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The History of the Arab Revolt of WW1 and its Aftermath

posted on: Nov 12, 2021

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

The First World War (WWI), also known as the Great War, was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, killing millions.  Along with these innumerable deaths, its aftermath made things even worse as the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and the Central Powers laid the seeds for potential conflict.  The treaty left a vengeful Germany and an upset Italy who would later start the Second World War, an even more destructive conflict than the first.  However, the impact of the First World War on the Ottoman Empire and Arab World, and its aftermath in how the maps were redrawn in favor of the British is rarely mentioned. This article discusses the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and its aftermath and demonstrates how the British betrayed the Arabs.  

Background of WW1 and Broken Promises by the British

The History of the Arab Revolt of WW1 and its Aftermath
Map of World War One by maps.com

The history of the Arab Revolt takes place in the First World War where the British were fighting the Central Powers who included not just Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria but also the Ottoman Empire.  At the beginning of the war, the Allies were in a stalemate as the British and French were stuck in trenches against the Germans on the Western Front, while Russia had setbacks and draws of its own on the Eastern Front against Germany and Austria-Hungary.  This situation convinced the British Empire to try and open up new theaters of conflict to disperse the enemy forces. The Allies decided to open a new theater against the Ottoman Empire because they were considered the weakest of the Central Powers, and were also known as the “Sick Man of Europe”.  This strategy failed spectacularly in two different campaigns against the Ottomans.  The first failure was in Iraq, which ended with the successful Ottoman siege against British troops at Kut, lasting from December 1915-April 1916.  The second such failure meanwhile, was the Campaign of Gallipoli, which lasted from December 1915-April 1916.  The Australians, New Zealanders, and the British tried to capture Istanbul, but their armies were soon bogged down and had to withdraw.  Looking for any possible allies to put more pressure on the Ottomans, they sought the Arabs for help.  One of the most prominent leaders that the British looked to for help was Sharif Hussein, the ruler of Mecca and part of the Hashemite clan, the same as Mohammad.  Sharif Hussein wanted to form a new Arab caliphate that would encompass much of the Arab World and one that would no longer be under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, which naturally had him seeking British support.  Having a mutual enemy, the British High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, corresponded with Sharif Hussein about this new Arab state.  In the correspondence between the two leaders, it was agreed that Hussein would acquire all of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, except Southern Iraq, which included Basra and Baghdad, Egypt, and Aden which would be in British hands. However, the British also gave assurances to Sharif that the economic and political freedom of the Palestinians was not in question according to irishtimes.com.

However, despite the promises made for this future Arab state by the British, they would also make two more deals that would complicate the situation and lead to broken promises.  The first such agreement was that of Sykes-Picot, a deal signed between British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot.  The agreement detailed the division of the Ottoman Empire after the war with the British taking control of Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine while the French would take over Syria and Lebanon.  The other such agreement was the Balfour Declaration where the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, with this declaration stating that the British would help the Jews set up a homeland in Palestine.  At first the British were not truly in favor of Zionism and a future Jewish home in Palestine.  However, once the war took a turn for the worse, with weakening Russian support, the Americans had not yet arrived at the front, and the belief that the Jewish settlement in the region would protect their imperial interests in the region, sentiment changed among the British.  Under the administration of the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George,  Britain ended up supporting Zionism and issuing the declaration according to the Islamic Human Rights Commission.  In summary, the British made three separate agreements promising Palestine to the Arabs, the Jews, and themselves.  

The Arab Revolt Begins

The History of the Arab Revolt of WW1 and its Aftermath
The Arab Army with British Officer T.E. Lawrence by Roads to the Great War

Meanwhile on June 5, 1916, according to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, the Arabs under the command of Hussein’s sons, Abdullah and Faisal, revolted against Turkish rule and attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina.  Around the same time as the formal declaration of Sharif Hussein for the Arab Revolt in June 1916, Abdullah besieged the town of Ta’if.  Other clans allied with Hussein and attacked the Red Sea ports, with the most important one being that of Jeddah.  The British sensing an opportunity,  sent a flotilla to support the Arab attacks on these Red Sea ports. By the end of July in 1916, the Ottomans were effectively removed from their ports on the Red Sea.  This surrender provided the Arabs with a crucial location where the British could supply them with more weapons, ammunition and captured Arab soldiers from the Ottoman Empire from previous campaigns that would now fight for the Arab Revolt’s cause.  After the capture of the Red Sea, the Arabs would then spend the rest of the year consolidating their victories and extending their control of the Hejaz as they captured nearly all cities in the region except for, ironically, the city of Medina, where Lieutenant General Ömer Fahreddin Pasha held out until after the war ended in 1919.  The Arabs would also facilitate the British in the Hejaz by cutting off railroads from this region from the Ottoman provinces further north, such as Syria.  The destruction of the Hejaz railroad disrupted Ottoman supply lines and communications as well as tying up large numbers of Ottoman troops that were desperately needed at other fronts.  

Soon the Arabs, under Feisal and with British Officer T.E. Lawrence, would march north from the Hejaz to attack the areas of the Levant, along with the British.  This offensive included the capture of Aqaba in June 1917, which became the new base for Feisal’s army. Meanwhile, the British achieved victory at the Battle of Gaza with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in October 1917 according to nzhistory.govt.nz.  These victories led British commander, Edmund Allenby, to sweep through Palestine and capture Jerusalem in December 1917.   Following the capture, the British would continue their march northward through the Jezreel Valley while the Arab army would be going in the same direction but to the east of them.  This event soon reached its climax as both armies raced for the city of Damascus, which was captured on October 1, 1918.  The capture of Syria and the approaching armies nearing Anatolia was the nail in the coffin for the Ottoman Empire who would soon sign the Armistice of Mudros.  Now that the war was over, there would be a discussion of what the new borders and territories would look like.  This discussion would leave many Arabs angered and frustrated with their so-called British allies.

The Aftermath of the Great War and the Arab Revolt

The History of the Arab Revolt of WW1 and its Aftermath
Map of the British and French Mandates in the Aftermath of WW1
By sites.google.com


The aftermath of the war was largely decided along the lines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The French took control of Syria and Lebanon while the British controlled Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan in the Treaty of Sévres at the San Remo Conference in 1920 according to courses.lumenlearning.com.  These territories would be under mandates where the colonial powers were supposed to prepare these nations for independence.  However, the British and French wanted to keep control of these provinces due to their strategic importance like Palestine being to the east of the vital Suez Canal, or because of economic or cultural concerns like oil in Iraq.  Meanwhile, Faisal would be the new king of Iraq while Abdullah would be the emir of Transjordan, which became its own province from Palestine during the interwar years.  Meanwhile, the Hejaz region would be conquered from the Hashemites by the Saud rulers of Najd in the year 1925, and then an army coup overthrew Faisal’s grandson in Iraq in 1958, leaving only Jordan being ruled by the Hashemites.  The Arabs were clearly not in favor of new foreign domination as reported in the King-Crane report. Most Arab inhabitants did not want to be under European control, but as this report illustrates, the Arab population was largely ignored. Another consequence of the aftermath was that of the British government implementing the Balfour Declaration. This declaration meant that thousands of Jews would enter Palestine. The occupation would soon lead to war and the Nakba, or the catastrophe, for the Palestinians, as they would be forced to be refugees in neighboring Arab states and live under harsh conditions due to Israeli occupation and segregation in the West Bank, and especially Gaza.  The failed promises of the British led to an unstable Middle East that still affects millions of lives across the region today. 

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