The rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire dates from at least 1821
The Arab Revolt was initiated by the Sherif Hussein bin Ali with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.
Though the Sherifian revolt has tended to be regarded as a revolt rooted in a secular Arab nationalist sentiment, in June 1916, the Sherif did not present it in those terms; rather, he accused the Young Turks of violating the sacred tenets of Islam and called Arab Muslims to sacred rebellion against the ostensibly “impious” Ottoman government. Contrarily, Turks accuse rebelling tribes for betraying the Muslim Caliphate during his campaign against imperialist powers which were trying to divide and govern the Muslim lands.
It is estimated that the Arab forces involved in the revolt numbered around 5,000 soldiers. This number however probably applies to the Arab regulars who fought during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign with Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, and not the irregular forces under the direction of Lawrence and Faisal. On a few occasions, particularly during the final campaign into Syria, this number would grow significantly. Many Arabs joined the Revolt sporadically, often as a campaign was in progress or only when the fighting entered their home region. During the Aqaba raid, for instance, while the initial Arab force numbered only a few hundred, over a thousand more from local tribes joined them for the final assault on Aqaba. Estimates of Faisal’s effective forces vary, but through most of 1918 at least, they may have numbered as high as 30,000 men. The Hashemite Army comprised two distinctive forces: tribal irregulars who waged a guerrilla war against the Ottoman Empire and the Sharifian Army, which was recruited from Ottoman Arab POWs, and fought in conventional battles. In the early days of the revolt, Faisal’s forces were largely made up of Bedouin and other nomadic desert tribes, who were only loosely allied, loyal more to their respective tribes than the overall cause. The Bedouin would not fight unless paid in advance with gold coin, and by the end of 1916, the French had spent 1.25 million gold francs in subsidizing the revolt. By September 1918, the British were spending £ 220,000/month to subsidize the revolt. Faisal had hoped that he could convince Arab troops serving in the Ottoman Army to mutiny and join his cause, but the Ottoman government sent most of its Arab troops to the front-lines of the war, and thus only a handful of deserters actually joined the Arab forces until later in the campaign. The Hashemite forces were initially poorly equipped, but later were to receive significant supplies of weapons, most notably rifles and machine-guns from Britain and France.
Ottoman troops in the Hejaz numbered 20,000 men by 1917. At the outbreak of the revolt in June 1916, the VII Corps of the 4th Ottoman Army was stationed in the Hejaz to be joined by the 58th Infantry Division commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Ali Necib Pasha, the 1st Kuvvie- Mürettebe (Provisional Force) led by General Mehmed Cemal Pasha, which had the responsibility of safeguarding the Hejaz railroad and the Hicaz Kuvvei Seferiyesi (Expeditionary Force of the Hejaz) which was under the command of General Fakhri Pasha. In face of increasing attacks on the Hejaz railroad, the 2nd Kuvvie- Mürettebe was created by 1917. The Ottoman force included a number of Arab units who stayed loyal to the Sultan-Caliph and fought well against the Allies. The Ottoman troops enjoyed an advantage over the Hashemite troops at first in that they were well supplied with modern German weapons. In addition, the Ottoman forces had the support of both the Ottoman air forces, air squadrons from Germany and the Ottoman gendarmerie. Moreover, the Ottomans relied upon the support of Ibn Rashid, the King of Ha’il whose tribesmen dominated what is now northern Saudi Arabia and tied down both the Hashemites and the Saud forces with the threat of their raiding attacks. The great weakness of the Ottoman forces was they were at the end of a long and tenuous supply line in the form of the Hejaz railroad, and because of their logistical weaknesses, were often forced to fight on the defensive. Ottoman offensives against the Hashemite forces more often faltered due to supply problems than to the actions of the enemy.
The main contribution of the Arab Revolt to the war was to pin down tens of thousands of Ottoman troops who otherwise might have been used to attack the Suez Canal, allowing the British to undertake offensive operations with a lower risk of counter-attack. This was indeed the British justification for starting the revolt, a textbook example of asymmetrical warfare which has been studied time and again by military leaders and historians alike.
The Ottoman Empire took part in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I, under the terms of the Ottoman–German Alliance. Many Arab nationalist figures in Damascus and Beirut were arrested, then tortured. The flag of the resistance was designed by Sir Mark Sykes, in an effort to create a feeling of “Arab-ness” in order to fuel the revolt.
Because of repression by the Ottoman Empire and their Central Powers allies, Grand Sharif Hussein, as the guardian of the holy city of Mecca, entered into an alliance with the United Kingdom and France against the Ottomans sometime around 8 June 1916, the actual date being somewhat uncertain. This alliance was facilitated by the services of a mysterious young Arab officer in the Ottoman army named Muhammed Sharif al-Faruqi.
Hussein had about 50,000 men under arms, but fewer than 10,000 had rifles. Evidence that the Ottoman government was planning to depose him at the end of the war led him to an exchange of letters with British High Commissioner Henry McMahon which convinced him that his assistance on the side of the Triple Entente would be rewarded by an Arab empire encompassing the entire span between Egypt and Persia, with the exception of imperial possessions and interests in Kuwait, Aden, and the Syrian coast. Hussein, who until then had officially been on the Ottoman side, decided to defect over the Allied camp because of rumours that Sharif Ali Haidar, leader of the competing Zaid family for the position of Sharif of Mecca, was in increasing favour with the Ottoman government, and that he would soon be deposed. The much publicized executions of the Arab nationalist leaders in Damascus led Hussein to fear for his life if he were deposed in favour of Ali Haidar. On June 5, 1916 two of Hussein’s sons, the Emirs Ali and Faisal began the revolt by attacking the Ottoman garrison in Medina, but were defeated by an aggressive Turkish defence led by Fakhri Pasha. The revolt proper began on June 10, 1916, when Hussein ordered his supporters to attack the Ottoman garrison in Mecca. In the Battle of Mecca, there ensued over a month of bloody street fighting between the out-numbered, but far better armed Ottoman troops and Hussein’s tribesmen. The Hashemite forces in Mecca were joined by Egyptian troops sent by the British, who provided much needed artillery support, and finally took Mecca on July 9, 1916. The indiscriminate Ottoman artillery fire, which did much damage to Mecca, turned out to be a potent propaganda weapon for the Hashemites, who portrayed the Ottomans as desecrating Islam’s most holy city. Also on June 10, another of Hussein’s sons, the Emir Abdullah attacked Ta’if, which after an initial repulse settled down into a siege. With the Egyptian artillery support, Abdullah took Ta’if on September 22, 1916.
French and British naval forces had cleared the Red Sea of Ottoman gunboats early in the war. The port of Jidda was attacked by 3500 Arabs on 10 June 1916 with the assistance of bombardment by British warships and seaplanes. The seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree provided crucial air support to the Hashemite forces. The Ottoman garrison surrendered on 16 June. By the end of September 1916 Arab armies had taken the coastal cities of Rabegh, Yenbo, Qunfida, and 6000 Ottoman prisoners with the assistance of the Royal Navy. The capture of the Red Sea ports allowed the British to send over force of 700 Ottoman Arab POWs (who come mostly from what is now Iraq) who had decided to join the revolt led by Nuri as-Sa’id and a number of Muslim troops from French North Africa. Fifteen thousand well-armed Ottoman troops remained in the Hejaz. However, a direct attack on Medina in October resulted in a bloody repulse of the Arab forces.
In June 1916, the British sent out a number of officials to assist the revolt in the Hejaz, most notably Colonel Cyril Wilson, Colonel Pierce C. Joyce, and Lt-Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe. Herbert Garland was also involved. In addition, a French military mission commanded by Colonel Edouard Brémond was sent out. The French enjoyed an advantage over the British in that they included a number of Muslim officers such as Captain Muhammand Ould Ali Raho, Claude Prost, and Laurent Depui (the latter two converted to Islam during their time in Arabia). Captain Rosario Pisani of the French Army, though not a Muslim, also played a notable role in the revolt as an engineering and artillery officer with the Arab Northern Army.
The British government in Egypt sent a young officer, Captain T. E. Lawrence, to work with the Hashemite forces in the Hejaz in October 1916. The British historian David Murphy wrote that though Lawrence was just one out of many British and French officers serving in Arabia, historians often write like it was Lawrence alone who represented the Allied cause in Arabia.
David Hogarth credited Gertrude Bell for much of the success of the Arab Revolt. She had travelled extensively in the Middle East since 1888, after graduating from Oxford with a First in Modern History. Bell had met Sheikh Harb of the Howeitat in January 1914 and provided a “mass of information” which was crucial to the success of Lawrence’s occupation of Aqaba covering the “tribal elements ranging between the Hejaz Railway and the Nefud, particularly about the Howeitat group.” It was this information, Hogarth emphasized, which “Lawrence, relying on her reports, made signal use of in the Arab campaigns of 1917 and 1918.”
Lawrence obtained assistance from the Royal Navy to turn back an Ottoman attack on Yenbu in December 1916. Lawrence’s major contribution to the revolt was convincing the Arab leaders (Faisal and Abdullah) to co-ordinate their actions in support of British strategy. Lawrence developed a close relationship with Faisal, whose Arab Northern Army was to be become the main beneficiary of British aid. By contrast, Lawrence’s relations with Abdullah were not good, so Abdullah’s Arab Eastern Army received considerably less in way of British aid. Lawrence persuaded the Arabs not to drive the Ottomans out of Medina; instead, the Arabs attacked the Hejaz Railway on many occasions. This tied up more Ottoman troops, who were forced to protect the railway and repair the constant damage.
On December 1, 1916 Fakhri Pasha began an offensive with three brigades out of Medina with the aim of taking the port of Yanbu. At first, Fakhri’s troops defeated the Hashemite forces in several engagements, and seemed set to take Yanbu. It was fire and air support from the five ships of the Royal Navy Red Sea Patrol that defeated the Ottoman attempts to take Yanbu with heavy losses on December 11–12, 1916. Fakhri then turned his forces south to take Rabegh, but owing to the guerrilla attacks on his flanks and supply lines, air attacks from the newly established Royal Flying Corps base at Yanbu, and the over-extension of his supply lines, he was forced to turn back on January 18, 1917, to Medina.
The coastal city of Wejh was to be the base for attacks on the Hejaz railway. On 3 January 1917, Faisal began an advance northward along the Red Sea coast with 5100 camel riders, 5300 men on foot, four Krupp mountain guns, ten machine guns, and 380 baggage camels. The Royal Navy resupplied Faisal from the sea during his march on Wejh. While the 800-man Ottoman garrison prepared for an attack from the south, a landing party of 400 Arabs and 200 Royal Navy bluejackets attacked Wejh from the north on 23 January 1917. Wejh surrendered within 36 hours, and the Ottomans abandoned their advance toward Mecca in favor of a defensive position in Medina with small detachments scattered along the Hejaz railway. The Arab force had increased to about seventy-thousand men armed with twenty-eight-thousand rifles and deployed in three main groups. Ali’s force threatened Medina, Abdullah operated from Wadi Ais harassing Ottoman communications and capturing their supplies, and Faisal based his force at Wejh. Camel-mounted Arab raiding parties had an effective radius of 1000 miles (1600 km) carrying their own food and taking water from a system of wells approximately 100 miles (160 km) apart. In late 1916, the Allies started the formation of the Regular Arab Army (also known as the Sharifian Army) raised from Ottoman Arab POWs. The soldiers of the Regular Army wore British-style uniforms with the keffiyahs and unlike the tribal guerrillas, fought full-time and in conventional battles. Some of the more notable former Ottoman officers to fight in the Revolt were Nuri as-Said, Jafar al-Askari and ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Misri.
The year 1917 began well for the Hashemites when the Emir Abdullah and his Arab Eastern Army ambushed an Ottoman convoy led by Ashraf Bey in the desert, and captured £20,000 worth of gold coins that were intended to bribe the Bedouin into loyalty to the Sultan. Starting in early 1917, the Hashemite guerrillas began attacking the Hejaz railroad. At first, guerrilla forces commended by officers from the Regular Army such as al-Misri, and by British officers such as Newcombe, Lieutenant Hornby and Major H. Garland focused their efforts on blowing up unguarded sections of the Hejaz railroad. Garland was the inventor of the so-called “Garland mine”, which was used with much destructive force on the Hejaz railroad. In February 1917, Garland succeeded for the first time in destroying a moving locomotive with a mine of his own design. Around Medina, Captain Muhammand Ould Ali Raho of the French Military Mission carried out his first railroad demolition attack in February 1917. Captain Raho was to emerge as one of the leading destroyers of the Hejaz railroad. In March 1917, Lawrence led his first attack on the Hejaz railroad. Typical of such attacks were the one commanded out by Newcombe and Joyce who on the night of July 6/7, 1917 when they had planted over 500 charges on the Hejaz railroad, which all went off at about 2 am. In a raid in August 1917, Captain Raho led a force of Bedouin in destroying 5 kilometers of the Hejaz railroad and four bridges.
In March 1917, an Ottoman force joined by tribesmen from the Kingdom of Ha’il led by Ibn Rashid carried out a sweep of the Hejaz that did much damage to the Hashemite forces. However, the Ottoman failure to take Yanbu in December 1916 led to the increasing strengthing of the Hashemite forces, and led to the Ottoman forces to be forced more and more onto the defensive. Lawrence was later to claim that the failure of the offensive against Yanbu was the turning point that ensured the ultimate defeat of the Ottomans in the Hejaz.
In 1917, Lawrence arranged a joint action with the Arab irregulars and forces under Auda Abu Tayi (until then in the employ of the Ottomans) against the port city of Aqaba. This is now known as the Battle of Aqaba. Aqaba was the only remaining Ottoman port on the Red Sea and threatened the right flank of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force defending Egypt and preparing to advance into Sanjak Maan of the Syria Vilayet. Capture of Aqaba would aid transfer of British supplies to the Arab revolt. Lawrence and Auda left Wedj on 9 May 1917 with a party of 40 men to recruit a mobile camel force from the Howeitat, a Syrian tribe renowned for fighting on camels. On 6 July, after an overland attack, Aqaba fell to those Arab forces with only a handful of casualties. Lawrence then rode 150 miles to Suez to arrange Royal Navy delivery of food and supplies for the 2500 Arabs and 700 Ottoman prisoners in Aqaba; soon the city was co-occupied by a large Anglo-French flotilla (including warships and sea planes), which helped the Arabs secure their hold on Aqaba. Later in the year, the Hashemite warriors made a series of small raids on Ottoman positions in support of General Allenby’s winter attack on the Gaza-Bersheeba defensive line which led to the Battle of Beersheba). Typical of such raids was one led by Lawrence in September 1917 that saw Lawrence destroy a Turkish rail convoy by blowing up the bridge it was crossing at Mudawwarah and then ambushing the Turkish repair party. In November 1917, as aid to Allenby’s offensive, Lawrence launched a deep-raiding party into the Yarmouk River valley, which failed to destroy the railroad bridge at Tel ash-Shehab, but which succeeded in ambushing and destroying the train of General Mehemd Cemal Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman VII Corps. Allenby’s victories led directly to the capture of Jerusalem just before Christmas 1917.
By the time of Aqaba’s capture, many other officers joined Faisal’s campaign. A large number of British officers and advisors, led by Lt. Col.s Stewart F. Newcombe and Cyril E. Wilson, arrived to provide the Arabs rifles, explosives, mortars, and machine guns. Artillery was only sporadically supplied due to a general shortage, though Faisal would have several batteries of mountain guns under French Captain Pisani and his Algerians for the Megiddo Campaign. Egyptian and Indian troops also served with the Revolt, primarily as machine gunners and specialist troops, a number of armoured cars were allocated for use. The Royal Flying Corps often supported the Arab operations, and the Imperial Camel Corps served with the Arabs for a time. The French military mission of 1,100 officers under Brémond established good relations with Hussein and especially with his sons, the Emirs Ali and Abdullah, and for this reason, most of the French effort went into assisting the Arab Southern Army commanded by the Emir Ali that was laying siege to Medina and the Eastern Army commanded by Abdullah that had the responsibility of protecting Ali’s eastern flank from Ibn Rashid. Medina was never taken by the Hashemite forces, and the Ottoman commander, Fakhri Pasha, only surrendered Medina when ordered to by the Turkish government on January 9, 1919. The total number of Ottoman troops bottled up in Medina by the time of the surrender were 456 officers and 9,364 soldiers.
Under the direction of Lawrence, Wilson, and other officers, the Arabs launched a highly successful campaign against the Hejaz Railway, capturing military supplies, destroying trains and tracks, and tying down thousands of Ottoman troops. Though the attacks were mixed in success, they achieved their primary goal of tying down Ottoman troops and cutting off Medina. In January 1918, in one of the largest set-piece battles of the Revolt, Arab forces (including Lawrence) defeated a large Ottoman force at the village of Tafileh, inflicting over 1,000 Ottoman casualties for the loss of a mere forty men.
In March 1918 the Arab Northern Army consisted of
Arab Regular Army commanded by Ja’far Pasha el Askeri
British Section commanded by Lieutenant Colonel P. C. Joyce
French Detachment commanded by Captain Pisani
In April 1918, Jafar al-Askari and Nuri as-Said led the Arab Regular Army in a frontal attack on the well-defended Ottoman railroad station at Ma’an, which after some initial successes was fought off with heavy losses to both sides. However, the Sharifian Army succeeded in cutting off and thus neutralizing the Ottoman position at Ma’an, who held out until late September 1918. The British refused several requests from al-Askari to use mustard gas on the Ottoman garrison at Ma’an.
In the spring of 1918, Operation Hedgehog, a concerted attempt to sever and destroy the Hejaz railroad, was launched. In May 1918, Hedgehog led to the destruction of 25 bridges of the Hejaz railroad. On 11 May Arab regulars captured Jerdun and 140 prisoners. Five weeks later, on 24 July Nos. 5 and 7 Companies of the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade commanded by Major R. V. Buxton, marched from the Suez Canal to arrive at Aqaba on 30 July, to attack the Mudauwara Station. A particularly notable attack of Hedgehog was the storming on August 8, 1918, by the Imperial Camel Corps, closely supported by the Royal Air Force, of the well-defended Hejaz railroad station at Mudawwarah. They captured 120 prisoners and two guns, suffering 17 casualties in the operation. Buxton’s two companies of Imperial Camel Corps Brigade continued on towards Amman, where they hoped to destroy the main bridge. However 20 miles (32 km) from the city they were attacked by aircraft, forcing them to withdraw eventually back to Beersheba where they arrived on 6 September; a march of 700 miles (1,100 km) in 44 days. For the final Allied offensive intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war, Allenby asked that Emir Faisal and his Arab Northern Army launch a series of attacks on the main Turkish forces from the east, which was intended to both tie down Ottoman troops and force Turkish commanders to worry about their security of their flanks in the Levant. Supporting the Emir Faisal’s army of about 450 men from the Arab Regular Army were tribal contingents from the Rwalla, Bani Sakhr, Agyal, and Howeitat tribes. In addition, Faisal had a group of Gurkha troops, several British armored car squadrons, the Egyptian Camel Corps, a group of Algerian artillery men commanded by Captain Pisani and air support from the RAF to assist him.
In 1918, the Arab cavalry gained in strength (as it seemed victory was at hand) and they were able to provide Allenby’s army with intelligence on Ottoman army positions. They also harassed Ottoman supply columns, attacked small garrisons, and destroyed railroad tracks. A major victory occurred on 27 September when an entire brigade of Ottoman, Austrian and German troops, retreating from Mezerib, was virtually wiped out in a battle with Arab forces near the village of Tafas (which the Turks had plundered during their retreat). This led to the so-called Tafas massacre, in which Lawrence claimed in a letter to his brother to have issued a “no-prisoners” order, maintaining after the war that massacre was in retaliation for the earlier Ottoman massacre of the village of Tafas, and that he had at least 250 German and Austrian POWs together with an uncounted number of Turks lined up to be summarily shot. Lawrence later wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that “In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony”. In part due to these attacks, Allenby’s last offensive, the Battle of Megiddo, was a stunning success. By late September and October 1918, an increasingly demoralized Ottoman Army began to retreat and surrender whenever possible to British troops. “Sherifial irregulars” accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence captured Deraa on 27 September 1918. The Ottoman army was routed in less than 10 days of battle. Allenby praised Faisal for his role in the victory: “I send your Highness my greetings and my most cordial congratulations upon the great achievement of your gallant troops … Thanks to our combined efforts, the Ottoman army is everywhere in full retreat”.
The first Arab Revolt forces to reach Damascus were Sharif Naser’s Hashemite camel cavalry and the cavalry of the Ruwallah tribe, led by Nuri Sha’lan, on 30 September 1918. The bulk of these troops remained outside of the city with the intention of awaiting the arrival of Sharif Faisal. However, a small contingent from the group was sent within the walls of the city, where they found the Arab Revolt flag already raised by surviving Arab nationalists among the citizenry. Later that day Australian Light Horse troops marched into Damascus. Auda Abu Ta’yi, T. E. Lawrence and Arab troops rode into Damascus the next day, 1 October. At the end of the war, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force had seized Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon, large parts of the Arabian peninsula and southern Syria. Medina, cut off from the rest of the Ottoman Empire, would not surrender until January 1919.
The United Kingdom agreed in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence that it would support Arab independence if they revolted against the Ottomans. The two sides had different interpretations of this agreement. In the event, the United Kingdom and France reneged on the original deal and divided up the area in ways that the Arabs felt was unfavourable to them under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Further confusing the issue was the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. The Hedjaz region of western Arabia became an independent state under Hussein’s control, until 1925, when, abandoned and isolated by the British policy–which had shifted support to the al Saud family–it was conquered by bin Saud, leading to the creation of Saudi Arabia.
Arab Revolt 1916–1918
Arabic: الثورة العربية
Turkish: Arap İsyanı
The rise of nationalism under the Ottoman Empire dates from at least 1821. Arab nationalism has its roots in the Mashriq (the Arab lands east of Egypt), particularly in countries of Sham (the Levant). The political orientation of Arab nationalists in the years prior to the Great War was generally moderate. The Arabs' demands were of a reformist nature, limited in general to autonomy, greater use of Arabic in education, and changes in conscription in the Ottoman Empire in peacetime for Arab conscripts that allowed local service in the Ottoman army.
The Young Turk Revolution began on 3 July 1908 and quickly spread throughout the empire. As a result, sultan Abdul Hamid II was forced to announce the restoration of the 1876 constitution and the reconvening of the Ottoman parliament. This period is known as the Second Constitutional Era. In the elections held in 1908, the Young Turks through their Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) managed to gain the upper hand against the rival group led by Prens Sabahaddin. The CUP was more liberal in outlook, bore a strong British imprint, and was closer to the Sultan. The new parliament comprised 142 Turks, 60 Arabs, 25 Albanians, 23 Greeks, 12 Armenians (including four Dashnaks and two Hunchaks), 5 Jews, 4 Bulgarians, 3 Serbs, and 1 Vlach. The CUP in the parliament gave more emphasis to centralization and a modernization program.
At this stage, Arab nationalism was not yet a mass movement, even in Syria where it was strongest. Many Arabs gave their primary loyalty to their religion or sect, their tribe, or their own particular governments. The ideologies of Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism provided strong competition for Arab nationalism.
Arab members of the parliament supported the countercoup of 1909, which aimed to dismantle the constitutional system and restore the absolute monarchy of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The dethroned Sultan attempted to regain the caliphate by putting an end to the secular policies of the Young Turks, but was in turn driven away to exile in Selanik by the 31 March Incident (where the Young Turks defeated the countercoup) and eventually replaced by his brother Mehmed V Reşad.
In 1913, intellectuals and politicians from the Arab Mashriq met in Paris at the First Arab Congress. They produced a set of demands for greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. They again demanded that Arab conscripts to the Ottoman army should not be required to serve in other regions except in time of war.