World War I: 100 Years Later
The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia
His daring raids in World War I made him a legend. But in the Middle East today, the desert warrior’s legacy is written in sand
By Scott Anderson
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe
ipping tea and chain-smoking L&M cigarettes in his reception tent in Mudowarra, Sheik Khaled Suleiman al-Atoun waves a hand to the outside, in a generally northern direction. “Lawrence came here, you know?” he says. “Several times. The biggest time was in January of 1918. He and other British soldiers came in armored cars and attacked the Turkish garrison here, but the Turks were too strong and they had to retreat.” He pulls on his cigarette, before adding with a tinge of civic pride: “Yes, the British had a very hard time here.”
Unearthing America’s Lawrence of Arabia, Wendell Phillips
While the sheik was quite correct about the resiliency of the Turkish garrison in Mudowarra—the isolated outpost held out until the final days of World War I—the legendary T.E. Lawrence’s “biggest time” there was open to debate. In Lawrence’s own telling, that incident occurred in September 1917, when he and his Arab followers attacked a troop train just south of town, destroying a locomotive and killing some 70 Turkish soldiers.
The southernmost town in Jordan, Mudowarra was once connected to the outside world by means of that railroad. One of the great civil-engineering projects of the early 20th century, the Hejaz Railway was an attempt by the Ottoman sultan to propel his empire into modernity and knit together his far-flung realm.
By 1914, the only remaining gap in the line was located in the mountains of southern Turkey. When that tunneling work was finished, it would have been theoretically possible to travel from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople all the way to the Arabian city of Medina, 1,800 miles distant, without ever touching the ground. Instead, the Hejaz Railway fell victim to World War I. For nearly two years, British demolition teams, working with their Arab rebel allies, methodically attacked its bridges and isolated depots, quite rightly perceiving the railroad as the Achilles’ heel of the Ottoman enemy, the supply line linking its isolated garrisons to the Turkish heartland.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/...951857/#zx42wLgMqozboIpA.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter