Arab revolt

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Flag of the Arab Revolt - it serves as a template for numerous national flags of later Arab countries
Arab Army soldiers during the Arab Revolt

The Arab Revolt was an uprising in the Ottoman Empire , supported by some Arab tribes , which started in the Hejaz and later spread to Jordan , Palestine and Syria . The revolt, which lasted from 1916 to 1918, was largely supported by the Entente who fought against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War . The uprising was led by Hussein ibn Ali , the Sherif of Mecca . Numerous, but not all, Bedouin tribes of the Hejaz took part in the revolt. Gradually, the Bedouins brought more and more cities in the Hejaz, but also in Jordan and Syria, under their control. The uprising ended with the conquest of Damascus and the surrender of Medina .

Nevertheless, when one considers the entirety of the fighting in the Middle Eastern theater of war, the British Army bore the brunt of the fighting, while the insurgents were largely limited to acts of sabotage and minor raids. Although the Sherif had previously been promised rule over the whole of Arabia through the Hussein-McMahon correspondence , the victorious powers France and Great Britain divided up the conquered territories with the exception of the Hejaz after the war. This was legitimized by mandates from the League of Nations . After the Arabs were initially excluded from the government, the British gradually installed representatives of the Hashimite dynasty as emirs or kings in their mandate areas.

The British secret agent TE Lawrence - who was dispatched to liaise with the insurgents - became famous as "Lawrence of Arabia". However, the role assigned to him is highly controversial during the uprising.


Even before the war there was sometimes strong tension and, as a result, clashes between the Bedouins living in the Hejaz and the Turks. Subject of this dispute was, in most cases, from Damascus to Medina leading Hedschasbahn , which was completed in the 1908th Many Bedouins refused to build this railway line because they felt it was competition for the caravans. Furthermore, many Bedouins feared that the construction of the railway would deprive them of the possibility of attacking other caravans. For these reasons, the railway was repeatedly sabotaged by small Bedouin troops and the workers prevented from building it. However, the Bedouins usually did not get involved in battles with the Ottoman army .

The Grand Sherif of Mecca Hussein ibn Ali

In the years 1908 to 1909 the resistance against the Hejaz Railway reached a temporary high point, as more and more tribes took part in the acts of sabotage and even got involved in smaller skirmishes with the Ottoman army. This action against the Hejaz Railway was tolerated by the Hashimite Sherif of Mecca , Hussein ibn Ali , but not officially supported. Over time, the uprising subsided because the Bedouins were poorly armed and therefore had no realistic chance against the regular Turkish troops.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Hussein learned in 1915 that the Turks were already planning his deposition after the end of the war. For this reason, he decided to support the British in their fight against the Ottoman army and thus maintain his power and expand it to the entire Arab region. Even after the defeat at Kut al Amara, they were put on the defensive, so Hussein's support was more than welcome.

On April 15, 1915, the Sirdar Reginald Wingate was instructed by the Foreign Office to contact the Sherif of Mecca. Finally, there was an exchange of letters between Hussein and the British High Commissioner for Egypt Sir Henry McMahon , which has gone down in history as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence . In it, the Sherif was promised all the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of the Syrian Mediterranean coast. A little later, on May 16, 1916, France and Great Britain decided in the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide the Ottoman provinces into French and British areas of influence.

When Hussein finally found out in early 1916 that Turkish troops were about to march through the Hejaz, he panicked and officially opened the Arab revolt on June 5, 1916.

Hussein's relationship to the Sykes-Picot Agreement

On May 16, 1916, Great Britain and France regulated the division of the Ottoman provinces after the war in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement . This agreement ran counter to the promises made in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence , in which the Sherif was promised rule over all of Arabia.

Contrary to popular belief, the Sherif learned of the agreement from various sources in the course of 1917. Since the uprising had progressed too far to be able to end it without serious consequences for his own power, Hussein was forced to continue fighting on the side of the British. Furthermore, he hoped for a dominion in the heartland of Arabia. In addition, some historians suspect that it must have been clear to Hussein beforehand that his dream of a Greater Arab Empire was illusory.

However, all the leaders of the Arab revolt concealed the fact that they knew about the Sykes-Picot Agreement in order to have a better negotiating position after the war, insisting on a Greater Arab Empire. This is how the persistent myth arose that the rebels fought until the end based on their belief in a Greater Arab Empire and thus allowed themselves to be deceived by the British.


TE Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") near Rabegh, north of Jeddah , 1917

The Arab forces were led by Hussein's sons Abdallah (later Emir and King of Jordan) and Faisal (later King of Syria and Iraq, respectively) and supported by military advisers such as TE Lawrence (known as "Lawrence of Arabia"). Their task was to facilitate the struggle on the Palestine front for the British expeditionary corps in Egypt, which was predominantly composed of colonial troops, under the command of Archibald Murray (from 1917 Edmund Allenby ) .

On June 5, 1916, Arab irregulars opened the fighting in the Arab Revolt with skirmishes against the Ottoman garrison in Medina. The battles served to keep the garrison under Umar Fachrud-Din Pasha and their 11,000 soldiers in Medina busy. Faisal opened the actual main attack with a symbolic rifle shot on the Turkish garrison in Mecca. The approximately 1,400 men of the Turkish garrison were quickly overwhelmed and the insurgents managed to bring the city under their control within three days. An Ottoman artillery fort held out until July 9, 1916. Until then, the Turkish troops at the fort had bombed the city several times a day. At the same time as the attack on Mecca took place on June 10, 1916, an attack by 4,000 irregulars on the coastal city of Jeddah. The Ottoman garrison was initially able to repel the attack with machine gun fire and artillery, but gave up on June 16 after being attacked by two British warships and British aircraft. Also on June 10, Arab irregulars under the command of Faisal's son Abdullah began cutting off traffic and communication routes to Taif. The troops there under the governor of the Hejaz Ghali Pasha surrendered on September 21, 1916. By the end of September, the rebels took control of the coastal cities of Rabigh and Yanbu, which are located on the Red Sea . By this time the rebels had captured around 6,000 members of the Ottoman army. In November Faisal declared himself king of the Arab countries. However, his British allies only accepted his claim to rule over the Hejaz.

On August 1, 1916, Sharif Ali Haidar arrived in Medina, who was supposed to replace the rebel Faisal after his defeat on the part of the Ottomans. In the fall of 1916, Fahri Pasha launched the counterattack against the Arab rebels. The British authorities considered sending their own troops because of the inferiority of the guerrillas against the Ottomans, but after consultation with TE Lawrence only sent Arab volunteers and forced the donation of funds to Faisal so that he could recruit more locals. By December 1916, 950 Egyptian artillerymen and around 120 volunteers had reached Faisal's armies. On December 11th, the Ottoman forces pushed Faisal's 5000-strong army back onto Yanbu, which blocked the way to Mecca on the coastal route. The appearance of five British warships, which were supposed to support the defense of the port with their on-board artillery, caused Fahri Pascha to refrain from attacking. After several air bombardments, the Ottoman troops withdrew positions in front of Yanbu in the direction of Medina. Supported logistically and with artillery fire by British warships, a rebel army of around 11,000 men attacked Wagh on January 23, 1917 and took the place in a two-day battle. The place served as a base for guerrilla attacks against the railway line in the Hijaz.

Auda ibu Tayi

On May 9, 1917 Lawrence set out with the Sherif Nasir and a few men on a journey through the Nefud desert to Maʿan in order to recruit more warriors for sabotage in the area and finally for the capture of Akaba . On the journey they were soon joined by Auda ibu Tayi , a tribal chief of the Howeitat . With his help it was finally possible on July 1st to defeat the Turks at Aqaba near Abu l-Lisan. The Arabs were able to take Aqaba on July 6th without a fight. The city played a major role in the further course of the revolt, as supplies could be shipped there. This enabled the Bedouins to carry the Arab revolt to Palestine and Syria. Akaba was used to carry out several acts of sabotage against the Hejaz Railway and telegraph poles. On October 8, the British expeditionary forces managed to break through Gaza and advance further north through Palestine.

On September 19, 1918, a decisive battle between the Turks and the British broke out near Amman . In order to relieve the British front, TE Lawrence got the order to carry out some sabotage actions with the Bedouin warriors near Darʿā . On September 16, 1918, the insurgents attacked a bridge near Darʿā. However, they were later forced to retreat by Turkish aircraft. Finally, Lawrence managed to get some aircraft to reinforce, which is why the Arabs were finally able to continue the siege of Dar'a.

After the offensive opened on September 19, Allenby captured Amman on September 24. Now the Turks were forced to withdraw first to Dar'a and finally to Damascus , so that the Arabs were able to take over Dar'a without a fight on September 27th. As a result, they repeatedly attacked the Turkish retreat with extreme brutality, which may have made the reorganization of the Turkish army more difficult. A little later, on September 30th, the Turks also gave up Damascus in order to save the remaining troops for the defense of Anatolia. Now the Bedouins tried to reach Damascus before the British, in order to underline their own participation in the war and thus achieve a participation in the administration of the conquered areas. On October 1, they finally entered Damascus, which ended the Arab revolt.


Faisal's delegation to the Paris Peace Conference
Faisal I at his coronation as King of Iraq

As early as December 2, 1918, and thus before the Paris Peace Conference , the heads of government of France and Great Britain secretly agreed to amend the Sykes-Picot Agreement to the detriment of Arab interests. It was agreed that the Syrian inland, which according to the original agreement was supposed to be administered by an Arab ruler, would now be administered directly by France.

Faisal, accompanied by TE Lawrence, also took part in the Paris Peace Conference, which was supposed to determine the terms of peace after the war. However, since the European issues were in the foreground at this conference, only two sessions were held that concerned the Arab issue. At the first meeting, which took place on February 6, 1919, Faisal demanded the independence of the area between the Taurus and the Gulf of Aden , which would have corresponded to the creation of a Greater Arab Empire. However, on March 20, the representative of the Syrian National Committee spoke out against the administration of Syrian territory by a Hashimite monarchy, because the cultural differences between the population of the Hejaz and the population of Syria were too great.

As it became known that Great Britain should withdraw from Syria according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement so that it could be occupied by France, a general Syrian congress decided to elect Faisal as King of Syria. But this must be seen as a protest action and a desperate step against the agreements between France and Great Britain, since Faisal was considered foreign in Syria and was therefore not very popular. On March 20, 1920, Faisal was finally proclaimed King of Syria.

During the Conference of Sanremo (April 19-26, 1920) the division of the Middle East, according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the agreement of December 2, 1918, was now officially decided. Thus, for the first time an Arab-administered area in the interior of the country was officially excluded. In the summer, French troops landed in Syria, which after a few skirmishes with Faisal's army (→  Battle of Maysalun ) took Damascus . Thus Faisal's rule was ended and Syria was placed under French administration as a mandate area (→  League of Nations mandate for Syria and Lebanon ).

After this defeat, the Hashimite dynasty only ruled over the Hejaz on the Arabian Peninsula, since Hussein ibn Ali had already been proclaimed King of the Hejaz during the revolt . Since the area was deemed worthless, there was no European power to claim it. However, shortly after the war, tensions arose with the neighboring Najd under Ibn Saud . Since both Hussein ibn Ali and Ibn Saud were allies of Great Britain, Great Britain tried in vain to settle the dispute between the two states and to prevent a war. After Ibn Saud had already defeated the Sherif's army, he could only be forced to retreat from Great Britain by threatening air strikes against his troops. However stance deteriorated due Hussein dismissive towards the Zionist movement its relations with Britain, so in 1924, after Hussein ibn Ali to caliph had proclaimed to penetrate the troops of Ibn Saud in the Hejaz and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina could take . Ibn Saud then incorporated the newly acquired territory into his kingdom, which he first called the Kingdom of Hejaz and Najd until he finally proclaimed the state of Saudi Arabia in 1932 .

Since the conquest of Iraq in 1917, it has been under direct British administration. However, there was an uprising against the British in 1920 , which is why, based on a report by TE Lawrence, they came to the conclusion that it was necessary to install an Arab puppet ruler. The choice fell on Faisal , as he had achieved a certain level of awareness among the Iraqi population. Furthermore, attempts were made to compensate him for the loss of his rule over Syria. In order to give the new king sufficient legitimacy, it was decided to have him elected by a popular assembly. But in order to secure Faisal's election victory in advance, the only promising opposing candidate was arrested before the election, so that Faisal won the election with 97% of the vote and was crowned ruler of the Kingdom of Iraq on August 23, 1921 .

Also in 1921, Faisal's brother Abdallah was installed as the emir of Transjordan . When Jordan gained independence on May 25, 1946, Abdallah was proclaimed King of Jordan . While the Hashimite dynasty in Iraq was overthrown by Abd al-Karim Qasim on July 14, 1958, Jordan is still ruled by a Hashimite king, currently Abdullah II .

Tactics of revolt

While the phenomenon of trench warfare dominated the battlefields of World War I , it played almost no role in the Arab Revolt. TE Lawrence already described that the Bedouin warriors, due to their individuality and mutual distrust, would not listen to orders and thus could not be formed into a regular army. As for these reasons an open field battle against the Ottoman army could not be won by the insurgents, they limited themselves to partisan warfare.

Most of the attacks were directed against the Hejaz Railway , which was of great importance as a supply line for the Ottoman troops. The railway tracks were often bent by simple blasting and thus made unusable. However, more complicated explosive charges were also attached, which were detonated by remote detonation under a moving train, which had the advantage that not only the rails but also the valuable locomotives were destroyed. Furthermore, telegraph poles were knocked down over long distances with the help of camels.

There were fewer battles with smaller Turkish detachments. There were hardly any fierce skirmishes or battles. That is why the losses on both sides were limited, which is why the Arab revolt was often referred to as a guerrilla war .

Since the British were able to move their front further north in the course of the war, the Turks had to withdraw again and again from cities, which were then partially taken over by the rebellious Bedouins. Recapturing these cities was not possible for the same reason. The capture of larger cities is unusual for a guerrilla war and in this case was only made possible by the cooperation of insurgents and a regular army. However, the insurgents would not have been able to take or defend a city in battle. Therefore, the idea that the Arab Revolt was a self-contained war of conquest is incorrect.

Motivation of the Bedouin warriors

For a long time it was assumed that the Bedouin warriors who fought during the Arab revolt had mainly nationalist motives, which were interpreted as a defensive reaction against Young Turkish nationalism . However, it is now assumed that most of the Arabs in the Ottoman Empire remained loyal to the Turks, as they were seen as defenders of Islam on the one hand and the Turkish administration in the Hejaz was only indirectly carried out by the Sherif on the other. Most of the Bedouins were not significantly impaired in their freedom by this loose administrative system. For these reasons, some Arabs fought the insurgents in the Ottoman army until the end of the war.

The insurgents, on the other hand, fought mostly not for nationalistic but for selfish reasons. The British raised enormous amounts of money for the insurgents, which were distributed to them as a kind of pay. This pay was so high for the conditions there that it represented a great incentive to fight on the Sherif's side. Furthermore, many supporters of the uprising hoped to make rich booty from looting. As a result of these two main motives, the willingness to give one's own life for the Arab cause was very low. In addition, there was sometimes extensive looting during the fighting, which could not only jeopardize the success of a battle, but also led to many warriors heading home after having plundered them. This impaired the reliability and fighting power of the nomad warriors enormously.

Support from the British

Lawrence near Aqaba , 1917

The British are supporting the Arab revolt by various means. Above all, they supplied rifles, ammunition, modern machine guns and mostly disused artillery pieces (In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom , Hotchkiss machine guns and mountain guns are often mentioned).

In addition, the insurgents often received help from the British Air Force and Navy . While British fighter planes were used in the fighting around Dar'a , for example , to fight Turkish aircraft and protect the troops on the ground, the warships were used as additional artillery, especially during the fighting in the Hejaz.

The Arab office in Cairo also sent some officers as trainers for the Arab troops or as liaison officers and advisers for the military leaders of the Bedouin warriors. The most famous of these officers was T. E Lawrence .

Most significant for the maintenance of the Bedouin army, however, were the enormous financial resources that had been made available by the British government and enabled regular pay for the individual warriors.

Ronald Storrs estimated that the British supported the revolt with about £ 11 million.

Meaning of the revolt

In the opinion of many historians, the Arab Revolt was not crucial to the war against the Ottoman Empire. However, it is also clear that the raids against the Ottoman supply lines at least relieved the British somewhat.

Much more important, however, was the Arab revolt for the politics and reorganization of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Only through the Arab revolt did the Hashimites gain so much power that they could be considered ruling dynasties in Iraq and Jordan. The close ties between the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan and Great Britain also go back to the Arab Revolt.


Web links

Commons : Arab Revolt  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Eugene L. Rogan: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920. London, 2016, pp. 297-299
  2. ^ Eugene L. Rogan: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920. London, 2016, pp. 301-309
  3. ^ Eugene L. Rogan: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920. London, 2016, p. 334
  4. Peter Thorau: Lawrence of Arabia , p. 88.
  5. Peter Thorau: Lawrence of Arabia, p. 89.
  6. a b Peter Thorau: Lawrence von Arabien , p. 113.
  7. Peter Thorau: Lawrence of Arabia , pp. 112-113.
  8. a b Peter Thorau: Lawrence von Arabien , p. 158.