‘The Arab uprising against the Ottoman empire began near Median in the Hejaz province of Arabia on 5th June 1916’. Thus begins the third chapter of Anthony Bruce’s ‘The Last Crusade – The Palestine Campaign in the First World War’ (John Murray, 2002).
The German-built Hejaz railway linked Damascus with Medina via Amman. Germany’s Turkish allies had declared a Jihad against Britain and France, but this was viewed with mixed feelings within the Islamic world where many had suffered from the waste and corruption of the Ottoman empire. Since 1914, early in the war, Britain had sought an alliance with the Amir (Emir) of Mecca, Sherif Hussein (various spellings). Such an alliance would weigh against the Jihad as well as serving the purposes of both Britain and the Emir. Opening up a southern front, even if of limited extent would tie up Turkish troops and their German advisers far away from the ‘Front line’ in Northern France and the Low Countries.
For Hussein, defeating the hated Turks would give the Arabs independence. As early as February 1914 Lord Kitchener had been made aware of Arab national aspirations. The negotiations between Britain, in the person of Sir Henry McMahon, and Sherif Hussein began in earnest in mid-1915 and are the subject of a separate post.
With the British Army holding a defensive line to the east of the Suez canal, in Sinai, the Arabs maintained irregular raids against the Hejaz railway. The effect was to neutralize the Turkish battalions garrisoned in Mecca and Medina.An important subsidiary effect was to ensure that Turkish-German reserves in the north could not be released to fight on the western Front. By January 1917, with no British action against the Turks stationed at Gaza; Abdullah, one of Hussein’s sons, had, with British naval support, attacked and taken the strategic port town of Wejh, approximately 200 miles North of Medina on the Arabian peninsula West coast.
In March 1917 attacks on the railway line by Abdullah’s Arabs persuaded the Turkish commander to plan the evacuation of the Medina garrison to Maan, 500 miles to the North. The Arab forces were encouraged to prevent the garrison’s escape for strategic reasons (by T.E Lawrence et al). It was considered more expedient to keep the garrison tied down in Medina rather than being united with the Turkish army reserve near Damascus.
The contribution of Hussein and his Arab tribesmen to the British campaign in Syria-Palestine is often overlooked. But this revolt against Turkish Ottoman rule was the logical step to Arab independence of the growing sense of Arab nationalism since at least the mid 19th century. Sadly, their trust in the British was to prove unfounded and their aspirations to be not met. If Arabs view we in the West; in Britain, France and America; with suspicion, their experience in 1914-1918 gives them good reason!