Following Lawrence of Arabia’s footsteps

Morpeth Rotary Club speaker Michael Duffy with past president Andrew Hamnett.
Morpeth Rotary Club speaker Michael Duffy with past president Andrew Hamnett.

Morpeth Rotary Club

When Michael Duffy was a young man he was called up for National Service in the Army.

In 1956 he was sent to Aqabah, on the edge of the Jordanian Desert. It is now a flourishing resort and trading centre of almost 200,000, but was then a small town of 1,000.

He arrived as a troop commander with 50 men to prepare a desert landing strip. Early on, the bulldozer hit a solid object. It was found to be a milestone erected by the Roman Emperor Trajan to mark the completion in 112 AD of a highway from the Syrian Border to the Red Sea. It is now in Aqabah museum.

Before the Romans, this had been an important road for the Nabateans, based at Petra. They lived a rich life on the customs dues. After the Romans, Petra was lost and only rediscovered in 1812.

During World War I there was an Arab revolt against the Turks, partly led by T.E Lawrence.

Lawrence read history at Oxford, visiting Syria and Palestine and teaching himself Arabic. He was tough, capable and intelligent. When war broke out in 1914 he joined the Army and was sent to Cairo.

After defeat at Gallipoli, the British Government decided to stir up a revolt against the Turks and sent Lawrence to meet the Arab leaders. He helped to develop guerrilla warfare against the Turks with a band of 200 to 500 Arabs. They concentrated on the Turkish lines of communication along the Hejaz Railway.

Michael decided on exercises for the soldiers where they would use vehicles to follow the route of Lawrence’s activities. There were no buildings or roads, the temperatures were around 50 degrees, and it took a full day to get to the railway. It would have taken Lawrence three days as he travelled by camel.

In July 1917 Lawrence’s group captured Aqabah. The defences faced the sea as it was thought no one could attack across the desert. Lawrence was recommended for a VC, but rules said that the action had to be witnessed by at least one other British officer so he was given the DSO and promoted.

The Government would not fulfil the promise of an independent state for the Arabs. Lawrence left the Army and went into the Foreign Office. It was decided that Syria and Lebanon would go to the French and Transjordan and Iraq to the British. The borders that are causing so much trouble now were drawn up by politicians in London.

In 1920 Lawrence resigned from the Foreign Office, later enlisting in the RAF. In 1935 he crashed his motorcycle and died, aged 46.

Michael Duffy’s military service came to an abrupt end in October 1956 because of the Suez Crisis. He spent the last eight months of service confined to camp. All of his equipment and photos were lost when the Army dropped them into the Red Sea as they were being loaded onto a ship.