The Railway wrecked by Lawrence

Tony Morrison writes

Colonel TE Lawrence best known as 'Lawrence of Arabia' was one of the great names in Middle Eastern politics, adventure and literature before the Second World War. In the late 1950s the region was again in turmoil and the name Lawrence was revived by a stage play, Ross, in 1960 at London's Haymarket Theatre. Lawrence was a complex person and had assumed the name Ross in 1922 when he tried to disappear from public view. He found a place in the Royal Air Force as Aircraftsman Ross.

Virtually parallel with the stage production of Ross, David Lean the great British film director drew on every element of Lawrence's life to create a blockbuster production. Released in late 1962 Lawrence of Arabia was filmed with some locations in Jordan. The film won seven Academy awards and was the highest grossing movie of the era.

Peter O'Toole a young actor new to cinema was given the lead and later won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Lawrence. I met O'Toole at a Bristol Old Vic theatre party when I was at university in Bristol. Did I say 'plastered'?….. Peter who at the time was the lead in many of the productions at the Theatre Royal including William Shakespeare's Othello, held court lounging on a sofa in a student's dingy flat in Clifton, now an upmarket part of the city, but beyond that image my memory is hazy.

In the footsteps

Then early in 1962 I caught up with O'Toole or at least his footsteps and a litter of empty Scotch boxes beside an Army fort in the Jordanian desert. I was part of a small team of four making Adventure films for BBC television. In front of the camera we had Tom Stobart who filmed the 1953 Conquest of Everest and Ralph Izzard who had spent his life as a correspondent with the London Daily Mail. Ralph was our ' in house fixer' as he had lived in Beirut with his wife Molly in the 1950s and had contacts across the Arab world. The sound recordist and second camera was Michael Gore. I remember 'Mike' well as he was slightly younger than me and supremely sharp witted.

The Pilgrims' Railway

The theme of our film was 'Lawrence' and the defunct Hijaz Railway - sometimes known as the Pilgrims' Railway. Tom said someone had mentioned ' that there were rumours that the wreck of a train Lawrence of Arabia had blown up near Mudawarrah in 1918 on the Saudi Arabian border was still to be seen lying scattered in the dust……' We were told that we could find bits of military hardware that had not been touched so it was a ready-made BBC Adventure film story.

In Lawrence's time the Ottoman Empire dating from the 15th century and with even older roots was in decline but the Turks still influenced much of the western side of the Arabian Peninsula, now largely Saudi Arabia. The Turkish subjection of the region with military backing from Germany and with expansionist ideas was clear even though oil had not yet been discovered there. The only known oil deposits were of shale oil in the Yarmouk area, now in the north of Jordan close to the Syrian border.

Lawrence was a British Army officer working with the tribes of the Sinai (now part of Egypt) and Palestine (larger at the time) against the Ottoman Turks and their German supporters. Lawrence had plenty of experience as before joining the Army he had worked on archaeological sites and mapping along the northern border of Syria. He enjoyed the life and gained a rapport with the people.

The Arabian Peninsular was a sparsely populated wilderness of roughly 3 million sq. kms and only wandering tribes knew the way between water holes and the few large oases. It was not a place for the foreigner and outsiders were not welcome. Among the most detailed early records of the interior are those of St. John Philby, the curiously eccentric father of the master spy, Kim Philby. The best short reference is the aptly titled and scholarly book by the late Elizabeth Monroe.

St.John Philby

St. John Philby was a civil servant and fluent linguist, having studied modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge followed by another year studying Indian and Oriental languages with a scholarship from the Indian Civil Service. He was sent from British India to work in Basrah, Mesopotamia - now in Iraq. The Turks had been driven out by British forces sent from India and St.John was working to help restore order.

By this time in the war the British Government was looking for a way to bring together the many Arab tribes as a united front against the Ottoman Turks, and St.John Philby was dispatched to the middle of the Arabian Peninsula to meet Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, ruler of an area known as the Najd and allied with the Wahibi, a sect of fundamentalist Muslims.

The journey St.John Philby made across the peninsula took him 44 days. Only one European had made the crossing before him, almost 100 years earlier, in 1819, and he was Captain Forster Sadlier of the 47th Regiment. Sent by the Government to congratulate an Egyptian commander for his success against the Wahabis …. 'he marched 1200 miles, in European dress across every natural obstacle from Ka-tif to Yam-bu….'. An amazing sight…. and an amazing feat.

For this journey in 1917 and another in 1918 St.John Philby was honoured in 1922 with the Founders' Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London, a gold medal authorised by King George V.

The Hijaz

Bordering the Red Sea the western edge of the desert peninsula is a region of about a 25,000 sq kms known as the Hijaz which was and is immensely important. The two most revered cities of the Islamic world, Medina and Mecca, are found there.

The Hijaz Railway from Damascus, Syria, then part of the Ottoman Empire to Medina, some 1319 kms, was first suggested in the 19th century to replace the existing Pilgrims' camel route through the pitiless desert. Thousands of muslims from the Ottoman Empire made the annual hajj to Mecca along a trail with fifty-two stops, each with a stone water cistern or well. As the camel caravans made the way slowly the hardships were felt by some as part of the pilgrimage. Although built largely with the aim of carrying the pilgrims, another rationale for the line and obvious benefit for the Turks, was economic and territorial expansion. The Hijaz Railway became a strategic supply route in the desert war and an obvious target for Lawrence and his loosely linked tribal guerrilla force.

The Hijaz line started in Damascus where the already existing Ottoman railway running south from Constantinople (Istanbul) on the Bosphorus - the narrow strait between Europe and Asia - terminated. With German engineers advising, the construction of the Hijaz Railway began in 1900 under the auspices of the Ottoman Sultan Hamid II. A stamp tax willingly paid by the pilgrims funded the construction and by 1908 the line had reached Medina. A spur line led to Haifa on the Mediterranean coast and opened the Yarmouk shale for German exploitation. Some of the oil was used to fuel railway locomotives.


Our route southward

We had two Land Rovers and our route lay southward from the Jordanian capital, Amman. Our first stop was Ma'an 195kms and once an important stop on the Hijaz line. Beyond Ma'an the road deteriorated and the desert closed in.

Colonel F.R Maunsell, a Military Attaché in Constantinople who travelled on the railway when it opened, wrote...

'the line enters a spirit world without towns or even inhabitants. The stages south of Ma'an were the most desolate of all and the way was strewn with dead or dying camels'.

We arrived at a fort in Wadi Rum

By the time my camera rolled on Take One of my second professional television film, the massively expensive unit shooting 'Lawrence' had moved on and the movie was in the cutting room. Like the huge 'Lawrence' team we had the backing of King Hussein of Jordan who provided the support of the Army's long-range Desert Patrol - the Royal Jordanian Desert Force. This was a camel-borne elite group of Bedouin who covered the desert end-to-end.

Also like the Lawrence of Arabia unit we were to be based at the Desert Patrol fort in the spectacular Wadi Rum, a land of eroded sandstone rising to 1,700m above the desert.

The Bedouin tents for the men and their families were det up outside the compound. Camels for daily use were kept inside and the road leading out was no more than a dirt track that was passable in all but the worst rain. We were there in Spring so the desert was tinged green with wonderful array of plants.

But after that, any similarity with the David Lean production ended and we faced a remarkable journey through empty desert into the Arabian Peninsula. The asphalt roads and land irrigated from bore-holes seen there today simply did not exist.

We continued in our Land Rovers for a further 68kms by a clearly marked desert trail to Wadi Rum - now a popular tourist destination. At a small Army fort in the wadi we met the Desert Patrol who had been warned of our arrival by R/T wireless and one of the officers guided us another 66kms through a pure arid wilderness.

In places the trail led through more eroded hills and sometimes across perfectly flat dried mud where in rain it would have been impassable. Our final destination was Mudawarrah then little more than a ruined Hijaz Railway station where we met some Bedouin, the wanderers of the desert in their tents of woven goat hair.

Bedouin hospitality

We were welcomed royally with a mensaf a traditional dish for honoured guests, A hand-beaten brass plate about a metre across with a shallow depression in the centre for the food, was brought to the tent side by the Bedouin women who remained out of sight. The men seated us on the ground with the plate on a hand woven kilim and offered roasted lamb and a rice, with I recall had a slightly acrid flavour, possibly from some rancid butter - samneh. Don't ask about the traditional sheep's eyeball - luckily Tom was accustomed to the treat and scoffed it with thanks… in Arabic. We had coffee scented with cardamum and for an hour or more we talked with our Desert Patrol guide as interpreter.

The children were inquisitive and played with the camera. I recall how Mike let them hear a play-back through headphones from his small recorder. The 'ice' if any was broken and when we heard about the wrecked line we asked to see the place and where train wreckage had lain twisted for almost half a century. Lawrence and his tribal guerrillas had used explosives and wrecked the train.

Sand wisped over the rails......

Sand wisped over the rails and putting an ear to the metal I was sure I could hear the clickety-clack of wheels. 'That's fantastic' said Mike and he found a packet of cigarettes in his typically British tweed jacket. He hailed our Bedouin helpers. Within seconds Mike had sand billowing over the line like a miniature dust storm.

We ran some film. It was the end of the story.

More wreckage across the border

The wandering Bedouin told us that more wreckage lay in places further south including entire locomotives, but the Saudi Arabian frontier was only another 15kms away so Mudawarrah was our limit. But the story of the Hijaz Railway continued to flow into our Nonesuch files for some years after the BBC filming. In 1964 The Hedjaz Construction Company Ltd, based in London headed a plan to rebuild sections of the line and Press coverage ran for some months.


Peter Hopkirk

Peter Hopkirk a journalist and author who went on to specialise in Middle Eastern and Central Asian stories wrote a piece for the London Sun newspaper in December 1964. He described a survey team working along the line - 'the desert heat was so intense a photographer died of heat stroke - he just sank suddenly to his knees -dead.' They found wrecked engines and bridges and 'They stumbled upon a British Army fused gun-cotton pack left by the saboteurs 47 years ago.' (gun-cotton = an explosive propellant used in artillery shells).

The Hijaz Railway was rebuilt in some sections but not for the entire length. Some of the old locomotives were restored to working order and others are in museums. Parts still lie in the desert. l.

But a final thought. When we were there in 1962 we heard that the broken line we saw in Mudawarrah may have been wrecked, not by Lawrence, but by Major Robin Buxton, a military commander in the Imperial Camel Corps and friend of Lawrence. I have a note in my diary and apparently it could be true.

Our film narrated by Tom kept to the Lawrence tale and received some glowing comments - 'the ceremonial hospitality of a Bedouin camp' 'a finely photographed piece' ' there's nothing like a camel train in semi-silhouette to stir the imagination.' As journalists say 'Don't let the facts get in the way….'


Changes - Mudawarrah is still there with numerous green patches for agriculture irrigated from bore holes. The Bedouin have settled to tend the crops. A road runs south to a customs post at the Saudi Arabian frontier. The old railway track has gone leaving just the firm bed on which it ran.

Most recently in 2012, some remains left by Lawrence and his Arab guerrilas have been investigated by a team from the University of Bristol. The research project led by Professor Nicholas Saunders has been named GARP - the Great Arab Revolt Project and has been widely covered in the British Press and specialist magazines. It seems that the Lawrence story is alive and well.

T E Lawrence died from injuries received in a motor-cycle accident in England in 1935. His name will be linked forever with the Arab Revolt of 1916 - 1918 by academics and politicians. And, Lawrence's name will be remembered by many people thanks to the David Lean film. Lawrence received military honours for his desert exploits and the award of the Companion of the Order of the Bath, a British Order of Chivalry dating back to 1735. Apparently he refused a Knighthood.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a mammoth book Lawrence wrote about his experiences and has become a classic of the era. Various editions are known and some are rarely seen. Revolt in the Desert is a shorter, popular edition of his work.

St. John Philby died in 1960 and is buried in the Muslim cemetery in Beirut. He had converted to Islam, His name and achievements tend to be overlooked because of his background and opinions - also not to be forgotten is the legacy of his son Kim. The Times of London published a long obituary with a photograph but failed to mention his Royal Geographical Society award, his only official recognition in Britain.

The Empty Quarter - more epic journeys The Rub' al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsular is the most arid part and regarded as the world's largest unbroken desert. The first recorded journeys there were in 1931 by Bertram Thomas a British Civil Servant, and in 1932 by St.John Philby. Wilfred Thesiger whose name in the public mind is most often linked to the Empty Quarter arrived more than ten years later to be welcomed by St. John Philby.

St.John's story is told in his many books. A large number of his private papers are kept in the Middle East archives of St. Antony's College, Oxford, England

Peter O'Toole died in 2013 with many film and stage awards. He wrote two books and his life story is covered by literally hundreds of Press stories and reviews

Peter Hopkirk died in 2014. He had written six books, of which, perhaps, The Great Game -1992 was best known - it covered the struggle for Empire in Central Asia. In 1992 Peter was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.


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