Small Wars Journal

The Arab Revolt, 1916-18 - A Complex Desert Campaign

Fri, 03/29/2019 - 2:22am

The Arab Revolt, 1916-18 - A Complex Desert Campaign

David Murphy


The Arab Revolt of 1916-18 was a major episode of WW1 and, due to the subsequent fame of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), it has enjoyed a level of public and scholarly attention that continues to this day. The Arab Revolt had its origins in pre-war contacts between the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, leader of the Hashemite faction, and British authorities in Cairo. The Hejaz region of Arabia (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) had been under Ottoman control since the sixteenth century but Hussein recognised that the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) or “Young Turk” government was focused on extending its control throughout the Ottoman provinces.[i] The immediate pre-war years saw a crackdown on dissenters in Syria and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and this forced Hussein’s hand. In 1914, he made overtures to GHQ in Cairo in order to gauge possible British support for a future revolt.[ii] In the months following the outbreak of war in 1914, a steady supply of small arms and money was ferried across the Red Sea by the Royal Navy and landed on the Arabian coast.[iii]

By 1916, it seemed that Cemel Pasha, governor of Syria and commander of the Ottoman 4th Army was about to act against the Hashemites and their supporters. The Sharif felt that the moment had come to instigate the revolt and with his sons (the Emirs Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zeid) he rallied tribesmen to his cause during the summer months. On 5 June 1916, the Emirs Ali and Feisal informed the Turkish commander at Medina, General Fakhri Pasha, of the Arabs’ intention to withdraw from the Ottoman Empire. An attack on Medina was repulsed and the Arabs refocused their efforts to begin attacks on the strategically important Hejaz Railway. On 10 June, Sharif Abdullah proclaimed the revolt in Mecca and further attacks occurred on Ottoman garrisons at Ta’if and Jiddah. The Arab Revolt was truly underway.[iv]

Lawrence’s account of the campaign, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom suggests that this was a campaign of tribal raiding, occasionally bolstered with further assets. However, a closer reading of the surviving sources shows that, between 1916 and 1918, the Arab armies were developing quite dramatically in terms of their operational abilities. [v]Furthermore, the increasing levels of investment in terms of officers, money and material would suggest that the revolt was viewed by Allied commanders as much more than a mere sideshow. This was particularly true for the British and the French. Far from being a rather haphazard romantic affair led by one eccentric British officer, by 1918, dozens of British and French advisors had been assigned to help train and direct the Arab forces.

Recent scholarship has also forced a major revision of the perception that the revolt was essentially a large tribal raiding campaign. The archaeological work of the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP) uncovered the physical evidence of a major desert campaign.[vi] By 1918 the Arab Revolt was an impressive operation that incorporated Arab regular forces, tribal parties, light armour, truck-mounted artillery and an increasingly sophisticated use of artillery and support weapons and also the integration of air assets. [vii]

The Historiography of the Arab Revolt

Despite the complex and nuanced history of the Middle East during WW1, for many this episode remains inextricably linked to T.E. Lawrence. It could be argued that his myth has transcended the actual history of the campaign. In terms of generating public attention, Lawrence proved remarkably adapt at influencing opinion following his return to England in 1918. He remained passionately committed to the Arab cause and accompanied the Emir Feisal to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. In the years that followed he excused his tendency to court press attention by stating that he was trying to generate support for the Arabs. Also, while at the Paris conference, he began writing his memoir of the revolt and this would later be published as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. While this memoir was initially only published only in limited subscribers’ editions, an abridged version, Revolt in the Desert was published in 1927 and immediately became a best-seller. Following Lawrence’s death, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was published in a public edition in 1935. Through these writings, Lawrence had, in effect, created the seminal work for the history of this campaign and this has affected the historiography of the Arab Revolt ever since. [viii] It could be argued that, at its core, lay issues relating to the complicated relationships between various Allied officers, British and French, and their Arab counterparts. While Lawrence was prone to skip over the involvement of the French in Arabia, and also the efforts of fellow-British officers, Seven Pillars alerts us to their presence and hints at an inter-Allied command relationship that was often fractious. Coalition warfare was problematical then as now as command cultures clashed, and all sides were driven by their own competing objectives.

In “PR terms”, Lawrence was also very canny regarding how he used what we would refer to today as “the media”. During the war an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, had visited Arabia in 1918 and had photographed Lawrence and other Arab leaders. He used these photographs and also film footage as the basis for a series of public shows. The first of these opened at Covent Garden in London in August 1919 and was entitled With Allenby in Palestine. The performance included a slideshow, a lecture and also music and an Arab dance routine. Lowell Thomas quickly realised that it was Lawrence, the archaeologist turned soldier, who grabbed the public’s attention. A series of meetings between Thomas and Lawrence followed and Lawrence posed for further photographs. A new show was developed, now entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. Its extended run in London was followed by a tour around England. By 1920, Lawrence was a house-hold name.

Lawrence tried to channel such popular interest to further the Arab cause. In 1921 he was invited to join the Colonial Office as an advisor on Arab affairs and he took part in the Cairo Conference of the same year, the conference that Churchill later dubbed the “forty thieves”. But Lawrence could not translate his popularity into a satisfactory political outcome for his former Arab allies. By 1922 he had resigned from all offices and sought a life of obscurity as a ranker within the RAF, changing his name first to “J.H. Ross” and then “T.E. Shaw”. [ix]

Such enigmatic behavior seemed to only feed fed public curiosity. Lawrence died following a motorcycle accident in 1935, only shortly after his retirement from the RAF. The course of his later life and his untimely death fueled continued public fascination and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) reintroduced Lawrence to a world audience in cinematic form. The legend endures and the various elements of Lawrence’s life and legacy have combined to create a modern icon. It could be argued that these historiographical currents were the most decisive outcomes of the Arab Revolt.

Wider Historiography

So, from an early phase, the Lawrence story has dominated the historiography of the Revolt. The fact that other key players such as Wingate, Clayton and Colonel P.C. Joyce began their own accounts of the Revolt but, for various reasons, never completed them did not help this fact. Apart from Lawrence’s own writings, there has never been any shortage of biographers who have devoted volumes to his story. Some early examples were written by biographers who actually knew him. These included biographies by Lowell Thomas and also Basil Liddell Hart.[x]

As for the other actors in the Revolt, while there have been studies of the French participation, little of this scholarship has been translated into English. The same came be said for the Arab contingent, which for many years was virtually written out of the story entirely. The work of Suleimann Mousa went some way to address this imbalance, as had the recent biography of Feisal by Ali A. Allawi.[xi] But, but in general, Arabic scholarship on this subject remains closed to Western scholars due to language issues.

Due to the new wave of WW1 scholarship inspired by the recent commemorations, the Middle East campaign has enjoyed a new phase of attention, punctuated by excellent studies by Eugene Rogan, Rob Johnston and Neil Faulkner, among others.[xii] These have included studies of specific aspects of the campaign, focusing on aspects such as the intelligence campaign and the role of airpower.[xiii]

Early Operations

In Cairo, General Sir Archibald Murray was faced with a major new strategic development due to the outbreak of the revolt in 1916. His operational focus was the planned advance through Sinai – an advance that created significant logistical difficulties in itself. He now also had to assist the developing revolt with the limited assets at his disposal. It also soon became apparent that without Allied assistance, the Arab Revolt would probably not last beyond the summer. Turkish forces advanced out of Medina with the intention of crushing this insurrection and the Arabs suffered a series of reverses.[xiv] Throughout June and July, Royal Navy ships ferried reinforcements, in the shape of Egyptian troops, and also artillery to the Hejaz. These were augmented with a contingent of British officers, who would act as advisors. This support allowed the Arabs to secure the surrender of further Turkish garrisons and also to oppose Turkish advances on the Arab-held coastal towns such as Jiddah, Rabegh and Yenbo. As Ottoman forces approached, ships of the Royal Navy provided crucial fire-support in the defence of these towns while seaplanes launched from the carrier HMS Ben-My-Chree attacked Turkish columns. By December 1916, the Turkish counteroffensive had been stopped. It now fell to Arab and Allied leaders to plan the future of the Arab Revolt.

It should be remembered that this was indeed an “Allied” effort and the French created a military “Mission to Egypt”. This was based as Port Said, numbering just over 1,100 men although this force never deployed to Arabia as one contingent. [xv]  The British mission to the Hejaz was code-named “Operation Hedgehog”. By 1917 it numbered over 40 officers who acted in an advisory capacity. T.E. Lawrence was just one of these and he would not arrive in Arabia until October 1916. By 1918, Operation Hedgehog had been expanded to include MG and mortar teams, an armoured car battery, artillery teams of various types and also air and LOGS elements. Within the British command, there was considerable debate whether to deploy British troops as such an act might have fed anti-British propaganda within the Ottoman and wider Islamic world; the deployment of infidel troops in proximity to the holiest places in Islam could only have been viewed as a provocation. Eventually it was decided to deploy troops from the Indian Army, although small numbers of British troops were later involved in units such as the Imperial Camel Corps troops.

During this period, it is also possible to chart the refocusing of the efforts of the Allied advisors. Their initial objective was to raise and train units of the Arab Regular Army and by late 1916, the cadres of three Arab armies had developed. These would be designated as the Arab Northern, Southern and Eastern armies.[xvi]British recruiters had been busy within the POW camps in Egypt, which contained thousands of Ottoman prisoners. While some of the recruiting initiatives proved unsuccessful, a number of extremely capable Ottoman officers were convinced to shift their allegiance. This officer contingent included Jafar Pasha al-Askari, Nuri al’Said and Aziz Ali al’Mazri, all of whom were Iraqi former officers of the Ottoman army with nationalist leanings.[xvii] Such officers would command the units of the three Arab armies, which would each number around 3,000 men. The majority of the rank and file were Arab soldiers of the Ottoman army who were also recruited from POW camps. Each army had tribal forces deployed with it and these were led by their own tribal chiefs. During the course of the campaign, the Arab Eastern and Southern Armies remained in the vicinity of Medina and Mecca for strategic reasons. The Arab Northern Army under Feisal was to have a more active war and it became the main manoeuvre force of the Arab armies. During the final campaigns in the Middle East it would operate in co-operation with General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force.[xviii]

From 1916, the Hejaz railway had been identified as a major strategic target. This single line railway was crucial to the survival of the Turkish garrison at Medina and elsewhere. From 1917 attacks of increasing size and ferocity were aimed against it until large numbers of Turkish troops were tied down in its defence. The Hejaz Railway represented the single most important lifeline for the transport of all Turkish material. Lawrence would later state that attacking the line suggested one of the main principles of modern guerrilla warfare, writing:

We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack would be nominal, directed not against him but against his stuff, so we would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.[xix]

Following the relocation of the Arab Northern Army to Aqaba in July 1917, the force was reinforced with armoured cars and further artillery assets. From this period onwards, the railway raids became more ambitious. Colonel P.C. Joyce, commander of Operation Hedgehog, and other British and Arab officers devised a programme for large-scale attacks on the line. By 1918, they realised that they could approach quite large Turkish garrisons, keeping them under suppressing fire from the armoured cars, MG teams or mountain-guns while demolition parties worked on the line. During July 1917, over 800 charges were laid along the line to the north and south of al ‘Ula by demolition parties. Such raids were assisted by RFC planes that arrived to bomb and strafe the garrisons while the railway line was mined. These raids played a major part in this desert campaign, tying down Ottoman forces all along the line.

Arab and Allied officers of the revolt also recognised the Arabian theatre offered the potential for carrying out long-range raids into Turkish rear areas. In terms of wider strategy, it was recognised that the capture of Aqaba on the Red Sea coast would bring a number of advantages to the Arab Northern Army. It would deny the Turks their last remaining port on the Red Sea while its capture would provide the Arab Northern Army with a coastal base and a location from which it could launch further raids inland. The possession of Aqaba would allow the Arab Northern Army to operate in Sinai and also in a north-eastern orientation towards Palestine, Lebanon and Syria in conjunction with future planned operations.

In many ways, the capture of Aqaba would be Lawrence’s greatest triumph. He became the main protagonist in the Aqaba scheme and he left Wejh on 9 May 1917 with a small party including Sharif Nasir, Auda abu Tayi and other tribal leaders. During the course of the next two months, this raiding party covered over 1,000km of inhospitable desert and, having recruited further Howeitat tribesmen en route, finally took Aqaba on 6 July 1917.[xx] This type of long range “advance to contact” would be used again during the revolt, most notably during the Yarmuk Valley raid of October-November 1917. Although the Yarmuk raid was a failure in its prime objective – the demolition of the Yarmuk railway bridges, this long range raid did result in the diversion of Ottoman troops during Allenby’s Third Gaza Offensive. [xxi]

By November 1917 the Arab Northern Army had been augmented by the allocation of a squadron of Rolls Royce armoured cars and also the addition of Ford and Talbot cars. Some of the latter mounted 10-pounder guns. These additions increased the army’s potential in terms of both mobility and firepower. By early 1918, the officers of Hedgehog had grasped the potential of these cars and began exploring to the area north-east of Aqaba in order to find routes towards the railway and beyond. The Arab Northern Army would continue attacks on the railway and on Mudawwarah and later Ma’an, while a mobile column pushed north-eastwards using the ancient “King’s Highway” route, operating between the Dead Sea and the railway line. This required the preparation of supply depots and by 1918 towns such as Shawbek, Tafilah and Kerak became the focus of Hedgehog’s efforts. These towns had ancient Crusader castles, indicating their former strategic importance along the King’s Highway route. [xxii]

By 1918, therefore, we can see a shift in the focus of operations. While the mobility and endurance of the camel-borne tribal raiding parties were still important, the emphasis was gradually shifting to integrating and utilising the armoured cars and other mechanized elements.

The important role played by the airpower has often been often overlooked by modern historians of the Arab Revolt. From its earliest days, airpower had assisted the Arab forces, initially in the form of the Shorts floatplanes flying from HMS Ben-My-Chree.[xxiii] In November 1916, X Flight of 14 Squadron RFC was attached to the Arab forces and later moved with the Arab army to Wejh and then Aqaba.  In 1917, these air assets were reinforced with 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. The air element associated with the Arab armies used a mix of BE2c, Martinsyde, RE8s and Bristol F2b aircraft. [xxiv] During the course of the campaign, the British and Australian pilots performed a wide range of duties, the primary ones being reconnaissance, bombing of Turkish garrisons and also bombing and strafing Turkish troops.

By 1918 multiple plane raids on targets such as Ma’an and Mudawwarah were quite usual. Planes also co-operated with the raiding parties.[xxv] To carry out this air campaign, bases were established at Aqaba and also other outlying airfields. Some of these would seem to have been very basic, just holding supplies of petrol, oil and water. Landing areas were prepared just for emergency landings in the desert while some outlying fields were more substantial with larger petrol supplies and also spare parts, ammunition and bombs.

Of course, this air activity forced the Ottoman air service to respond. One of the downsides of the move to Aqaba, were daily air raids on the town due to it being range of Turkish air units. Turkish squadrons were augmented by German and Austrian pilots and ground crew. In September 1917, Lt-Col. Joyce wrote from Aqaba “Fritz comes over most mornings but is a damn bad shot so far, thank God! The Arabs now streak off into the desert at early dawn and stroll back again after the eggs have been laid”.[xxvi]

Intelligence reports of 1918 noted the build-up of air assets at Ma’an, noting there were Rumpler two-seaters while a Halberstadt and Albatros scout were expected. The latter was to be piloted by a “crack Austrian sergeant pilot”. At Amman, there were seven machines (2 x Albatros, 2 x Halberstadt, 2 x AEG and 1 x Fokker). Intelligence suggested that Fokker pilot was Turkish, while all the remainder were German.[xxvii] By late 1917, the Turks were also placing single aircraft at temporary airfields as part of their wider efforts against the revolt. It would seem that these aircraft were tasked with operating in a counter-insurgency role, undertaking reconnaissance missions and also attacking Arab columns. British pilots referred to these locations as “nests” and considered them priority targets.[xxviii] Despite this considerable amount of air activity, the focus was on reconnaissance, aerial bombing and strafing of ground troops. Actual air-to-air combat, which was by then common on the Western Front, would seem to have been reasonably rare in the Arabian theatre.  Occasionally, the RFC and AFC planes were used to carry supplies in the form of ammunition or explosives to raiding parties in the field.  In August 1918 a Handley Page bomber was attached to X Flight and used to ferry larger quantities of supplies to the Arab Northern Army, which was then massing to the south-east of Deraa..[xxix]

As the Arab Revolt could technically be referred to as an “insurgency”, it did receive some scholarly attention in light of recent insurgency and COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more recently, Syria. While some of the lessons learned from the campaign might be suggestive, such a quest for “historical analogy” requires caution. The military campaign that developed in Arabia between 1916 and 1918 was context specific and it should be viewed with this context in mind. The “insurgent” forces ranged against the Ottomans bear no resemblance to more recent insurgent groups in terms of their organisation, motives or methods. Furthermore, their direction was controlled by Arab, British and French officers who, in general, operated within the accepted norms of warfare at that time. That is not to say that there were not excesses. There are several accounts of atrocities and POW executions; Lawrence himself later confessed to sanctioning the execution of POWs at Tafas in 1918.[xxx] At one point during the lengthy siege of Ma’an (April-September 1918), the local Arab commander, Jafar Pasha al-Askari suggested the use of gas to break this siege.[xxxi] Despite the fact that gas was being widely used on the Western Front by this time, his request was for a supply of gas shells was ultimately overruled. If it had been sanctioned, it would have been the earliest use of chemical weapons in the Middle East. There were more brutal undercurrents within this campaign, and these would be reflected in wider patterns of violence in the Middle East immediately post-WW1. In general, however, we do not see the same levels of violence that we now associate with insurgency in the Middle East.

If COIN lessons are to be drawn from this campaign, surely the focus should be on the activities of the Ottoman forces which were, after all, waging the counterinsurgency. Some scholars, such as Eugene Rogan, Edward Erickson and Mesut Uyar have made the Ottoman forces the focus of their studies. Yet, overall, the activities of the Ottoman army during the war have received remarkably little attention. It is possible to chart Ottoman countermoves and we see an increased use of blockhouses along the Hejaz Railway, greater use of cavalry and mobile patrols and a gradual increase in the role of airpower. The work of the GARP project has also identified an increased use of trench systems around key locations such as Ma’an.[xxxii] In the context of wider Ottoman difficulties, however, local commanders found themselves coping with ever-decreasing resources as they tried to counter the Arab threat.

Throughout 1917 and 1918, the Arab Northern Army grew increasingly confident and aggressive in its operations. In October 1917, soldiers of the regular contingent of the Arab Northern Army successfully engaged a Turkish column near Petra. On 25 January 1918, the Arabs had a significant victory when a party of around 600 tribesmen defeated a Turkish column of around 1,000 men at Tafila, to the south-east of the Dead Sea.[xxxiii] As 1918 progressed, shaping operations were carried out in support of Allenby’s advance along the eastern coast. Strategically important towns along the Kings Highway route were seized and held and Arab regular forces began a series of attacks Ma’an in April. Following a major assault on 17 April, the railway line to the south of Ma’an was cut and remained closed for the rest of the war. Ma’an remained besieged until its evacuation by Turkish forces on 23 September 1918. In the weeks leading up to General Allenby’s decisive Megiddo Offensive, raids on the railway line increased and Mudawwarah was captured by the Imperial Camel Corps. At the beginning the Megiddo Offensive on 19 September 1918, a contingent of around 1,000 men of the Arab Northern Army under Sharif Feisal had assembled to the south-east of Dera’a. These included Arab regulars, tribal contingents, Indian and Gurkha MG and mortar teams, armoured cars, mobile artillery and aircraft of X-Flight.

In the final weeks of the Middle East campaign, this Arab force remained in contact with the left wing of the Ottoman Fourth Army, complimenting Allenby’s success following the Megiddo offensive.  While Ottoman forces and their allied German and Austrian contingents were pushed back along the coastal axis, the Arab army continued to harass Turkish forces, which were now in complete disarray. On 1 October, Arab forces entered Damascus and by 26October they were at Aleppo. Military operations in the Middle East ceased on 29October 1918 when the crucial railway junction at Muslimiya was captured by British troops and regular Arab forces. Two days later, the Ottoman government was granted an armistice.[xxxiv]

While the Arab Revolt continues to fascinate, it should be viewed in terms of the wider Middle East context. It complimented wider Allied efforts in Egypt-Palestine while it also drew Ottoman forces away for the Mesopotamian (Iraq) front. It should also be remembered that the Allies faced their own internal revolt of Arab tribesmen in the form of the Senussi Rebellion of 1915-17.[xxxv] This Turkish-backed rebellion by the Senussi tribes was originally aimed at Italian forces in Libya but eventually saw British troops being committed to aid the Italians. As was the case in Arabia, the Senussi campaign saw the deployment of light car units, aircraft and cavalry in what became a highly mobile campaign. Across the Middle East therefore, it could be argued that the was some level of commonality in how forces were deployed. Due to the vast spaces involved and also the increasing availability of motor vehicles and aircraft, we see increased use of these elements in combination as the war progresses.[xxxvi]

It can also be argued that, in the operational sense, the campaign had been decisive. Although the process had taken longer than any British general had initially expected, Ottoman forces had been defeated in the Egypt-Palestine-Arabia theatre. Also, while the Arab revolt had effectively “stalled” on a number of occasions, the final Arab contribution in this campaign had not been inconsiderable. As a fighting force they had evolved from being largely a tribal force to one capable of integrating light armour, motorised artillery and airpower to create a highly mobile modern force. The role of British, French and former Ottoman officers was key in this process, as was the contribution of Lawrence himself. The success of the revolt is perhaps best summed up in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia when General Allenby (played by Jack Hawkins) remarks, rather glibly, that “the Revolt in the desert played an important part in the campaign in the Middle East”. It is true to state that, in conjunction with the wider military operations, the Arab armies played a decisive role in defeating Ottoman forces in the Middle East. But these should be seen in the context of the military activity in the Middle East as a whole. However, the question of securing a future for the Arab movement was to prove more problematic.

The Strategic and Geopolitical Legacy of the Revolt

Before the Arab Revolt had even begun, representatives of the Allied governments were already drawing up plans for the future of the Ottoman territories of the Middle East. As an exercise in hubris and arrogance, it was perhaps unparalleled. Despite the fact that western commentators had been predicting the demise of the Ottoman Empire since the 19th century, Allied military efforts up to 1915 had faced defeat and humiliation in campaigns in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Yet decisions made in London and Paris in 1915 were to have long-term ramifications for Arabia.[xxxvii]

Following Turkey’s entry into the war Allied government officials began to discuss how Ottoman territory should be divided after its seemingly inevitable defeat despite the fact that such discussions ran counter to the actual military reality of 1915. Senior civil servants met to decide how Ottoman territory would be ruled in the future, while at the same time their respective forces were being defeated in the Middle East. The two most prominent officials to emerge in this process were Sir Mark Sykes, who represented Britain, and M. Georges Picot who negotiated for France.

Talks continued throughout late 1915 up to February 1916 and a broad agreement was reached. This was ratified in May 1916 and has come to be known as the “Sykes-Picot Agreement”. Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, France’s sphere of influence would include Syria, Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia. Britain’s would encompass Mesopotamia (Iraq), Transjordan (modern-day Jordan) and Palestine. Russia, still in the war in 1916, would control the Armenian and Kurdish territories along Turkey’s north-eastern border. It was planned to establish an international commission to govern Jerusalem while Arabia (the Hejaz) was to receive a certain level of independence.

Obviously, these plans did not reflect the aspirations of the Arab peoples. Also, they did not coincide with the undertakings that would be made from 1916 by British and French officers to their Arab allies. As Lawrence would later put it, the Arabs were “fighting for us on a lie”. Perhaps inevitably, news of these plans leaked out and the Arab Revolt stalled as a consequence. By May 1917, the Arabs knew some of the details and the Bolshevik government in Russia would later disclose full details of the Sykes-Picot agreement. To increase the level of Arab distrust, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine, caused further discontent. British officers found themselves playing a delicate political game as they endeavored to keep their Arab allies onside and fully engaged against the Turks. Both the French and the British were obliged to pay vast subsidies in gold. At the same time, Ottoman officials were aware of these political difficulties - Cemel Pasha promised an amnesty and payment in gold to any Arab leader who defected from the Allied side. So, in the midst of this political turmoil both sides engaged in what we would refer today as “key leader engagement”.

Arab doubts were deflected to some degree by the publication of President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ speech of 8 January 1918, which promised that ‘other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’. Also, in the summer of 1918, a meeting was arranged between the Emir Feisal and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. Although this meeting was somewhat inconclusive, the combined efforts of Allied officers managed to keep the Arab leaders onside for the remainder of the war. [xxxviii]

Immediately post-war, British officers noted currents of tension and many predicted that this would lead to conflict. Col. P.C. Joyce, based in Damascus at the end of the war, commented on how Arab aspirations had not been fulfilled. He wrote that  “the Arabs argue, and with good reason, that having fought for the principles of freedom and independence, that it is the country’s (Syria’s) undisputed right to control their future”.[xxxix] Lawrence would also later be critical of French and British policy in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. While a revolt against British rule in Iraq was developing in the summer of 1920, Lawrence commented on the worsening situation:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.[xl]

From any military or political perspective, the immediate post-war situation was deeply unsatisfactory. Despite the success of the Arab Northern Army, there had been no decisive campaign in the Hejaz. The Turkish garrison at Medina remained and would not surrender until January 1919. There were also the pro-Ottoman followers of Ibn Rashid, mostly from the Shammer tribe, who remained active. Despite the fact that the French and British had backed the Hashemite cause in the Hejaz, it was the forces of Ibn Saud that emerged as the dominant force. Interestingly, Ibn Saud had also been supported by the British during the war and, in 1917, Harry St. John Philby had been sent to make contact with Ibn Saud and sound out his post-war intentions.[xli] Ultimately, it was Ibn Saud emerged as the leader most capable of uniting and ruling the Hejaz, modern-day Saudi Arabia.

For the Hashemites, the main protagonists in the revolt, the political end game was far from what they had expected. In October 1924, Hussein abdicated in favour of his eldest son, the Emir Ali who was then proclaimed as emir of Mecca and king of the Hejaz. The Hashemites found themselves increasingly isolated in Arabia and, by 1925, Ibn Saud had effectively taken control of the Hejaz. Hussein died in exile in Amman in 1931 while Ali died in Iraq in 1935.

For Feisal, the post-war years involved a difficult pilgrimage until he found a berth as king of Iraq. He had led his army in the hope of becoming king of Syria but was told that this was not to be the case as early as October 1918. The Ottoman province of Syria fell within the French remit. The French appointed the Gallipoli veteran, General Henri Gouraud, as the French High Commissioner of Syria and Lebanon in 1919.

While the ultimate fate of the former Ottoman territories was decided in a series of conferences from 1919, Feisal could not secure official recognition at the Paris Peace Conference of January 1919.  Two further conferences followed - the Conference of London (Feb.1920) and the San Remo Conference (April 1920). Following these conferences and the subsequent treaties with Turkey, Feisal realised that his claims to be king of Syria would not be recognised. A French military force defeated his forces at the battle of Maysalun on 23 July 1920, with around 400 Arab casualties. The French mandate to govern the Lebanon and the smaller states that make up modern-day Syria (the State of Aleppo, the State of Damascus etc.) was confirmed by the League of Nations. Throughout the 1920s, there was considerable controversy due to the violent activities of French paramilitary forces, many of whom were former Ottoman soldiers, in putting down internal dissent.

At the end of the war, the former Ottoman territory of Mesopotamia was in British control. This was renamed as the new state of Iraq. By 1920 a revolutionary war had broken out and this conflict became the main focus of the Cairo Conference of 1921. Winston Churchill, then the British colonial secretary, assembled a panel of forty experts or, as the nicknamed them, the “forty thieves”. They included Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and also Jafar al-Askari, who was minister for war in Iraq. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, which ended the war, led to the installation of Feisal as king of Iraq. Feisal died in 1933, aged just 48.[xlii] Jafar al-Askari and Nuri as Sa’id, who had both held high government office in Iraq, were assassinated in 1936 and 1958 respectively, testimony to the volatility of the internal politics of Iraq. The trajectory of Iraqi politics was changed dramatically with the Ba’athist revolution of 1958 but it could be argued that patterns of violence both there and in Syria were established in the immediate post-WW1 period.

Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British sphere of influence included Palestine and Transjordan (modern-day Jordan). This mandate was confirmed by the League of Nations and in May 1923, the Emir Abdullah, was recognised by the British as king. While Abdullah had previously ambitions to rule the Hejaz and the Yeman, he satisfied himself in establishing a Hashemite kingdom in Transjordan. On 20 July 1951, King Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman while attending Friday prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. He was succeeded by his grandson, King Hussein of Jordan (d.1999) who later became one of the most influential figures in Middle Eastern affairs. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan endures, now ruled by King Abdullah II and is often regarded as perhaps the most stable country in the modern Middle East.

The post-war settlement in Palestine has gradually developed into one of the most long-lived political problems in the Middle East. Governed by Britain under the terms of the British mandate, in the 1920s and 1930s, Palestine became the destination for generations of Jewish migrants. By 1935, over 60,000 Jewish settlers had settled in Palestine, a process that accelerated post-WWII. The subsequent tensions that developed between the Jewish and Palestinian communities plunged the region into open warfare in 1948 following Israeli independence. Further Arab-Israeli wars followed in 1967 and 1973 and a history of conflict unfolded during the remainder of the 20th century. For Israel, these tensions continue to this day – both internally and also with its Arab neighbours.

It could be argued that the Israeli, Palestinian and international communities are still dealing with fallout from the post-WWI political turmoil. While we have seen difficult attempts at “nation building” in the Middle East in recent years, the British and French attempts at this process post-WW1 were equally troublesome. The 1920s and 1930s saw significant changes in the political demography of Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. These regions saw conflict again during WW2 and tensions have remained high in the latter half of the 20th century. It could be argued that the implosion of Ottoman power was decisive but that the subsequent realignment of political life has remained contentious. None of the main actors on the Arab side were satisfied with the post-1918 dispensation and the traces of the wartime political manoeuvrings of the Allied powers can still be seen.

In recent years, following the Arab Spring of 2010 and the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, many commentators, both Western and Arab, and referred to the redrawing of post-WW1 lines of demarcation. While there is an element of “unfinished business” about the post-1918 political landscape, such statements require caution. Equally, WW1-era political machinations and the effects of Sykes-Picot continue to be cited as causes for current turmoil and, while they undoubtedly played a part in re-shaping the Middle East, the suggestion that the region would have evolved in a more peaceful and just manner had the post-war mandate system not been in place is not based on any empirical evidence. Indeed, the history of the Middle East during the 20th century would suggest otherwise.

In more practical terms, the desert exploits of the Allied officers during the Middle Eastern campaign combined with a sense of geographical curiosity during the 1920s and 1930s and inspired a new age of desert exploration. Improvements in car design allowed a generation of inter-war explorers to explore unmapped areas of desert. This was particularly true in the case of the Western Desert of Egypt/Libya. Exploring parties were led by intrepid characters such as Ralph Bagnold, Prince Kemal-el-Din and Lazlo Almasy, among others. These experiences were exploited during WW2 and the North African campaign saw a new phase of long range patrolling and raids. For the British, such exploits were carried out by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS). It is interesting to note that Bagnold, who had studied the use of Light Car Patrols during WW1 in preparation for his inter-war expeditions, was also involved in this later phase of activity. It is possible to trace a link from the desert raiding forces of WW2 back to the experiences of the desert forces of WW1.

Therefore, the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 was not a mere “sideshow” of the operations in the wider Middle East campaign. The activities of the Arab armies contributed to the decisive defeat of the Ottoman forces of 1918. The post-war political situation proved less than satisfactory. While these settlements seemed to offer a decisive outcome at the time, in reality they have fuelled long-term tensions. Of course, the most decisive element of the revolt centred on Lawrence himself. His successful creation of this own myth has led to other aspects of the campaign being overshadowed and has led to simplistic interpretations of the geopolitical and strategic outcomes. Yet like all iconic figures, he has been reinterpreted by each successive generation and, due to that process, the wider aspects of the Arab Revolt are also being reappraised on a regular basis allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the campaign.  

End Notes

[i] For a comprehensive account of the context and progress of the revolt, see Eugene’s Rogan’s seminal work, The Fall of the Ottomans: the Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 (Penguin, 2015).

[ii] Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: a history (2nd edition, 2012). See also David Murphy, The Arab Revolt, 1916-18: Lawrence sets Arabia ablaze (Osprey, Oxford, 2008), 5-8.

[iii] The correspondence between Hussein and the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, survives and is often referred to as the “McMahon-Hussein correspondence”. It contains a series of letters dating from July 1915 to March 1916. See National Archives, Kew, “British commitments to King Hussein”, CAB 24/68/86.

[iv] David Murphy, The Arab Revolt, 1916-18: Lawrence sets Arabia ablaze (Osprey, Oxford, 2008).

[v] The main repository for Lawrence’s papers is the Bodleian Library in Oxford, while official reports are held in the UK National Archives in Kew. Other relevant papers are held in the Liddell Hart Archive at King’s College, London, and the Middle Eastern Archive at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

[vi] See James Barr, Setting the desert on fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s secret war in Arabia (2006). For information on the Great Arab Revolt Project, visit the project website at See also Neil Faulkner’s Lawrence of Arabia’s War: the Arabs, the British and the remaking of the Middle East in WW1 (Yale, 2016).

[vii] For a full order of battle see David Murphy, The Arab Revolt: Lawrence sets Arabia ablaze (2008 ), pp 25-26.

[viii] The best and fullest modern account of Lawrence’s life and career is Jeremy Wilson’s, Lawrence of Arabia: the authorized biography (London, 1989)

[ix] David Murphy,  Lawrence of Arabia (Osprey Command Series, 2011), pp 54-62.

[x] Lowell Thomas, The boys’ life of Colonel Lawrence (1959). B.H. Liddell Hart, Lawrence of Arabia (1937). Despite having first-hand accounts from Lawrence and his contemporaries, both books contain factual errors.

[xi] Suliemann Mousa, T.E. Lawrence: an Arab view (OUP, 1966). Ali A. Allawi, Faisal of Iraq (Yale, 2014).

[xii] Citations for Rogan and Faulkner included above. See also Rob Johnson, The Great War and the Middle East (OUP, 2016). Rob Johnson is currently working on a new study of Lawrence.

[xiii] See Polly A. Mohs, Military intelligence and the Arab Revolt (Routledge, 2008) and James P. Hynes, Lawrence of Arabia’s secret air force (Pen & Sword, 2010).

[xiv] Apart from the British forces of the EEF, there were also French troops in theatre. The French would send their own mission to the Hejaz and some of their officers and troops would co-operate with the Arab Northern Army in 1917 and 1918. See James Barr’s A line in the sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East (2012). See also Christophe Leclerc, Avec T.E. Lawrence en Arabie: la mission militaire française au Hejaz, 1916-1920 (1998).

[xv] Christophe Leclerc, Avec T.E. Lawrence en Arabie: la mission militaire française au Hejaz, 1916-1920 (1998).

[xvi] Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans, pp 302-303.

[xvii]  William Facey and Najdat Fathi Safwat (eds), A soldier’s story from Ottoman rule to independent Iraq: the memoirs of Jafar Pasha al-Askari (2003)

[xviii]  The official history of the campaign in covered in the series of volumes developed by the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. These were published as The History of the Great War based on official documents (HMSO, London, 109 volumes, 1915-1949). There are specific volumes dedicated to Egypt and Palestine and the Arab Revolt is mentioned in that context.

[xix][xix] T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Penguin edition, 1988), 200.

[xx] See Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. See also Michael Asher on Lawrence and desert travel in his Lawrence: the uncrowned king of Arabia (London, 1998)

[xxi] Ibid. See also Murphy, Arab Revolt.

[xxii] Joyce Papers, Liddell-Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College, London. See also Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

[xxiii] See Murphy, Arab Revolt.

[xxiv] James P. Hynes, Lawrence of Arabia’s secret airforce (2010). See also L.W. Sutherland’s wartime memoir, Aces and Kings (New edition, 2009)

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Joyce Papers, Liddell-Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College, London. Joyce to Clayton, 17 September 1917.

[xxvii] Joyce Papers, Liddell-Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College, London.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] James P. Hynes, Lawrence of Arabia’s secret airforce (2010).

[xxx] David Murphy, Lawrence of Arabia, p. 44. For Lawrence’s own account of this incident, see his Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

[xxxi] Barr, Setting the desert on fire, 256.

[xxxii] See the Great Arab Revolt Project website for further information on excavations.

[xxxiii] David Murphy, Lawrence of Arabia (Osprey, Oxford), 40-41, 42-43. See also Murphy, Arab Revolt, 62-63, 64-65, 68.

[xxxiv] Cyril Falls, Military Operations, Egypt and Palestine (2 volumes, HMSO, London, 1930)

[xxxv] Stuart Hadaway, Pyramids and fleshpots: the Egyptian, Senussi and Eastern Mediterranean campaigns, 1914-16 (Spellmount, 2014).

[xxxvi] Aimee Fox, Learning to fight: military innovation in the British Army, 1914-18 (CUP, 2017).

[xxxvii] See Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans. See also David Fromkin’s seminal work A peace to end all peace: the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East (NY, 2001).

[xxxviii] Liddel Hart Centre for Military Archives, Joyce Papers, I/P, “Weismann-Feisal meeting file”.

[xxxix] Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Joyce Papers, M/39, “Memorandum” of 1919

[xl] The Sunday Times, 22 August 1920. The unrest in Iraq would continue until 1922.

[xli] Harry St John Philby or “Jack” Philby was the father of the notorious British double agent, Kim Philby.

[xlii] For a comprehensive account of Feisal’s life, see Ali A. Allawi’s excellent Faisal I of Iraq (Yale, 2014)

About the Author(s)

Dr Murphy is a graduate of University College, Dublin (BA, MLitt) and Trinity College, Dublin (PhD). He has taught at both of these institutions, teaching electives on European and Irish history as well as military history and the history of polar exploration. Between 1997 and 2005 he was a major contributor to the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, writing almost 400 biographical entries. During this period working for the Royal Irish Academy, he was also seconded to the Irish Manuscripts Commission. In 2004 he became the first Irish scholar to be awarded a fellowship to the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History. He is a member of various societies including the T.E. Lawrence Society and the Ormonde Military History Society. Since 2008, he has acted as a reader for academic publishers, including Four Courts Press, Palgrave-MacMillan, Yale UK and Liverpool University Press. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute and is an external examiner for Department of Defence Studies, King's College, London. See his personal website here.