because everying I've read says supply problems were terrible. Also, is it true many were Jews?

The army operating in Palestine was more correctly the Ottoman Army. The Turkish Empire comprised many nationalities, just as did the British Empire.

Most motor transport was operated by German and Austrian troops, and also the trains were under their control. (So were the wireless and telegraph communications, mostly.) The system operated much more efficiently once the Germans took it over, but there were some inherent internal problems.

Railways. For trains, there were several gauges in use, and the tracks would sometimes end at the beginning of difficult terrain then resume on the other side, requiring mule/donkey transport in between. The pre-War Ottoman system had been somewhat haphazard and internally corrupt, so there was a variety of rolling stock types and locomotives as well as different gauges. Even German efficiency could not overcome some of these problems, as spare parts became scarce. Additionally, bridges were often badly built, and the track beds not able to carry as much weight as in Europe due to bad construction.

Interestingly, many sleepers were made of steel or iron because of the shortage of wood in much of Palestine. This also avoided locals stealing them for firewood. A constant problem was the lack of fuel for locomotives and shortage of water. Coal dumps quickly ran down and were not replaced, which left some trains stranded. The over-all result was that the rail system supplied the front at about half or less that of Europe.

For what they had to deal with, the German and Austrian railway troops ran it very efficiently, which makes one wonder how bad it must have been before they got involved.

Motor Transport. As for motor transport, you must remember that at the begining of the century, "made" roads were few so this caused by far the most problems. There was a lack of bridges over Wadis, and bad terrain simply because there had previously been little need of them. The motor transport system had to put up with a lack of fuel, as well as appalling road operating conditions by European standards - where, by the way, it was bad enough.

So, generally, it was not a lack of organisation, vehicles or personnel that caused problems so much as the difficulties of the terrain, lack of roads, etc. This also caused serious problems for the British Empire Forces fighting on the Palestine Front.

Jews and Transport. As for Jews working the transport system, I can only say that it was Ottoman Army practice to use people from within their empire, whom they did not want as soldiers, to do other tasks. Christians, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Kurds - all performed medical duties, and ran much of the transport and rail systems.

If you are suggesting that the use of Jews to work the transport is the reason for its failure, I think that would be a completely wrong assumption. Most of the pre-war and early war problems were due to corruption, to which all nationalities are not immune.

If you are suggesting it was because of some undercurrent of Jewish resistance to Ottoman Rule, based on modern thinking, you would again be wrong. Until 1917-18, most national groups of the Ottoman Empire were reasonably loyal - or at least didn't cause any more trouble than necessary. In WWI, the formation of a Jewish state similar to the modern Israel must have seemed a very remote hope.

Bullocks Transport. As for the Ottoman Army itself, its transport was dominantly bullock-drawn. This meant it was terribly slow. Post war, many officers complained that it was a case of their bullocks against modern trucks that were faster and carried more load.

While this is true and did greatly affect things, it was not always a total disadvantage. In some of the worst terrain, the bullock teams were every bit as useful as any truck, perhaps more so.

Besides, the "Turks" had devised a centuries-old system of supply for armies on the march, which was very efficient in outlook. The wagons on which stores were carried for the army were designed such that when the stores were used up, the wagons themselves could become firewood for cooking, and the bullocks themselves became fresh meat on the hoof for the soldiers to kill and eat. This meant an Ottoman Army column on the march might technically get smaller as it went - although due to straggling you might not notice too much.

From all the histories I have read, the predominant reasons for lack of supplies seem to be:

  • Loss due to theft
  • inefficient handling
  • corruption

Considering many items were already in short supply due to the war, this meant serious problems at the front.

One should not get too carried away by this assumption, however. Reports by some Australian Light Horse involved in the pursuit of Ottoman troops retreating from the Gaza-Beersheba Line, speak of finding supplies abandoned and that these were often better than their own. One case (Idress) mentions that even the abandoned medical gear his unit captured was better than that available to the Australian troops.

I have never read of any Ottoman unit having to surrender due to running out of ammunition! Most Allied troops could not stomach the white brackish water found in Palm Hods, but the Ottoman Troops did.

The "Turkish Army Biscuit" is a story in itself. This dry flat biscuit was as hard as a stone, and often supplied by being thrown off the back of trucks or from carts as they rolled past the units being supplied. It was jokingly considered to be "armour" if placed in a pocket. Allied prisoners issued with it often died of enteritis, because they tried eating it by breaking bits off after bashing the biscuits between rocks. (It broke teeth if you tried to eat it). They would wake in the night screaming in agony and frothing (black) at the mouth, then die in great pain. If soaked in water and then cooked on a fire (as it was intended to be), however, the biscuit was quite edible and certainly provided the Ottoman army with a good feed. Allied prisoners who learnt to use the biscuits the right way also found it nourishing.

- Mal. Wright

Pre-WWI Chinese-Japanese Conflicts

My bunch are doing a project to let us wargame some of the battles between the Chinese and the Japanese in the period before WW1. It's a hard period because lots of things are not available. We've been using German WW2 for the Chinese, and painting them in grey uniforms. We have almost no equipment for them. Jap things are easier to get. Any ideas?
- Luke
G'day Luke

Until a few days ago, I would have been suggesting a lot of scratch building was in order. I have now however seen the REVIRESCO lists. US "Liberty Trucks" are available for the Chinese, and a great range of model-T Fords that were used by both sides. They also produce a range of armoured cars, some of which are sure to be of use to the Chinese. They advertise a "torpedo" German WW1 staff car which was also used by the Turks. I understand some of these vehicles were used by the Japanese, and no doubt you could get away with giving some to the Chinese. Even the British "tender' is in period and could be used by the Chinese. I have not yet seen any of these vehicles personally, but have seen photographs and they look superb. They are in metal but are quite reasonably priced. You can find out more about the REVIRESCO range by e.mailing John McEwan (

By saying there is more available for the Japanese, I presume you are using Hasegawa kits of their trucks? If not, that will solve your problem.

If you are intending to carry it on into WW2, I read some years ago, that the reason why from time to time one spots various of the smaller German vehicles in use by the Chinese, when watching video footage and looking at photographs, was because the Allies needed to do something with a lot of the stuff they were capturing in North Africa - and so sent it to the Chinese. This was given as explanation in captions for SdKfz222 Armoured Cars with Chinese markings, and a PzKfw1 47mm Panzer Jager. I confess to not having read much on the Sino-Japanese War, so perhaps other readers might be able to add more light to this. It does seem logical to give it to your ally if you dont want to use it yourself, and the smaller vehicles were needed by the Chinese because of their roads and bridges.

For artillery, I produced a range called the REALLY USEFUL ARTILLERY for IRREGULAR MINIATURES in the UK and EUREKA here in Australia. These are 1:76 scale models, deliberately designed to fit in with larger 15mm figures or even 20mm. The first range includes a very large number of weapons that were used in the Sino-Japanese War. Certainly most of the field guns, howitzers etc. You can get lists of these from IRREGULAR MINIATURES and from EUREKA MINIATURES.

As for infantry - your Chinese really ought to have puttees. I suggest a better alternative would be WW1 Germans and Austrians. The MINIFIG Austrian infantry would look particularly good in that role, as would some of their infantry. Even the Austrians in peaked caps would look ok, if you simply altered the caps to be more like the Chinese one. The later war German Cavalry would probably look quite nice. The IRREGULARS WW1 Germans have puttees as well, and also the same pack type as the Chinese Nationalist Army. Their later WW1 range would fit in very well as Chinese. The IRREGULARS Machinegunners are certainly superior to the Minifig ones. Be careful to get ordinary infantry, however, as the IRREGULAR storm troopers are such superb little figures that they are too distinctily WW1 German to be converted into Chinese.

- Mal. Wright

Last Updates
11 February 1999HTML update
26 December 1997Lawrence of Arabia
11 June 1997Palestine transport in WWI
7 June 1997page first published
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