When the war broke out in 1914, the Arabian Peninsula was still something of an unknown quantity. Part of the Ottoman Empire, it was mostly inhabited by rival tribes and encompassed the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. The British were convinced that an Arab revolt in the Hejaz, on the eastern coast of the Red Sea, would be key to bringing the Ottoman Empire down. In 1915, the High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, started corresponding with the Sharif of Mecca, trying to convince him to join the Allied Powers. These letters were kept very vague, and would, at the end of the war, be at the centre of endless controversies.

In 1916, the Arab tribes of the Peninsula rebelled against the Empire, under Hussein’s leadership and with the support of Britain.

At the end of the war, and in the two decades that followed, the map of the Arabian Peninsula was radically transformed. In 1916 Hussein bin Ali established the Kingdom of Hejaz, while the Emirate of Riyadh was transformed into the Sultanate of Nejd. In 1926, the Kingdom of Nejd and Hejaz was formed, and, in 1936 became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen became independent in 1918, while the Arab states of the Persian Gulf became de facto British protectorates, with some internal autonomy.

The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence

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Map of Arabia showing railways, roads and countries of British, Russian and Turkish forces and of friendly and hostle Arabs and Kurds 1916 MPK 1/264/2

From 1915, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, started discussing the political status of land under Ottoman rule. These secret exchanges, known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, lasted from 14 July 1915 to 30 January 1916.

At the beginning, the correspondence contained rather veiled proposals from Britain, and seemed to imply that the British would agree to a caliphate in the Arab world under the leadership of Hussein and his Hashemite family. The Sharif hinted at the possibility of independence for the Arab states within the frame of a single state which would call on the help of Great Britain for its administration and the running of its economy, and asked for the boundaries of this state to be fixed. It was to encompass all the provinces of the Ottoman Empire and parts of Anatolia (CO 733/178/5).

McMahon replied by alluding to the possibility of a caliphate in Arabia, mostly because the British and the French were aware that it would be impossible to impose a western, Christian ideal upon the Muslim holy cities, and that the Hedjaz would, whatever happened, have to be left out when time came for a carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.

The Allies’ defeat in Gallipoli prompted the British to make more specific promises in a letter dated 24 October 1915: ‘Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca’ (FO 882/12).

Replying on 5 November 1915, Hussein agreed to drop his claims on Anatolia, but insisted there was no difference between Christian and Muslim Arabs, that they were all ‘descendants of one forefather’ – which meant that the two vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut were to be considered as ‘purely Arab’. He also insisted on the Arabness of Mesopotamia, and only accepted the principle of a temporary British administration in exchange for financial compensation (FO 882/12).

In his following letter, dated 14 December, McMahon ‘took careful note of these observations’ but pointed out that the issue of the vilayets of Beirut and Aleppo mainly involved French interests and would therefore require careful consideration.

Hussein had a single, simple definition for Arabness: an Arab was an Arab because he was of Arab descent, his religion was irrelevant. He went as far as to claim this applied to all the Arabic-speaking territories in Asia. So when the British used ‘Arabia’, thinking ‘Arabian peninsula’, Hussein understood ‘Arab Asia’.

The second ambiguity concerned the notion of independence. Hussein knew that to develop an Arab State, he would need European men and capital. Trying to make his offer more attractive, he offered the British a monopoly on this European presence in Arab territories; but for him it was a sort of technical co-operation, and did not imply political primacy. For the British, however, Arab independence meant separation from the Ottoman Empire and a protectorate over the new Arab State, following the Egyptian model (FO 882/13).

The correspondence was conducted in Arabic on both sides, with effusive floweriness in the observance of titles and honorifics, and the British translated their original text with varying degrees of accuracy (CO 733/320/3).

These are semantic ambiguities; there was also a territorial one. For the British, Palestine could absolutely not be defined as ‘purely Arab’. Its importance, and particularly that of Jerusalem, to the Christian story and tradition, and its vital position for protection of the Suez Canal, meant that for the Allied Powers the future of the territory carried added significance.  The exclusion of Palestine from the future Arab State appeared in the correspondence in the vaguest possible terms, through expressions such as ‘purely Arab’ or ‘the interests of our ally, France, are involved’. These semantic subtleties were wasted on Hussein, who was entirely convinced that the correspondence guaranteed the ‘Great Arab State’, Palestine included, which would satisfy both his personal ambition and the Arab claims for independence (CO 733/178/5).

The Arab Revolt

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Map of Arabia showing railways, oil areas, submarine bases, a thinly populated region fit for European colonisation, and virgin soil which would admit of cultivation 1916 MPK 1/264/3

The Arab Revolt began on 5 June 1916, when forces commanded by Sharif Hussein’s sons, the emirs Ali and Faisal, attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina in an attempt to seize the holy city and its railway station. After three days the Arabs broke off their attacks, and the commander of the 12,000-strong Ottoman garrison, General Fakhri Pasha, sent Turkish troops out of the city to pursue the retreating rebels. Sharif Hussein publicly proclaimed the beginning of the revolt on 10 June in Mecca. His forces were more successful there, seizing the city and forcing the small Ottoman garrison to seek refuge in the local fortress. Another of Hussein’s sons, Emir Abdullah, surrounded and besieged the town of Ta’if (WO 106/55).

At the same time, rebel clans allied to Sharif Hussein attacked Jeddah and other ports along the Arabian coast of the Red Sea. Both sides recognised the importance of the Red Sea ports and the British immediately dispatched a naval flotilla to support the Arab forces. The ships bombarded Turkish fortifications and aircraft attacked Turkish troops in the field, disrupting their efforts to defeat the advancing rebels on the landward approaches.

By the end of July the ports of Jeddah, Yanbu and Rabegh were in Arab hands, allowing the British to greatly increase their supply of arms and equipment to the Arab forces in the Hejaz. Control of the ports also allowed the landing of the first units of the Arab Regular Army – Ottoman Army soldiers captured by the British at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia or the Sinai, who had subsequently volunteered to fight for the Arab nationalist cause. An artillery battery from the Egyptian Army provided further support (WO 106/55).

The British Army also dispatched their own military mission to liaise between the Arab leadership and the British high command in Egypt. This mission, which from October 1916 included Lieutenant T E Lawrence, would increase in size and capability as the war went on. This assistance, especially the artillery, gave the Arab forces the means to finish off the Ottoman garrisons under siege at Mecca and Ta’if (FO 141/736/1).

Sharif Hussein spent the rest of 1916 consolidating his hold on the Hejaz and the coastal ports, building up his army and fending off Turkish counter-attacks. The failure to seize Medina at the start of the revolt proved costly, as the Ottoman Fourth Army sent reinforcements down the entire length of the Hejaz railway to garrison the stations. Ottoman General Fakhri Pasha then sought to recapture the coastal ports, beginning at Yanbu in December. This assault was finally beaten off thanks to the decisive intervention of the Royal Navy flotilla; the same thing happened when Fakhri tried to take Rabegh in early January 1917 (FO 141/456/3).

Meanwhile, Emir Feisal, with Lawrence as his adviser, had captured the port of Wejh, 150 km north of Yanbu. From there Feisal’s men spent most of 1917 attacking the Hejaz railway. Small raiding parties blew up sections of track and destroyed bridges, water towers and railway stations. The British, planning to invade Palestine, wanted the Arab rebels to keep the 12,000 Ottoman troops in Medina tied down (FO 141/456/3).

A yet bolder move came in June-July 1917 when a small Arab force carried out an extraordinary 600-mile trek through the desert, emerging north-east of the key Ottoman port of Aqaba. The local Howeitat tribe then joined the revolt, encouraged by Auda abu-Tayi, a Howeitat chieftain and renowned warrior who had been on the march from Wejd. A series of skirmishes were fought against a succession of Turkish garrisons on the road to Aqaba, and one major battle took place, at Abu al-Lissan, culminating in the capture of the port at the beginning of July. The revolt had now entered the relatively rich and heavily populated regions of Syria, and in this area an intensive guerrilla war was waged for over a year, focusing on the Hedjaz railway (WO 106/6104).

The final phase of the revolt involved Arab participation in the final British offensive of September-October 1918, which, beginning in Palestine, quickly broke the Turkish front and instigated a general collapse. The Arabs formed a fast-moving right flank to this offensive, reaching Damascus, the ancient capital of Syria, on 1 October (FO 141/438/5).

Much has been made of the Arab Revolt and T E Lawrence’s exploits. Having tied up large numbers of Turkish troops and greatly assisted Allenby’s success in Palestine, the revolt, in Arabist mythology, marked the beginning of an Arab Awakening. In truth, Hussein’s ambitions were personal, not Panarabist, and the revolt wasn’t really an Arab uprising; it was, obviously, supported by the Hashemites, but not so widely by other Arabs. Only the Bedouins of the Hejaz took to the field in any numbers. In a letter dated 16 February 1916, Hussein had implied that a hundred thousand Arab soldiers in the Ottoman Army would defect to his revolt, an assumption backed by the Arab Bureau (FO 882/8). It never happened. It seemed that the forces Hussein managed to gather never exceeded, at best, 15,000 men. And they didn’t achieve much. They took Jeddah and Mecca, but not Medina, and fought mainly for loot. The Arab Bureau reported in 1918 that ‘it must be said that 90% of the Sharif’s troops are nothing more than robbers’, and Allenby’s intelligence Officer, Colonel Meinertzhagen said that ‘it was safe to say that Lawrence’s desert campaign had not the slightest effect on the main theatre West of Jordan’ (FO 882/7).

Key documents

  • Miscellaneous correspondence, 1917-1918 FO 882/7
  • Miscellaneous correspondence, 1917-1918 FO 882/12
  • Summary of events during Arab revolt in Province of Hejaz, Sept. 1918 WO 106/6104
  • Hejaz Revolt, 31 August 1918 WO 106/55
  • Papers relating to the pledges made to the Arabs by Sir H McMahon, 1915 July-1930 Oct. CO 733/178/5