It recalls a sideshow of the First World War: the Arab Revolt of 1916. In the Arab world, this produces stories that are written in capital letters. But was there a real uprising? And did she bear fruit?
n October 1914, Turkey sided with Germany. Thus it came to blows with Russia, France, and Great Britain. Power in Istanbul was in the hands of a triumvirate led by Enver Pasha.
These rulers dreamed of “liberating” the Turkish-speaking minorities in Russia. In the event of a German victory, they could also drive the British out of Egypt. Success in the war could stimulate a sense of unity within the ramshackle Ottoman Empire.
At the request of Enver Pasha, the impotent sultan Mehmed V, in his capacity as Caliph, called on all Muslims in the world to jihad against Christians.
The British, French, and Russians had every reason to be concerned about this call. The British counted 100 million Muslims under their colonial rule. The call could set Asia ablaze. The text of the message was translated and widely distributed. Only after a while would it become apparent that it had only minimal resonance.
Turkey at war
German General Liman von Sanders had drilled the Ottoman troops in a Prussian way. Expectations in Istanbul were high. But it turned out differently. A Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in January 1915 was repulsed by the British. In the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, the Turkish attackers also suffered heavy losses, after which the rulers took bloody revenge on the Armenians, possible helpers of the Russians.
They decided to deport the entire population group from Anatolia to the Syrian desert. More than one million Armenians were killed. To date, the drama has been debated, but both the Armenians and the international consensus regard it as targeted genocide.
Arab nationalists were also dealt with. In August 1915, the governor of Greater Syria Province, Jamal Pasha, in Beirut ordered eleven Arab nationalists to be publicly executed for “treason.”
In local Arab circles, he was nicknamed The Bloodgardener. In 1916, 21 more alleged traitors — including MPs and journalists — were convicted and executed in Damascus and Beirut. Hundreds of Arabs, many from prominent families, were detained. The fear was now firm, and the repression alienated large parts of the Arab population from Istanbul’s regime.
In 1915–1916, the Turkish armed forces were nevertheless able to achieve two successes. First, the attempt to land 200,000 British and French soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula, near the Dardanelles, ended in tragic failure. Second, British Indian troops in Mesopotamia suffered a severe defeat at Kut al-Amara. The entire force of 13,000 men had to surrender to the Ottomans. Great was the humiliation.
McMahon and Hussein
So the scene of the decisive British attack on the Turkish Empire would not be Istanbul or Mesopotamia, but the desert-like central part of the Arab provinces of Palestine and Syria. After all, the British were firmly in the saddle in their protectorate of Egypt. There they had withheld an important force, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force(EEF) under Archibald Murray.
In December 1916, it succeeded in clearing the entire Sinai peninsula of Turkish troops. In Cairo, the British high commissioner, Sir Henry McMahon, had already decided to exploit the Turkish empire’s internal weakness. He contacted the Arab Emir Hussein Ibn Ali (1853–1931), who exercised authority over Mecca’s holy city. Like his forefathers, he was the guardian of the sacred sites and responsible for the annual pilgrimage’s conduct.
For the British, Hussein was an attractive ally. His prestige could invalidate the Turkish sultan-caliph’s jihad call. Hussein had good credentials: he claimed direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and therefore bore the honorable title ‘sharif.’ His family numbered about a thousand members who called themselves Hashemites, after Hashem, Muhammad’s great-grandfather. Ever since his appointment in 1908, he was busy building a network of tribal leaders in the Hedjaz (the northwestern coastal region of the Arabian peninsula) to obtain autonomy from Istanbul.
In 1915, Hussein wrote a letter to McMahon proposing a collaboration. Thus began the correspondence that resulted in a British-Arab agreement in 1916: a revolt for a kingdom. Hussein’s Bedouin armies, along with a British expeditionary corps, would attack the Turks. In return, Hussein received the promise of recognizing an independent kingdom between Egypt and Persia from the British government.
A thorny question was exactly how the borders would run. The British made a reservation for Syria’s coastal area (including present-day Lebanon) because of French interests. Palestine was not even mentioned, but it was argued that Aden and Kuwait were excluded from the deal because of British interests.
Starting signal for the uprising
As vague as the agreement was, Hussein, who had some 50,000 men under his authority (of whom only 10,000 had guns), launched the uprising in June 1916. An attack on the port city of Djeddah was supported by British naval ships and aircraft. The Ottoman commander surrendered.
Other coastal cities also fell into Arab hands, but the Turks managed to repel Medina’s attack in a bloody battle. Then the revolt threatened to get bogged down. In neither Syria nor Palestine, there was no sign of public rebellion against the Turkish regime.
In October 1916, the British government decided to send a secret mission to Djeddah to revive the rebellion. One member of the delegation was Captain TE Lawrence. Lawrence spoke reasonable Arabic. As a young researcher, he fell in love with the Arabian desert culture in 1909 during a daring hike through 36 Crusader castles. He was the ideal intermediary who would later acquire a mythical halo as the romantic hero Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence was successful. Local rulers forgot their feuds among themselves. Some were relented personally by Lawrence or bribed with British weapons and pounds. Lawrence befriended Sharif Hussein’s sons, especially the warlike Feisal.
The deployment of the British armed forces determined the success. The British navy was able to repulse an Ottoman counter-attack on the coastal city of Jenbo. After Feisal had stormed the coastal town of Wej with 5,000 camel riders and 5,000-foot soldiers in January 1917, it was captured from the Turks with a small British force.
Damascus with the holy city of Medina. The Arab force had grown to 70,000 men, armed with 28,000 rifles. Prince Feisal led the maneuvers from Wej, while his one brother Ali besieged Medina’s city and his other brother Abdullah carried out raids on the railway. The action radius of their camel divisions was large. They transported their own food and used a sophisticated system of wells that were 150 km apart.
On July 6, 1917, Aqaba — the only Red Seaport still in Turkish hands — fell to the Arabs after Lawrence and his Bedouin army undertook a daring land expedition from Wej. Lawrence arranged much-needed supplies for Aqaba.
Sharif Hussein presented his revolt as a struggle to restore old Muslim values; he refrained from nationalist calls. He received no support from the masses. Many of the Arab elites saw in him a traitor and defector. In fact, there was hardly any real uprising. Hussein pursued his own dynastic interests.
On to Damascus
In June 1917, British High Command had been turned over to Sir Edmund Allenby, who had received a request from his Prime Minister Lloyd George to give him the city of Jerusalem as a Christmas present: the crusade idea was still alive! Allenby managed to capture Beersheba, then Gaza and Jaffa, and drive the Turks north. Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917, and the Christmas present was received with joy at the British home front.
Allenby was concerned about Prince Feisal’s loyalty to his unruly Bedouin armies formally under Allenby’s command. There were signs that the prince was trying to have it both ways, leaking information to the enemy in exchange for “certain guarantees from the Turkish government.”
Haste was required in advance towards Damascus. Lawrence went with Feisal. The Turkish army gave up more and more ground. The Turks murdered Arab inhabitants of the villages. Conversely, the Arabs murdered their Turkish prisoners of war. Many Arab soldiers from the sultan’s demoralized army defected to the British in the later phase.
Australian troops won the race to Damascus under British High Command on September 30, 1918. To the dismay of Feisal, who arrived shortly afterward, the city’s population spontaneously revolted against his leadership.
That revolt was crushed. It was not until the end of October 1918, when the Turks requested an armistice, that the British and Arab forces met popular support as liberators from the Turkish yoke. Feisal immediately began setting up his own board, in line with his idea of the 1916 agreement between his father and McMahon.
Betrayal of the British
Then the great disillusionment followed. The British and French had their own plans for the Middle East, a region too rich in oil supplies and too strategic to present to an old-fashioned emir like Hussein. Besides, there were Christian minorities in Syria who have long been the scope of French mission congregations. In May 1916, the British and French had secretly concluded the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Sykes and Picot, high diplomats from Great Britain and France, defined spheres of influence in modern imperialism’s familiar style. France would gain influence in Syria and Lebanon, and England a land link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, roughly the area from Palestine to Iraq.
Those spheres of influence stretched deep into the realm that McMahon had vaguely promised Hussein just before. When Hussein got wind of the Sykes-Picot agreement, he asked for clarification. But he got a misleading answer. Feisal was enraged, and Lawrence felt disgusted by his own government.
At about the same time, Great Britain presented the Arabs with yet another accomplished fact: the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. They expressed sympathy with the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Zionists. Implementation would mean that Britain would continue to occupy Palestine militarily.
That was another slap in the face of the Arabs. The British tried to gild the pill of the immigration to Palestine promised to the Jews. In January 1919, an agreement was even reached between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Prince Feisal on Jewish-Arab cooperation in the development of Palestine.
However, Feisal made this condition that the Arabs would obtain full independence. That hope was dashed shortly afterward. At the Paris peace conference in 1919, Feisal was unable to get a foot on the ground. Lawrence of Arabia, who walked around there dressed as an Arab, also noticed that his role was over.
For example, the British tried to keep some of McMahon’s promises of 1916. However, the empire that had been portrayed to the Arabs needed not to be created. The Arab Revolt had failed. For bitter nationalist Arabs, 1920 was a disaster year. This caught on in their collective memory as proof of perverse politics of the West. The cooperation of the Hashemites, Feisal, and Abdullah, made them suspect. This carried on for generations, witness the fall of the dynasty in Iraq in 1958 and the shaky throne of the current Jordanian King Abdullah II. His great-great-grandfather, Sharif Hussein, was expelled from Mecca in 1924 by his nemesis Abdul Aziz, who was recognized as King Ibn Saud. The latter was certainly not included in the 1916 scenario.