20 May 1917

With Sherif Sharraf’s eventual arrival at Abu Raga came the welcome news that there was water to be found ahead on their march at Wadi Diraa. Having met with Sharraf, Lawrence’s party started out again on 17 May, reaching Wadi Diraa two days later. Here, they rested and watered in anticipation of the next stage of their march – across El Houl, a barren plain of abominable desolation.

On the evening of 19 May, they crossed the Hejaz railway, fixing charges to its rails and pulling out the telegraph wires. Ahead of them the next morning lay El Houl.

“We, ourselves, felt tiny in it, and our urgent progress across its immensity was a stillness or immobility of futile effort. The only sounds were the hollow echoes, like the shutting down of pavements over vaulted places, of rotten stone slab on stone slab when they tilted under our camels’ feet; and the low but piercing rustle of the sand, as it crept slowly westward before the hot wind along the worn sandstone, under the harder overhanging caps which gave each reef its eroded, rind-like shape.

“It was a breathless wind, with the furnace taste sometimes known in Egypt when a khamsin came; and, as the day went on and the sun rose in the sky it grew stronger, more filled with the dust of the Nefudh, the great sand desert of Northern Arabia, close by us over there, but invisible through the haze. By noon it blew a half-gale, so dry that our shrivelled lips cracked open, and the skin of our faces chapped; while our eyelids, gone granular, seemed to creep back and bare our shrinking eyes. The Arabs drew their head-clothes tightly across their noses, and pulled the brow-folds forward like vizors with only a narrow, loose-flapping slit
of vision.

“At this stifling price they kept their flesh unbroken, for they feared the sand particles which would wear open the chaps into a painful wound: but, for my own part, I always rather liked a khamsin, since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strength, and conquering its extremity. There was pleasure also in the salt sweat-drops which ran singly down the long hair over my forehead, and dripped like ice-water on my cheek. At first, I played at catching them in my mouth; but, as we rode further into the desert and the hours passed, the wind
became stronger, thicker in dust, more terrible in heat. All semblance of friendly contest passed. My camel’s pace became sufficient increase to the irritation of the
choking waves, whose dryness broke my skin and made my throat so painful that for three days afterwards I could eat little of our stodgy bread. When evening at last came to us I was content that my burned face still felt the other and milder air of darkness.”

Events of 20 May 1917 as recounted by T. E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926).