Creating Chaos: Lawrence of Arabia and the 1916 Arab Revolt

By O'Brien Browne
8/10/2010 • MHQ, Woodrow Wilson

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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