Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, June 5, 2016

100 Years Ago: The Arab Revolt Begins

Ten Things to Remember About the Arab Revolt 

Faisal After the Capture of Aqaba, Lawrence to His Left

1.  The Arab Revolt started in June of 1916 with an attack on the Ottoman garrison at Medina. It was instigated by Emir Hussein bin Ali of the Hejaz, the Hejaz being a region of west-central Arabia. Hussein was the spiritual guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. 

2.  Long-term discontent with their position in the Ottoman Empire and the upheavals surrounding the rise of the Young Turks had led to the strengthening of Arab secret societies, which were particularly strong in Syria. Their goals were to secure independence from the Ottoman Turks and create a united Arab kingdom from Syria to Yemen. In the Damascus Protocol of May 1915, the secret societies had declared they would support Hussein's revolt against the Ottoman Empire if the demands in the protocol were submitted to the British.  Then followed an exchange of letters between Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner for Egypt, and Hussein. In the letters, while excluding areas of interest to the French and the Basra oil basin, Britain agreed to recognize Arab independence after WWI "in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca." McMahon's promises were seen by the Arabs as a formal agreement between them and the United Kingdom.

Sherif Hussein
3. This was a very important alliance for the British to make because it inoculated them against the call for Jihad by the Ottoman sultan and charges raised by the Turks and by the Germans that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian crusaders. To have an alliance with Hussein very much protected them from that and helped secure the main operating base in Egypt.

4.  Initially, Hussein's forces, mainly led by his four sons, who were the battlefield commanders, seized Mecca and the Red Sea port of Jeddah. They had caught the Turks by surprise, so in the early days they took a couple of objectives, but the revolt then foundered.

5.  British intelligence officer Captain T.E. Lawrence first went to Arabia in October 1916 to accompany a friend who was going over to see if there was some way to restart the revolt. After meeting all four of Hussein's sons, he concluded that the best war commander for the Arab cause would be Hussein's third son, Faisal. Lawrence returned to Cairo to report, but very quickly he was sent back over to act as temporary liaison to Faisal. Contrary to what you might have seen in the David Lean movie, at this time, Lawrence already knew of the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916, which divided the postwar Middle East amongst the Allied Powers, and within a few months or returning shared its existence with Faisal.

6.  The movie, however, does properly place Aqaba at the center of the story. The capture of the Red Sea port, opened a British-Arab supply line, gave Lawrence great credibility with the new British commander in the region, General Allenby, and provided the Arab forces something of a running start on their advance to Syria.

7.  The military value of Lawrence's work with Arab irregulars, most notably the raiding of the Hajez railroad and the guarding of the right flank of Allenby's forces on their advance to Damascus, is still debated. However, for better or worse, he has proven a worldwide model commander of guerrilla forces.  As one historian describes his skill set: "First, as a teacher he taught his guerrillas basic tactical skills of the attack. Second, as a designer he crafted plans and concepts that were skillfully executed within the overall strategic guidance handed down by Gen. Edmund Allenby. Finally, as a steward Lawrence conserved and preserved the combat power of his lethal yet fragile force."

8.  The great neglected figure of the Arab Revolt is Ibn Saud, the future first King of Saudia Arabia, who played his cards magnificently during this period. In 1914, before the war, Ibn Saud allied himself with the Turks, agreeing that he should have relations with no other foreign power and be committed to joining Turkish forces in resisting any aggression. When war came, Saud opted for neutrality but kept his options open. Then – at the perfect moment – he allied himself with the British, even before his territorial rival, the Hashemite family of Hussein. (How he played the British during this time is a story yet to be told fully. Principals in the drama include spy Kim Philby's father and Queen of the Desert Gertrude Bell.) After the war he would finally defeat the Rashids in Kuwait and later drove the Hashemites from Medina and Mecca. Building on his successes he eventually declared himself King of Saudia Arabia in 1932.

Arab Irregulars on the Move

9.  The post-WWI Lawrence of Arabia was possibly the most "high profile" enlisted man in military history. Under official sanction, Lawrence enlisted in the RAF under the pseudonym John Hume Ross. Press publicity, however, made it impossible for the RAF to retain "Aircraftman Ross." He subsequently enlisted in the tank corps as T.E. Shaw. Returning Lawrence to the RAF was a major project requiring support from John Buchan, George Bernard Shaw, and General Hugh Trenchard. Continuing press attention would plague his days as an enlisted man.

10. Despite the McMahon deal and success of the Arab Revolt, Hussein was sidelined in the postwar carve-up of the Middle East. He was forced to abdicate as caliph of the Hejaz in 1924 by Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia. Hussein's sons Faisal and Abdullah, however, fared better. Faisal was set up as king of Iraq, gained independence in 1932, and his family ruled (with British support) until ousted in a coup in 1958. Abdullah was on his way to support Faisal's hold in Syria and got as far as Amman, when the British split their Palestine mandate, creating Transjordan and instituting Abdullah as king. Hussein’s great-grandson, Abdullah II, is the current king of Jordan.

Postscript:  What the Arab Revolt and its immediate aftermath meant for the present-day situation in the Middle East is, of course, far beyond anything we could present here.

Sources:  T.E. Lawrence Society, Wikipedia, Over the Top magazine, Global Security, D-P History.


  1. A fascinating look into the complex roles the Arabs played in the War in the Middle East. Much of today's problems have their roots in the Great War.

  2. As an interesting side note: many, if not most of the photos of Arab irregulars in camp or on the move were taken by Lawrence himself. He was from his teens on, a keen and accomplished amateur photographer wherever he traveled, be it in Syria for his graduating thesis before the war or later during the Arab Revolt.

    1. I had forgotten that Lawrence had taken most of those photographs. Thanks for noting that.

  3. Another great entry which, like the one on the 1916 Russian offensive, I'm linking into my blog.