T.E. Lawrence reports on Arab affairs - HISTORY
Year
1916

T.E. Lawrence reports on Arab affairs

On November 26, 1916, Thomas Edward Lawrence, a junior member of the British government’s Arab Bureau during World War I, publishes a detailed report analyzing the revolt led by the Arab leader Sherif Hussein against the Ottoman Empire in the late spring of 1916.

As a scholar and archaeologist, the future “Lawrence of Arabia” traveled extensively in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and parts of Turkey before beginning working formally with the British government’s bureau on Arab affairs in 1916. At the time, the Arab Bureau was working to encourage a revolt by the Muslim and Arabic-speaking population of the Ottoman Empire in order to aid the Allied war effort. The leader of the planned revolt would be Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, ruler of the Hejaz, the region in modern-day Saudi Arabia containing the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Hoping to remain neutral and collect bribes from both sides, Hussein remained undecided in the war until April 1916, when he learned Ottoman leaders were sending a German-Turkish force to depose him. Wanting to strike first, Hussein declared a revolt in the Hejaz sometime between June 5 and 10, seeking the protection of the British Royal Navy along the coast of the Hejaz.

Around that same time, at Lawrence’s suggestion, the Arab Bureau published its first informational bulletin, featuring the observations and insights of the hopeful British organizers and backers of Hussein’s revolt. It soon became clear, as documented by the Arab Bulletin, that the British considered Hussein’s revolt to be a dismal failure. In his report of November 26, 1916, Lawrence gave his analysis of the situation: “I think one company of Turks, properly entrenched in open country, would defeat the Sherif’s armies. The value of the tribes is defensive only, and their real sphere is guerrilla warfare…[they are] too individualistic to endure commands, or fight in line, or help each other. It would, I think, be impossible to make an organized force out of them.”

Despite his derisive view of Hussein’s troops, Lawrence made clear his admiration for the sherif himself, as well as for his three elder sons, Ali, Feisal and Abdullah, praising them as “heroes.” He became close to Feisal in particular, and by early December 1916 he had joined Arab troops in the field, where he spent the rest of the war attempting, with varying degrees of success, to organize the disparate tribesmen into fighting units that would pose a real threat to the Ottoman enemy.

At the post-war peace conference in Paris in 1919, the victorious Allies failed to grant full independence to the various Arab peoples, instead placing them under British and French control according to the mandate system imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. While his son, Feisal, was crowned king of the new state of Iraq, Hussein himself ended up losing control of Mecca and the Hejaz to the rival Saudi clan in the 1920s. Meanwhile, T.E. Lawrence–who had accompanied Feisal Hussein’s Arab delegation to Versailles–resigned from his post in Britain’s colonial office in the Middle East, disgusted by the Allies’ failure to fulfill their promise of Arab independence. He lived much of the rest of his life in obscurity, dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

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