146: Middle East: Arab Revolt Pt. 1


With the downfall of the Ottoman Empire seemingly imminent, the British would reach out to its subjects in hopes of stoking the fires of rebellion.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 146. I realized after releasing the last episode that I forgot to thank several people, so it is time to catch up. I would like to thank Chase, Ben, Marc, Adam, Brad, David, Jan, PG, mlittman, Vadim, and Craig for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they got access to special Patreon only episodes like the new series on Medical Care during the war. If that sounds interesting to you, check it out over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. This episode begins our 6 part series on the Middle East in the last two years of the war. The last time we were in this theater the British had just surrended at Kut al-Amara, and that was 2 years ago now, so a refresher seems to be in order. The Ottoman Empire had joined the war in late 1914, and almost immediately the British began to consider some way of launching a campaign against them. This would result in the Gallipoli campaign, of course, but also an invasion of Mesopotamia. The second campaign was luanched to strike a blow at the Ottomans, but also to secure the Persian Gulf and to safeguard the movement of oil from the middle east and to safeguard the routes into Egypt from the east. When the British attacked they would land at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, and then move up the rivers, it would not go very well. They were not properly supplied, they did not have the correct equipment, and as a result their advance ran out of steam just outside Baghdad. The defeat would lead to a retreat which left them at Kut al-Amara, where eventually they would surrender to the Ottomans in one of the greatest British military disasters in history. This caused the British to hit the pause button on further Mesopotamian adventures. In the Sinai the Ottomans launched an attack against the Suez Canal, and did reach the Canal where they launched their attack only to be thrown back by the British defenders. In the north, int he Caucasus Mountains, there was a back and forth campaign with the Ottomans generally making some large mistakes and fighting the Russians in the mountains where many Ottoman soldiers would literally freeze to death. Then of course there was Gallipoli, where the British made a huge miscalculation and had to evacuate their beaches after almost a year of trying to snatch success from the jaws of failure. And that, pretty much, brings us up to the beginning of this episode. The first two episodes of this series will be devoted to looking at the Arab Revolt led by the Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali. We will track the development of the Revolt, the problems that they would have to deal with, and how th eBritish and French supported it. We will then track the course of the revolt itself, which is where one of the most famous people of the entire war will come into our story, T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. The third episode will look at the events in Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, then we will have two episodes looking at the advances made out of Egypt by the British who would move into Palestine and Syria. Then the final episode will cover the events after the war, both before and after Versailles and how they changed the entire situation in the Middle East, changes that still affect the world today. Before we start any of that though, we need to talk a bit about geographical names used for areas of the Middle East during this period. We will start with Mesopotamia, an area that no longer appears on a map, this area was made up of modern day Iraq and Kuwait. Then we have Syria, during the war the area referred to as Syria was made up of modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, so mostly it was just much bigger. Finally, and probably most confusingly, we have Palestine, which was also sometimes referred to as South Syria. Palestine at this point in history was made up of modern day Israel, with bits of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria mixed in. This made for a much simpler map when compared to the modern day, but also one that can be confusing if all you are used to is the modern day layout of the Middle East. The First World War would be mostly responsible for the shakeups to the boundaries in this part of the world, which is an entire conversation for a later episode, and that is what makes the story of the events in the Middle East between 1914 and 1918 so important. So, lets jump in.

The planning for the Arab Revolt started right from the beginning of the war, and because of this a critical piece in its creation was the estimations of the Ottoman Empire by the British when the war started. This is before Gallipoli, before Kut al-Amara, really before the British got their heads kicked in a few times and came to the realization that the Ottomans were a real threat. Before the war the entire world belived that the Ottomans were one stiff breeze away from collapsing, a view strengthened by the issues that the Empire had in holding onto their possessions in the Balkans before the war. The belief that the Ottomans were weak would cause the British to try and strike early, with their two strikes at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia being a failure, and it also caused them to pursue an aggressive campaign of recruitment among possibly disgruntled Ottoman subjects to get them to launch some kind of revolt against Ottoman rule. The Arab Bureau, the group of British politicians in Cairo who were leading this effot believed that it would be relatively easy to make this happen, and then once it did the Ottoman Empire would begin to disintegrate from the inside. I think it is also important to say, right up front, that the British and the French were strictly motivated by imperialist aspirations here. They both wanted their own bits of the Ottoman Empire for themselves, a fact that can be plainly seen in the Sykes-Picot agreement which we will discuss more at the end of this episode. While the British were debating with the French on how best to carve up the Ottoman Empire, they were also making big promises to any Arab that would listen that they wanted to empower them to create their own independent Arab state. Just so I am 100 percent clear, the British and French never intended for there to be any independent and autonomous Arab states after the war, at best there would be puppet governments controlled by the Europeans.

While the Entente was just waiting to carve up the empire, the Germans were generally acting in the best interest of the Ottomans. The Ottoman leaders were always hesistant to really trust the Germans, but the assistance that they provided was invaluable. German banks funded the construction of the Istanbul to Baghdad railroad, which while not completed before the end of the war came really close. They also provided military advisors, arms, and supplies that greatly bolstered the Ottoman war effort. These would also be German expeditions sent to Afghanistan to try and get them to join in the war against the British, a mission they were unsuccessful at. In any case, the Germans were about as good of allies as the Ottomans could have asked for.

During the war the Ottomans were lead by a group of 3 leaders collectively known as the Young Turks who had overthrown the last Sultan in the years before the war. These three men, Enver, Talaat, and Djemal would be critical to the war effort. Enver had led the defenders at Gallipoli and would then play a big role in the Caucuses campaigns. Talaat would not play too much of a role in our story, but Djemal would be the Ottoman leader in charge of the defense of Syria. Djemal’s story is interesting because early in the war he would attempt to negotiate a peace with the Entente. This effort would begin in late 1915 when he would work with a Dr. Zavriev, an Armenian emissary in Russia to send a message to the Entente. In this message Djemal would say that he would overthrow the Ottoman Government if he had their support. He had been laying the groundwork for this play for awhile, by taking steps to intentionally distance himself from some Ottoman actions like the Armenian Genocide which was in full swing in late 1915. Djemal wanted a fully independent Empire, but he was willing to give up Constantinople to get it. This was a huge concession, and it all but guaranteed complete Russian support for Djemal’s plan. Constantinople was number 1, by a country mile, on the wishlist for the Russian government, a warm water port, control of access to the Black Sea, it had been the objective of the Russians for centuries. Unfortunately the British and French were not so interested. The French were adamant that they wanted an independent, but French controlled, Syria. The British wanted the same in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The British were also concerned about giving the Russians too much sway in a post-war Middle East, under the assumption that the Great Game, played for decades between Russain and British agents in the Middle East would begin again once the war was over. With the possibility of an early and easy exit of the Ottomans from the war squashed, Djemal would lead the Ottoman military in Palestine and Syria for the rest of the war.

While the British were actively trying to start a revolt in Ottoman territory, the Ottomans were also actively concerned and taking actions to prevent it from happening. In these efforts they would treat the different people under their control differently. The first group of subjects where Arabic speaking citizens. The hope for the British was that there would be a large percentage of Arabic speaking Ottoman soldiers who would throw off their Ottoman rules when given the chance. Djemal took this threat very seriously and actively moved against anyone, either civilian or military, whom he suspected of treason. This meant cracking down on some civilians in Damascus and Baghdad, often members of Arab Secret Societies. This would involve executions, or deporting families to different parts of the empire. In the military, support for the Ottoman rulers was actually pretty strong. This is shown in how few Arab soldiers actually deserted, even after the Arab Revolt started, with the British being a bit surprised when they started to interogate Arab prisoners only to learn of their continued allegiance to Istanbul. Any units in the army that did show any sign of revolt could quickly find themselves moved to the Gallipoli or Caucuses front, far from any kind of support, and fighting an enemy that rarely took the time to discuss politics. The other group of Ottoman subjects, and one that Djemal and the other Young Turks were far more concerned about, was the large number of non-Arab speaking people in Ottoman lands. Many of these were Christians and Jews who had only migrated to the area in the last 50 years, often from Eastern Europe. There were 60,000 of these recent migrants in Palestine alone. They had not migrated to the area in some sort of large scale operation to take over the Holy Land, but instead just to get away from the constant persecution they experienced in Russia, which far too often climaxed in pogroms. Djemal would take violent actions against these groups during the war. This meant trying to expel all foreign Jews, often through deportations or even just murder. While this violence continued, very few non-Arabs in Syria and Palestine actually tried or succeeded in moving against the Ottomans. They were often far busier just trying to stay alive. This was due to the famine that would sweep over much of the Middle East during the war. there was a combination of both natural factors, like drought and locust swarms, and war related problems like mass requisitioning and transportation disruptions, that would contribute to the famine, but the end result was a crippling shortage of food for much of the Middle East during the last two years of the war.

The results of all of these repressive measures was a huge reduction in support for the Arab Revolt in certain important groups within Ottoman society. The Arab Societies, critical social groups for any action, and Arab regiments who might have joined in the revolt were both neutralized by either an intense crackdown from the goverment or just removal from the area. All of this meant that when Hussein launched his revolt, he knew that it would only be a revolt in the Hejaz, not a larger effort in Mesopotamia and Syria. This was very important because the entire revolt was based on the idea that it would have mass support from the citizens of the Ottoman Empire, if it did not get this support things were going to be very dicey. While this might have initially resulted in Hussein reconsidering his position, eventually Djemal would force his hand. It began in August 1915 with another round of executions of Hussein supporters in Damascus. Then in April 1916 Djemal planned to send a group of several thousand soldiers through the Hejaz under the cover of needing to guard a new telegraph station that was being constructed. In reality this group of soldiers was designed to make sure that Hussein, and the Hejaz, stayed under Istanbul control. Then on May 6, there were 21 more executions in Damascus, and the situation for Hussein was reaching a critical decision point.

So if the revolt was such a risky proposition, why did Hussein want to go forward with it at all? Well, basically, he wanted his own kingdom. Hussein was a Hashemit, which meant he claimed descent from the Prophet, and he controlled the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. For many years the Ottomans, as was their style in their Empire, just let Hussein rule his area in relative peace and autonomy. However, it was not enugh, and Hussein never really trusted the Young Turks. Already, before the war, there had been efforts to begin to bring Hejaz under great control from Istanbul, new laws were enacted in other provinces, and it was only Hussein’s resistance that prevented them from also being enforced in the Hejaz. he also tried to fight the extension of the Hejaz railway from Medina to Mecca. At this point the railways were a great way for Istanbul to extend control of their vast empire and by fighting this new rail extension Hussein was essentially pushing back against outside interference. Then the war started, and after the Young Turks declared a Holy War, Hussein was approached by the British. Hussein, already unhappy with Ottoman rule would continue discussions with the British, especially when they started giving him gold and food, at that point it would have been silly to turn away. But bilking the British for some gold and actually revolting were two very different things and there were some serious problems that Hussein would have to overcome in any revolt. Hussein, while he did control some important territory, would not be able to call on a large body of troops, at least initially. The entire idea behind the reolvt was that if Hussein, making sure to play up his Hashemite origins, started a revolt then other Muslins would follow. But, he was not the only Hashemite able to claim the right to lead, which would make things even more challenging.

Earlier I mentioned that Djemal in some ways pushed Hussein into his revolt, and a critical step on that path was the planned second attack against the Suez canal in Spring 1916. This was important because it was going to be the moment when Hussein had to decide what he was going to do. Djemal wanted Husseign to send a battalion of Bedouins to participate in the attack and to this end he would pay Hussein 50,000 pounds of gold to arm and supply the Bedouins. Djemal also wanted Hussein’s sons to lead the unit. At this time Hussein’s sons were in Damascus, but they would be returning home specifically to lead these troops. Hussein needed to decide whose side he was on before this unit, and his sons, left. He first tried to get everything that the British were offering him, only from Djemal instead, which would mean independence for Hejaz and Hussein given heriditary ruling rights. This was obviously rejected by the Young Turks. With this rejection, Hussein was, for the most part, completely committed. He now asked for even more money from teh British under the guise of equipping, sustaining, and hiring more soldiers to fight the Ottomans, there was only one step left, to start the revolt.

Around June 5, 1916, at least according to legend, Hussein fired a musket shot into the Ottoman Military barracks in Mecca, the revolt was on. There is generally some fuzziness around the exact time and place, but what is known is that Hussein ahd his forces did not have any problems capturing Mecca. The Ottoman military commander in the city knew that he was outnumbered, and could see that the tides were against him, therefore he retreated from the city, taking most of the Ottoman troops with him. Hussein’s troops then moved onto Taif, where the Ottoman commander had retreated to, and here they were unsuccessful in attacking the village. A setback so soon after the revolt began was be the beginning of a very worrying trend. The biggest problem was that all that Hussein had were some Bedouins with rifles. The Ottoman troops had artillery, machine guns, and a lot more training. This meant that anywhere that the Ottomans were able to setup defenses was almost entire immune to attack. Taif was just a taste of what was to come at the next major target, Medina, where over 10,000 Ottoman troops were waiting.

While capturing Mecca was a good first step, and then trying to advance beyond it was the obvious next move, that was all just one small part of what was planned. Shortly after the revolt began, Hussein would release a statement in which he listed off all of the things that the Turkish leadership had done to cause the revolt. Much of this revolved around religious piety, or lack thereof. These accusations were not exactly untrue, but they did not have the effects that Hussein hoped. The hope was that these accusations, and the revolt, would cause mass desertion among Ottoman units, and yet there was none. No large unit moved over to join the rebels. It would soon become clear that the only large body of supporters Hussein could depend on were those in Mecca, and then anybody who could be bought with British gold. Even the support of the volunteers in Mecca would soon begin to waver. This resulted in Hussein, and his family, having to call in every market that they had from their friends and acquaintances which was not exactly a great way to start what was supposed to be a glorious triumphant revolt.

The official Ottoman press did not initially report on the revolt, but of course news of it got around as news always does. The troops in the Ottoman army certainly heard about the revolt, and it was discussed at length by many groups of soldiers, especially the officers. For many of these soldiers their support for the revolt was stopped by one simply thing, the British. Every soldiers with a head on his soldiers knew that the British were involved with Hussein and were bankrolling his actions. This caused them to believe that if they joined Hussein they would simply be trading in Ottoman rules for British rules, and better the devil you know. There was also at this point just a pretty good helping of xenophobia inside teh Empire, citizens and soldiers were very distrustful of outsiders, especially Europeans, believing that they just wanted to expand their empires at the cost of the Arabs. This was not exactly wrong. After the revolt this xenophobia only got worse, with many German, Austrian, and Hungarian officers who were in the country to help the Ottoman military being forced to wear Ottoman uniforms when out in public out of fear that their European gear would make them targets for violence. In these kinds of conditions it is pretty easy to see why many Arab soldiers did not join the revolt, the puppet strings were just too clearly visible.

We will leave the revolt in place for now, and close out this episode with a discusion of the Sykes-Picot agreement. this agreement would have its roots in at a meeting in March 1916 that took place in Petrograd. The goal of this meeting was for the British, Russian, and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes, Sergei Sasonov, and Georges Picot respectively to get a framework in place for what all of the allied nations wanted to do with the Ottoman empire after the war. they all agreed that the Empire would be dismanteld, the only question was simply how to slice it up. The Russians, of course, wanted Istanbul and the Dardanelles. The French claimed Syria, Turkish Armenia, and Kurdistan. The French were mostly concerned about not getting pushed out of the Middle East all together, and their demand for influence in Syria was constant during and after the war. The British wanted Arabia, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Both the British and the Russians assumed that the Great Game would continue after the war and hoped that teh French could act as a kind of buffer state, which the French were generally fine with as long as they got a piece of the pie. These positions were just the starting point though. The negotiations over the future of the Middle East would be a constant point of discussion between the nations for the rest of the war. Who got what would change based on the situation at the front. For example with the Russian successes in the Caucuses in 1916 would get them more territory, like Armenia, while the Russian collapse in late 1917 would greatly expand France’s portion. The ebb and flow of these negotiations would continue all the way to Versailles and beyond, but Sykes-Picot was the start. I do not know of too many agreements during the war, other than maybe Versailles itself, that has such a negative reputation. This reputation was, in many ways deserved. It was European imperialism at almost its worst, with negotiators with little understanding of the area drawing almost random lines on some maps. But it even goes deeper than that, just the fact that these conversations were happening is evidence of how two-faced the British and French were being with the Arabs and their quest for independence. Perhaps the best way to summarize the problems with Sykes-Picot is from Palestinian Historian George Antonius who would say “The Sykes-Picot agreement is a shocking document. It is not only the product of greed at its worst, that is to say, of greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity: it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.” While the agreement would be finalized in the spring of 1916, it was entirely unknown to the Arabs who had launched their revolt in June, and next episode we will track the course of that revolt, and that course is a bit disappointing for all involved.