The Emir Feisal’s victory in taking Aqaba in July 1917 was of considerable strategic significance to the outcome of the First World War. The Arab Revolt had now secured all the Red Sea ports. Aqaba was the port closest to the mouth of the Suez Canal. Aqaba the port was 460 kilometers closer to supporting the front line than the next nearest port at Wejh. It was also the closest port to the Hejaz Railway. Taking Aqaba removed the last Turkish held port on the Red Sea. In doing so the the potential threat that the Germans would use Arabian Red Sea coast for U Boat warfare (footnote 1) was removed. The Suez Canal was a critical artery for the allies. It was also the most direct route to and from Australia. Home for the many thousands of Australians serving in the Middle East. The holding of Aqaba was, however, in the challenging days of 1917, not guaranteed. From Maan the Turkish forces prepared to counter attack and take Aqaba back. (2)

A First World War pilot standing in front of an aircraft
Australian War Memorial AWM2019.22.303
Portrait of Lieutenant Stanislaus Acton Nunan standing in front of an aircraft, date unknown

On the morning of 31 December 1917 a Martinsyde aircraft flown by Flight Lieutenant (Fl. Lt.) Stanislaus Nunan flew eastward out of the Sinai desert and landed at Aqaba. Fl. Lt. Nunan had been an Australian engineer fighting on the front lines of France before transferring to the Australian Flying Corp (AFC) in May 1917. (3) An exceptional student, he was transferred to Egypt to complete his flying training. On the day that he passed he was posted to the Aqaba Special Flight, known as X Wing. (4) 

Before arriving in Aqaba, Flying Officer Nunan crashed in the Sinai Desert. Alone with a broken aircraft and few supplies, including water, he was saved by the arrival of Bedouins loyal to the Arab Revolt. They supplied him with water and sent emissaries to inform the allied forces that a pilot was lost, crashed, but alive in the desert. The Royal Flying Corp (RFC) sent the required equipment. Using all of the improvisation of a combat engineer Flying Officer Nunan repaired his overturned aircraft and flew onwards to Aqaba. (5) Eight days after his arrival, Flying Officer Nunan joined another aircraft on a successful bombing mission to Maan. (6) 

The stronger the allied forces, including aerial capability, were developed in Aqaba then the further the Turkish threat receded. The victory in Aqaba heralded a new phase of the war. It signaled the more formal integration of the allied forces. (7) X Wing, a Half Flight of three aircraft maintained by a ground crew, undertook reconnaissance, bombing and tactical ground support for the Arab Revolt. With Fl. Lt. Nunan, were at least one other Australian pilot and two Australian air crew. (8) He stayed with X Wing until joining No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC) in March 1918. With No. 1 Squadron AFC, Flying Officer Nunan maintained his close links with the Arab Revolt as the forces under the Emir Feisal moved northwards to, eventually, Azrak, Damascus and Aleppo. For his direct support to the Arab Revolt, in 1920, Ft. Lt. Nunan was awarded the Order of the Nahda by the Emir Hussein. (9)

two pilots sitting in an aircraft
Australian War Memorial AWM2019.22.302
Lieutenants Stanislaus Acton Nunan and Francis Clive Conrick sitting in their aircraft

From July 1917 until the end of the war Aqaba was to be the most important point of supply for the Arab Revolt. With such a vast area of land that included deserts to the east and the Moab Mountains to the north supply and communication issues required constant attention. The demands of the front line were insatiable. Not only did the Arab Revolt require ammunition, fuel and spare parts for armoured cars, aircraft, artillery, telecommunications equipment but also fodder for thousands of camels, horses and donkeys. Overcoming these issues so that the Arab Revolt could continue to operate against the professional Turkish and German army was a vital strategic necessity. Maintaining close communication between the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and the Arab Revolt across strategic, tactical and supply functions were a high priority. 

After Aqaba was taken, establishing telegraph communications between Aqaba and the EEF was essential. With the campaign to take the Sinai from the Turks developed after July 1917, Australian forces with the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC) rode twice to make contact with the forces of the Arab Revolt. (10) To establish these connections on October 8th 1917 the 1st (Australian) ICC, with an officer of the Signal Service, set out from Bir Mabeiuk in the Sinai for Aqaba. The aim of what was known as the Aqaba Survey Party was to ‘report on the state of the old telegraph line with a view to establishing an overland telegraph route from Egypt’. (11) With the assistance of a Bedouin guide the 1st Australian Battalion entered Aqaba on 14 October 1917. They stayed for seven before returning with their mission accomplished. The Aqaba Survey Party was essential for establishing communication between the EEF Head Quarters and the Arab Revolt as it continued its operations. (12) In March 1918 the 1st Australian ICC Battalion were again to meet with the forces of the Arab Revolt in the Jordan Valley. Telegraph communications between Cairo and Aqaba were fully operational by November 1917. (13)

Supply for both Australians and the Arab Revolt was an ever present challenge. With continued advances and an increasingly complex force demands supply lines became strained. Supply needs included gold. Ships from Australian supplied gold to the Arab Revolt via Aqaba. (14) To overcome supply constraints the Egyptian Transport Corps (ETC) provided an essential service. The ETC supplied the Arab Revolt operating inland from goods unloaded at the Aqaba port. When establishing the ETC force for Aqaba an Australian with the Imperial Camel Corps (ICC), Warrant Officer Hugh Gillies Cameron Spence, requested to transfer from the Australian to the British Military. The transfer was approved, he was promoted to Lieutenant and joined the ETC in Aqaba. (15)

In transferring from the Australian military he forwent his right for a paid Australian government passage back to Australia. At a time when finding Egyptians and officers to join the ETC Lt. Spence demonstrated an ability to deliver supplies in the harsh wartime conditions. The Emir Hussein recognized the work of Lt. Spence by awarding him the Order of the Nahda in 1920. Due to his having transferred from the Australian to the British Army there was considerable trouble in locating him. Eventually advertisements were taken out in Australian newspapers. The Order of the Nahda was presented to Lt. Spence by the Governor General of Australia in 1921. (16)

The Order of the Nahda was awarded by the Emir Hussein to those that had made a direct contribution to supporting the Arab Revolt. (17) Given the size of the EEF with hundreds of thousands of combatants very few were awarded. Consequently the ones that were awarded have special significance. Lt. Spence’s Order of the Nahda medal now resides in the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The Shrine of Remembrance is the state of Victoria’s most important center for remembrance for the sacrifice of those that have departed Australia to serve, fight, die, are wounded or otherwise injured in war. The Shrine of Remembrance was opened in 1923 by Lt. General Sir Harry Chauvel the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corp.

Thousands of people gathered around a large memorial
Dedication ceremony, Shrine of Remembrance, 1934 (image in the public domain)

Footnotes

1 Gullett, H.S: Official History of Australia in the Great War Vol. VII – Sinai and Palestine, pp. 80, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1923. 

2 Lawrence, T.E; Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pp. 349, Jonathan Cape, Lon., 1926 

3 National Archives of Australia (NAA): NUNAN, STANISLAUS ACTON, Service File. 

4 Nunan, Stanislaus: Letter 19th December 1917, Australian War Memorial (AWM) 

5 Nunan, Stanislaus: Letter 6th January 1918, AWM 

6 Nunan, Stanislaus; Flying Log Book 1917-1920, AWM 

7 Falls, C; Military Operations Egypt & Palestine, From June 1917 to the End of the War, Part II, pp. 396-397, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO), Lon., 1930 

8 Nunan, Stanislaus: Letter 6th January 1918, AWM 

9 NAA: NUNAN, STANISLAUS ACTON, Service File.

10 Gullett, H.S: Official History of Australia in the Great War Vol. VII – Sinai and Palestine, pp. 44, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1923. 

11 ICC; 1st ANZAC Battalion, War Diary June – Dec 1917 Part 1, AWM. 

12 EEF; General Staff General Head Quarters (GS HQ) EEF War Diary October 1917 Part 2, AWM. 

13 Falls, C; Military Operations Egypt & Palestine, From June 1917 to the End of the War, Part II, pp. 397, HMSO, Lon., 1930 

14 Dearberg, Neil: Desert ANZACS – The Under Told Story of the Sinai Palestine Campaign 1916-18, pp. 165, Glass House Books, Qld. 2017 

15 NAA: SPENCE Hugh Gillies Cameron, Service File.

16 Jones, R: Tramway ANZAC Hugh Gillies Cameron Spence, Melbourne Tram Museum, trammuseum.org.au, 2015 

17 Raw-Rees, O; The Order of Al Nahda of the Kingdom of the Hijaz, The Journal of the Orders & Medals Research Society, Vol. 42, 2003