Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969

The Arab Countries in the First World War (1914–18)

The Arab Countries’ Stand in the Imperialist War.

In 1914, all the Arab countries were drawn into the imperialist war, a war for the redivision of the world and its spheres of influence. One of the causes of World War I was the struggle for possession of the Arab countries. Germany wanted to gain a foothold in the Turkish Sultan’s domains and was threatening Britain’s positions in the Middle East. France was trying to wrest Syria and Cilicia from Turkey. Britain wanted to seize Iraq and Palestine and gain a firm foothold in Egypt.

In 1917, Lenin wrote:

“The war was brought on by the clash of two most powerful groups of multimillionaires, Anglo-French and German, for the re-division of the world.

“The Anglo-French group of capitalists wants first to rob Germany, deprive her of her colonies (nearly all of which have already been seized), and then to rob Turkey.

“The German group of capitalists wants to seize Turkey for itself and to compensate itself for the loss of its colonies by seizing neighbouring small states (Belgium, Serbia and Rumania).” [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23, p. 335.]

Both sides made use of the territory, bases, communications, natural resources and manpower of the Arab countries that were dependent on them. The Anglo-French bloc used the territory and resources of Egypt, the Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and the British domains in Arabia. The German-Turkish bloc placed at its own disposal all the natural resources and manpower of Palestine, Syria, the Lebanon, Iraq and part of Arabia.

The Arab countries’ formal participation in the war, however, whether on one side or the other, still did not determine the peoples’ real stand. Actually, they were hostile to both belligerents and both the Anglo-French and German-Turkish rear were unstable. The Arab people hated their foreign oppressors, and this hatred was skillfully used by one imperialist bloc against the other.

Each belligerent supported the national movements and the uprisings in the enemy’s rear and spurred them on, using them for their own needs. A struggle against the imperialists of Britain, France and Italy began in Egypt, the Sudan and other North African countries. The struggle was particularly acute in Morocco and Libya. The French often referred to Morocco, where the Arab and Berber tribes had forced them out of the mountain regions, as their “second front” (the main one being the Western front). By 1915, the Italians held only isolated posts on the coast of Libya. Moreover, Germany and Turkey were using the Libyan Arabs in the struggle against Britain and had organised a series of Bedouin raids from Libya on Egyptian territory.

Britain and France used the national movement in the Arab countries subservient to Turkey for the struggle against Turkey and Germany. The Arab Nationalists conducted reconnaissance work and sabotage in the Turkish rear and provoked anti-Turkish uprisings.

The Economic and Political Situation in Turkey’s Arab Provinces.

On October 29, 1914, Turkey entered the world war that was to have such fatal consequences for the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s military plan, endorsed by the German command, provided for offensive operations in the Caucasus and in the Suez Canal Zone. The Turks’ reckless scheme was to seize Egypt and shift military operations to North and Central Africa.

The troops which had been detached to take part in the offensive against the Canal Zone comprised the 4th Army under the command of Ahmed Jemal Pasha, one of the Young Turk triumvirs. Actually, the military operations were supervised by a batch of German officers belonging to Liman von Sanders’ military mission. The chief of the 4th Army headquarters was the German military attaché to Damascus, Colonel Kress von Kressenstein. In practice, he was the army’s commander. Ahmed Jemal was engaged mainly in “securing the rear.”

The 4th Army was based in Syria and Palestine, who were completely unprepared for a long war. They suffered from the lack of good roads. Jemal Pasha, who had promised his friends he would sail back to Istanbul via Alexandria, began his journey through a sea of mud. At the railway station in Aleppo he had to be carried out of the train on the soldiers’ backs. The situation was equally disheartening elsewhere.

Syria’s and Palestine’s economy was unable to withstand the trials of war. Under the pretext of military necessity, the Turkish authorities immediately began fleecing the civilian population. The peasants’ cattle and food were requisitioned on a mass scale. In 1915, nine-tenths of the grain harvest in Syria and the Lebanon was commandeered. Trees everywhere, including fruit trees, were cut down for fuel and the irrigation system was neglected. Forced labour was used extensively. Thousands of peasants were taken away from the land and forced to work on all sorts of military projects.

Agricultural and industrial production dropped sharply. Even before the war there had been a shortage of home-grown wheat in Syria and now wheat imports were almost completely suspended. The Turkish authorities took no measures to ward off the approaching famine and even organised food exports to Germany.

Prices of essential goods rose steeply and many articles dropped out of sale. The flourishing kings of the “black market” made huge fortunes.

Between 1915 and 1916, hundreds of thousands of people in the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq, especially the inhabitants of the big cities, were on the verge of starvation. Epidemics of typhus and other diseases broke out here and there. In the spring of both 1915 and 1916, tens of thousands of people died in Syria and the Lebanon. In Syria, in 1917, one-tenth of the population died of hunger and disease. No less than 100,000 people died in the Lebanon alone. Tens of thousands died in the Moslem and Baghdad vilayets.

The war, economic difficulties and economic dislocation gave rise to a wave of spontaneous discontent throughout the country. The Turkish Government feared and mistrusted the Arab population of the empire. In November 1914, the government invested Jemal Pasha with special powers. Apart from the command of the 4th Army, he received the rights of Commissioner Extraordinary and wielded absolute military and civil power. He introduced martial law in the Arab provinces, abolished the vilayet councils and the civil court, destroyed the Mountain Region’s autonomy and liquidated all the rights and privileges which had been granted to various religious communities on the basis of international agreements. Jemal Pasha persecuted the Arab national liberation movement and conducted a shameful policy of Turkisation and ruthless suppression of Arab culture.

Most of the Arab population adopted a hostile attitude towards the war. They hated the Turks and remained indifferent to the Sultan’s leaflets proclaiming the jihad, i.e., holy Moslem war. The Arabs openly rejoiced at the Turco-German army’s defeat and readily responded to the calls from émigré centres to sabotage the Turks’ military efforts.

Jemal Pasha had to keep nearly half his troops in the rear, since they might be needed in event of an uprising. But the troops themselves were unreliable. Of three divisions, two were comprised of Kurds and Arabs from Mosul and one, of Syrians. Jemal Pasha demanded the despatch of Turkish contingents. Feeling against the war spread quickly among the Arab soldiers of the Turkish army. Cases of mass desertion, voluntary surrender and refusals to take part in the fighting became common. Mutinies took place in a number of towns. In April 1916, a Mosul garrison and several other Arab garrisons mutinied.

In 1915, there were disturbances in several Syrian and Palestinian towns, where the people were demonstrating for bread and peace. Spontaneous uprisings continued to flare up here and there. In 1916, in Jebel-Druze, the northern Lebanon and Damascus, guerilla detachments began an armed struggle against the Turks. Anti-Turkish uprisings that had flared up in the sacred Shi’a cities of Nejef and Karbala broke out afresh in the spring of 1916.

The Arab Nationalists’ Attitude to the War.

When the war broke out, the Arab Nationalists split into two camps according to their attitude towards the belligerents. They had two alternatives: either to accept the Entente’s support and the possibility of an Anglo-French occupation or to participate in the war on Turkey’s side with a view to satisfying national demands within the framework of the Ottoman Empire.

The majority of the Nationalists sided with Britain and France and only a relatively small, but influential group of Nationalists (Abd er-Rahman Shahbandar, Mohammed Kurd Ali and others) clearly apprehended the danger connected with an Anglo-French occupation and chose to support Turkey under the Pan-Islamic slogans of “holy war.” Jemal Pasha established close contacts with this group and promised them broad autonomy after the war. Something like an Arab-Turkish bloc was formed on the basis of the campaign against Britain and France. The Arab press supported the slogans of jihad (holy war) and gave the Turks favourable publicity.

By the spring of 1915, however, cracks appeared in the Arab-Turkish bloc. The defeats at the front, the Turks’ chauvinist policy, the spread of famine and anti-war feeling among the masses dispelled the illusions of Shahbandar and his friends. They began to question Jemal Pasha’s and the Turkish Government’s sincerity. They were also disheartened by Turkey’s helplessness and her rapid transformation into a German colony.

The vacillations of this group and the anti-Turkish feelings harboured by the majority of the Nationalists were used by British Intelligence, which relied on the Decentralisation Party’s local branches and on anti-Turkish secret societies. The Decentralisation Party’s leaders in Cairo called for immediate and complete secession from Turkey and began preparations for an uprising. They sent their agents and propaganda literature to Syria and Palestine. British planes dropped leaflets urging the Arabs to desert, to abstain from the payment of taxes and the like.

Anti-Turkish propaganda met with a growing response among the Arab population, which began to heed the reports from Cairo. The final blow to Ottoman illusions was struck by Jemal Pasha himself. In the spring of 1915, he launched mass repressions against the Arab Nationalists. At the beginning of the war, the Arabs had been afraid of choosing the wrong side. When they finally made their choice, it was not in Turkey’s favour.

Even in the early months of the war, Jemal Pasha had had Arab intellectuals and officers shadowed. He had searched the French consulates and had found material incriminating many prominent members of the Arab national movement. In June 1915, when it became clear that the jihad slogan had completely failed and that the Arabs were ready to support an anti-Turkish uprising, Jemal Pasha began a bloody struggle against the Arab Nationalists, closing down a number of newspapers and organising mass arrests of members of the Arab national societies. In 1916, Jemal Pasha dealt ruthlessly with the Arab national liberation movement.

Between 1915 and 1916, several Arab Nationalist groups appeared before a military tribunal. The leaders of the Decentralisation Party, the Young Arab Society, the Lebanese Awakening Society and other outstanding members of the Arab movement were charged with high treason, with having connections with Britain and France and with having incited the people to rebel. During the investigation, the accused were tortured and threatened. The judges ignored all laws of legal procedure, following only Jemal Pasha’s instructions. The courts sentenced hundreds of Nationalists to death and others to various terms of imprisonment. Abd el-Karim Khalil, Ridah es-Sulh, Mohammed Mihmisani, Sheikh el-Zahrawi, Shafik el-Mu’aid, el-Ureisi, Selim el-Jazairi, and many others were hung on the squares of Beirut and Damascus. All told, by the middle of 1916, the military tribunals had sentenced over 800 activists of the Arab national liberation movement to death.

Apart from legal punishment, the Turkish authorities organised the mass deportation of Arabs suspected of disloyalty to the Turkish Government. Tens of thousands of people, especially representatives of the Arab intelligentsia, the Christian and Shi’a clergy and the families of prominent Nationalists were banished to concentration camps in the desert. Banishments were attended by robberies, killings and other acts of violence. In the camps the exiles perished from hunger and disease.

By these means Jemal Pasha succeeded in crushing the Arab national societies, destroying their leaders and terrorising the population of the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The blow which the Turks dealt against the Arab national liberation movement in 1916 was a severe one. They wiped out its cadres and organisation, thereby delaying the general anti-Turkish uprising in the Porte’s Arab provinces.

The British Protectorate over Egypt.

The British rear in Egypt, the main British base in the Middle East, was as unstable as the German-Turkish rear in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Egypt was considered a part of the Ottoman Empire and was only “temporarily” occupied by the British. Nevertheless, Britain drew her into the war like her other colonies. On August 5, 1914, the British forced the Egyptian Prime Minister, Husein Rushdi Pasha, to announce complete rupture of relations with all Powers hostile to Britain. This declaration forbade the Egyptian population to correspond or to maintain commercial or any other relations with the subjects of states hostile to Britain. It also forbade Egyptian ships to call at enemy ports. At the same time the Egyptian population was called on to render all possible aid to Britain, and the British army and navy were granted the right to use Egyptian territory and ports for military operations.

According to the British writer Lieutenant-Colonel Elgood, who served in the British occupation corps during the war, the result of this declaration was that the deep feeling of mistrust towards the occupying Power, common to all classes of the Egyptian population, grew into a feeling of widespread but as yet concealed hatred. Egypt’s forced ties with Great Britain had drawn her into a war, the origin and aims of which she knew nothing about.

Having entered the war, Britain violated the Convention of 1888 by occupying the Suez Canal Zone and instituting a number of emergency political measures. By the Decree of October 18, 1914, the government postponed for two months the convention of the Legislative Assembly, which in time of war could become a means for expressing popular discontent. Similar postponements were ordered on several other occasions and the Assembly did not meet once throughout the war.

On October 20, 1914, the government issued a decree on “illegal gatherings.” If more than four Egyptians assembled without the authorities’ permission, they could be punished as criminals.

On November 2, 1914, martial law was declared in Egypt. Supreme authority in Egypt passed into the hands of General Maxwell, the commander-in-chief of the British forces. The regime of military dictatorship was combined with increased terrorism. Thousands of participants in the national movement, bourgeois intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, officers and students, were thrown into prison or concentration camps, exiled to remote oases or banished to Malta. The leader of the Hizb El-Watan Party, Ali Kamil, was interned and the Nationalist newspapers were closed. All the other newspapers were heavily censored.

Taking advantage of the war, Britain decided to legalise Egypt’s seizure. On December 18, 1914, the British Foreign Secretary announced Egypt’s secession from Turkey and her consolidation as a British protectorate. A high commissioner was placed at the head of the colonial administration in place of the British consul-general, who was listed as “diplomatic” representative, although he ruled the country as an absolute satrap. McMahon was appointed to this post in 1914. In November 1916, he was replaced by Wingate. But since martial law was in force, these officials were actually subordinate to the commander-in-chief and were mere tools in the hands of the military dictatorship. On December 19, 1914, the British deposed the Egyptian Khedive, Abbas II Hilmi, who was in Constantinople and had fallen out of favour with the colonial authorities. They installed their stooge Husain Kamil Pasha in his place, investing him with the title of sultan. When Husain Kamil died in 1917, his son Kemal ed-Din, unwilling to become a British puppet, refused to occupy the throne. The British then sought out a certain Prince Ahmed Fuad, Ismail’s younger son, who had grown up in Italy and had served in the Italian army. On the eve of the war, Italy had nominated Ahmed Fuad as the King of Albania. On October 9, 1917, Britain offered him the Egyptian throne. Valentine Chirol writes that Ahmed Fuad was hastily elected by the British Government not because he possessed any unusual qualities, but because, having very few friends in Egypt, he was forced to rely on British support.

The War and the Egyptian Economy.

When Britain entered the war against Turkey, she officially declared that she was taking the “burden of the present war on herself” and would not resort to Egypt’s help. The reality proved quite different, Britain made extensive use of Egypt’s natural resources and manpower. In the very first days of the war, the British sent Egyptian artillery to defend the Suez Canal. Throughout the war they used the Egyptians in the auxiliary forces and in the labour corps.

Egyptians were recruited to the labour corps two or three times a year. Each time, up to 135,000 men were called up. Officially, the recruitment was supposed to be voluntary. In fact, however, there was considerable administrative pressure and corruption. In return for bribes the Omdis (village elders) would exempt the peasants from recruitment, while sending away anyone who was not to their liking. In 1917, the voluntary system was abolished and the British recruiting agents began working in the open.

What were these labour corps like? Why did the entire adult male population of the villages flee to the desert at the sight of the recruiting agents? Why did thousands of starving people avoid the doubtful honour of becoming “volunteers”? Why did soldiers and police comb the land for these “volunteers” who had fled, and deliver them under guard to the barracks? Because service in the labour corps was the worst kind of penal servitude. All the dirty work of the war was assigned to the labour corps. They dug trenches, built fortifications, laid water mains and railways across the desert and carried heavy loads on their backs. They were often the first to come under enemy attack. When the British advanced across the Sinai Desert into Palestine the Egyptian labour corps went in the fore, paving the way with their bodies as well as their work. “From the point of view of bodily security,” writes Lieutenant-Colonel Elgood, “frequently in the Palestine campaign there was not much to choose between service with those units and with British troops in the front line. Both were bombed and shelled impartially by the enemy.” [P.G. Elgood, Egypt and the Army, Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 86–87.] Losses in the labour corps exceeded 30,000. All told, over one million Egyptian fellaheen and workers passed through this hell. The term of service in the labour corps was six months. Recruits were soon crippled and exhausted to such a degree that the British preferred to exchange them for fresh manpower.

The British used the Egyptian labour corps not only on the Suez front. Egyptian fellaheen with shovels in their hands could be seen in Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and in far-off Lorraine. According to official data, in 1916 alone, over 10,000 fellaheen were sent to France and over 8,000 to Mesopotamia.

Egyptian ports, means of transport, industry and agriculture were all placed at the British army’s disposal. Egypt’s economy was organised along completely new lines. The authorities took a number of emergency measures to feed the population and the 275,000-strong British army stationed in Egypt. On August 2, 1914, the authorities forbade the export of essential goods and introduced control over prices. The war made it difficult to import wheat and, faced with the threat of a food shortage, the British authorities speeded up the production of the grain crops. In 1915, they forcibly restricted the area under cotton to expand the area under wheat and rice. The cotton plantations were reduced from 1,755,000 feddans in 1914 to 1,186,000 feddans in 1915.

Soon, however, the British began to run short of cotton for the war industry and were forced to abolish all restrictive measures. Cotton production soared again and cotton prices almost trebled: from 14 reals a cantar in 1913 to 38 reals a cantar in 1917. Cotton growers, traders, swindlers and all sorts of middlemen waxed rich on the cotton boom.

The war and the rupture of foreign trade ties stimulated the development of local Egyptian industry. The war was a successful substitute for the protection that domestic capital needed. Industrial goods were no longer being imported from abroad and to fill the gap, national capital swung into action. Scores of hundreds of small domestic and semi-domestic craft enterprises were opened in the textile, sewing, leather, shoes, sugar, spirits, furniture and other industries. The number of people engaged in industry rose from 376,000 in 1907 to 489,000 in 1917; 231,000 of these were hired workers.

The war enriched the Egyptian landowners, merchants and businessmen as never before and considerably strengthened the positions of Egyptian national capital.

The Egyptian bourgeoisie’s enrichment, however, did not free it from the tutelage of British finance capital and the colonial authorities. On the contrary, in the war years Egypt’s financial and economic dependence increased. On August 2, 1914, the British authorities stopped the exchange of bank notes issued by the National Bank of Egypt for gold and forcibly introduced paper money. The National Bank’s gold reserves were handed over to the British Treasury. The British authorities withdrew all the gold and silver coins from circulation and replaced them with notes. In October 1916, the gold backing of Egyptian bank notes was withdrawn and instead they were backed by British Treasury bonds and pound sterling notes. The Egyptian pound was thus made dependent on the British pound, which actually meant Egypt’s incorporation in the sterling zone. Britain was now able to pay her military expenses in Egypt in notes without having to waste a single gram of gold.

During the war, the amount of paper money in circulation sharply increased. At the close of 1914, there were only £8,250,000 notes in circulation. By the end of 1919, this figure had increased more than eight times. Inflation led to a rise in prices, especially of primary goods. The index of wholesale prices rose from 100 in 1913 to 211 in 1918.

The Egyptian working people were the first to suffer from the rise in prices. An official British report noted the unheard-of and constant rise in prices, especially of such essential goods as bread, clothes and fuel, which laid a particularly heavy burden on the lower classes whose wages were quite inadequate to the increased cost of living. The subsistence minimum was a good deal higher than the average wage level.

The peasants were very badly off. In the first months of the war, the British began commandeering grain and fodder from the peasants. The confiscated products were paid for at prices that were lower than the market prices and after much delay. Corruption also played its part. The government collectors extorted more wheat from the peasants than was fixed by the tax and sold it at the market for speculative prices. The confiscation of draught animals, donkeys and camels was a disaster for the peasants. It was almost impossible to secure compensation. And what compensation could be obtained after long ordeals was not enough to buy a new animal.

The forced collections for the Red Cross and Red Crescent were particularly hateful to the fellaheen. Every British official tried to break the record for blackmail, and the sums that were extorted usually did not reach the Red Cross, but finished up in the blackmailers’ pockets.

The Egyptian National Liberation Movement During the War.

The commandeering of wheat and animals, the extortions, mobilisations, the plunder of the Egyptian countryside, the terrorist regime and military dictatorship evoked profound discontent.

This feeling, however, could not find an outlet in organised political struggle. The Egyptian national liberation movement was in the grip of a serious crisis. The big Egyptian bourgeoisie and feudalists were growing rich on the war and sided with Britain. Temporarily, at least, their newspapers and political parties reconciled themselves to British domination and abstained from any struggle against the occupation forces. Neither the government nor the members of the Legislative Assembly even attempted to protest against the British protectorate over Egypt.

It was chiefly the petty bourgeoisie and the nationalist-minded intellectuals that united round the National Party and continued the anti-imperialist struggle. The military-terrorist regime, the arrests, the exiles and the closure of the Nationalist newspapers considerably restricted the scope of the wataneun’s activities. Actually, they confined themselves to propaganda abroad (Geneva and Berlin) and to organising terrorist acts. On April 8 and July 9, 1915, they made two attempts on the life of the British puppet, Sultan Husain Kamil. On August 10, 1915, an attempt was made on the life of the Prime Minister, Husein Rushdi Pasha, and on September 4, 1915, on the life of the waqf minister.

This series of unsuccessful terrorist acts changed absolutely nothing in Egypt. The Nationalists withdrew further into their shell, isolating themselves from the people and their everyday needs. Spontaneous manifestations of discontent received no real guidance and were not used in the interests of the anti-imperialist struggle.

Spontaneous discontent, however, fed the fires of nationalistic feeling, which reached threatening dimensions in the final years of the war. According to the British historian Young, every educational establishment and every college became a centre of fierce anti-British propaganda. The Egyptians, he wrote, began to realise that the war that had been declared for the freedom of the minor nations was actually being waged to divide the minor nations between the Western Powers. Egypt was not even promised freedom for her loyalty. On the contrary, the protectorate only stressed her dependence.

The British intelligence service founded an Arab Bureau which was to combat the Egyptian national movement in Cairo. The Arab Bureau was made up of such notorious British intelligence officers as Colonel (lieutenant at the time) Lawrence; the former Times correspondent in Istanbul, Phillip Graves, who on the eve of the war used his close ties with the Young Turk ruling circles to supply British Intelligence with detailed information about the Turkish army; Lord Lloyd, Winston Churchill’s close friend and later the British High Commissioner for Egypt; the Arabist Hogarth and Major Newcombe, who on the eve of the war had made topographical surveys of southern Palestine, which was to become a theatre of military operations. At the head of this nest of spies stood Colonel Clayton. While persecuting the Egyptian Nationalists, the Arab Bureau actually conducted subversive activities in the Turkish rear through its ties with the Syrian and Palestinian Nationalists. lt even entered into negotiations with the Meccan ruler Sherif Husein el-Hashimi, and in 1916, organised an uprising of the Hejaz Arabs against Turkey.

Military Operations (1914–16).

Military operations in the Middle East began in November 1914. On November 7, 1914, two days after the declaration of war between Britain and Turkey, British and Indian troops landed at the mouth of Shatt-al-Arab and launched an attack against the north. On November 21, they seized Basra and on December 9, 1914, Al-Qurna, thereby completing the occupation of southern Iraq. But with that the British successes came to an end. Their attempts to thrust forward to Baghdad in 1915 failed completely. In November 1915, they were defeated at Ctesiphon and in December 1915, the Turks surrounded General Townshend’s 10,000-strong detachment at Kut El-Imara. On April 29, 1916, after a five-month siege, Townshend surrendered. The British rapidly recovered from their defeat, however, and in the second half of 1916, they again switched over to the offensive.

On the Sinai front the initiative was in the hands of the German-Turkish command. After thorough preparations, the Turks launched a broad offensive on the Suez Canal Zone. On January 10, 1915, eight Turkish divisions began to advance in two columns across the Sinai Peninsula in the direction of Gaza-Qantara and Ma’an-Suez. They covered 400 kilometres on foot and sixteen days later, took up positions on the eastern bank of the canal.

The British opposed the Turks with a 50,000-strong army consisting of their own, New Zealand, Australian and Anglo-Indian units, supported by the British and French warships and seaplanes. Rather than attempt to defend the Sinai Peninsula the British had adopted the plan of immediate defence on the Suez Canal line.

On the night of February 2, 1915, the Turks launched their assault on the canal, which ended in their complete defeat. The Turkish landing party which had crossed to the western bank of the canal was routed. The Turks’ supply of ammunition and foodstuffs ran low and two weeks later they retired to their starting bases in Gaza and Ma’an.

After the first attack against the canal had failed, the German-Turkish command organised Bedouin raids on Egypt from the east and the west, but the military results of the raids were nil. Even in the political sense they served little purpose. The Bedouins who made up Jemal Pasha’s 4th Army fought with extreme reluctance and encountered no support in Egypt. The Turks’ gamble on Arab support had failed.

The British built up the fortifications of the Suez Canal Zone and by 1916, they had amassed 275,000 men in the area. Between April and August 1916, the Turkish command made two more attempts to attack the Suez Canal. German officers under the command of Kress von Kressenstein supervised the operations and German-Austrian troops took a direct part in the campaign. These attacks, however, were also rebuffed by the British.

Turkey was equally unsuccessful at sea. The Anglo-French fleet cruised the Syrian coast and put small diversionary groups and detachments ashore. British ships sealed off the Red Sea coast of Arabia.

On the Arabian Peninsula, in 1915, with the support of their fleet the British successfully repelled all the attempts of the Turco-Yemenese troops to seize Aden. Mohammed el-ldrisi’s insurgent detachments operating in Asir helped the British considerably by holding down two or three Turkish divisions and harassing the Yemen from the north. British operations in North Arabia were also effective. By stirring up internecine strife they managed to neutralise the Rashidis of Shammar and thereby protect the left flank of the British expeditionary corps in Iraq.

The Sinai front was vital to the British. Originally they had intended to influence the outcome of the battle for the Suez Canal by landing troops in the region of Alexandretta and instigating an uprising in Syria. Jemal Pasha, however, dealt ruthlessly with the Nationalist leaders and France vehemently protested against the British unilateral occupation of the French spheres of influence. The British command thereupon chose the other alternative of launching an offensive across the Sinai Peninsula. In view of this decision, the Hashimites’ stand in favour of an uprising in the Hejaz acquired special significance. Besides diverting the Turkish forces, the uprising would protect the British army’s right flank and would greatly ease matters in the event of a campaign against Palestine.

Preparations for the Arab Uprising in the Hejaz.

Between 1915 and 1916, British intelligence agents and diplomats stepped up their preparations for an uprising in the Hejaz. The first contacts between the British and Abdullah el-Hashimi had been established before the outbreak of war and were renewed soon after. The British urged the Hashimites to avail themselves of the situation by provoking an uprising. The conditions in the Hejaz were favourable to Britain. Tension between the grand Sherif Husein el-Hashimi and the Turkish Government was mounting rapidly. Husein was nothing loath to use the war to realise his ambitious plans. He refused to proclaim a jihad (holy war) and sabotaged all attempts to carry out defensive measures. He was backed by the Hejaz tribes, who in 1915 launched a guerilla war against the Turks.

Husein, however, vacillated. He saw through the selfish plans of the British and did not trust them. What was more he realised he was between the hammer and the anvil. Comparatively large Turkish units were stationed in the Hejaz, but in the Red Sea there were British warships ready at a moment’s notice to blockade the ports of the Hejaz and stop the supply of foodstuffs. Husein, therefore, bided his time. For eighteen months he conducted an evasive policy, bargaining with the British and at the same time sending his emissaries to the tribal leaders and the Syrian Nationalists.

In the spring of 1915, one of Husein’s sons, Emir Feisal, arrived in Damascus. He was received by Jemal Pasha. At the same time Feisal secretly established contacts with the Syrian Nationalists and, in particular, had talks with representatives of the Young Arabs and the officers’ secret society El-Ahd (the Covenant), which he joined. By the irony of fate, however, this distinguished Nationalist was invited to attend the execution of a group of Syrian Nationalist leaders as an honoured guest.

The Syrian Nationalists urged Feisal to side with Britain against the Turks. They had drawn up a protocol defining the terms of Anglo-Arab co-operation. This document, known as the Damascus Protocol, was drafted in May 1915. According to the Damascus Protocol, Britain was to recognise and guarantee the independence of the Arab state within its “natural borders.” This meant the territory which was bounded on the north by the 37th parallel and included Syria, Palestine, Iraq and the entire Arabian Peninsula with the exception of Aden. Britain was also to guarantee the abolition of the capitulations. In return for this the Nationalists agreed to conclude a defensive alliance between Britain and the future independent Arab state and to grant economic privileges to Britain for a term of fifteen years.

The Damascus Protocol was an important landmark in the history of the Arab national liberation movement. It signified an alliance between the Arab feudalists and the Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian bourgeoisie. This alliance consolidated the Hashimites’ positions in the Arab world and provided them with additional trump cards in the diplomatic game with Britain.

As soon as Feisal returned to the Hejaz and reported on his visit to Damascus, Husein resumed negotiations with Britain, which took the form of an exchange of letters between himself and the British High Commissioner for Egypt, McMahon. In his letter of July 14, 1915, Husein offered the co-operation of the Arabs on the terms stipulated by the Damascus Protocol. The British, who at the time were holding talks with their allies on Turkey’s post-war partition, were taken aback by Husein’s demands, especially by his territorial claims, and their reply was a diplomatic refusal.

Husein insisted on an Anglo-Arab agreement and demanded the recognition of the borders of the future Arab state as an indispensable condition of this agreement. At the end of 1915, the situation on the Middle East fronts – the blockade of Aden, the defeats in Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles – developed unfavourably for Britain. This made the Arabs’ co-operation and help extremely valuable and the British decided to meet several of the Hashimites’ demands halfway. On October 24, 1915, after consultations with London, McMahon sent another letter to Husein, which later became known as the McMahon-Husein agreement. In this letter, McMahon promised to recognise the independence of the Hashimite Arab state within the borders proposed by Husein, i.e., in accordance with the Damascus Protocol, but with the exception of the following territories: (a) the British protectorates in the Arabian Peninsula, (b) the territories west of the line Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus, i.e., western Syria, the Lebanon and Cilicia, to which France had a claim. The territories of the Basra and Baghdad vilayets were to remain under the sovereignty of the Arab state, but came under British control. Finally, Britain insisted on the exclusive right to send foreign advisers to the Arab state and to “defend” it from external attacks.

McMahon’s letter of October 24, 1915, did not satisfy Husein, who continued to insist on the solution of controversial issues (the borders of the Arab state and its future relations with Britain), but finally he was forced to give in and postpone their discussion till after the war. The British engaged to supply Husein with weapons and equipment and to pay him and his sons a monthly subsidy of £60,000.

Turkish action put an end to the Hashimites’ vacillations. The Porte refused to recognise Husein as the independent hereditary ruler of the Hejaz and declined his request to pardon the Arab Nationalists. In April 1916, the Turkish military court passed another series of death sentences. It would soon be Husein’s turn. The Turks were preparing to despatch large reinforcements to the Hejaz and with them a new Grand Sherif of Mecca.

The 1916 Uprising in the Hejaz.

These circumstances forced Husein to overcome his last hesitations and summon the Arabs to an anti-Turkish uprising which began on June 5, 1916. Led by Husein’s sons, the emirs Ali, Abdullah, Feisal and Zaid, tribal insurgent detachments quickly seized Jidda and also the ports of Yenbo and Umm Lejj. In Mecca they drove the Turks into the citadel, which surrendered three months later. The Turkish garrison of Taif fell in September 1916. By that time part of the Turkish force was blockaded in Medina and the others were engaged in guarding the Hejaz railway. The Turkish troops in Asir and the Yemen were completely cut off.

Surprise was the main factor in Husein’s first success. With no more than 10,000 men in the Hejaz to pit against 50,000 Bedouin insurgents, the Turks were taken unawares, but the insurgents were poorly trained and organised; they fought only on horseback, knew nothing about bayonet fighting and were helpless against artillery and machine guns. Their discipline was non-existent. They had no infantry or artillery; 10,000 outdated muskets were all the arms they had. Many of them would fight only in their own localities and several of the tribes refused to take any part in the uprising.

Consequently, the first victories were followed by a stalemate. The Turks drove the insurgents from Medina which stood firm all through the war. Reinforcements were moved in from Syria to the Hejaz railway and out of these the Turks began to form a special Hejaz corps, counting on lengthy trench warfare. In light of this Husein appealed to the British. The British, however, did not hasten to his help, for they felt that their purpose of the uprising was to divert Turkish not British troops to the Hejaz. Moreover, Britain was against the insurgents acquiring real strength, which would later compel her to reckon with the Arabs’ national demands.

Husein’s request for planes, artillery and for an infantry brigade was turned down. All the Hejaz received by way of weapons was small consignments of light outdated arms, and this only after considerable delay. At the end of 1916, there was only one rifle among five men in Feisal’s and Zaid’s forces. Instead of arms came British and French military instructors and advisers, who reached the conclusion that the Arabs were capable of nothing but guerilla warfare. These advisers drew up a plan for regular guerilla raids on the Hejaz railway and the original plan to seize Medina was abandoned. The Turkish command saw through this manoeuvre and ordered its troops to withdraw from the Hejaz and retreat to Palestine. But the commander of the Turkish garrison in Medina, Fakhri Pasha, did not obey the order and things remained as they were.

The Hejaz uprising did not relieve the political friction between Britain and Husein. Acute differences arose between them only a few days after its outbreak. On June 27, 1916, Husein issued a manifesto to all the Moslems of the world, proclaiming Arab independence and promulgating a programme of his own. Britain feared the manifesto might evoke an upsurge of liberative aspirations, especially in her domains, and forbade its circulation. But Britain’s fears were unjustified. In essence, Husein’s manifesto was extremely reactionary and alien to the Arab national liberation movement. The Grand Sherif accused the Turks of spreading “innovations” supposedly hostile to the spirit of Islam and promised to restore the traditional Moslem institutions which were based on the shariat (legislature).

After this, Husein tried to put into practice the idea of setting up an Arab state. Without waiting till the end of the war, on November 2, 1916, in Mecca, he convened a meeting of Arab feudal leaders, who proclaimed him the king of the Arab nation. An Arab Government was formed with its seat at Mecca. According to tradition, the main posts were occupied by Sherif’s sons. Ali became Prime Minister; Abdullah, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Feisal, Minister of the Interior.

The declaration of an independent Arab kingdom and the formation of an Arab Government placed the British in a difficult position. McMahon sent Husein an indignant message and forbade the press to publish any information on the Arab Government or anything related to it. The British and French governments declared that they did not recognise Husein’s new title, thus giving him to understand that they were not inclined to regard the Hashimite government as representative of all the Arabs of the Ottoman Empire.

The conflict was finally solved by the compromise. Britain and France acknowledged Husein as the king of the Hejaz, which did not really matter since the backward Hejaz with its population of 600,000 was no menace to them. The new kingdom did not include 95 per cent of the Porte’s Arab subjects and could not exist without close ties with the other Arab regions. On the other hand, by recognising Husein as king and as their ally, the British and French governments ensured his participation in the war on the side of the Entente.

In the meanwhile, on the fronts the scales tipped in Britain’s favour. The main Turkish forces were diverted to the Caucasus and to the Balkans. The British army gradually moved forward, occupying almost the entire Sinai Peninsula. The soldiers of the Egyptian labour corps laid a railway and water main through the desert. On December 21, 1916, the British entered El-Arish and began preparations for a broad offensive on the Palestinian front.

The Turks had built up a powerful defence line between Gaza and Beersheba (Bir Es-Seba). Twice, in March and April 1917, the British tried to break through, but to no avail. To make it easier for the British troops at the front, the British command decided to shift the Arab guerilla war from the Hejaz to Palestine and Transjordan in the north. As a means to this end, the British Intelligence officer Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence arrived on a visit to Emir Feisal. Lawrence won Feisal’s confidence and became his chief military and political adviser. In fact, Lawrence commanded the entire northern group of the Hejaz troops. Between May and June 1917, he carried out a deep raid across the desert and on July 5, 1917, took Aqaba from the rear. This was both a convenient port and an important strategic position protecting the right flank of the British offensive against Palestine. With the occupation of Aqaba the Arabs completely cleared the Red Sea coast of the Turks and joined fronts with the British army.

It is significant that the Arab Nationalists suggested that Lawrence should immediately march on Damascus, feeling that this would lead to a general anti-Turkish uprising in Syria and to the country’s liberation from the Turkish yoke. The Arabs would thus free themselves by their own efforts and avoid having the country occupied by foreign troops. But this was not what the British politicians or the British military command wanted and Lawrence voiced his objections. Acting on behalf of British Intelligence he turned the Arab insurgent army into an auxiliary corps which operated on the flank of the British army.

Secret Talks on the Partition of the Arab Countries.

While the Arab insurgents fought for recognition of their right to form an independent Arab state, secret talks were going on in the cool comfort of the Entente’s ministerial offices on partition of the Arab countries. There was nothing very new about the claims made by the Great Powers, the only difference being that with the outbreak of the war they felt the need to come to an agreement between themselves on these claims and on concrete commitments between the Allies.

From the very outset of the war, the British Government had deemed it necessary to inform the Russians of its readiness to solve the Straits question in Russia’s favour. Upon receiving this statement on March 4, 1915, the tsarist Minister of Foreign Affairs, S.D. Sazonov, wrote a letter to the British and French ambassadors in St. Petersburg suggesting that they give their written approval on the handing over of the Straits to Russia. This suggestion was gladly taken up by the Allies, especially by the French. On March 8, the French Ambassador, Paleologue, announced the French Government’s consent to Russia’s claims on the condition that France’s rights to Syria, the Lebanon and Cilicia be recognised by Russia. Russia was ready to accept this compromise, but made a reservation about the Armenians’ claims on Cilicia and also raised the question of the “holy places” in Palestine. Britain acted more warily, demanding that provisions be made in the future for the formation of an Arab state, the borders of which were to be determined at some later period.

On April 10, 1915, an agreement was concluded between Britain, France and Russia giving the Straits to Russia and providing for the formation of an independent Moslem state in Arabia. But the question of Syria’s and Palestine’s fate was not solved. At the end of 1915 and the beginning of 1916; additional talks were held between Britain and France on the subject. At the outset of 1916, the talks were speeded up in view of the Russian offensive in the Caucasus. Britain agreed to concede to France the territory west of the line Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus. The French insisted that this region be regarded as a future French colony and eastern Syria as a sphere of French influence.

By this time Russia, who had received information about conflicts between Jemal Pasha and the central government in Istanbul, proposed a new plan for the solution of the Arab question, which boiled down to the following: to demand that Jemal Pasha should break completely with the Porte and open the front to the Allies. In exchange for this it was proposed to place Jemal Pasha at the head of an independent sultanate of six autonomous provinces (including four Arab ones). This was the basis S.D. Sazonov suggested for holding secret talks with Jemal Pasha, but the Western Powers had absolutely no intention of handing over the Arab countries to Jemal Pasha. France, therefore, declared that the plan should be carried out only on the condition that the regions meant for France were not given to Jemal Pasha. Britain stated a similar reservation with regard to Mesopotamia and Arabia. Objections by the Western Powers made the plan unworkable.

In March 1916, special British and French representatives (Sykes and Picot) arrived in Petrograd for talks that resulted in the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was expressed in notes exchanged between France and Russia (May 9, 1916) and France and Britain (May 15, 1916). The agreement envisaged the seizure by France of western Syria, the Lebanon and Cilicia together with a portion of south-east Anatolia (the so-called Blue Zone), and the seizure by Britain of southern and central Iraq plus the Palestinian ports of Haifa and Akka (the Red Zone), The remaining area (the rest of Palestine) (the Brown Zone) was reserved for a special international regime of its own in agreement with Russia and the other countries. Eastern Syria and the district of Mosul came under the French sphere of influence (Zone A) and Transjordan and the northern part of the Baghdad vilayet, under the British sphere of influence (Zone B). The agreement gave France and Britain in these zones priority rights in trade, railway construction and arms export and the exclusive right to supply the future Arab administration with whatever foreign officials, advisers and the like it might need.

Although Russia, who exchanged notes with Britain only in the autumn of 1916, had no claims on the Arab countries, the Allies promised her Turkey’s Armenian vilayets and northern Kurdistan in exchange for her adherence to the agreement, and also confirmed her “rights” to Constantinople and to defend the interests of the Orthodox in Palestine. Accordingly a Yellow Zone, Lake Van, appeared on the map.

Somewhat later, Italy learned of the agreement and this led to the appearance of the Green Zone (south-western Anatolia) and Zone C (a portion of western and central Anatolia). On April 20, 1917, notes were exchanged between France and Italy. Britain stipulated that Italy’s adherence to the agreement must first be ratified by Russia.

One of the sayings of British diplomacy is that you can promise anything you like because the situation is bound to change. Britain’s generous concessions in the partition of the Porte’s Arab provinces may be taken as an example of adherence to this rule.

Occupation of Iraq. Anglo-French Conflicts in the Middle East.

British calculations that it would be possible to go back on the secret Allied commitments rested on the fact that the British army was slowly but surely occupying one Arab territory after the other. In December 1916, in Mesopotamia, the British switched over to the offensive. They broke through the Turks’ strongly fortified positions in the region of Kut El-Imara and destroyed the Turkish river flotilla. They routed the Turkish troops on the Tigris and began advancing rapidly northward. On February 25, 1917, the British seized Kut El-Imara and on March 11, they entered Baghdad. In September they resumed the offensive. On September 28, 1917, the British forces occupied Ramadi on the Euphrates and on the November 6, Tikrit on the Tigris was theirs.

The offensive brought almost all Mesopotamia under British control. This act of occupation showed that the British imperialists had merely talked of their desire to liberate the Arabs from the Turkish yoke. Actually, they were conducting a policy of colonial annexation. Having conquered Iraq, the British set about holding down their new territory by force. Absolute power was wielded by the British military command and civil service, which was subordinate to the Anglo-Indian government. The administration was headed by Percy Cox, a veteran official of the British colonial service in India and the British Resident for the Persian Gulf. In 1917, he was succeeded by Arnold Wilson, an officer of the Anglo-Indian army and a British Intelligence agent. These civil commissioners, as Cox and Wilson were called, were in charge of the British “political officers” who exercised power in the provinces.

Former Turkish officials were replaced by officials of the Anglo-Indian civil service. Turkish currency was withdrawn from circulation and replaced by Anglo-Indian currency. The administrative system and the shipbuilding industry were also arranged along Indian lines. In other words, Iraq virtually became a province of British India.

The Iraqi feudalists and compradore bourgeoisie immediately went over to the British, collaborating with them and actively supporting all their measures.

With a view to consolidating their political positions, the British drew representatives of the feudal and tribal nobility as well as the Moslem clergy (especially Shi’a) into the administration, tempting them with subsidies, decorations and sinecures. Only a handful of representatives of the higher Sunnite clergy and a few feudal chiefs remained in opposition.

The British gave especial consideration to the tribal policy. The Bedouins lacked unity. Some were British orientated and some Turkish. The sheikhs often changed their politics. The British would despatch punitive expeditions against the rebellious tribes and the expeditions often developed into real battles between the British forces and the Bedouins. But on the whole the British Intelligence Service was able to ensure the Iraqi tribes’ loyalty throughout the war.

The transfer of the occupied Arab territories to British control caused serious alarm in French ruling circles, who feared that the British would ignore their obligations to the Allies and seize Syria. The French therefore took hurried steps to show their interest in the affairs of the Levant, even before the Anglo-Arab troops entered Syria and Palestine.

The French residents in the East – Bremond, the head of the French mission to the Hejaz, and Picot, who arrived in Cairo as the “High Commissioner for the French Republic in the Orient” – insisted on the despatch of French troops to Palestine. Picot demanded that an expeditionary corps of at least 10,000 men be sent to the East. “Otherwise they will leave us nothing,” he remarked.

Apart from this, the French began an intense political campaign among the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. A Syrian Central Committee was set up in Paris under the Lebanese immigrant Dr. Michelle Samner, who worked to bring about a Franco-Syrian rapprochement. In April 1917, Picot summoned a meeting of Lebanese immigrants in Cairo and informed them of France’s intention to establish a protectorate over the Lebanon.

These measures, and rumours of the despatch and landing of French troops in the Lebanon, seriously alarmed the Arab Nationalists. On learning of the French plans, Emir Feisal gloomily declared that when the Arabs had finished fighting the Turks, they would have to fight the French. The leaders of the Arab uprising began demanding explanations.

The Allies, who had by this time started preparations for a decisive offensive on Palestine, did everything they could to reassure the Arabs. In May 1917, Sykes and Picot arrived in the Hejaz for talks with Husein and Feisal. In strict secrecy they discussed the fate of Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Many interesting details which threw light on the Anglo-Franco-Hejaz talks are cited in Bremond’s book. It turns out that Husein and Feisal were given false information about the Anglo-French treaties and agreements on the Arab question. Husein received false assurances and decided to continue the war on the side of the Allies.

The Palestine Offensive of 1917. The Balfour Declaration.

In July 1917, Allenby took command of the British troops in Palestine and was also put in charge of the Feisal-Lawrence units of the Arab army.

Allenby’s plan of operation envisaged a joint Anglo-Arab offensive on a broad front. With the support of the ships and planes of the British and French fleets, the British were to operate west of the River Jordan while the Arabs operated to the east. The Arab army, which protected the British right flank, was to clear Transjordan jointly with the local guerilla detachments, occupy Hauran and open the road to Damascus.

The British were numerically superior. They had concentrated 95,000 bayonets, 20,000 sabres and 500 guns on the Gaza-Beersheba (Bir Es-Seba) front. The Turks had 50,000 bayonets, 1,500 sabres and 300 guns. The Turkish army was starving and almost completely demoralised. Steps had been taken to send crack Turkish units of the Ildirim (Lightning) Army and the German Asiatic corps to the Palestinian front. But the lack of roads and the confusion in the rear considerably delayed the transfer of these units.

Allenby decided to push ahead with the offensive before the fresh Turkish troops arrived. On October 31, 1917, the British broke the front in the region of Beersheba and soon overwhelmed the Turkish defences on the Gaza-Beersheba line. With their superior numbers, better arms, far better organisation of supplies and a reliable communications system, the British completely routed the Turks, turning the tide of the battle on the Palestinian front, and began the thrust northwards. On November 16, the British occupied Jaffa and on December 9, 1917, they entered Jerusalem.

The British breakthrough and occupation of Palestine made the question of Palestine’s future a matter of great urgency. The British were bound by two different commitments to their Allies. Under the McMahon-Husein agreement of 1915, the British had promised to incorporate Palestine in the Arab state. Under the agreement with Russia in 1916, they had undertaken to establish international control in Palestine. But now, having occupied Palestine, they had no intention of fulfilling either promise and did everything in their power to keep the country under their control.

To evade her earlier commitments, Britain decided to take advantage of the Zionist movement, which had become more widespread at the end of the 19th century. Back in 1882, a group of Russian-born Jews had founded the first Jewish agricultural colony near Jaffa. In Jaffa, in 1908, a Zionist agency was set up to provide for immigrants sent by various Zionist societies and organisations. Despite the generous subsidies from Rothschild and from various Zionist funds, however, despite the favourable neutrality of the Turkish authorities, who did nothing to hamper Jewish colonisation, the Zionists had achieved no significant results in the thirty years before the war. In Palestine, on the eve of the war, there had been only forty-three Jewish settlements with a population of 13,000. Between 1882 and 1914, some 45,000 immigrants had entered the country and in 1914, the entire Jewish population of Palestine was scarcely 90,000.

In 1897, the World Zionist Organisation became the organising and political centre of the Zionist movement. In search of a protector, the organisation tried to establish contacts with the governments of several big Powers. Prior to World War I, the Zionists had leaned towards Kaiser Germany in the hope of realising their plans for colonising Palestine with her help. A small group of Zionists under Dr. Weizmann took their cue from Britain and counted on the collaboration of British imperialism.

At the beginning of 1917, while preparing for the seizure of Palestine, the British Government recalled the Zionists’ claims and decided to enlist their services to justify the separation of Palestine from the Arab state. On the British Government’s instructions, in February 1917, Sykes established contacts with the Zionist leaders. In the summer of the same year, negotiations were resumed. The talks revealed that both sides held identical views and on November 2, 1917, the British Government issued a declaration on its policy in Palestine, which was published in the form of a letter from the British Foreign Secretary Balfour to the Anglo-Jewish banker Rothschild. The declaration stated that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the establishment of this object.”

The Balfour Declaration received the immediate support of the United States Government, which in many ways contributed to the success of the Anglo-Zionist negotiations. In 1918, the French and Italian governments adhered to the Balfour Declaration.

The Exposure of the Secret Negotiations.

The Balfour Declaration evoked tremendous indignation among the Arabs, who were staggered by Britain’s treachery. Their indignation knew no bounds when they learned the whole truth about the partition of the Arab countries. In November 1917, the Government of Soviet Russia published the secret treaties on the partition of the Ottoman Empire, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Naturally, the Arabs could not reconcile themselves to the plans to transform their lands from Turkish vilayets into colonies of the European imperialist Powers. On December 3, 1917, the Government of Soviet Russia issued an Appeal To All the Working Moslems of Russia and the East. This call to all Moslems of the East to take their destiny in their own hands also had a great impact on the Arabs.

News of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement encouraged. anti-British feelings among the insurgent army. Feisal’s guerillas and soldiers began refusing to take part in the war on the Entente’s side. Their officers openly expressed indignation at Britain’s double-dealing and the leaders of the Arab uprising entered into negotiations with Turkey and threatened to conclude a separate peace with her.

The first Arab-Turkish contacts were made in November 1917. Acting on behalf of the Porte, Jemal Pasha despatched his emissary to Aqaba and invited Feisal to Damascus for peace talks. In the summer of 1918, the talks were resumed, but came to nothing because of Turkish insolence in refusing to recognise the Arabs’ national demands. It was only in September 1918 that the Turkish Government accepted the Arabs’ terms for a separate peace, but by this time, it was too late. The Turkish fleet was being defeated and the Entente’s victory was becoming an accomplished fact.

To drown the voice of truth, the imperialist Powers once again resorted to the diplomacy of deception and sweeping declarations. Immediately after the Soviet Government had published the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Balfour called it a “figment of a malicious Bolshevik imagination.” Soon after, on December 4, 1917, President Wilson declared in Congress that the peoples of the Ottoman Empire would be granted the right to self-determination. On December 27, 1917, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Pichon also spoke of self-determination and of sympathy for the oppressed peoples of Turkey – Armenians, Arabs and the like. On January 5, 1918, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George made a speech on the “war aims,” in which he also spoke at length about the specific national conditions for the Arabs and Armenians. On January 8, 1918, in a Message to Congress Woodrow Wilson formulated his famous “fourteen points.” The twelfth point of Wilson’s peace terms provided for Turkish sovereignty only over the territory inhabited by the Turks. President Wilson also mentioned the creation of a League of Nations which would safeguard the rights of smaller nations.

In 1918, Professor Hogarth of Oxford University, an expert on Arab affairs, arrived in Jidda to allay Husein’s fears and to “explain” Britain’s policy on the Middle East to the Arab leaders. On January 4, 1918, Hogarth handed over a British memorandum to Husein in which Britain declared that the Entente countries intended to grant the Arabs an opportunity to occupy a worthy place in the world and to set up their own state. Britain also declared that a special regime of control would be created in Palestine and that no nation would be subordinate to another. Nevertheless, Hogarth urged Husein to cooperate with the Zionists and announced that the British authorities would not impede Jewish immigration in a measure conforming to the economic and political freedom of the existing population. Actually, the eloquent flow of words in Hogarth’s memorandum was meant to sugar the pill and to conceal Palestine’s secession from the Arab state.

Hogarth’s memorandum and other declarations made by the Allies achieved their aim. The Arabs did not abandon the field of battle, but they were left with a deep feeling of discontent and mistrust with regard to Britain’s policy. In June 1918, in Cairo, a group of Syrian Nationalists under Rafik el-Azm and Abd er-Rahman Shahbandar demanded a final definition of Britain’s policy towards the Arab countries. The British Government was compelled to reply and on June 16, 1918, it published a declaration on its policy in the Arab East, dividing the Arab lands into three categories: (1) the territories liberated by the Arabs themselves (the Hejaz), (2) the territories liberated by British troops (southern Palestine and Iraq) and (3) the territories still under Turkish rule (Syria, the Lebanon and northern Iraq). Britain promised to respect the independence of the territories included in the first category, to decide the future of territories of the second category in accordance with the wishes of the local population and to work for the liberation of territories of the third category. This meant that Britain actually refused to guarantee the unity and the independence of the Arab territories which she had occupied.

Britain’s declaration came nowhere near to satisfying the Arab Nationalists, who wanted Husein to proclaim an independent Arab state incorporating all the Arab lands east of the Suez Canal. On August 30, 1918, Husein asked the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Wingate, for a confirmation of the McMahon pledge to set up an Arab state after the war and to guarantee its borders. Simultaneously, he asked for a denial of the “slanderous” rumours to the effect that he was acting in collusion with Britain. He complained and threatened at the same time, alluding to the possibility of an anti-British uprising if his agreement with McMahon was not confirmed.

Husein’s complaints, however, had very little effect. This was largely due to Husein himself and to Feisal, who, though they did not trust the British, forced other Arabs to believe in Britain’s friendly attitude towards them.

Turkey’s Military Collapse and the Anglo-French Occupation of the Arab Countries.

Thanks to the subterfuges of British diplomacy, the Arabs remained on the Allied side till the very end and played an important part in the final stage of the war. By 1918, the Turks were on their last legs. Jemal Pasha’s deposal (December 1917) and the placing of all military and political power under direct German control could no longer change anything. The Turkish rear had fallen to pieces. Arab guerilla detachments operated everywhere. They ambushed the Turkish troops in Hauran, Huta and in the region of Baalbek. By the summer of 1917, practically all the tribes of Syria and Transjordan were up in arms against the Turks. Arab soldiers deserted from the Turkish army and joined the guerillas en masse. In Iraq, Arab and Kurdish irregulars abandoned the front and turned their guns against the Turks. The tribes of the upper and middle reaches of the Euphrates made incessant raids on the Turkish communications. Hunger and devastation reigned throughout the country. The Turkish army, which was still trying to hold the front, was unclothed and unshod in the full sense of the words. Its supply organisation was useless. The British historian Liddell-Hart wrote that Allenby had only to put out his hand and the Turkish army would fall at his feet like a ripe fruit.

In the middle of 1918, the Lawrence-Feisal Arab army occupied Ma’an, and Feisal was about to shift the operations to Syria and provoke a general uprising there. But he was resolutely opposed by the British, who feared more than anything the liberation of the Arab countries by the Arabs themselves. It was finally decided to combine the uprising in Jebel-Druze with the entry of British troops into Syria. Feisal’s emissary, Bakri, and the prominent Druze sheikh, Sultan el-Atrash, had been preparing for the uprising for several months. It began in September 1918 and coincided with a general offensive launched by all the Entente forces on the Salonikan and Palestinian fronts.

The Turks had three armies and units of the German Asiatic corps in Palestine. The 8th Turkish Army was holding the western sector of the front, the 7th Army under the command of Mustafa Kemal was stationed in the centre and the 4th Army in Transjordan. The German general, Liman von Sanders, was in overall command of operations. The German-Turkish forces were opposed by two British army corps with cavalry and air forces and by Feisal’s Arab army in Transjordan. The overall balance of forces was three to one in the Entente’s favour. Not content with this, however, Allenby built up the maximum strength on the decisive western sector of the front. By causing some of the Turkish forces to be diverted to Transjordan he managed to give himself an advantage of five to one on the decisive sector.

On September 19, 1918, the British attacked and broke the front south of Nablus. Twenty-four hours later, the British advance guard entered Nazareth, the headquarters of the German-Turkish command, and nearly captured Liman von Sanders. The Turkish units began a disorderly retreat to the north. Feisal’s Arab troops emerged in the region of Dera’a (between Amman and Damascus) and cut off the 4th Turkish Army’s retreat. The scattered Turkish formations and units were surrounded. The British captured 72,000 Turks and approximately 4,000 Germans. Small detachments and separate Turkish groups were destroyed by the British air force and Arab guerillas while they were trying to break through to the north.

British and Arab troops advanced swiftly to the north in pursuit of the defeated Turks. On September 30, 1918, Feisal’s detachment entered Damascus, just one day ahead of the British. On October 8, the British occupied Beirut, on October 18, Tripoli and Homs, and on October 26, 1918, the British entered the largest city in northern Syria – Aleppo.

On October 30, 1918, representatives of the Porte went aboard the British warship Agamemmom at Mudros (a port on the Island of Limnos in the Aegean) and signed an armistice dictated by a British admiral. Article sixteen of the Mudros Armistice envisaged the surrender of all the Turkish forces to the Allies and the complete abolition of Turkish rule in the Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Hejaz, Asir and the Yemen. The 400-year old Turkish domination in the Arab countries had come to an end.

The Arabs, however, were unable to reap the fruits of victory. On September 30, 1918, the day the Arab troops entered Damascus, an Anglo-French agreement was signed in London establishing an occupation regime in the Arab East. Field-Marshal Allenby was given supreme authority over the occupied Arab territories, where British martial law was to remain in force until a peaceful settlement was reached. The civil administration of the occupied territories was divided between the Allies. The Lebanon and western Syria (the Blue Zone according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement) came under the control of the French High Commissioner, Picot. Eastern Syria and Transjordan, which constituted zones A and B under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, came under the control of Emir Feisal, who acted on behalf of King Husein. The civil administration of the remaining territories, including the Brown Zone (Palestine), was left in the hands of the British. The Hejaz remained under Husein’s control.

The Arabs were dissatisfied. Particularly were they indignant at the French authorities, who had pulled down all Arab flags in their zone, expelled the Arab governor from Beirut and forced the Arabs to evacuate Latakia and the northwestern regions of Syria which had been liberated by the Arab troops. In the hour of victory the Arabs realised that the Allies had no intention of fulfilling the McMahon-Husein Agreement or of setting up a united Arab state.

Though free at last from the Turkish yoke, they had been cheated of their long-awaited independence and fallen under the influence of the British and French colonialists. The end of World War I opened a new period in the history of the Arab people, a period of struggle against British and French imperialism for the complete national liberation of the Arab countries.


Last updated: 31 July 2020