A hundred years ago today, the Ottoman garrison of Mecca surrendered the holy city to rebel forces led by Sherif Hussein Bin Ali, ruler of Islam’s second holy city, Medina. This was the first great, highly symbolic victory of what is generally known as the Arab Revolt, proclaimed a few days earlier and sponsored by British agents based in Egypt.
Orthodox western history describes the Revolt as an expression of both British geopolitical interests and of a nationalist, anti-Ottoman drive for independence by the Arab peoples of the northern Middle East. History as seen from within the Middle East takes a more mixed view, with some modern commentators dismissing the Revolt as the self-interested work of the British and their collaborators. These are seen as a small minority of disgruntled Arab chieftains, educated in Western values, most notably nationalism, and greedy for the material and political fruits of Western-style national power.
I’m a white, middle-class Brit, so I mention the latter, relatively extreme theory without any kind of judgement, rather as a reminder that we all operate subjectively when history informs the politics of the present. With that in mind, and apologies if my attempts at dispassion clash with your passions, here’s a quick overview of the Revolt’s opening months, beginning with the basics.
The Arab Revolt was an uprising by native peoples of western, central and northern parts of what was then loosely described as Arabia (stretching north as far as modern Syria) against the Ottoman Empire, which had governed the region since the late sixteenth century. Ottoman rule was largely superficial by 1914. Most of a tribal population of some 6 million, roughly half of them nomadic, owed allegiance to local chieftains rather than Constantinople, and most of the chieftains were in no position to rebel.
To the north, Syrian overlord Nuri-es-Shalaan was too close to the Turkish heartlands to risk any provocative action, and to the south – east of Sinai – the Shammar Confederacy under Ali Rashid was dependent on its role as the Empire’s principle supplier of camels. Though hostile to Ottoman rule, the central Arabian Wahabi people (led by Ibn Sa’ud) were too isolated to make rebellion either practicable or necessary, and the same applied to tribes near the Red Sea coast in the southwest. In the far east of the Empire, also isolated from potential allies, natives of the floodplains around the Tigris and the Euphrates, known to the contemporary Europeans as Marsh Arabs, were basically hostile to anyone infringing on their territories and spent the War years as an elusive, often aggressive third party in the battle on the Mesopotamian Front.
The only overt pressure for Arab independence came from the relatively fertile Hejaz region, where Sherif Hussein BIn Ali controlled almost 1,000km of the central Arabian Red Sea coastal zone. The Hejaz extended as far north as the tip of Sinai, and was connected to the Ottoman heartlands by the Medina-Damascus railway. It also included the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, so that the Sherif (who claimed direct descent from the Prophet) was an important figure in the Islamic religious hierarchy, and a natural focus for secret independence societies founded in the wake of the Young Turk government’s pre-War attacks on Arab autonomy. Hussein established close contact with one of these – the important, Damascus-based Al Fatat group – through his third son, Feisal, in early 1915, and relations between the Hejaz and Constantinople became very tense after the government’s mass executions of Al Fatat membership in the spring.
Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, had meanwhile been in touch with the British, informing then Egyptian c-in-c Kitchener of his father’s desire for independence in early 1914 and maintaining contacts through 1915. By early 1916, with the British chasing support while building up to an invasion of Palestine from Egypt, plans for an uprising had been laid and British rifles were being shipped to the Hejaz across the Red Sea. By May, the Ottoman government, aware of preparations, had initiated a blockade of the Hejaz coast and begun readying troops in Damascus for a move south – but played by the rules of what was still a phoney war by announcing that the troops were intended to reinforce German efforts in East Africa.
Feisal ended the phoney war by declaring rebellion on 5 June, and he was joined by some 30,000 untrained fighters for an opening attack on the Turkish garrison at Medina. It failed against the skilled defence of veteran Turkish commander Fakhri Din Pasha, but rebels did cut the railway north. Further south, another ‘Sherifian’ force under Hussein took Mecca on 10 June, after three days of street fighting had dislodged the 1,000-strong garrison, and a few days later a third force, supported by a Royal Navy seaplane carrier, took the surrender of 1,500 Turkish troops at the port of Jiddah. During the next month two more garrison ports – Ragebh and Yenbo – fell to the rebels, and from late September, when (Moslem-crewed) British artillery from Egypt joined Sherifians to take the town of At Taif, Medina was the last remaining Ottoman stronghold in the southern Hejaz.
So far, so good for Hussein, who styled himself Sultan of the Hejaz (later upgraded to King of the Hejaz) and placed his sons in command of an Arab Army’s four main bodies. Two large hosts, each of about 9,000 men, occupied areas to the south and southeast of Medina; further south, a mixed force of native Arabs and Egyptian Army regulars (up from the Sudan) mustered about 1,500 men; and Feisal commanded another 8,000 men in positions inland from Yenbo.
On the other hand, while Hussein appeared content to rest on his laurels, many of his troops were very young or very old, few were in any way trained, their numbers and positions were subject to random fluctuations, and they had very little artillery support. In October they were driven further south by attacks from the Medina garrison, and that reopened the railway north to Turkish reinforcements. When a British liaison group reached Jiddah later that month, it found the Revolt losing momentum and troops drifting away from the Arab Army.
Worried that repayment on their investment in the Hejaz – which amounted to minimal military support and a promise of full independence – had peaked, the British liaison group sent a junior officer inland to make contact with Feisal’s force. The officer concerned was Thomas Edward Lawrence, a scholarly, Welsh-born Arabist destined to make a difference.
The meeting of Lawrence and Feisal marks the beginning of a story – part military epic, part myth – that is enshrined in British heritage lore and movie history. It’s for another day, and so is most of the controversy around the Revolt as a whole.
At this point, confined to the southern Hejaz, the Sherifian uprising was a fairly typical example of the diplomacy practiced by major belligerents seeking wartime allies. The actions of the Sharif, motivated by ambition and ready to believe British promises of its fulfilment, hardly differ in principle from those of leaders elsewhere. The Ottoman Empire, Italy, Romania, Greece and a host of other states had already fallen for, or were in the process of falling for, what amounted to bribes from one side or another, and British promises to Hussein were no more or less dubious than those given to most of them. So for now the Revolt was just another case of need meeting greed, relatively insignificant to the majority of Arabs, to the course of the War and to the future of the region as a whole.
That would change. Lawrence would help create a new intimacy between Britain and the Revolt, help turn it into an altogether more powerful influence within the Arab world, and help guide it towards what can only be seen as a premeditated betrayal by its British sponsors. In other words, the Revolt was a cynical, greedy business, and was comprehensively stitched up by the British… but not necessarily at the same time.