More recently, historians and other researchers have emphasized the significant influence of Imperial Germany in shaping Britain’s wartime decisions. Such writers show how, even before the war, Germany replaced France and Russia as Britain’s leading rival in the Middle East. The German emperor, Wilhelm II, pursued after 1894 a “global policy” (Weltpolitik) and what the German historian, Fritz Fischer, termed in 1961 a “bid for world power.” As part of such a policy, Germany worked to expand the Reich’s economic and military influence in the Ottoman Empire. In 1903 the Porte granted a concession to Germany to build an extension of the Anatolian railroad into Mesopotamia and toward Baghdad, terminating in the Ottoman province of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, by the end of the 1890s Wilhelm II and other German officials held the belief that, in the event of a future war among the European powers, Germany could organize and exploit a fanatical and unified Islam—pan-Islamism—for Berlin’s wartime aims. Especially the British Empire contained vast numbers of Muslim subjects, who in the view of Wilhelm might be used against a potentially hostile Britain.
The British, too, especially after 1905, as tensions mounted among the European powers, seemed obsessed with pan-Islamism. An Ottoman doctrine that proclaimed the religious authority of the sultan-caliph over Muslims throughout the world, it called on Muslims to defend the Ottoman Empire and caliphate, as the “true” faith, against others, particularly the Western Christian infidel. Anxiety spread among some British leaders who feared a potential fanatical Muslim “holy war” (jihad) directed against Britain’s rule in India and Egypt and elsewhere in Muslim portions of the British Empire.
Events in British-controlled Egypt, in this regard, particularly unnerved British officials. In Cairo, Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, a wealthy German banking scion, Orientalist, and archaeologist (and Jew who had converted to Christianity), served as a German consular official from 1896 to 1910. In that role, Oppenheim, pro-Arab and Ottoman and deeply resentful of the British and their empire in Egypt, India, and elsewhere, engaged in numerous political activities aimed at undermining British rule in Egypt. Oppenheim’s protégé, Curt Prüfer, a dragoman at the German consulate general, participated in many such activities. During and after 1911, Oppenheim lived in Syria excavating ancient Hittite ruins. Living among local Arabs and Kurds, he sought to purchase the support of tribal chiefs for the Baghdad railroad, Germany’s main project for expanding its influence in the Middle East.
For this and other reasons, including Lord Kitchener’s dominant leadership in Egypt between 1911 and 1914, by the beginning of the First World War, the preponderant influence in Britain’s Eastern policy lay in Egypt, with the Cairo Residency, rather than in the British embassy in Constantinople. The rise after 1908 of the Young Turk regime in Constantinople (which, ironically, initially downplayed pan-Islamism in favor of pan-Turanism), and its removal of the sultan, Abd ul-Hamid, from the throne in favor of his brother, Mehmed V, did little to allay British unease. Nor did the Young Turks seek to pacify the Arabs in Turkey; instead, the new rulers pursued a vigorous defense of the Ottoman Empire and caliphate. Often the Porte followed the traditional Ottoman policy of ruling the Arabs with violence and an iron fist. In response, an Arab nationalist ideology, called “Arabism,” spread steadily, proclaiming the Arabs to be a special people who possessed peculiar virtues and rights and who deserved some form of autonomy within the empire or full independence outside it.
As early as 1912 Kitchener and Cairo had become concerned enough about the ability of the Ottomans to hold their remaining empire together that he met with Abdullah, the son of the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali. The sharif ruled for the Ottomans the area of western Arabia, the Hijaz, which included the Muslim holy places. Kitchener had begun believing that British interests might require Britain to support Arab separatist or nationalist aspirations. Increasingly, he and his lieutenants in Cairo viewed the sharif as a possible future caliph, replacing the Ottoman one and friendlier to British interests in the Middle East.
War by Revolution
When war exploded in Europe during the first week of August 1914, it spread quickly to the Middle East. On 2 August, the Germans concluded an alliance with the Ottomans, and two months later the Turks entered the war on the German side. On 14 November, the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed V, acting as caliph, called all Muslims in the world to holy war against the enemy nations of Constantinople—the so-called Allies, Britain, Russia, and France.
But even before the sultan’s proclamation of jihad, Berlin dispatched, at Oppenheim’s urging and the support of Wilhelm II and leading German military and political officials, small expeditions of German agents through Constantinople carrying pan-Islamic propaganda that aimed to reach Persia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Libya. In some instances, as with Persia and Libya, efforts were made to ship weapons to tribal chieftains to induce them to attack the British. In addition, Austria, Germany’s Central Power ally in the war, sent an emissary to northern Arabia to attempt reconciling powerful Arab chieftains, Ibn Rashid and Ibn Saud, and uniting them behind the Ottomans. German policy aimed at waging war in the region by fomenting an uprising, a “revolt,” of all Muslims against Britain.
On the British side, such activities intensified even more the long held belief of Kitchener, now Britain’s Secretary of State for War, that the Turks and pan-Islamism, with German support, formed a major threat to British interests in the Middle East. He ordered the British Residency in Cairo to continue secret negotiations with Abdullah, the Sharif of Mecca’s son, which Kitchener had begun before the war. Kitchener continued to sow the seed of Britain’s own eventual use of the strategy of “war by revolution”—inciting Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans.
Although Britain had disagreements with France over the issue of which of them, Britain or France, should approach the Arabs, in Cairo local adherents of the Pan Arab movement sent emissaries to Arabia, Syria, and Palestine. These communicated Britain’s message to the Arab chieftains and urged them not to join the Porte should the latter enter the war. If war came, the messengers told the Arab leaders, the latter could expect to receive armaments and ammunition from Britain.
By the end of October, Cairo received a reply from the Sharif of Mecca, through Abdullah, saying he would not willingly support the Turks. Through Cairo, Kitchener answered quickly, telling Abdullah that if the “Arab nation” allied with Britain in the war, Britain would ensure Arabia’s safety and freedom from the Ottomans. Kitchener, moreover, mentioned the possibility of establishing a new caliphate at Mecca or Medina—but solely as a spiritual, rather than political, office.
But almost wholly unknown to the British, the Germans and Turks experienced problems nearly everywhere they sent emissaries—from Libya in the west to Afghanistan and Persia in the east—seeking to unleash armed anti-British Muslim uprisings. Not even Turkey’s entering the war on October 29 with the Ottoman-ordered bombardment by German ships of Russian Black Sea ports, and the subsequent Ottoman call for holy war, did much to change the problematic German campaign of—a Christian state, no less—waging war by calling Muslims to “revolution” against Britain.
Nevertheless, the British felt threatened. In Egypt, the military commandant, Sir John Maxwell, called nearly five hundred shaykhs to Cairo, to press them to swear loyalty to Britain. On 2 November, following news that the khedive (the Ottoman viceroy) of Egypt, Abbas Hilmi, from Constantinople had asked Egyptians to oppose the British armies, Britain proclaimed martial law. In December, the British made Egypt a protectorate of Britain and deposed Abbas Hilmi. They raised his uncle, the loyal British adherent, Husayn Kamil Pasha, to a new sultanate.
Also Cairo worried about neighboring Libya. Reports arrived that German emissaries had approached the Sanussis, the large Muslim religious order in Libya, about joining the German war effort. Such news stoked British fears of a Sanussi attack on western Egypt that would likely create a disturbance in other Muslim areas of North Africa. But for his part, the tribal leader, Shaykh al-Sanussi, negotiated with all sides. Also information from Arabia appeared to indicate that the Turks’ initial approaches to tribal chiefs there had failed to enlist their backing for the Porte.
Despite such indications, by the end of 1914 Britain’s leaders in Egypt, India, and elsewhere in the Middle East showed increasing concern for the jihad proclaimed by Turkey and supported by Germany. It is unclear how much influence, if any, this situation exerted on the furious debate that arose in London over Britain’s military strategy. Kitchener had long worried about the danger to Britain’s position in the Middle East posed by an Ottoman-sponsored pan-Islamism, bolstered by German power. He and other so-called “Easterners” in London advanced the idea that in view of the deadly and costly stalemate on the war front in France, the French armies should hold the battle line there while Britain devoted its newly raised armies to attacking the enemy in some more vulnerable spot, preferably in the Middle East.
On the surface of it, the plan seemed brilliant; it aimed at forcing Turkey out of the war, relieving the Serbians and Russians, exerting pressure on the Austro-Hungarian armies, and ending the deadlock in France. Already in early November, the British admiralty, almost completely on its own, ordered a brief naval bombardment of the Ottoman forts in the Dardanelles—a badly mistaken military move that alerted the Turks to begin strengthening defenses of the straits and Gallipoli Peninsula.
Both sides opened the new year, 1915, with military operations. The Ottomans, pressed to do so by the Germans, attacked the Suez Canal. Almost simultaneously, the British, seeking a major military victory against the Ottomans, unleashed a massive assault on Gallipoli. But neither military campaign fared well. Some British leaders, including war minister Kitchener and Cairo military commandant, Sir John Maxwell, downplayed the Ottoman threat to the canal. They emphasized the arrival in Egypt of troops from India, the improved preparation of British forces in Cairo and Alexandria, and the removal of Egyptian garrisons to the Sudan.
Such optimism proved warranted. On 2-3 February 1915, the Turkish VIII Corps, a part of the Ottoman Fourth Army commanded by the Young Turk, Jemal Pasha, and assisted by German advisers, including the dragoman Prüfer, attacked the canal, believing the assault would raise Egyptians in revolt against the British. The attack failed on all counts. Among the causes of the failure, the Turkish campaign received no support from the principal tribal chiefs of Arabia, a fact not lost on the British.
Nevertheless, the abortive Ottoman assault on the canal fueled even more British anxiety about Egypt’s security. On the enemy side, the Germans believed the attack had alarmed the British sufficiently to persuade them to retain large numbers of troops in Egypt, thus removing such forces from the Western Front in Europe. But in fact the campaign against the canal likely diverted British troops less from Europe than from the costly and disastrous British attack on Gallipoli, which began on 19 February. Despite steady departures of Indian, Australian, and New Zealand divisions from Egypt to Gallipoli, the number of men in the Egyptian garrison remained essentially the same, between roughly seventy and a hundred thousand.
But also Britain’s failed assault on Gallipoli escalated British fears of a potentially hostile Muslim world. The landings on the peninsula in April and August resulted in calamity, rebuffed by Ottoman forces with help from German advisers and troops; the attackers suffered massive casualties. Additionally, the slow and difficult progress of Anglo-Indian forces advancing into southern Mesopotamia disturbed Cairo and London. Also farther east, in Persia, Ottoman military thrusts into the country and local German agents there spreading pan-Islamic propaganda, urging the country to enter the war on the German-Ottoman side, appeared to Britain to threaten its rule in India.
Nor was that all. During much of 1915, the Germans hatched repeated schemes to send emissaries through Turkey and western Arabia to the Red Sea, and from there to Abyssinia, the Sudan, and further into Africa. Such agents had orders to distribute arms to Muslims and incite holy war against the British. But most such plots failed. They reflected the wish of Berlin to retaliate against the intense pressure already applied by the British and French to Germany’s colonial holdings in Africa. Anglo-French troops had seized Togoland and the Kamerun, and British and imperial forces had invaded German South-West Africa and East Africa.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, too, concern had grown about the course of the war it sought to wage in the Middle East. Especially worrisome was the lack of enthusiasm among Ottoman Arabs for the German-backed jihad. In addition, many Turks had not received the call for holy war with enthusiasm. Consequently, in April Oppenheim arrived in Constantinople. His subsequent mission in Turkey aimed primarily at rejuvenating what he and other German leaders viewed as unsuccessful German propaganda and intelligence campaigns among Arabs and other Muslims.
In this regard, the most serious question for the Germans involved the loyalty to the Ottomans of the Sharif of Mecca. In late April Oppenheim met twice with Faysal, the sharif’s son. The two concluded an agreement whereby the sharif obligated himself to spread Ottoman and pan-Islamic propaganda and report to the Ottoman leadership on the political situation in Arabia. Both Oppenheim and other German officials expected the meetings and Oppenheim’s other subsequent activities in Turkey to improve the relationship of the sharif to the Porte and its allies. But apparently unknown to Oppenheim, recently Faysal had spent time in Syria with anti-Ottoman Arab nationalists, assessing their strength for his father. In addition, Faysal had visited Constantinople to complain to the Porte about an alleged Ottoman plot to depose the sharif and his family and end their suzerainty over the Hijaz and its Islamic holy places. Beyond meeting with Faysal, Oppenheim also developed plans to use Mesopotamian Arabs for distributing propaganda. In Syria and northern Arabia he established in numerous cities and local German consulates an extensive network of propaganda centers. During June he completed in Syria the creation of a secret organization for sending propaganda and other information into Egypt.
During the next four months, using Damascus as his headquarters, he traveled in rural Syria, parts of the Sinai Peninsula under British control, and southward to near Medina. Dressed like a Bedouin, carrying a considerable supply of money, and accompanied by Prüfer, he stopped in cities, villages, and oases, preaching an inflammatory pan-Islamism and hatred for Christians, especially the British. But his exhortation did little to impress his Arab listeners, nor did the fact that Oppenheim had once been Jewish and that he represented a Christian state. Also his activities fell under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the Ottomans, who disapproved of his mission. Indeed, between the Germans and Ottomans tension and disagreements at nearly every political and military level grew steadily. In Syria, Jemal Pasha, the Young Turk governor of the province and commander of the Ottoman 4th Army, made Oppenheim’s task of rescuing the floundering jihad even more difficult. Jemal began to suspect an anti-Turkish conspiracy among local Arab nationalists. He changed his policy toward them from one of conciliation and appeasement to repression, executing eleven nationalists and sentencing another forty-five to death in absentia. Also he removed Arab military units from Syria, replacing them with Turkish forces.
The British, for their part, had received reports that friction existed between their enemies. In May 1915 Cairo learned of Oppenheim’s mission, but the Residency apparently knew nothing of his meetings with Faysal. Other information arrived in Cairo alleging that Oppenheim, along with German consular officials in Haifa, Aleppo, and northern Syria, encouraged the Ottoman massacre of Armenians.
A Sense of Crisis
By the fall of 1915, the belief spread among British leaders that Britain stood at a critical point in the war in the Middle East. British forces suffered continued military defeat on Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, and the political crises on the borders of both Egypt and India, inspired by German and Turkish agents, reached their peak. An attack in November by the Shaykh al-Sanussi on British outposts in western Egypt coincided with the arrival of German officials in Afghanistan and with the zenith of German-Ottoman anti-British agitation in Persia.
A feeling of urgency gripped key officials in Cairo and London, confirming them in the belief that the Ottoman Empire must not survive in its present form. But in 1915 Britain had to take into account its European allies’ interests in the Middle East as well as its own. In March, London and Paris had concluded the Constantinople Agreement with Russia; it promised the Black Sea straits and the Turkish capital to the Russians in the event of an Allied victory. But the crucial step toward breaking up the Ottoman Empire involved the British government, acting through Sir Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner in Egypt, agreeing in October to the Sharif of Mecca’s demand that Britain support Arab independence from the Turks in Arabia, Mesopotamia, and much of Syria.
According to the agreement and to subsequent exchanges of messages, Cairo and London encouraged Husayn to raise an Arab revolt against the Turks, which Kitchener and the sharif’s son, Abdullah, had discussed during the fall of 1914. Husayn, with his unique position in the Islamic world as guardian of the holy places, and his relative independence, was not only the obvious person to lead an Arab rebellion but also the one who could best counter the effect of the sultan-caliph’s call to jihad.
By then, Cairo’s fear of an anti-British pan-Islamic jihad stretching from Libya to Afghanistan—and thus, possibly even to India—had reached near-epic proportions. On 24 October, McMahon, regarding what he viewed as the seriousness of German activities among Muslims, sent a warning to the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, the day he dispatched his crucial message to the Sharif of Mecca. “German officials and private individuals,” he said, “have in many cases supported the preaching of the Jehad and actively promoted an anti-Christian spirit among Moslems.” Moreover, said the commissioner, German agents in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Libya had created the impression that the German emperor had converted to Islam.
But the most vivid symbol to the British of this widespread menace of pan-Islamism was Oppenheim’s continued presence in Turkey. The German’s activities provided Cairo with further ammunition for its belief that Britain should conclude an alliance with the Arabs. Most notably, Oppenheim caught the attention of Sir Mark Sykes, a key official of Kitchener’s in the War Office charged with responsibility for Middle Eastern Affairs. In June 1915, Sykes had left London on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East and India. But because he possessed a less than expert knowledge of much of the region, already while traveling through the Balkans he had absorbed a good deal of war hysteria, resulting from information, some of it erroneous, about Oppenheim.
Once in Egypt, Sykes reported to London further on Oppenheim, apparently basing much of his information not on hard intelligence, but on what he had heard from a Russian source. He made Oppenheim out to be a larger-than-life figure, calling him “a Jew of great wealth” and “personal friend of the German Emperor’s.” He declared that the German waged a “violent religious war against Great Britain,” and insisted, erroneously, that Oppenheim had headed for Persia and Afghanistan. He concluded his report by declaring that the German would “incite massacres of Armenians in Turkey and do his best to get our isolated people murdered in Persia.”
It is unclear whether Sykes’s view of Oppenheim’s Jewish background and importance was bolstered by the same misconception of other British leaders in Cairo. Gilbert Clayton, the director of the intelligence department at the Residency, and Sir Reginald Wingate, Sirdar of the Egyptian army and governor-general of the Sudan, believed that a group of pro-German Jews controlled the Ottoman government.
But especially Sykes feared the threat of pan-Islamism, which Oppenheim appeared to represent to him. What is known is that, as Sykes arrived in the Middle East during the summer, secret contacts intensified between Clayton, Sir Ronald Storrs, the Oriental secretary at the Cairo Residency, and other officials there, and Arab nationalists demanding Arab independence. Moreover, McMahon continued exchanging messages with the sharif about the latter beginning an Arab revolt.
During October and November, Cairo received reports of Oppenheim’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula and Hijaz. The information accelerated the panic among the British by raising the alarm that Oppenheim might jeopardize Britain’s relationship with the sharif. The German had traveled to within a few miles of Medina and some of Islam’s most holy places before Husayn forced him to leave. News of what had happened came to the British through Abdullah. Clayton, Cairo’s intelligence chief, reported the incident on 12 November to London. He linked Abdullah’s message about Oppenheim’s expulsion from Medina to the readiness and intention of the Arabs to begin hostilities against the Turks.
By the end of 1915, Oppenheim’s pan-Islamist activity had given officials in Cairo a further weapon to help them persuade the London government, over the objections particularly of the Government of India and even some Foreign and War Office officials, to commit itself to the Sharif of Mecca. Furthermore, Cairo’s Arab policy, as Sir Reginald Wingate, the Governor-General of the Sudan, informed Clayton, was dictated by the European situation and by the success of the Central Powers against Russia, which had upset Allied plans in the Balkans and influenced the sharif.
The correspondence between McMahon and the sharif had produced agreement on the territory that would form a future independent Arab state, except for certain vaguely defined lands in Syria where French interests were involved. Britain promised as well to deliver to Husayn supplies of arms at the beginning of 1916, with the understanding that the latter would launch an Arab revolt. These events prompted Sykes and officials in Cairo to form a special agency for Arab affairs, the Arab Bureau, in the local intelligence department. The British government also completed a treaty with Ibn Saud, the leading Arab chieftain in eastern and central Arabia.
Several factors seemed to confirm for British leaders the wisdom of their increasingly pro-Arab policy. These included reports that the Turks now realized they had a serious problem with the sharif and that they intended to conciliate him. Also, by mid-December Sykes returned to London, where major decisions were being made regarding war policy. Already Britain had begun negotiations with France on the latter’s claims not only to Syria but also to Palestine. Sykes now bore in mind the provisions that he was to implement in May 1916 in the controversial Sykes-Picot Agreement with France. In the agreement, unknown to the sharif until November 1917, Sykes concluded with the French a secret deal for the postwar creation of a Greater Arabia for the Arabs and Husayn, but with the interior of the Syrian part under French control, and the British receiving Mesopotamia. The agreement, moreover, made Palestine an international zone.
Sykes arrived back in London an important figure. He argued at the highest levels of the government for the completion of the alliance with the Sharif of Mecca. He warned that the Turks might kill the sharif and replace him with their own nominee as guardian of the holy places. This would result, he claimed, in a “real Jehad” threatening the British not only in Mesopotamia but also in Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and the Sudan.
Ironically, by December 1915, the very crisis Sykes portrayed so passionately to London and which British officials in Cairo believed surrounded them, a crisis caused by the enemies’ pan-Islamic activities and by military defeat in the Dardanelles, had, at least momentarily, eased. British forces in western Egypt turned back the Sanussi uprising, and in Persia the British and Russians regained substantial control over the political situation. Moreover, the amir of Afghanistan still rejected the efforts of the German expedition in Kabul to persuade him to declare war on the British in India. How much these considerations influenced the major military changes made in London at the year’s end, changes that resulted in the transfer of greater numbers of British troops from Egypt to France, is unclear. In any case, the Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, appointed a new head of the Imperial General Staff, William Robertson. Robertson, a so-called “Westerner” who believed the army should concentrate on the main war theater in France, termed the military and political events in the Middle East “sideshows,” unworthy of further important operations.
Soon Robertson replaced the “Easterner” Kitchener as chief military adviser to the British Cabinet. Robertson, displeased at the large numbers of British troops retained in the Middle East, ordered Maxwell “to get every possible man, horse and gun on the Western Front.” Of the fourteen British divisions then in Egypt, nine were sent to France before the opening of the Somme campaign on 1 July 1916. In both Egypt and Mesopotamia Robertson directed his commanders to follow a defensive policy.
1916-18: The Arab Revolt
In another swing of fate in the war, during the first weeks of 1916 deeply discouraging news arrived in London from the Middle East. Britain withdrew its last forces from Gallipoli on 8 January. In Mesopotamia, nearly eighty thousand Turks of the Sixth Army, commanded by a German field marshal, besieged at Kut al-Amara a much smaller number of Anglo-Indians.
Meanwhile, in January and February Britain continued to solidify its alliance with the Arabs. The Sharif of Mecca, although privately uneasy about his negotiations with Britain and about news from Syria, where the Ottoman governor, Jemal Pasha, continued his campaign of terror against Arab nationalists, assured the British of his loyalty. Cairo continued to do its utmost to encourage Husayn to revolt. The sharif, for his part, negotiated also with the Turks, but the latter seemed little concerned about the need to placate him.
On 18 February, the sharif informed Cairo of his satisfaction with the agreement he had reached with Britain. Also, he warned of impending German activity in Arabia and East Africa. He informed McMahon about “the journey of a group of Germans to the coasts of Africa (I think the shores of the Red Sea).” He promised to warn the British of the Germans’ “arrival here” and of their intended “destination.” The sharif had learned of the German mission from his son Faysal, whom the sharif had sent to Damascus to allay Turkish suspicions of Husayn.
When the German mission arrived in Syria, Jemal Pasha delayed it until 2 May. Whether or not the Turks suspected an Arab revolt and genuinely feared for the Germans’ safe travel is unclear. What is known is that Jemal instructed the sharif about the German mission and asked Husayn to ensure its safe passage through the Hijaz. The mission traveled with an Ottoman army unit by railway into the Hijaz desert, but reaching the point beyond which no non-Muslims were allowed, it left the Ottoman unit and traveled along the Red Sea coast. The mission planned to link up with the Ottomans farther down the coast and proceed on to Yemen. From there it would cross the Red Sea to the Sudan and Egypt. There the mission intended to incite anti-British revolts with the grandiose goal of removing pressure from Germany’s beleaguered forces in East Africa.
But on 5 June, as the mission reached Yanbu, the Arab revolt detonated in the Hijaz. The Germans fled for their lives, throwing most of their equipment, including small arms, into the sea. Half the mission managed to escape, while the others died at the hands of Bedouin attackers. Strong evidence shows that the sharif’s alarm over the arrival of the German and Turkish expedition persuaded him to proclaim the revolt at least several weeks before he had planned and before he had received a sufficient supply of arms promised him by the British since the beginning of 1916.
The sharif’s uprising stunned the Turks and Germans, even despite their having received many signs warning them of Husayn’s disaffection and of his friendship with Britain. The revolt added to the tension and divisions among the Germans and Ottomans. While the Ottomans downplayed the Arab rebellion, the uprising caused immediate and widespread concern among German officials. On 4 August, a long-planned second Turkish attack on the Suez Canal—assisted by the German “Pasha” corps—finally began. But like the first such assault, this one too failed badly. It neither disrupted the Arab revolt, nor did it threaten the extension by the British of their military defenses into the Sinai Peninsula and toward Palestine.
During the Arab revolt, both Britain and France supplied arms and advisers—of which the most notorious was the British archaeologist-spy Colonel T.E. Lawrence—to the Arab forces. As for France, Britain’s principal partner in the war, the revolt increased French activity in the Middle East, much to the unease of British officials determined to use the war to expand Britain’s influence in the region even at its ally’s expense. France supported the Arab revolt for several reasons. Politically, the spread of French-backed rebellion among the population of Syria, Palestine, and Armenia could prepare the ground for French intervention and ambitions in the region, especially in Syria. Militarily, the French hoped the revolt would paralyze the Ottoman capacity for war. They also expected the affair to convince a majority of Muslims in France’s African colonies to abandon their support for the Turks in favor of France as the liberator of the holy shrines of Islam. During September 1916 the French sent two missions, one to Jidda and the other to Mecca, to assist Husayn’s military operations and his procurement of weapons.
Notwithstanding the immediate advantages for Britain from the revolt, one should not overestimate its importance in the general history and in the outcome of World War I. Although it contributed by 1918 to accelerating the military defeat of Turkey, particularly with the Arab military operations in Transjordan during the summer and fall, the rebellion, like the other campaigns in the Middle East, remained secondary in comparison to the huge offensives of Germany and the Western Allies in France. Britain would have defeated the Turks without the Arab campaign.
But would the reverse have been true? Could Britain and its allies have triumphed had Arabs followed the urgings of the sultan-caliph and Germans and waged jihad against the Allies? The answer must be pure conjecture; notwithstanding, and as this study has shown, the British before and during the world war feared pan-Islamism significantly and the possibility of its holy war directed against them. The British promoted the Arab revolt principally because they were worried by 1915 and early 1916 that the Turks, assisted by a powerful Germany, were about to raise the Muslim world from North Africa to Afghanistan in a fanatical insurrection against Britain. Even before the world war, visions of pan-Islamism inciting widespread native and anti-British revolts in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and India had horrified British officials. Their anxiety, heightened especially by the disastrous defeats of the British at the Dardanelles and in Mesopotamia, forced Britain to keep nearly a half-million troops in the Middle East throughout much of the war. One can only speculate on the impact such forces might have had on the course of the fighting in France.
Finally, one could argue that the paranoia caused the British by the alleged threat to their empire by pan-Islamism contributed to the numerous wartime secret agreements and overt promises on the Middle East concluded by Britain with the Arabs, French, and—resulting from the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 — Jews. These decisions formed the basis of the postwar settlements in the Middle East, an eventual series of actions, signed agreements, and documents dating principally from 1921 and 1922. The controversial settlements, resented especially by numerous Arabs, dismantled the Ottoman Empire, leaving a Turkey reduced in size to Anatolia.
In the short term, the “peace to end all peace” helped Britain preserve its hold over Egypt and India, and even expand its empire in the Middle East. It received League of Nations mandates to rule Palestine, including Transjordan. In the Palestine portion of the mandate Britain had promised the Jews a “National Home” with full rights for non-Jews. Also Britain established a protectorate over Iraq (Mesopotamia). A new political entity, the Hijaz, acted as a British client; and farther north and east in Arabia, Ibn Saud governed with power that had been strengthened by the war. The League gave France a mandate to rule Syria and Lebanon. The Arabs emerged from the settlement deeply disappointed. They had contributed substantially to the Allied triumph over the Turks, and the sharif had received wartime promises from Britain of a large independent Arab state and territorial sovereignty that now remained unfulfilled. But few Britons at the time, or anyone else, realized the full extent of the serious problems the war and postwar peace in the Middle East created for Britain and the world.