Thursday, 17 November 2011

Day 4 - The station (and battle) at Ghadir el Hajj

From Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Maan Fails chapter:

I asked where Jaffar was, and Nuri said that at midnight he was due to have attacked Jerdun with regulars and guns and Zeid’s Howeitat. I told him of the night flares, which must have marked his success, and while we were glad together his messengers arrived, reporting two hundred prisoners, and three machine guns, while the station and three thousand rails had been destroyed. So splendid an effort would settle the line from the north for weeks, and then Nuri told me that at dawn on the twelfth, (April 1918), yesterday, he, with French Mountain guns and Arab Regulars, and Howeitat under Sherif Fahad, had rushed Ghadir el Hajj station, wrecked it, and five bridges and one thousand rails, getting back only just to see Maluud take Semna.

Nick Saunders, one of our GARP Directors, read this out at the start of the day today. We were at the very site described in bold in this passage, keen to discover if any evidence of the actual events described could be unearthed by our team on their first real day of digging for the Great Arab Revolt Project 2011.

This is the sort of site most people would simply ignore – a pile of rubble where the station building at Ghadir el Hajj once stood. To the average bystander, little evidence of the main structure of the building remained, just rocks in unrelated heaps with tons of windblown sand piled into every crevice. Most would simply pass by. To our expert archaeologists, an early morning survey looked promising in the sense that they felt features of the building and surroundings of significance might well become apparent with a proper, methodical, analytical approach. This meant moving the sand. And rocks. Tons of them. New team members discovered big time today what desert archaeology is all about!

Under the expert guidance of the site supervisors, small teams began the task of removing and revealing major sections of interest in and around the building. Gradually over the course of the day the inherent structure and form became clearer. This had been an exceptionally well constructed station, with high quality stonework and facings, and quality evident in the cut stone. Much of the previously exposed and ruined stone had long since been taken away, presumably to become part of modern buildings in nearby Ma’an – and who could blame the locals? High quality building materials lying about in the desert - why not recycle them into new property?

In spite of this the foundations remained and we cleared enough material away to expose these, and do some much needed recording of the structure of them and also the other areas revealed by our work today.

But what of the battle and destruction of the building itself? Could anything remain to corroborate the events described in the quotation?

To the west of the rubble remains is a small arc of trenches facing into the desert proper and away from the building and railway. These were identified in a sketch drawn by a passing British pilot in early 1918, and their sand piled frontage still formed a curving defensive position today as it had done then, the night the building was destroyed.

The detectorists began to  investigate inside the trench at one end. Immediately a find! The first fired Mauser cartridge found this season.  They went back to the group to show the new members this, as an example of a diagnostic find, and then carried on their search. It became apparent very quickly that this was indeed the site of conflict. Along the trench Mauser after Mauser cartridge were found at regular, small intervals. With these being every half metre or so,  this is highly consistent with the defending force firing in anger at attackers. And also, in the same area, grapnel balls. Small lead balls which had come from an exploding artillery shell fired at the station. This was indeed evidence of the cover provided by the two guns described in the text. Then, finally, incoming bullet fragments at irregular intervals around the trenches and in the desert land stretching away west.
Detected Mauser cartridge holes dug in the curved trench

It is easy to imagine the stationed men, mainly sleeping at midnight on that day with possibly a lookout or two, harshly awoken by the exploding shells above them as the attack began. Grabbing their rifles they jumped into their shallow trenches to fire into the darkness as the approaching enemy sped towards them under the cover of the two artillery guns. And the incoming force, on horse or camel, firing back as they rushed towards the building, not to hit men necessarily but to pin them down and get close enough for bayoneting or hand guns to be used. Their incoming fire scattered all over the landscape as they made a direct line for the station. The defenders retreat into the building and then it’s nearly all over, as the insurgents reach their target, dismount and lay their charges. Seconds later, the building is destroyed.

Everything we found today is consistent with this and the events described in Seven Pillars. We believe we have direct evidence of this attack happening exactly as described, and we have managed to record and understand this event in a truly unique and important way.

What a fantastic day!


  1. What an exciting and satisfing start to this trip; also a tribute to those who spotted the potential of such an apparently unpromising site. Well done to you all!

  2. Amazing post.

    Keeping an eye on this project.

    Hello to all who know me... and well done to all

    David Connolly

  3. Firstly, it all looks really great out there, and I really do regret not being able to be with you this year.

    Secondly, a small correction: It should not be “grapnel” balls, but “SHRAPNEL”, named after the British artillery officer who invented it!

    The shrapnel shell, in effect, is like a large shotgun cartridge. The time fuze initiates a charge at the base of the shell which forces off the fuze and expels the balls forwards in a cone. The fuze is set (ideally) to go off as the shell is descending towards the target, so that the balls can reach behind cover and into the trenches and dead ground. As the shell does not actually explode, the empty body should fall to earth in the general target area virtually intact. It is also readily recoverable so may well not be present in the archaeological record.
    TEL was often rather slack, technically, when describing equipment and there is ambiguity in his account here: “[Nuri], with French Mountain guns and Arab Regulars …. had rushed Ghadi el Hajj station...”
    The Arab forces did have some French guns attached. I don't have any references on me but I was under the impression that these were the M1897 77mm Field Gun [ie not a Mountain Gun]. However, they also had some Vickers 2.95-inch (75mm) Mountain Guns from the Sudanese Army – a cartridge primer protection clip was found during the 2009 season, if you recall. – this fired a 12.5lb shrapnel shell. In field artillery, French shrapnel balls were smaller than the British, but I don't have any info to hand as regards those in the Vickers 2.95-inch round.
    To be quite certain it would be very helpful if a spent shell were found [the 75mm has 25 rifling grooves, the 2.95 has 30]. The fuzes would be significant diagnostic finds. the French one was quite distinctive, being cylindrical and about 6-7cm long, and being made from a rather dull alloy might be less noticeable and more likely to survive in situ. Nevertheless, the finding of shrapnel balls on the target does at least confirm the employment of artillery in the attack.
    Guy Taylor