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“Inquest” on Second Jordan

Immediately following our giant “Raid” up to Amman a month earlier, the Turk took measures designed to stop a repetition. He recognised that no force of any size could be maintained in the wild country between the Jordan Valley and the region of Amman without the use of the only road, so he strongly fortified and garrisoned the hills round Shunet Nimrin – in order to stop any future venture even getting out of the Valley.

Allenby’s despatch dated 18th September 1918 stated that his purpose was to cut off and destroy the enemy forces in the Shunet Nimrin positions, estimated at 5,000 Turk Infantry and German Machine Gun Companies.

It is difficult to imagine positions more favourable to the defence – ridge after ridge, for mile after mile, and each ridge a little higher than the one in front of it. So this operation only made sense if the Shunet Nimrin Force could be quickly isolated so that it soon became short of supplies – and it failed because it relied upon Arabs to cut one line of supply, which we could not reach from our side. And the Arabs did not move.

The Australian Mounted Division and Anzac Mounter Division away to our left – that is to the north of us – had no difficulty in getting up into the hills again, as they had done a month before and capturing Es Salt, thereby cutting off supplies to Shunet Nimrin by road. We were in touch with them by heliograph, on hills towering over Shunet Nimrin and some eight miles behind the ridge we were trying to take.

As the plan to isolate Shunet Nimrin went wrong, we were ourselves soon in danger of disaster – or rather the mounted troops around Es Salt were in grave danger. We infantry could take care of ourselves over the level ground between us and the River Jordan.

Evidence that this operation was a very sudden brain child on the part of somebody is the fact that only ten days before, on 19th April, the Division had been busy between Jericho and the River raising as much dust as possible, so as to persuade the Turk that troops were concentrating for attack. We were then marched back up the Jericho/Jerusalem Road in darkness so that the Turk would not know of our withdrawal – as at several points that road was under direct observation from the hills on the Moab side. And ten days later, on the 29th, we attacked!

Allenby’s despatch is informative up to a point but to get to the heart of the matter, one had to wait for publication of ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by TE Lawrence in 1935. From this, it is clear that three or four Arab “confidence tricksters” put over a fast one on GHQ and got away loaded down with golden sovereigns.

The Despatch states that a deputation from the Beni Sakha tribe arrived and declared that the tribe was concentrated and ready to co-operate in any advance that we might make. On this story and without any attempt to check with Colonel Lawrence, who was Allenby’s representative with the Arabs, the “Second Jordan” operation was planned and put into operation in the course of a few days.

The Despatch refers to the “inactivity of the Beni Sakha” and states that “the assistance of the Beni Sakha had not materialised”.

Knowing nothing of all this, Colonel Lawrence reached Allenby’s Headquarters on 1st May, where he heard to his surprise that we were back in Es Salt. He had been travelling for a few days from somewhere east of the Dead Sea and so had been out of touch. His surprise was still greater when he was told that the chiefs of the Beni Sakha had come to Jericho one morning, to offer the immediate co-operation of their 20,000 tribesmen at Themed.

Lawrence asked who the chief of the Beni Sakha was and was told “Fahad”. Lawrence knew that Fahad could not raise 400 men and that at the moment there was not one tent at Themed – and that the tribe had in fact already moved south.

Lawrence was, of course, furious, as he had every right to be. He writes of “the airy promises of a few greedy fellows, who had ridden into Jerusalem only to taste Allenby’s bounty and had been taken at their mouth value”. It is interesting to note that Lawrence does not blame Allenby. He blames his Chief of the General Staff who, it seems, by doing the deal directly with the Arabs instead of through Colonel Lawrence, thought he had put something over on the upstart.

Of course, Lawrence made enemies. He seemed to delight in not “conforming “– in being “the odd man out.” Also, it seems clear there was some who resented the fact that he “had Allenby’s ear”. Allenby recognised his unique abilities and he invariably backed Lawrence absolutely. This didn’t endear Lawrence to some other powerful figures.

Lawrence was, without question, a genius. Should we expect a genius to be normal? It seems a contradiction in terms.

At GHQ, during those two or three vital days, Lawrence, of course, saw the complete picture from moment to moment.

Early on the morning of 1st May, the Turk drove down the Jordan Valley from the north with a cavalry division and part of an infantry division, brushing aside a mounted brigade and got across a track, which was the life line of the mounted division in the Es Salt area.

Lawrence writes that “we escaped heavy disaster only because Allenby’s instinct for a situation showed him his danger just in time”. He pulled out the mounted division fast. They got out, leaving nine guns behind them.

Finally, on the subject of the Beni Sakha, whose failure to join in the liberation, caused Allenby his only set-back in the whole campaign and his Army to cease talking of The Arab Revolt but to talk instead of “the revolting Arabs”.

It is abundantly clear that we did the Arabs an injustice in this.

This is the sequence of events:

  1. Sometime between 21st  and 27th April (probably on the 23rd), GHQ swallowed the story of the 20,000 tribesmen, who were said to be concentrated and ready to cooperate in any advance we might make – without any check on the authority of the three or four men to speak for the Beni Sakha tribe.
  2. We attacked the Shunet Nimrin defences on 29th April, found them to be powerfully defended and ground gained could be measured in yards. The attacks continued until 4th May, when we withdrew after dark.
  3. On  1st May, with the arrival of Colonel Lawrence, GHQ knew they had been tricked by three or four renegade Arabs, who were “on the make”.
  4. Allenby’s Despatch dated 18th September – four months later – lays the blame for the failure squarely on the Beni Sakha. So this is on record for all time.

There is a story of an American Civil War General who, after some spectacular success, was told his name would go down in history and he (clearly one of those earthy characters) replied – “History is bunk”. Perhaps he had something there.

Colonel Lawrence, in ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, makes it very clear that, although the Bedouin or nomad Arab could shoot up the Turk one day with immunity because he could immediately take off into the desert for a hundred miles, the settled Arab, such as the Beni Sakha tribe, could rise only once – and that rising must succeed. If it were to fail, every man, woman and child would be slaughtered.

As it was never our intention to go up to Amman and remain there in control of the area, the Beni Sakha would have been insane to co-operate with us for a few days. Only our permanent occupation of their area wold have made their intervention reasonable and profitable.

After our raid up to Amman a month earlier, a number of Arabs in Es Salt were hanged by the Turk after our withdrawals, because they were said to have welcomed us.

If, instead of a few confidence tricksters, a genuine deputation had come in from this tribe, with the offer of immediate co-operation, they should have been sent home to stay quiet until we were ready to move to their area – and to prevent the Turk from recovering it.

If this large tribe had helped us for a few days (as it is clear GHQ expected them to do), and then had been wiped off the face of the earth a week after our withdrawals, no other tribe in the whole of Arabia would ever again have taken the risk of co-operating with us.

The worst that can be said of the Beni Sakha in this matter is that the tribe had produced a few confidence tricksters. Even “we” have been known to produce a few. It does not seem to justify blaming them for the failure of an operation, which was doomed from the start because of an error of judgement on our side.

An error of judgement? Or was it perhaps over anxiety on the part of somebody to blacken the eye of Lawrence, an inspired leader of irregular forces?

Some find it difficult to forgive the “loner”, who gets away from the herd, and then proceeds to carve out a success story of fabulous proportions, which will live long after his detractors are forgotten.

Whatever the reason, it was a costly failure.