THE RAID ON ABU NA'AM
Lawrence's first attack on the Hejaz Railway was carried out at Abu Na'am Station, 130 kilometres north of Medina, in March 1917. The raiding party, which included Captain Raho, an Algerian in the French army, Mohammed al Khadhi, Sherif Fauzan al Harthi and 25 Otaibi and Juhanni tribesmen, set out from Prince Abdullah's camp at Abu Markha on the 26th. Despite having been stung on the hand by a scorpion, Lawrence continued on through a series of valleys towards the imposing landmark of Jebel Antar. A camp was made in the low hills at the edge of the valley close to the railway. At sunset some of the party climbed a rocky hill west of Abu Na'am Station. From the top, the station buildings, bell-tents, huts, trenches and a sizeable garrison were clearly visible. Two men were sent to fire shots into the darkness near the station. 'The enemy, thinking it a prelude to attack, stood-to in their trenches all night, while we were comfortably sleeping.'
View from the hill Lawrence climbed to survey Abu Na'am Station (just visible at the end of the clip) for his raid in March 1917. Looking northwards from his vantage point on the summit, he would have been able to see the single track railway twisting away into the barren mountains of the Hejaz towards Damascus. At this point of the war, he had yet to fire a shot in anger at the enemy and could have had no inkling of the extraordinary fame that his exploits on the line would bring him.
Lawrence approached Abu Na'am from the west, keeping the twin peaked Jebel Antar (visible in the distance) to his south and riding up the valley to climb this rocky hill opposite the station
Lawrence climbed the hill opposite Abu Na'am Station from the south side to avoid being spotted by the garrison. In March, the wadi provided rich pasture for their camels
Lawrence clambered up the steep rocky hill through 'many feathered arrows of silvery down, which danced gaily in the wind'
Photo taken by Lawrence of the raiding party for the attack on Abu Na’am. Sherif Shakir is in the centre on the black camel and the man in uniform to his right is the French Captain Raho.
The following morning the raiding party climbed back to their hilltop vantage point, from where they had a perfect view of the station awakening. 'We lay like lizards in the long grass round the stones of the foremost cairn upon the hill-top and saw the garrison parade. Three hundred and ninety-nine infantry, little toy men, ran about when the bugle sounded, and formed up in stiff lines below the black building till there was more bugling: then they scattered, and after a few minutes the smoke of cooking fires went up. A herd of sheep and goats in charge of a little ragged boy issued out towards us. Before he reached the foot of the hills there came a loud whistling down the valley from the north, and a tiny, picture-book train rolled slowly into view across the hollow sounding bridge and halted just outside the station, panting out white puffs of steam.' (Seven Pillars of Wisdom) Lawrence waited till evening for Sherif Shakir (Abdullah and Faisal's cousin) to arrive with reinforcements, but he brought with him only 300 men, instead of an expected 900, ruling out the possibility of a full scale assault.
Lawrence had ridden from Al Wejh on the Red Sea coast to Prince Abdullah's camp at Abu Markha, before setting out for his attacks on Abu Na'am and Mudarraj Stations
Camels crossing the empty ground between Abu Na'am Station and the hill Lawrence used for reconnaissance. The hill was about two kilometres west of the station and provided an excellent vantage point from which members of the raiding party could survey their target. However, care had to be taken to keep a low profile, as any movement against the skyline could easily have been noticed by the garrison.
Mohammed Khadhi, an 18-year old of the Juhanna tribe, was Lawrence's guide for his first two raids on the railway
The principal attack on the station was planned for dawn, but under cover of darkness two groups moved out in opposite directions along the railway to cut the line. The first party headed northwards and demolished several rails and a length of the telegraph. Lawrence's 18-year old Juhanni guide Mohammed Khadhi led the second group to a quiet stretch of track south of the station, and there in the moonlight, Lawrence laid a trigger action mine, using 20 lbs of blasting gelignite. Leaving some machine-gunners hidden in bushes in a sandy watercourse with a good view of the line, the group moved further south to cut the telegraph between Abu Na'am and Istabl Antar. The station was now isolated from both sides, and it was hoped that this would encourage the Turks to send the train out for help once the raid began.
Lawrence headed back to Abu Na'am, arriving at the Arab camp at 5 am. He moved up to join the forward artillery position at 6.30. A bombardment of the station was opened and continued for more than three hours. The barracks block and the main station building were hit, causing considerable damage to the upper floors. The metal water tank was pierced and knocked out of shape, while the pump room was hit by three shells, bringing down a large part of its wall. 'The well house was demolished and the tents and the wood pile burned and a hit was obtained on the first wagon of the train in the station. This set it on fire and the flames spread to the remaining six wagons, which must have contained inflammable stores since they burned furiously.'
View of the hill used by the Abu Na'am raiding party for reconnaissance - seen through a window of the barracks
As well as a tented military encampment, Abu Na'am comprised three main structures - the barracks, the main station and the twin water tower. All of the buildings suffered shell damage during the attack
On the day before the attack, Lawrence watched the early morning parade of the garrison from his hilltop vantage point. He counted its strength as 390 infantry, but with very few camels and no horses
A heavy Arab artillery barrage caused considerable damage to the upper sections of the main station building
Although the north section of the station capitulated to the Arabs, the well defended barracks block could not be taken
The locomotive quickly uncoupled and headed southwards out of the station. Lawrence and his men 'watched her hungrily as she approached our mine, and when she was on it, there came a soft cloud of dust and a report and she stood still. The damage was to the front part, as she was reversed and the charge had exploded late, but while the drivers got out and jacked up the front wheels and tinkered at them, we waited and waited in vain for the machine gun to open fire. Later we learned that our gunners, afraid of their loneliness, had packed up and marched to join us when we began shooting. Half an hour after, the repaired engine went away towards Jebel Antar, going at a foot pace and clanking loudly; but going none the less.'
As a result of the raid of March 1917, the twin metal water tanks were given a protective stone cladding
The railway track followed the great open valley bed from the twin peaked Jebel Antar northwards to Abu Na'am Station. During the attack, a locomotive was derailed by a mine that Lawrence had previously laid between Abu Na'am and Istabl Antar. After some hasty repairs carried out by the drivers, the train limped away, clanking loudly, to the security of Istabl Antar Station, 17 kms south of Abu Na'am.
Lower slope of the hill used for reconnaissance, with a defence post built by the Turks after the March 1917 raid
Stone sangar constructed on the spot from which Lawrence had surveyed the station prior to his attack
Lessons were learned from the raid, with the Turks setting up a network of stone defences on the hill opposite the station. From the top, they could monitor any movements on its approaches
The flat upper courtyard of the station had iron rungs set into the brickwork, which led to the roof and provided the defenders with an excellent field of fire
An Arab advance on the station followed the artillery attack. After two outposts were taken, the Turks withdrew to their entrenched defences. A shortage of men and the clouds of thick smoke caused the Arabs to break off the action. Two smaller raiding parties were left in the area to carry out further damage to the railway and telegraph. In April, Lawrence reported that the Turkish garrisons on the Mudarraj (Madahrij) to Buwair section of the line had 'entirely abandoned night patrol as a result of sustained sniping of the stations.' Lawrence and the rest of the raiding party returned to Prince Abdullah's camp at Abu Markha in excellent spirits. 'We had taken 30 prisoners... and had killed and wounded 70 of the garrison, at a cost to ourselves of one man slightly hurt. Traffic was held up for three days of repair and investigation. So we did not wholly fail.'
View looking southwards down the tributary of Wadi Hamdh that leads to Abu Na'am Station, just visible over the peak of the hill in the foreground. Jebel Antar can be seen in the distance
During the raid Lawrence observed 'some dozen white tents with Turkish officers lounging in chairs' on the small brown hill overlooking the Wadi Hamdh Bridges, 5 km north of the station
Aerial view looking westwards over the barracks block to Lawrence's vantage point opposite the station and beyond to the hills he crossed on his way to attack the railway