Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Arab Revolt 1: Its Origins

Ottoman Empire c1700
The symbol of the Ottoman Empire was the crescent and, at its height in the 16th century, the empire enveloped the Mediterranean like a huge misshapen crescent, covering the north African coast all the way round to the western limits of the Balkan peninsula. It continued from the 13th century to the end of WW1, but for its last 100 years and more was in constant difficulties, and seen to be crumbling. In Africa Napoleon and then the British pushed it back from the northern coast and the Horn, in order to control the strategic hub of Cairo. In Europe the Russian and Habsburg Empires, both more advanced militarily, pushed for territory and control of the Black Sea. For example, the Crimean War of 1856 saw Britain and the Ottomans in alliance against the expansionism of Russia (the British of course to protect their own interests, particularly the routes to India). The rise of nationalism put further pressure on the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-language Empire, particularly in the Balkans.
At the onset of WW1, the Ottomans controlled the northern half of the great Arabian peninsula (today predominantly Saudi Arabia). In the centre was the desert of Nefud (An Nafud), sparsely populated by tribes of nomadic Bedouins. To the east lay Mesopotamia, the setting for much WW1 activity already covered. To the west, following the littoral of the Red Sea, lay the coastal region of the Hejaz, the font of the Arab Revolt.

Showing the Hejaz and the vital
Turkish rail link to Medina
The Hejaz was a fertile region along the Red Sea rift, with the sea on its western edge and mountains comprising its eastern border (see map). It was ruled by the Hashemite dynasty that still rules Jordan from Amman today but, containing as it did then the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, it was influential as the birthplace of the religion of Islam, the dominant religion of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914, the Hajaz was a vassal state, ruled from Mecca by Sharif Hussein (great grandfather of the present King of Jordan) but controlled from Constantinople. Hussein was titled Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, but the Ottoman leadership relied on the uncontrollable factions and tribes of the Arabs to limit his authority. Following the Young Turks coup of 1908 there was a rejection of the religiously liberal nature of their empire, replaced by an aggressive secular approach of ‘Turkification’. Persecution of, and discrimination against non-Turks was widespread, and by the time war broke out, Arab resentment of their rulers had become a unifying factor.
Sharif Hussein
Hussein held Mecca, but a strong Turkish garrison at Medina guarded the southern limits of the Ottoman Empire. Medina was the railhead of the major supply line from Damascus, 700 miles to the north, and this line would be the target of much of the Revolt’s actions. Hussein was a wily and ambitious man. Although attracted by British blandishments from 1915 onwards regarding Arab independence in exchange for alliance, he played his cards close to his chest, and gained intelligence from Constantinople by keeping his two sons, Feisal and Abdullad, in political positions there. The loss of British prestige from the disastrous campaigns of Gallipoli and Kut added to his caution. However, in June 1916 he made what is seen as the opening move of the Arab Revolt by denouncing the Turkish leadership for its anti-Arab, anti-Islamic policies. Enver Pasha the Turkish leader, after some deliberation with his German allies, resolved to oust Hussein from Mecca. In January 1917 a force left the Medina garrison to take control of Mecca, 200 miles to the south. By now however, the action had been anticipated. Hussein’s son Feisal (recalled from Constantinople) led an assembled force along the coast via Yenbo two hundred miles in the opposite direction, north to Wejh (Al Wajh). They encountered only a small Turkish force that lacked the resolve to challenge them, and Feisal completed a historic capture of Wejh, where he was able to consolidate his forces. This constituted such a threat to the railway link to Medina that the Turks pulled back to their garrison, and looked to strengthen the railway defences.
At this exciting time, and more by luck than judgement, a British officer – in peacetime an archaeologist in Syria – entered the fray. TE Lawrence is such an extraordinary character that he merits a blog post of his own, and this will follow later on in the saga. For the moment, suffice to say in cliché terms that his heart was Arab and his head was English. His love of Arab culture and geography brought an expertise that was harnessed, initially for intelligence purposes by Sir Archibald Murray from the British HQ in Cairo.
From the moment Lawrence and Feisal met they forged a strong partnership – and a strategy of leaving Medina alone as an increasingly isolated garrison. They focused on actions disrupting the railway supply line. Their subsequent aim was to move north and become part of a joint force with the British moving on Palestine, Amman and Damascus.
Lawrence became the chief negotiator in the complex discourse between the British, French and various Arab perspectives. His ambivalence to both his roles – diplomatic and military – is summarised in his own words: “I risked the fraud, on the conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the east, and that better we win and break our word, than lose”*

Meanwhile the main British preparations in Cairo were for an advance across Sinai towards Gaza on the coast and Beersheva inland. From there they would push towards Jerusalem and then Damascus. Having the Arabs on their right flank would help this with supporting disruptive action. Initially things went well for Murray. His forces took the important town of Rafa, on the border of Egypt and Sinai on 9th January 1917, and made steady progress along the coast to Gaza. By March they had reached the most strongly defended Turkish position. This was an entrenched line stretching from Gaza to Beersheva. It was a thirty mile line, but the terrain allowed for only two ways to force it – at either end. Murray opted for Gaza, which not for the first or last time in its history, became the centre of fierce actions. Two battles for the control of Gaza were fought three weeks apart in March and April 1917. Casualties were heavy, more so for the British, and although some coastal objectives were gained, the Turkish garrison held out against both assaults.
Gaza was a serious reverse, as unexpected as Gallipoli. It signalled the end of Murray’s command. He was recalled to London and his replacement, Allenby, was dispatched from France, where he was leading the 3rd Army at the Battle of Arras. One man’s nemesis proved to be the spur for the other’s greatest triumphs.

* TE Lawrence. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Chapter I

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