Creating Chaos: Lawrence of Arabia and the 1916 Arab Revolt

The 1916-1918 Arab Revolt was often carried out by mounted Arab tribesmen, who knew the land intimately and were excellent marksmen (Library of Congress).
The 1916-1918 Arab Revolt was often carried out by mounted Arab tribesmen, who knew the land intimately and were excellent marksmen (Library of Congress).

This 600-mile, weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable even the Bedouin called it      al-Houl (the Terror).
T. E. Lawrence biographer Michael Asher called it ‘one of the most daring raids ever attempted in the annals of war.’


The train filled with Ottoman Empire soldiers and civilians chugged over a bridge in the Arabian desert. A few yards away a British officer in Bedouin robes raised his hand toward Salem, an Arab tribal warrior gripping the plunger of a detonator box. As the train steamed ahead, the officer dropped his hand and Salem slammed down the plunger. A cloud of sand and smoke blasted a hundred feet into the sky as sizzling chunks of iron and seared body parts tumbled through the air. The train crashed into a gorge, followed by an eerie silence. The officer and Arab tribesmen—wielding swords or firing rifles—dashed toward the smoldering train cars. Within a few minutes the fighting was over, the dead and the wreck were looted, and the raiding party melted back into the desert. It was summer 1917, and the Arab Revolt was in full swing.

The revolt, one of the most dramatic episodes of the 20th century, was a seminal moment in the history of the modern Middle East, the touchstone of all future regional conflicts. Advised by liaison officer T. E. Lawrence—“Lawrence of Arabia”—Arab troops would play a vital role in the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Arab Revolt of 1916–1918 also saw the development of guerrilla tactics and strategies of modern desert warfare. And the political intrigues surrounding the revolt and its aftermath were as significant as the fighting, for Great Britain and France’s myopic attempts at nation building planted the seeds of the troubles that plague the region to this day: wars, authoritarian governments, coups, the rise of militant Islam, and the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

None of today’s states in the region existed until the 1920s. Before that, the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, which included Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, and Armenians, as well as Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Like all great empires, the Ottoman Empire was successful because for the most part its leaders let their subjects live as they chose.

In the years before World War I, however, the empire had shrunk to what is now known as Turkey, the Middle East, and much of the Arabian coastline. The Ottomans abandoned their successful multicultural formula and instituted a “Turkification” policy that made Turkish the official language in schools, the army, and government. The Arabs—who made up about 60 percent of the empire’s roughly 25 million subjects—and other non-Turkish-speaking groups were furious. The Arabs formed secret nationalist societies and contacted Sherif (a title bestowed on descendants of the prophet Muhammad) Hussein ibn Ali, emir (prince) of Mecca in the Hejaz, the western strip of the Arabian Peninsula. Hussein sent one of his four sons, Abdullah, to link up with Arab nationalists in Syria, and then to Cairo to determine whether the British might aid an Arab uprising.

Britain was reluctant to step in, but when World War I broke out in August 1914, it changed its tune. The Ottomans had military and economic ties with Germany and joined the Central powers hoping to regain provinces lost earlier to Britain, France, and Russia. With Ottoman armies marching toward the Suez Canal in the British protectorate of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner based in Cairo, wrote to Hussein and asked him to start a rebellion. McMahon ambiguously promised Hussein that Britain would provide arms and money to the revolt and assist in the creation of independent Arab states in the Fertile Crescent (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine) and the Arabian Peninsula. Hussein didn’t trust the British, but when the Ottomans executed 21 Arab nationalists in 1916, he saw an Allied-supported revolt as the Arabs’ only option.

He did not make the decision lightly: Ottoman forces were on the march. They had defeated the Allies on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, unsuccessfully attacked the British-held Suez Canal, and the next year forced an Anglo-Indian army at Kut in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to surrender. Meanwhile, on the Western Front, Allied attempts to break the Germans had degraded into a bloody stalemate while the Germans smashed Russian forces to the east. To many observers it appeared that Germany and the Ottoman Empire were ascendant. The British needed a rebellion in the Ottoman rear.

The revolt began in 1916 with an estimated 30,000 Bedouins and other tribesmen. To assemble this army, Hussein made deals with various families, clans, and tribes such as the Howeitat and Ruwalla. Many of these irregulars would only fight close to home; all had to be paid. Some tribes would not fight alongside others because of feuds. Most were capricious warriors, battling furiously when the looting was good and the enemy weak, drifting back to their villages when they became bored.

Though lacking military discipline, the irregulars knew the land intimately and were excellent shots. They could mount a running camel with a rifle in hand. Dashing across sharp rock on bare feet, they could travel at great speed through terrain thought impassable by outsiders. The revolt’s leaders employed the Agayl, a group of fierce, elite warriors, as bodyguards. Arab armament was a motley assortment, ranging from swords and muzzle-loading muskets to Mausers and Lee-Enfield rifles.

Later, these tribesmen were organized into formations commanded by Hussein’s three oldest sons: the Arab Northern Army, led by Feisal, with around 6,000 fighters; the 9,000-strong Arab Eastern Army, under the command of Abdullah, made up of camel troops, some artillery, and a cavalry squadron; and Ali’s 9,000-man Arab Southern Army of four artillery batteries, mounted infantry, and other units. By 1918, the British were paying their Arab allies £220,000 a month in gold to fight.

Attached to Feisal’s force was the 2,000-strong Regular Arab Army, or Sherifian Army, whose ranks included men from the Levant and Mesopotamia, POWs, and Ottoman army deserters. They were disciplined soldiers, bolstered by around 1,500 Egyptian regulars provided by Britain. The Arab army boasted artillery and machine-gun units as well as mule and camel corps.

Opposing the Arab forces in the Hejaz was the Ottoman Fourth Army, eventually numbering 23,000 men, commanded by Gen. Mehmed Cemal Pasha. These troops were better trained than the Arabs, and armed with better and more sophisticated weapons. Cavalry supported them, as did Pfalz single-wing aircraft from the Ottoman air force, later strengthened by German air force Albatrosses and other fighter planes. Although exempt from military service, Arabs from all over the Middle East volunteered. (It is a misnomer to refer to Ottoman forces as “the Turks.”)

The Ottomans initially viewed the Arab Revolt as a tribal uprising they could easily crush. Strategically, their plan was simple: Hold all major towns; maintain telephone and telegraph communications; and keep the 700-mile-Hejaz Railway, running from Medina to Istanbul, open for transporting supplies and reinforcements. Well-armed garrisons in the important towns of Medina and Mecca provided additional protection. More troops were stationed in Ta’if to the southeast.

The Arab plan was even simpler: kick the Ottomans out of Arabia. More-visionary Arabian leaders dreamed of leading their armies north to take Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Damascus, returning these cities to Arab rule. But without a regular army and heavy artillery, the Arab forces could not take the powerful Ottomans head-on.

The landscape for this conflict was majestically harsh: seas of drifting sand cresting into yellow dunes; vast expanses of razor-sharp flint; thornbushes dotting the plains; deep valleys gashing the earth; and jagged, pink-hued rock towers soaring 400 feet high. This bleak beauty was dappled by sudden shimmering spots of green—high grasslands and lush oases packed with date trees whose fronds draped over wells of delicious spring water. But everything baked under the omnipresent blistering sun; temperatures often reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Early in the morning of June 10, 1916, just as the call to prayer trailed off over the rooftops of Mecca, Sherif Hussein pointed a rifle out of a window of his home and fired. Hussein’s Hashemite clan’s flag was unfurled. The revolt had officially begun.

The Arabs seized the initiative, and their well-planned and sustained surprise attack forced 1,500 Ottoman troops in Mecca to surrender on June 13. The Royal Navy seaplane carrier Ben-My-Chree offloaded Egyptian artillery to give punch to the next Arab attack, which would be launched against the nearby Red Sea port of Jeddah. In this combined-force battle, seaplanes bombed Ottoman positions, and the British cruisers Hardinge and Fox pounded the enemy as tribal forces harried the defenders from inland. The Ottoman surrender followed on the 16th.

In late July, Arab forces overran two more Red Sea ports, Rabegh and Yanbu. To crown these opening victories, Abdullah and 5,000 men in June laid siege to 3,000 Ottoman troops at Ta’if, in the mountains southeast of Mecca, capturing them in late September. Throughout the revolt, Arab losses are unknown. But these operations were to the tribesmen’s liking: swift, brief, not costly in lives—and they were getting paid and fed for their efforts.

Although the revolt stuttered after a promising start in June 1916, by the end of that year the Arabs had regained their momentum, and from then on, the Ottomans could only react to Arab advances (Map by Baker Vail).
Although the revolt stuttered after a promising start in June 1916, by the end of that year the Arabs had regained their momentum, and from then on, the Ottomans could only react to Arab advances (Map by Baker Vail).
The greatest danger to the revolt lay at Medina, where a garrison of 12,000 troops was well positioned to strike at the Arabs’ rear and flanks. On June 5, Hussein’s sons Ali and Feisal had led an attack on the city, also hitting the Hejaz Railway. They were driven off, however, when the tribesmen, who had never experienced artillery and machine-gun fire, fled in terror. Gen. Hamid Fakhreddin “Fakhri” Pasha, commander of the Ottoman force, counterattacked with about two brigades, forcing the Arabs to split their forces and flee. The failure sapped the revolt’s momentum, and it stalled.

Nevertheless, Arab fighters kept arriving at Jeddah, site of the second victory. To provide logistical and political advice to the Arabs, the British established a military mission there codenamed Hedgehog. The French mission, operating out of Egypt, consisted of cavalry, artillery, and machine-gun and engineering units, numbering about 1,170 men. Sensitive to offending their allies with non-Muslim troops, the French sent North African soldiers, while the British deployed Egyptian and Indian fighters.

British equipment included howitzers, mountain guns, Lewis machine guns, explosives, and 4,000 rifles. Later the British would supply Stokes mortars and Ford, Rolls-Royce, and Talbot armored cars, each Talbot sporting a 10-pounder gun. In the air, the Royal Flying Corps initially sent B.E.2 two-seaters and later the superb Bristol F.2B fighter-bomber and a Handley Page bomber. The Royal Navy would also play vital transport and offensive roles. The British mission operated closely with Feisal’s Northern Army. Officers enthusiastically led raiding parties and provided demolition expertise. Chief among them was Capt. Thomas Edward Lawrence.

An Oxford-educated historian, Lawrence had traveled throughout the Middle East before the war. He spoke Arabic, loved the Arab people, and passionately embraced their dreams of freedom. When the revolt broke out, Lawrence was a staff officer in the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. In October 1916, he was sent to Arabia to evaluate the revolt’s progress and leadership, which was principally Sherif Hussein’s four sons. As Lawrence later wrote in his remarkable account of the campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I found Abdulla too clever, Ali too clean, Zeid too cool.” Then he met the 31-year-old Feisal, who was “the leader with the necessary fire.” It was the beginning of a long friendship based on trust, warmth, and a shared vision to lead the revolt into Syria. Assigned as Feisal’s liaison officer, Lawrence would blossom into an intrepid guerrilla fighter, operational tactician, and strategic visionary. So closely did he empathize with the Arabs that Feisal soon presented him with the silken robes of a Bedouin leader, which had the advantage of being more comfortable than a British uniform for camel riding and desert fighting.

Meanwhile Fakhri Pasha’s Ottoman troops had swelled to 12 battalions and were pursuing the Arabs south of Medina. On December 1, Fakhri and three brigades advanced to recapture Yanbu, defended by 1,500 Arabs. At that moment, HMS Dufferin, the M.31 monitor, and HMS Raven, a seaplane carrier, arrived offshore and battered the advancing Ottomans, effectively halting them in mid-December.

Afterward, things deteriorated for the Ottomans. With his supply lines stretched thin and continually attacked by the Bedouins, Fakhri turned south to retake the port of Rabegh. But the Royal Navy dogged his advance down the coast, and he was harassed by seaplanes and Arab tribesmen. Halting to plot his next move, Fakhri received the devastating news that Abdullah and his Eastern Army had captured an Ottoman force, along with £20,000 in gold, and were advancing on the Red Sea port of Wejh. The Ottomans had lost momentum and would spend the rest of the war reacting to Arab moves.

Behind the scenes, imperial politics were at work. In 1915 and 1916, Sir Mark Sykes, a key British adviser on the Middle East, and French diplomat François Georges Picot secretly negotiated apportioning the region after the war. Under terms of the resulting Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, Britain was to control Mesopotamia, Transjordan (Jordan), and Palestine. The French would rule Lebanon, Syria, and Cilicia, while the Russians would receive Kurdish and Armenian lands to the northeast. An international body would govern Jerusalem. Arabia was, in the words of historian David Murphy, to receive only “a certain level of independence.”

Naturally, this deal was not revealed to the Arabs. But in November 1917, the Arabs found other cause for concern in a letter from Lord Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary, to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist Federation, which was published in the Times of London.

What became known as the Balfour Declaration stated: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

In the words of historians Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson, “the British government would control Palestine after the war with a commitment to build the Jewish national home there,” while somehow protecting the rights of the “93 percent of [Palestine’s] inhabitants, Muslim and Christian, who spoke Arabic and dreaded being cut off from other Arabs.”

Moreover, in the 1918 Declaration to the Seven (a document Henry McMahon created in response to demands by a group of prominent Syrian nationalists), the British agreed that Arabs should govern lands that had been free before the war as well as lands they had liberated, and that the government “would be based principally on consent of those governed.”

Ottoman officers in Jerusalem conduct the last review of troops in that city before it was captured by Arabs and their allies in late 1917 (Library of Congress).
Ottoman officers in Jerusalem conduct the last review of troops in that city before it was captured by Arabs and their allies in late 1917 (Library of Congress).
Thus, the great powers, particularly Britain, were making contradictory promises to their erstwhile allies and surreptitiously carving up lands they had not even conquered—deals that went against the promises McMahon made to Hussein in their 1915–1916 correspondence.

But the war still had to be won. On January 24, after a single day of battle, an Anglo-Arab force seized the port city of Wejh, which became the Arabs’ logistical and operational base. As the Arabs gathered victories and adherents, British general Sir Archibald Murray realized that the Arabs could provide support for his efforts in the Sinai to secure the Suez Canal and push the Ottomans out of Gaza. The Arabs’ task: keep Fakhri’s troops bottled in Medina and sabotage the Hejaz Railway.


In 1917, “line smashing”—as it was called—intensified. Raiding parties of 12 to 200 men were led by Arab, French, and British officers. After packing camels with explosives and sometimes a Lewis machine gun or a Stokes mortar, they journeyed for a week or more into the desert. The men deployed exploder boxes as well as contact and electric mines. “Tulip mines” were popular because they twisted the rails into tangled ribbons of steel, which Ottoman engineers then had to replace or painstakingly repair. The raiding parties also blew up bridges, water towers, guns, station buildings, and telephone poles because, Lawrence explained, this was “more profitable to us than the death of a Turk.”

For some attacks, the Arabs spent hours laying 300 to 500 charges over up to five miles of line. This was stressful work done while on the lookout for spies and Ottoman patrols and with inexperienced tribesmen as helpers. Then there was the long wait, sometimes overnight, for a train to appear. After one close call, British lieutenant Stuart Newcombe returned to Egypt, his nerves shot. Nevertheless, as Col. Pierce Joyce reported, “the noise of the dynamite going was something grand and it is always satisfactory finding one is breaking things.”
Firefights often followed the explosion, as Arabs sniped at the Ottomans on the trains from rock ledges or sand dunes. Sometimes the trains contained high-ranking officers or money-laden safes. Sometimes they were filled with women and the wounded. Amid Bedouin whoops of victory, the wreck and the dead were plundered. The wounded were left to die because the raiders had no medics and no means of transporting them. It was a thrilling but gory business. “I’m not going to last out this game much longer,” Lawrence wrote in a letter home. “Nerves going and temper wearing thin….This killing and killing of Turks is horrible.”

While hit-and-run tactics were traditional for the Bedouins, Lawrence formalized them into a theory of guerrilla warfare. “Ours should be a war of detachment,” he reasoned. “We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked…and develop a habit of never engaging the enemy.”

The revolt’s leaders remained focused on the larger strategic goal: push north and link up with tribes and leaders in Syria and Mesopotamia. This, however, would require a new operational port. While feverish from dysentery, Lawrence conceived a scheme to take the Red Sea port of Aqaba, which is today part of Jordan. He declined to attack from the water, where Aqaba was defended by heavy guns. Rather, his bold plan called for a force to emerge from the Nefudh Desert, which the Ottomans would never expect. The initial party of Lawrence and 17 Agayl warriors set out from Wejh on May 10, 1917. The men had £20,000 to recruit new tribesmen, and along the way, their numbers swelled to about 700 fighters.

This 600-mile, weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable even the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror). Lawrence biographer Michael Asher called it “one of the most daring raids ever attempted in the annals of war.” The Arabs launched their assault from the northeast, sweeping up the outlying Ottoman forces for the loss of only two tribesmen by July 5. The next day the Arabs, now some 2,500 men, entered Aqaba without a shot, the garrison having scurried away. Gaunt, filthy, and wearing his Bedouin robes, Lawrence crossed the Sinai to Cairo to inform the new British commander in chief, Gen. Edmund Allenby, of this stunning victory. As a reward, the Arabs received an additional payment of £16,000, and Lawrence was promoted to major.

With the fall of Aqaba, the war in the Hejaz was essentially over. But amid these successes, great-power politics inserted themselves. “The occupation of Aqaba by Arab troops,” Col. Gilbert Clayton had earlier written to Lawrence, “might well result in the Arabs claiming that place hereafter. It is thus essential that Aqaba should remain in British hands after the war.” Such intrigues tormented Lawrence, who wrote, “I had to join the conspiracy…. I was continually and bitterly ashamed.” He was serving with men who were fighting for their freedom. In desperation, he scribbled in his diary: “Clayton…we are calling them to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it.”

After the Russian Revolution in November 1917, the tsar’s secret treaties, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement, were published, sparking tension and mistrust between the Arabs and their allies. Lawrence became reckless in his bravery, as if to expunge his feelings of guilt. “I vowed to make the Arab Revolt the engine of its own success” he wrote, “to lead it so madly in the final victory that expedience should counsel to the Powers a fair settlement of the Arabs’ moral claims.”

The Arabs fought on. To support his upcoming offensive in Gaza, General Allenby asked the Arabs to destroy bridges and rail lines. It was while sabotaging other sections of rail near Deraa, about 60 miles south of Damascus that Lawrence was captured and sexually abused. He was released because his captors mistook him for a light-skinned Circassian, but the episode scarred Lawrence for life.

Meanwhile, Allenby’s offensive pushed the Ottomans out of Gaza and toward Jerusalem. Feisal’s Arab Northern Army provided inestimable diversionary support, assisted by armored cars armed with machine guns and cannons as well as a battery of French mountain artillery. When Jerusalem fell on December 11, there was rejoicing in the Allied camp. For the Arabs it meant that one of Islam’s most treasured sites was theirs.

Politically, the Arabs’ prospects brightened when American president Woodrow Wilson in a January 1918 speech enunciated “Fourteen Points” for the postwar world order. The 12th point demanded sovereignty for the Turks but that the “other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” That thrilled the Arabs, who felt they had a friend in America, untainted by colonial scheming.

Meanwhile, Allenby’s success in Palestine was fully exploited. Feisal’s Arab Northern Army was assigned a key role: harass the Ottoman forces east of the Jordan River, then push north to Damascus and beyond. Feisal assembled a force of tribesmen, supported by Indian Gurkhas, the Egyptian Camel Corps, and Algerian artillery, in all about 1,000 fighters. They blew up railway lines, attacked station houses, and destroyed bridges.

On September 19, at Megiddo, British forces smashed into the 60-mile Ottoman-German line north of Jerusalem, ripping open a gap through which Australian cavalry poured. By the 24th, nearly 40,000 Ottoman soldiers had been captured; desertions were running at about 1,100 a month. The war was now entering a desperate stage. At the village of Tafas near Damascus, Lawrence and his men discovered that Ottoman and German soldiers had massacred several hundred Arab women and children. Finding wounded enemy prisoners at Deraa, the enraged Arab tribesmen “murdered in cold blood every Turk they came across,” one witness reported.

The once distant dream of taking Damascus was now reality. Two Australian cavalry divisions raced north of the Sea of Galilee, other units hooking up with the Arab Northern Army at Deraa. The Australians neared the city while roughly 1,500 Arab irregulars supported by the Regular Arab Army and British cavalry destroyed the remnants of the Ottoman Fourth Army. At long last, on October 1 Feisal and his tribesmen, with Lawrence driving Blue Mist, his Rolls-Royce, entered Damascus, along with sections of British cavalry. “Damascus went mad with joy,” Lawrence recalled. “The men tossed up their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw flowers, hangings, carpets into the road before us: their wives leaned, screaming with laughter, through the lattices and splashed us with bath-dippers of scent.” For the first time in centuries, the Arabs were free of Ottoman rule.

Acting quickly, Feisal set up a government. With the military conflict nearing its end, the political war was intensifying. Lawrence—who was, he recalled, “a very sick man: almost at breaking point”—was granted a leave. Promoted to colonel, he would soon be back in the Middle East.

Ottoman administrative control essentially collapsed. Arabs everywhere were in open revolt. By mid-September, 75,000 enemy soldiers—including 3,400 Austrians and Germans—were taken prisoner. Indeed, by now the revolt had produced 15,000 Ottoman casualties (including those caused by illness) and had tied down between 23,000 and 30,000 enemy troops. In May alone, Arab raids had destroyed 25 bridges. As the Ottoman forces reeled back to their Turkish homeland, Aleppo in northern Syria fell to Arab and British forces. On October 30 the Ottoman Empire was granted an end to hostilities, its ally Germany following suit on November 11. Fakhri Pasha, however, did not surrender the Medina garrison until January 1919, the last holdout of a lost empire.

With the war over it was time to mourn the dead, care for the wounded and, for the victors, divide the spoils. Feisal, Lawrence, and Arab leaders attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, expecting to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices and feats. Instead, Feisal discovered his name had been omitted from the official list of delegates. But in meetings and speeches he made his presence felt. “The Arabs have long enough suffered under foreign domination,” Feisal proclaimed, resplendent in robes of white silk and gold. “The hour has at last struck when we are to come into our own again.”

President Wilson, meeting the Arab leader, said, “Listening to the emir, I think to hear the voice of liberty.”

France, Great Britain, the United States, and Italy dominated negotiations. The French, who had suffered grievously in the war, wanted to punish Germany and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The British acquiesced in this. All three empires disappeared, and soon the conquerors had sown the seeds of modern discontent. Feisal’s claims were brushed aside. The French and British resented Wilsonian idealism about the end of imperialism. “I have returned,” gloated British prime minister Lloyd George with flippant arrogance after signing the Treaty of Versailles, “with a pocket full of sovereigns in the shape of the German Colonies, Mesopotamia, etc.,” giving little thought to future world security or peace.

At the San Remo Conference in 1920, France and Britain sliced up the Middle East, drawing sometimes ruler-straight borders, disregarding ethnic, linguistic, and religious affiliations as they conjured up new countries. They called these states “mandates” instead of what they really were: colonies.

The French army entered Syria and drove Feisal and his men out of Damascus in July 1920. Wishing to divide and rule this region more easily, imperial draftsmen expanded Lebanon into an explosive hodgepodge of ethnicities and religious groups. Abdullah, who had once dreamed of ruling Damascus, occupied Amman in what is now Jordan with 500 warriors, and threatened war against the French.

It appeared that the war would continue in the Middle East, which neither Britain nor France could afford. Winston Churchill, Britain’s colonial secretary, invited Lawrence and other experts to a conference in Cairo in March 1919. The cheapest way for the British to wash their hands of this business was a Hashemite solution rewarding Feisal and Abdullah with kingdoms fabricated from “lines drawn on an empty map,” as historian David Fromkin describes. Churchill and his staff renamed Mesopotamia as Iraq, apparently based on what some Arab tribes called this region, derived from Uruk, the name of an ancient Sumerian city. Ignoring the orderly Ottoman system’s divisions, they crammed Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Arab, and Kurdish groups into Iraq’s artificial borders. Moreover, its tip was snipped off, made into Kuwait, and the tribe most willing to work with the British found itself elevated to kings. The British then rigged Iraqi “elections” and Feisal was proclaimed king. To his credit, Feisal pressured his British overlords for independence, behavior they found ungrateful.

Abdullah was made king of Transjordan, which outraged Zionists, who believed this land had been promised to them. Regarding Palestine, Feisal and Lawrence made carefully worded public statements about its future. Privately, they were convinced that there would be “chronic unrest, and sooner or later civil war in Palestine.”

The Arabian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919 included Emir Feisal Hussein (Front, center) and an already disillusioned Lawrence (third from right). He would use his fame to launch a campaign to force Britain to honor its wartime pledges to restore Arab rule (National Archives).
The Arabian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919 included Emir Feisal Hussein (Front, center) and an already disillusioned Lawrence (third from right). He would use his fame to launch a campaign to force Britain to honor its wartime pledges to restore Arab rule (National Archives).
Unsurprisingly, throughout the 1920s and ’30s Middle Easterners rebelled. As the cost of this fighting rose, the British and French hastily gave their mandates independence, although with treaties highly favorable to their own interests. These states have known cycles of war, revolution, political repression, and social conflict ever since. Although Abdullah’s descendants still rule in Jordan, Feisal’s line was extinguished in a coup after his death.

Lawrence’s deeds were transformed, with his help, into the legend of “Lawrence of Arabia.” He used his fame to launch a press campaign to compel Britain to honor its wartime pledges. “Our government [in Iraq],” he charged in a letter to the Sunday Times, “is worse than the old Turkish system.” These barbs hit home but Lawrence spent the rest of his life trying to escape the media monster he had created to achieve his political aims. The psychic cost to him was immense, producing name changes, bouts of depression, and ritual beatings administered by others to exorcise, perhaps, “some of the evil of my tale,” as he wrote.

In military terms, the Arab Revolt was a harbinger of modern warfare, particularly in the Middle East: operations combining air, land, and sea forces; fast-moving armor supported by mobile troops; and targeted strikes focusing not just on destroying the enemy but also on immobilizing him by severing communication and supply lines, often utilizing powerful improvised explosives.

War in the desert, like war at sea, takes place over a vast, often inhospitable landscape, where flanks can be turned indefinitely; intelligence and agility are essential. Furthermore, in modern warfare as in the revolt, leaders must have military and political skills. Perhaps most important, as successive invaders have learned, while it is relatively easy to enter Middle Eastern countries, tribes and other groups will rise up and fight smart and hard until the enemy withdraws, licking his bloody wounds. Thus, it is of paramount importance to win over the tribes, for they hold the keys to ultimate victory.

Britain’s and France’s conflicting promises and supercilious fabrication of “states” created deep mistrust and cynicism in Middle Easterners that persist to this day. For modern would-be state builders, the aftermath of the Arab Revolt clearly illustrates the impossibility of outsiders attempting to create or even “fix” inorganic states. As long as these artificial, colonial-created borders remain, there will be instability in the Middle East.

That legacy bodes ill for global security concerns as radicalized leaders—secular or religious, governmental or terrorist—seek ways to right historical wrongs. Indeed, the struggle has already set the stage for conflict in the 21st century, and poses one of the greatest security challenges of our time. Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, as monstrous as it was, had historical grounds. More chilling, Osama bin Laden has specifically blamed the Sykes-Picot Agreement for breaking “the Islamic world into fragments.”  MHQ


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25 Responses

  1. E

    What I find so frustratingly absurd is that no one seems to want to articulate and promulgate solutions to these now well-understood “wrong-doings”.

    Certainly, one has to ponder whether the Middle East can ever know peace as we understand it in the Western sense. However one would think a movement could be established, perhaps within the United Nations, that addresses the many cultural and ethnic challenges of the region. It would very difficult for sure, but wouldn’t it be grand if the UN could actually accomplish something significant?

  2. Ori Pomerantz

    Arab countries have been independent for over 60 years at this point. They’ve had coups and regime changes. If the borders are so bad, how come they haven’t changed them?

  3. Al Hearn

    The Middle East has always been an area of conflict from biblical times — state against state, religion against religion, tribe against tribe, and even clan against clan within tribes.

    It will always be that way. It’s a way of life that we Westerners can’t understand. It seems to us to be crude and uncivilized — and we keep trying to “fix” it. Since the Crusades, our interferences have only been met with resistance and never-ending hate.

    We need to realize that other parts of the world don’t want to be Westernized or even “civilized” or “democratic.” They are comfortable being what they’ve always been.

  4. richard gross

    I applaud this article for its concise account of the military history of the region. For complete understanding of the decisions made by the British, the impact of the major oil discoveries in Saudi Arabia and Iraq must be addressed.

  5. David Belfort

    I was moved by this report. War is hell and hell is it’s child. Looking with the eyes of ‘family’ is the only way I can see out of repeating this procreation of suffering.

  6. John

    This article is no substitute for Lawrence’s, Seven pillars of wisdom.

  7. Mick Sherman

    I have read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and even if one allows for everything Lawrence made up, removed, or altered, it is still plain that his aspirations for the Arabs were bounded entirely within British policy.

    Also, the account given of the fall of Damascus is false. The British were planning to have the Arabs enter it, and Australian cavalry were ordered to circle round it. Being good Australians, they did not see the point and rode across the city, which surrendered to them. Lawrence and his Arabs only got there four days later.

  8. Bob

    Congratulations on this outstanding piece of military history. One can read whole biographies of Lawrence and not get nearly the sense of the drama and importance of his life and works.

  9. Jon

    “As long as these artificial, colonial-created borders remain, there will be instability in the Middle East.”

    Well, here is a statement dripping with irony. Did it mean, ‘as opposed to the instability created by fixing the borders,’ or perhaps was it suggesting we just get it over with and let everyone fight it out until, I suppose, a stalemate is reached at the ‘organic’ borders, which, apparently, are biologically implanted (certainly they are biologically defended).

    Honestly, how anyone can refer to borders or states as anything but ‘inorganic’ at this point in history defies comprehension. The distinction is rhetorical and opportunistic, and has never been otherwise.

  10. Roy Earle

    Histories of World War I in the Middle East typically vacillate between worship of Lawrence and worship of Allenby. Potted history aside, this article attempts to situate another jejune outburst of Lawrence worship in tones that resonate with today’s Middle Eastern situation. Leave aside the insubstantive discussion of Arab nationalism – although indeed, it lacked meaningful substance until after the war. For all the discussion of guerrilla warfare and its marvelous accomplishments, the author loses sight of the fact that the Arabs under Lawrence’s direction were largely mercenaries, dependent on British payment, and only nominally or temporarily under Faisal’s control. The tribes, like those of the Anbar Awakening, fought not for the ‘nation’ but for proximal gain. Their victories, most of all the capture of Damascus, were engineered by the British and hardly won on their own. And their desire to be paid off did not cease with the armistice. The ruthless division of the Ottoman carcass saw the leading factions paid off – and here the author might have noted that the Hashemites were also being rewarded a consolation prize after being driven out of the Hejaz by the house of Saud in 1925.

    The author’s anti-imperial animus is a nuisance. As it happens, the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra formed the basis of modern Iraq and while the precise borders were arbitrary, these three components formed a cultural whole with origins as far back as prehistory. The Transjordan, too, was comprised of regions that had always been culturally and politically distinct from those west of the Jordan River, as far back as first millennium BC. Ancient regions and bordered were refracted, albeit imperfectly, into modern ‘states.’ The problem is less the borders than the content-poor nature of national identities, and the utter inability of those nation-states to be integrated without revolution, violence, and warfare, internally against minorities and externally against their neighbors, either by their unelected elites or through democratic politics. The ‘cycles of war, revolution, political repression, and social conflict ‘ that have characterized independent Middle Eastern states nicely describes the conditions that prevailed during the Ottoman empire and before. The difference is that, thanks to the Western idea of nationalism and its collision with the Muslim ideal of a single caliphate (and the multiethnic reality of Middle Eastern lands), chaos now has different names and spaces.

    Silliest of all are the article’s geopolitical conclusions. Indeed, ‘tribes and other groups will rise up and fight smart and hard until the enemy withdraws,’ but the Ottoman empire lasted close to 400 years before circumstances far beyond petty desert tribes forced its collapse. The author’s ignorance of history, however, is far deeper. ‘For modern would-be state builders, the aftermath of the Arab Revolt clearly illustrates the impossibility of outsiders attempting to create or even “fix” inorganic states. As long as these artificial, colonial-created borders remain, there will be instability in the Middle East.’ As if ‘states’ are ever anything but ‘inorganic’, the artificial creations of local elites who extend their domination outward from one place or another! At best they will then make up a story to represent conquest as legitimate or preordained, and their rule as wise, and their territories constituting some imaginary organic unity. At worst they simply rule, and indeed, this is the essence of Middle Eastern history. The biggest and most elaborate story every told is that Arabic speaking or Muslim lands constitute an ‘organic’ entity – one that Muslim tradition itself declares was manufactured by force. Reality, however, has shown countless groups, tribes included, jammed into even this largest of all ‘inorganic’ container, unable to get along without being ruled by force, before fragmenting.

    Thus the author’s conclusion that World War I’s ‘legacy bodes ill for global security concerns as radicalized leaders—secular or religious, governmental or terrorist—seek ways to right historical wrongs’ is precisely wrong. For one thing the historical unwinding of ‘wrongs’ is literally endless, and grievance in this region above all has shown itself stubbornly resistant compromise, to new beginnings, to the slightest bit of tolerance to one’s neighbors. Strangely, although perhaps revealingly, the author ends with an invocation from Osama bin laden decrying the Sykes-Picot Agreement for breaking “the Islamic world into fragments.” That artificial whole, that bin Laden and perhaps the author celebrates, was manufactured by force from a mosaic more fragmented and scattered than anything either can imagine. Neither should be held up as an ideal.

  11. John G

    This is a good article. Given England’s and France’s continued imperial ambitions it is not surprising that they would deign to carve up the Near East (as it used to be known) as part of The Great Game, continued. Drawing boundaries that throw together populations with significant ethnic, religious, and cultural differences can be seen as an attempt to create a diverse society but I feel it is more accurate to say that goal was to create states possessing inherent political instability, which could be exploited by the Western Powers. A question that remains incompletely addressed in the article is: what would the Arab leaders have done with the Near East if the Western Powers had left it to them? Was their wish to replace the Ottoman Empire with an Arab empire? Remember that the Near East had never experienced the concept of sovereign states. The region had been part of one empire or another for perhaps 2500 years. Recall too, that Europe was riven with wars for a thousand years before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 introduced the concept of the “nation-state”. It may be hubris to assume that one nation or even a group of nations can instantly create nation-states by fiat without giving their inhabitants time to adjust culturally and psychologically to the idea.The fall of the Roman Empire in the West did not eliminate the empirical model of government form the European psyche. Far from it. It took 1000 years of war before another model of statehood emerged. And even then it took many over 100 years for the German principalities to unite into “Germany” and then many more years for Germany to establish a sense of self-identity and find it’s place in the modern world. Therefore it does not surprise me that the Near East is a muddle of conflict. There was no concept of being Iraqi for citizens of the newly created Iraq to identify with, for example. The peoples of the Near East then, because they are not yet fully nation-states, continue to define themselves as members of tribal, ethnic, or religious groups. I will go farther. It seems to me that if, simply by creating new countries by fiat or introducing democracy to a state we think we will change the mind-set of the populace, we are following what is basically a Marxist view of history. My reading of Marx, scanty though it is, admittedly, suggests that Marx believed that by changing the material world, e.g. the institutions of government, one changed the mind.

  12. Bill Woerlee

    When I read this latest TE Lawrence hagiography, I could not sit by and let this go unchallenged:

    “The once distant dream of taking Damascus was now reality. Two Australian cavalry divisions raced north of the Sea of Galilee, other units hooking up with the Arab Northern Army at Deraa. The Australians neared the city while roughly 1,500 Arab irregulars supported by the Regular Arab Army and British cavalry destroyed the remnants of the Ottoman Fourth Army. At long last, on October 1 Feisal and his tribesmen, with Lawrence driving Blue Mist, his Rolls-Royce, entered Damascus, along with sections of British cavalry. …

    “Acting quickly, Feisal set up a government. With the military conflict nearing its end, the political war was intensifying. Lawrence—who was, he recalled, “a very sick man: almost at breaking point”—was granted a leave. Promoted to colonel, he would soon be back in the Middle East.”

    Let us go through the errors:

    1. “Two Australian cavalry divisions raced north of the Sea of Galilee” – there were only two Australian divisions in Palestine, one which went north to Damascus while the other went east to Jordan. The Desert Mounted Corps had 3 Divisions, the Australian Mounted Division (Australian) and the 3rd and 4th Indian Cavalry Divisions.

    2. “while roughly 1,500 Arab irregulars supported by the Regular Arab Army and British cavalry destroyed the remnants of the Ottoman Fourth Army. ” It was the 4th Indian Cavalry Division that completed the destruction of the Turkish army at Deraa while the Arabs looked on and then looted when the battle was over. There was nothing romantic in this action – it was theft of a massive scale that sickened the Indian troops. Indeed, the men of th 4th Indian Cavalry Division wanted nothing to do with the Arab irregulars and left them looting while the Indians marched north to Damascus. The actions of the Arabs was a forewarning of what would happen when they entered Damascus.

    3. This is the most troubling of all – “At long last, on October 1 Feisal and his tribesmen, with Lawrence driving Blue Mist, his Rolls-Royce, entered Damascus, along with sections of British cavalry. …” No one knew that Lawrence had entered Damascus. It was too large for this. The first to enter was the Australian 3rd Light Horse Brigade who accepted the surrender of the city in the Seri at 7am. The 3rd LHB marched on to chase the fleeing Turks. Following them was the Australian 4th LHB which took the surrender of the Beramke Barraks Garrison of 12,000 Turkish troops. Then the Indian 4th Cavalry Division entered via a different route to Lawrence. Basically Lawrence was show boating for the cameras. No one in the Allied forces wanted anything to do with him and religiously avoided being seen with him.

    4. “Acting quickly, Feisal set up a government. ” The reality is a tad bit different. When the commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, General Chauvel arrived in Damascus around 8.30 am that morning, Lawrence lied to him by saying that the Seri had handed over civil governance to Feisal. [See #3 for the real story.] At this moment Chauvel knew no different and had no reason to suspect that Lawrence lied.

    5. “Feisal set up a government. ” This is possibly putting too much gloss on what turned out to be a kleptocracy. If the looting at Deraa had been outrageous to the Indians, the Arab looting in Damascus lifted up a notch. The Arabs stole everything Turkish that was not nailed down. Especially medicines. They looted the Turkish hospitals and then resold the medicines back to the Allied forces as they took control of the hospitals so that these medicines could be used for those who it was intended in the first place, the Turkish wounded. The whole cost of this Arab kleptocracy in Turkish lives was about 2,000 men who died needlessly over the next couple weeks through neglect and lack of medicines.

    6. “Lawrence—who was, he recalled, “a very sick man: almost at breaking point”—was granted a leave. ” This is guilding the lilly. When Allenby arrived in Damascus the subterfuge of Lawrence was discovered. Feisal was given his marching orders and Lawrence was effectively fired for his part in the deception. However, Lawrence was too popular in the press to be “fired” so he was promoted and kicked upstairs. Same impact, different name. After the exit of Feisal and his kleptocrats, Damascus settled down to an orderly occupation with the citizens grateful to be rid of the thieving desert Arabs. No one in the Allied forces wept at the loss of Lawrence.

    What happened next was the perpetration of one of history’s travesties. Lawrence went onto claim that he was the hero who first entered Damascus with the Allied forces following in his wake. That masterpiece of fiction, “7 Pillars of Wisdom” and the work of his publicists ensured that generations would believe this rewriting of history. Even the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” followed this line. In contrast, General Wilson of the Australian 3rd LHB spent the rest of his life trying to get recognition for his men. He didn’t have a hope when matched against the propagandists behind the legend of Lawrence.

  13. Aaron Fleisher

    I would like to thank the above respondents for reacting to the article with interesting historical detail as evidence. A good article can often not be an entirely accurate portrait of events (whatever that might be); rather a good article lays out enough structure with enough attempt at using evidence that it may be corrected, in part or in entire, and further fleshed out to help elucidate a complex topic.
    Thanks, and please, readers, if you can make interesting, informed responses, do so.

  14. » Creating Chaos About Face International

    […] The train filled with Ottoman Empire soldiers and civilians chugged over a bridge in the Arabian desert. A few yards away a British officer in Bedouin robes raised his hand toward Salem, an Arab tribal warrior gripping the plunger of a detonator box. As the train steamed ahead, the officer dropped his hand and Salem slammed down the plunger.  <<<To read full article, click here.>>> […]

  15. Jens

    Within Western and Arab historiography, WWI, the Arab Revolt, the role of Lawrence, the Allied promises to Arabs and Jews etc. was and probably will remain one of the most debated, mythified, and romanticed period of history. The replies to this article show that very clearly. Arab historians, especially writing from the perspective of early Arab nationalism unitl the end of WWII (and even more so in the 60s), have described this period and the Arab Revolt as the “Arab Awakening”, whose leaders were finally betrayed by its former British Allies. One doses not need to wait for Osama ben Laden to use that as an argument to fight European influence in the region.

    Why such heated debates? Probably, because decisions done between 1915 and 1918 and -as a result – in the 20s and 30s – had indeed a long lasting effect on the region. And this was something which was already clear to politicians and decision makers at that time. The article should have mentioned the King-Crane Commission, which in summer 1919 travelled through the region to assess “what the people want”. The commission’s report, whose immediate public release was prevented by the British and French, made one thing clear: if the Great Powers divide the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire among themselves, install semi-independent governments and allow the creation of a Jewish Homeland, there will be a lot of trouble and this was exactly what happened. In (the former vilayet)Syria, for example, people wanted in the first place 1) and independent Kingdom under Faisal or as second option 2) a mandate under the responsibilty of the US or 3) a mandate under the UK. They absolutely reused to be under a French mandate… which was exactly what was imposed on them after Faisal had been kicked out in July 1920.

    This, I think is the articles’ important message, that the decisions of those days had long lasting effects on the region. And I think nobody can say that those effects were very pleasant ones…

  16. ali alshamari

    All wahat is going on in the middle east problems are caused by british . British gave plstine to jawish and sack palstinan from thier lands since 1917 , and every body knows waht is happening in plstine these days and British goverment not helping to solve the problem which origenated by them.

    note: WE are not against JAWISH as relegan we are against the invaders.

    my english not so good , I hope you under stand what I meant.

  17. Eric

    Thank you for this wonderful historical summary. Having watched Lawrence of Arabia numerous times, I enjoyed following your article with memories of that wonderful movie about Lawrence.

  18. Charles Mullins

    There are numerous versions of exactly what Lawrence did and did not do during his time in Arabia and in many cases, it depends on who is writing the story and the political point they wish to make. Many writers are willing to slant the truth to make their own point.

    It is clear (at least to me) that Lawrence was good at self-promotion. But it is also clear that he was an effective leader. A number of military historians point out that while he himself may not necessarily have done all that he said that he did, he was clearly a catalyst for allied victory in the region. As one historian put it, \[before Lawrence arrived, the Turks always won; after he arrived, they always lost.\

    I also understand that his books (\Revolt in the Desert\ and \Pillars of Wisdom\) are as good a description of Arab culture as can be found anywhere.

    Finally, with regard to the geo-political aspects of the aftermath of World War I and its impacts on today’s world, I suggest that interested readers spend some time with a very solid book on the subject, \A Peace to End All Peace,\ which gives a very good overview of the history of Turkey and Ottoman Empire in World War I and its aftermath. The book details how the European nations divided the area into \states\ and \assigned\ Kings to them. In this respect, the book agrees (generally) with this article.

  19. Michael Polidori

    I have never felt so duped and ignorant in all of my life. Shame on us white folks….

  20. T.S. Davis

    WELL DONE. WE could had Read Several Big Books and not Realize the Content that you Displayed in your Well Researched and Well Witten Article. You are a True Journalist, Chief

  21. Ray

    Lawrence of Arabia – a fascinating character.
    But who was first to enter Damascus?.
    Read the unit war diary history on the AWM site of the 3rd Australian light horse brigade, and you will find that it was the 10th lighthorse.
    Start from 30th September 1918.
    The unit war diaries do not lie. There was no reason to.
    But for Lawrence, politics and personal promotion came into play.

  22. Matt in VA

    The record needs to be set straight on \Crusades.\ Palestine, Egypt, Spain, and Mesopotamia were all Christian lands, with a majority of Christian occupants. Jihadi’s from Arabia had overrun these people, and was the real aggression. Similarly, the Ottoman empire led Jihad into Europe, getting as far as Vienna. The real religious aggressors were the Muslims. The Crusade’s were defensive, fought to deliver what were most commonly Eastern Orthodox Christians from Muslim captivity.

    Such abuses continued in the 20th century. Estimates of Christians killed by the Turks in the years before WWI run as high as 2.5 million.

    Ironically, people wonder why middle east culture fell so precipitously. It is probably because of the declining number of Christians and Jews, which were the intellectual, economic, and administrative strength of the region.

  23. amalia

    Muslims created one of the greatest civilization in history,a civilization of knowledge and religious tolerance that no other civilizations ever heard of ,Muslims ,christains and jews lived together in peace all over the Islamic land (Spain ,Baghdad ,north Africa, Constantinople are only some examples) ,when christians set up their inquisitions for Muslims and jews , it was the ottomans who sent their vessels to bring the jews to the middle east and allowed them to live freely there, and when the Christians were kicking jews around Europe and treat them with contempt ,they were living as human beings among the Muslims ,it was the\ intellectual\ crusaders who massacred them on their way to the east and again in Jerusalem where they massacred both Muslims and Jews,for centuries the middle east and other Islamic states were the center of knowledge, science ,art, architecture ,etc , the last thing they needed is the greedy European who created chaos in the region for their own interests,Lawrence was a dishonorable man who used the people that he lived among them to fulfill his own agenda ,while he was telling them he worked for their interests, the middle east is more than capable of recreating its civilization ,just USA and Europe have to take their hands out of it,and stop their dirty politics in order to seize as much oil as it can and to protect a bloody occupation, read some real history before talking so condescendingly about other civilizations.


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