Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Masters of Mayhem: Lawrence of Arabia and the British Military Mission to the Hejaz

The Hejaz Railway, Then and Now

by James Stejskal.
Casemate Publishers, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Filling the hole with 15 pounds of explosives, [Herbert] Garland looked up to see a locomotive 200 yards away approaching at a fast clip. He told the guards to run and finished laying the charge. But having taken his boots off to prevent tell-tale tracks in the sand, he painfully hobbled over the rock-strewn ground to escape. He was only 50 yards from the tracks when the train hit the mine. Garland turned just in time to see the blast and the train roll off the track. At around 7,000 feet per second, the blast knocked him to the ground. It was the first train derailed during the revolt (p. 28)

Although his subtitle indicates a focus on Lawrence of Arabia, the author quickly tells us that Lawrence is not his primary subject—it’s just that you can’t write about the Arab Revolt without including this legendary character. The impetus for the book stems from the author’s work with the 2012 Great Arab Revolt Project, which involved "conflict archaeology" and the exploration of the World War I operations of the British Military Mission in the Hejaz, an unforgiving region in the west of what is now Saudi Arabia. These operations were to be known by their telegraphic code name “Hedgehog” (p. 85).

Damaged Rail Bridge

Unconventional warfare played a large part in the war against the Turks and their railroad in the Hejaz, and certainly T. E. Lawrence was one of the leading practitioners of this kind of guerilla activity. He was far from the only one, however. Masters of Mayhem introduces us to several other British officers and men also active in the campaign in the Hejaz. Names such as Dawnay, Joyce, Pascoe, Gilman, Young and Dowsett may have disappeared into the sands of military history, but they were vital players in Field Marshal Allenby’s push against the Ottomans, and many were also interesting characters, to say the least. They generally worked well with Lawrence and learned from his experience.

Detailing the plans and operations of Hedgehog, the author in nine chapters and numerous black and white photographs covers the origins of the Arab Revolt through Lawrence’s taking of Akaba, to the end of hostilities. We’re introduced to little-recognized groups such as the EEF (Egyptian Expeditionary Force), LAMB (Light Armoured Motor Battery), LRDG (Long Range Desert Group), and the ICC (Imperial Camel Corps), all of which, together with the Royal Flying Corps and the navy’s Red Sea fleet, played vital roles in the campaign.

Much attention is paid to demolition techniques using gelignite, guncotton, electrical devices, and "tulip mines," which are described thus:

Tulips, so called because of the shape of the railway track after the explosion, were small 30-ounce guncotton charges laid under the centre of the railway sleepers (cross-ties) so when they exploded, the upward force carried the sleepers and the attached rails upwards and inwards, twisting and rending them into a flower shape and that made repair difficult and reuse impossible (p. 121).

One gets the impression that the men involved in blowing up the Turkish railroad often got quite a kick from the explosions they caused. 

Besides difficulties encountered with terrain and weather, the teams of the British mission found working with the Bedu tribesmen challenging. Irregular nomadic Bedouin were notoriously tribal, often unwilling to work with other tribes that they regarded with suspicion or even hatred. They primarily fought for loot or money, and they kept their own schedules. Sometimes an important supply dump was found to be thoroughly pilfered, and even wooden stakes used to hold down wire netting on road surfaces would disappear for firewood. 

The final third of this highly informative book is a six-part appendix containing much information on the Hejaz armored cars and "tenders," even listing their histories and names. “Blue Mist,” a 1909 Rolls-Royce, gets a short chapter of its own with a photograph showing it finally in Damascus with Lawrence as passenger. The challenges of driving and maintaining these vehicles are considered in the main chapters of the book. 

Armored Car at One of Lawrence's Advance Bases

Demolitions and weaponry are discussed more fully in the appendix. A copy of Lawrence’s Memorandum of August 1917, the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” is also included. These provide a considerable insight into the thinking and attitude that made him so successful in working with the Bedu. His guerilla techniques, together with the liaison of organized military forces and equipment, did indeed sow the seeds of British Special Operations and provided a blueprint for other revolutionaries of the 20th century. 

Masters of Mayhem is a detailed and thoughtful book that I can certainly recommend.

David F. Beer


  1. Sounds like solid work, especially for those interested in vehicles.

  2. Great review, David. I am going to have to read this now.