221: Middle Eastern Revolts Pt. 1


Egypt and Iraq would both find themselves under the control of the British Empire after the war, neither of them were necessarily thrilled with that arrangement.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 221. For the next three episodes we are going to look at some of the events in the Middle East after the war. We touched on some of these events during the Versailles episodes but we will focus more on two specific events, the 1919 Egyptian Revolution and the 1920 Iraqi Revolt. In March 1919 Egypt experienced one of the largest peasant revolts of the 20th century, and this had one goal, independence from British rule. In 1920 a revolt with very similar goals would take place in modern day Iraq, although at the time it was known as Mesopotamia. In both cases the desires of the local people came into conflict with British imperial policy. The British had been basically in control of Egypt for years, and they had gained control of Mesopotamia during the war, control that had been affirmed by the Paris Peace Conference. The British were concerned about maintaining their control in the two areas, and especially in any actions by the local people that might result in a reduction of that control because they were concerned that any decisions made that resulted in greater local autonomy might cause problems for the British in other parts of the world. If they allowed either area to gain their independence then there were many other places that the British controlled that might see similar events. These concerns were then tied up in the British idea of prestige, and how they had to maintain face around the world to show that the British Empire was still unassailable. The events in both of the Middle Eastern countries are interesting because they were caused by similar feelings among the people and they would result in similar outcomes, but the actual events of the revolts would be quite different. In this episode we ill mostly focus on the events in Egypt before briefly discussing the situation in Iraq during and after the war.

It has been quite some time since we discussed the events during the war in the Middle East, so I thought it might be appropriate to start with a quick overview of what had happened. The Ottoman Empire,which in 1914 controlled much of the Middle East entered the war in late 1914. The British were already in control of Egypt, and they would land troops at Basra in modern day Iraq in an attempt to march on Baghdad. The war in Mesopotamia would initially go very poorly for the British, with the disaster at Kut al-Amara seen as one of the greatest military disasters in the history of the Empire. The disaster would cause the British to dedicate more resources to another effort, which would eventually capture Baghdad and bring most of Mesopotamia under British control. In 1917 there would be an advance by British forces out of Egypt and into Palestine and Syria. When the war ended in late October 1918 the British, with some French assistance, would be in control of all of the Ottoman territory south of Anatolia, which represented all of the modern day Middle East. During these campaigns they had made many promises to the Arab tribal leaders, which would go on to cause problems for them later, especially in Iraq.

During the Paris Peace Conference the British would gain control, in the form of Mandates of both Mesopotamia and Palestine. In London Palestine and Egypt were seen as important due to their position in the Eastern Mediterranean and the control that they could exert over the all important Suez Canal as a link between the European British Empire and India. This region had been important for the British for this very region for many years. Mesopotamia was seen as very important for a new reason, oil. The First World War had been the importance of oil, and specifically the military importance of oil drastically increase. By the end of the war oil powered vehicles on land, in the air, and at sea, all which were seen as integral parts of militaries around the world. Tanks and airplanes were important weapons and motor vehicles were growing in importance in the movement of men and material behind and on the battlefield. These concerns alone probably would have been enough for the British to make a play for control of Mesopotamia and its known oil reserves, but the most important impetus for these actions, at least from the military perspective, was the fact that by the end of the First World War the entirety of the Royal navy had switched to oil burning ships. Before the switch over to oil the Royal Navy had used coal burning for its steam power. The British Isles had some of the best coal in the world for this purpose due to its specific burn characteristics, but the islands had almost no intrinsic oil reserves. This transition by the navy was a gamble, and it meant that the navy had an acute need to maintain control of at least some part of the world with oil reserves. This presented a risk to the navy, but it was a risk that was seen as required by the benefits that oil provided to the navy. Oil gave more energy per ton than coal and it was much easier to handle and store on the ships. With the transition to oil the navy was committing to needing a lot of the substance, a single battlecruiser like the Renown which was completed in 1916 could burn 1,400 tons of it in a single day.

The importance of oil made it essential that the British find a way to more directly control oil supplies, and the largest of those that were available were in the Middle East. However ,beyond the institution of Mandates during the Paris Peace Conference which gave the British some level of control over Mesopotamia and the Middle East overall British policy in the area was confused at best. There were many different views in the British government about what should be done to ensure future control of the areas. On the one had were those that I would call the hardcore imperialists, who wanted to turn the new areas into classical colonies under absolute British control. On the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted to just create local governments that the British would have good relations with both diplomatically and economically. Between these two extremes were many different views on how autonomous the local governments should be. The years following the First World War would see officially British policy shift from being closer to the hardcore imperialists to being one that was more accepting of local power, although local power that was assured to be friendly to British interests. This shift was due to military and economic realities, which were put into stark relief by the revolts in Egypt and Iraq, and was not due to some realization in London that maybe imperialism was bad.

Oil was an important factor in Britain’s long term plans for the Middle East, but Egypt would always be important. Egypt had been a part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, but it had been occupied by the British in 1882. This occupation had always been a balancing act, and in 1915 Egypt had been officially declared a protectorate of the British Empire. During the war this new, more official, relationship between Egypt and the British was workable if only due to the massive military presence in the region, although even with the number of soldiers present there were still some actions taken by Egyptian nationalists against the British who they saw as unlawful occupiers. After the war was over, on November 23, 1918 some Egyptian leaders approached the British High Commissional Reginald Wingate with a demand for independence. These leaders were representatives of the Wafd party, which was a group made up of many former Egyptian ministers who had been in power before and during the war. The Wafd party gained in power during and after the conflict due to the conditions experienced by the people of Egypt due to the First World War.

During the war the British leaders had sought to control the Egyptian economy, for example they put a ceiling on cotton prices to keep them at a level acceptable to the rest of the Empire which depended in Egyptian cotton. They also put certain food export requirements in place. These export quotas were combined with less domestic production due to wartime disruptions, and far fewer food imports due to the demands of the armies in Europe to produce serious food shortages and Egypt, shortages felt most severely by poor Egyptians. An example of this could be seen in the treatment of cottonseed oil. Cottonseed oil was a critical source of food oil for poor Egyptians before the war, it was what they could afford because it was a byproduct of cotton production and it was produced in large quantities in Egypt due to export of Egyptian cotton. With food oil also being in short supply in the British Isles and other areas of Europe large amounts of cottonseed oil was exported out of Egypt. This caused great hardships for Egyptians, especially when combined with war induced inflation which just made everything more expensive. Hunger became a common feature of everyday life for most Egyptians, hungry people are rarely happy people, setting the stage for the revolt.

The catalyst for this dissatisfaction to turn into an open revolt was provided by the British when on March 9th, 1919 British leaders ordered the arrest of four of the leaders of the Wafd party. The Wafd leadership had been building relations with the peasants all over Egypt during the last years of the war, work that was required due to the fact that the Wafd leadership was very different than the vast majority of its supporters. The Wafd was led by those that were upper class businessmen and politicians, and their supporters were mostly poor peasants, to bridge this class gap required concerted efforts to be made to grow support among common Egyptians. When the leaders were arrested the fruit of these labors quickly became apparent, and their arrests were seen as a threat to the nationalist movement as a whole, and the peasants went into action. The revolt would begin soon after the news of the arrests spread throughout Egypt, in the beginning they took the form of spontaneous demonstrations staged throughout the country. These protests were often organized in cafes, mosques, and churches all over the country which had already been hotbeds for nationalist discussions and organizations. Almost all of the groups within Egyptian society were represented in these spontaneous protests, Muslims, Cops, and Christians were all protesting together. Both men and women would join in these protests, and when organized protests began a few weeks later there would be some that were organized specifically for women. Over the next month protests would continue in many major Egyptian cities, including Cairo.

Along with these peaceful demonstrations there was also violent ones. When the demonstrations first started martial law was declared by the British authorities. In London, when news arrived of the events occurring in the country, General Allenby, the leader of the Palestinian Campaign at the end of the war was dispatched to take over for Wingate. Allenby had experience in the area, and was seen as the best man for the job. The primary point of violence against British rule was against communication and transportation infrastructure. Rail lines were destroyed and telegraph lines were brought down. The British answered this violence with violence of their own. They used this violence against local population, and it became common practice to burn the closest village when any part of the rail network was damaged. These actions were known to be problematic by British leaders, and there were active efforts to prevent news of the full scale of this violence from being communicated either inside or outside of the country. One note to the British Foreign Office, from Sir Ronald Graham, would say “I would advise that any communiques from Egypt dealing with the burning of villages etc. should be carefully censored before publication, otherwise questions in Parliament are almost certain to arise.” Another tactic that was tried by the British was to use planes to patrol the railways, and then to use machine guns if they saw anybody trying to sabotage them. This was just one manifestation of the British belief that the advent of air power made it possible to control territory with far fewer resources, similar attempts would be made in Iraq, and both would be mostly unsuccessful.

Even though they were trying to meet violence with violence, the British efforts to reduce the scale of the revolt would almost entirely fail. This caused Allenby and others to choose to release the Wafd prisoners on April 7th. This act signaled a change in policy, and would be the first step towards the end of the revolt. The Wafd would begin working with the British, and for the next two years they would negotiate with British leaders, negotiations that would eventually lead to Egyptian independence. However, in the interim, the Wafd would abandon the more radical actions that many Egyptians wanted. This was almost inevitable because the Wafd leaders were not radical revolutionaries, they were more than happy to work within the system to solidify their political and economic power, they did not feel the need to fully remake Egypt. The power of the upper classes would grow in Egypt, and their power would make things difficult for the British during the years after 1919. Eventually the British were forced to recognize that they could not really maintain control over Egypt in the same way that they had before. This prompted them to begin discussing Egyptian independence with Egyptian leaders. There were always problems with these negotiations, especially around the British political that full military access always be granted. It was one demand that both sides were on the opposite sides of, and they would not compromise on.

The move towards some form of Egyptian independence would jump forward due to the actions of General Allenby in February 1922. Essentially, being the one on the ground in Egypt and in control during the previous years, he knew exactly how unworkable the current situation was, and therefore he went to London and threatened his resignation unless real steps were made toward independence. This resulted in a declaration on February 18, 1922 from the British government which formally abolished the Egyptian protectorate, ended martial law, and provided for Egyptian Independence in all matters except for British imperial communications, the defense of Egypt, protection of foreign interests in Egypt, and the Sudan region. Now obviously, these four points are big ones, just the defense of Egypt implied full military access, and these four areas would cause huge problems for British and Egyptian relations until after the Second World War, eventually resulting in the Suez Crisis, but it was still a step forward in Egyptian independence. I like this summation of the results of the February 1922 declaration, which can be found in the Cambridge History of Egypt “For the Egyptians, Reserved Points notwithstanding, the 1922 declaration was a real achievement; while all the attributes of sovereignty would be won only after further protracted struggle, administrative control now passed largely to Egyptian hands. But that the subsequent development of constitutional government was severely hampered by continuing British involvement is undeniable; it can be argued that protectorate status had lent clarity and a degree of legitimacy to British action in Egypt that both occupation before the First World War and blatant interference after 1922 lacked. For the British the 1922 declaration marked a return to the preferred imperial methods of informal control, and away from the unavoidable responsibility that the protectorate had represented.” Basically, the British had removed much of the actual responsibility they had in Egypt but had preserved their ability to informally control Egypt, which makes it pretty understandable why many Egyptians would not appreciate the arrangement.

We now shift our focus to Mesopotamia, another area that was formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire but which the British were now in control of. This control had first been put in place during the First World was as part of the military occupation. During this occupation the British were greatly assisted by the specific features of Arab society in the region, specifically the strength of local tribal leaders. Before the war Ottoman power in the region had mostly been maintained not by strong central authority but instead through good relations with these leaders. This had made the tribal society in Mesopotamia far more resilient than in other areas where it had mostly brown down by the time of the First World War. This feature made it easier for the British to gain some measure of control, because they could work with specific leaders, who already enjoyed the support of the local populace. It also allowed the British to play local leaders off one another. If one Sheikh did not comply with British wishes or demands, they they could always find another one nearby who would. British support for specific leaders would then shift lower power in their favor, which made almost mandatory that sheikhs work with the British if they wanted to keep their position. This was especially critical during the war, since during that period the British could back up any of their demands with the use of military force. The British did not solely use threat of force to gain support among the Sheikhs though, they also used promises of greater Arab independence after the war was over. They generally said that the British role in such an arrangement would just be one of “guidance.” In normal parlance that would mean that the British would take an advisory role, but it generally meant quite a bit more in the British Imperial lexicon.

During the last year of the war there was a general realization among many of the local tribal leaders that the British control after the war was not going to be what they wanted. These leaders often really liked the Ottoman system from before the conflict, which gave them a lot of local autonomy. The citizens of Iraq had also been generally okay with being Ottoman subjects, again this was due to the general autonomy of local leaders, and this local autonomy quickly slipped away under British military rule. However, thoughts on independence from Ottoman or British rule were very diverse in Mesopotamia. This was due to just how diverse the people were. The three vilayets, which were Ottoman provinces or states, were very different, and the three million people that inhabited them belonged to several different religions and ethnicities. The previous levels of autonomy made these differences even more apparent. The British did not really understand how volatile the relations between the various groups really were, or that there was a growing anger and resentment against their continued control of Arab affairs. The one thing I want to make very clear is that the various groups in Iraq, while they may have resented British rule, often resented it for very different reasons. Some had economic reasons, others religious or xenophobic reasons, or countless other possible reasons and just because they agreed that they did not want the British, did not meant that they could agree with what they wanted to replace them.

As part of British policy in the lead up to the Paris Peace Conference, the government in London asked the Civil Commissioner of Mesopotamia Arnold Wilson to hold a plebiscite. The goal of this plebiscite was to make the views of the people known. It was also made clear in the messages around the plebiscite that it was not the definitive statement about the future of the region, that was to be decided by the Peace Conference. This was definitely not a completely unbiased plebiscite, and right from the beginning Wilson took measures to make sure that the “correct” result was obtained. The easiest way to make sure that this response was what the British wanted to utilize those leaders that were sympathetic to British interests to influence their supporters. This meant that many upper class leaders and tribal leaders would be used by the British to bring the vote in their favor. The answer that the British supported was that the three provinces should be united under Arab rule, with the subtext being that this Arab leadership would be at least somewhat influenced by the British. Even with Wilson’s efforts to stack the odds in the British favor the response to the plebiscite was quite mixed, however in Wilson’s final judgement on the results he would say that ‘the majority desired no change of regime, a large minority favored an Arab Emir under British guidance and control and that no name that we could suggest commanded the acceptance of even a small minority.’ This response would be used by British leaders in both Baghdad and London as justification for their future actions, actions that the people in Mesopotamia would have some problems with, problems that would push them to violence.