The Arab Revolt in the Hejaz 1916

The reason for the Royal Flying Corps involvement in the Arab Revolt are outlined here. It is intended to give some idea of the causes of the revolt, the operations which took place, both by air and land forces, and the points arising from the Sykes-Picot Treaty which would have been disputed by the Hashimite Family.

For some ten years or more prior to the outbreak of the Great War, there had been a feeling of unrest among the Syrians and the nomadic tribes in the Hejaz owing to the corrupt form of government; the ruling classes had few friends in the sparsely populated district of the Red Sea littoral which then formed part of the Turkish Empire, and taxes would be paid only when the presence of large bodies of troops left no other alternative. The Syrians were much worse off; the location of the IVth Army Headquarters at Damascus with the continual presence of Turkish troops throughout Syria enabled the Government to keep a firm grip on the country.

Societies sprang into existence at Beirut and Damascus whose aims were purely literary, but the Turks saw in this a threat to their authority, and in 1909 they were suppressed. This state of affairs did not last for very long; secret societies took their places, this time with definite political aims; the overthrow of the Turks and the setting up of an Arab Government. The leading society was the Katania which envisaged the formation of an Arab Army and the attainment of Home Rule by Force.

The movement in the South was led by Hussain of the Hashimite family who had been appointed Sherif of Mecca in 1908; he displayed energy and ambition by reviving dormant sherifial authority over the Bedouin tribes of West Central Arabia. As early as 1913 he formed an abortive plan for obtaining the secession of the Hejaz by holding up pilgrims to Mecca until the Powers should be forced to intervene. In the early part of 1914, he sent his second son Abdullah, who represented Mecca in the Ottoman Chamber, to Cairo to discover what our attitude would be in the event of a revolutionary move on his part, but nothing came of it.

On the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Turkey in November 1914, Hussain sent Feisal, his third son, to Constantinople to see exactly what the Turkish position was, as regards their ability to cope with a revolt in the Hejaz. Feisal reported unfavourably on the British prospects, but he took the opportunity of having talks with the leading Syrians on his way down South. About this time there was a series of executions and deportations of suspect Syrians, which only further incensed those who were left.

Hussain got into communication with Lord Kitchener with a view to obtaining some material aid, but owing to the diversity of opinion in England over the opening up of further theatres of war, and the impossibility of employing British troops in such a climate, nothing was forthcoming. So Hussain contented himself with stiffening his attitude towards the Turkish Authorities, and reducing their control gradually to a cipher outside the towns. In July, 1915 however, upon receipt of overtures from the Syrians, he reopened correspondence with Cairo, posing as the spokesman of Arab Nationalism.

Here a review of the military situation will give some idea of the forces which were likely to come up against the Arabs. In Mecca was a small force of infantry and military police, but owing to the railway line to the North terminating at Medina this force would probably be left isolated on the outbreak of hostilities. At Medina was a force of 14,000 comprising all arms, with a detachment at Jeddah, the port of Mecca; at Tebuk, 5,000 of all arms; at Maan, 5,000 together with one flight of aircraft, whilst at Amman was a force (strength unknown) together with large supplies for the garrisons to the South. At about twenty mile intervals throughout the railway line from Amman to Medina were small garrisons of about one hundred strong which were responsible for the safety of the railway line within their own sectors. At Akaba was a force of about 3,000 troops with sixteen guns for the defence of that port, and also to act as a threat to the Southern end of the Canal via Nikol.

All these troops which were part of the IVth Turkish Army, were well disciplined and equipped, but owing to the presence of considerable numbers of Syrians in the Ranks, their loyalty was not to be depended upon in a conflict in which the Syrian Nationalist question was at stake.

The area in which the operations took place was bounded in the North by a line drawn East and West through Damascus, to the South and Jeddah, to the West by the line Dead Sea, Akaba and East coast of the Red Sea and to the East by Longitude 40: Reference to the map shows that the area is divided roughly into two parts, the coastal and inland regions, divided by a mountainous belt running North and South about twenty miles broad situated about five miles inland from the Red Sea coast. The region to the East of these mountain ranges is flat desert sand with the Hejaz railway line, Damascus to Medina, with its attendant pilgrim route forming the only means of communication North to South. Mecca with Jeddah as its seaport are the only two towns of any importance, the former containing the Shrine of Mohammed and the latter being the port of disembarkation for all pilgrims arriving by sea. Mecca, Medina and Jeddah are connected solely by camel tracks over which it is possible for light motor traffic to pass in dry weather. The whole country is, generally speaking, of a barren nature, it only affording grazing for moving flocks of sheep and camels. All other forms of food must be imported, mainly through Jeddah, Yenbo, Wedj and down the railway tracks from Syria.

The remainder of 1915 was occupied by a slow interchange of communications which in early 1916 crystallised into definite requests on the part of the Arabs and promises on the part of the British Authorities of the Arab Bureau ( The department which dealt with all Arab questions and was located in Cairo ). An armed rising was to take place in the name of Arab Nationalism and the stage of preparation considered necessary was to be reached in the Autumn of 1916.

In the latter end of May, 1916 Faisal discovered that Turkish preparations were being made for a picked force to co-operate with the German mission in the Yemen under Von Stotzingen; he immediately advised his father Hussain to anticipate the march of the Turkish troops. The result was the outbreak of the revolt on the 5th of June, 1916, at least three months before proper plans had been completed, or preparations could possibly be made.

Immediate action on the part of the tribes living in the Southern Hejaz brought about the downfall of the garrisons at Mecca, Taif, Lith, and Jeddah, but beyond this nothing was done, and the revolt was reduced to a state of stalemate. Hitherto there had been no direct contact between the Arabs and the British Authorities beyond the British Consul who was located at Jeddah; to obtain this contact Lawrence, then a junior staff officer in the Intelligence Section of G.H.Q. Cairo, was sent down to Jeddah. He was to discover if there was a leader , one around whom the tribes would rally and push the revolt through to a successful conclusion. Faisal was the man selected by Lawrence to perform this duty, the former giving all his requirements whilst the latter promised to place these requirements before G.H.Q. in Egypt.

On arrival in Cairo, Lawrence was ordered to return to the Hejaz to carry out liaison work between Faisal and G.H.Q., work which eventually turned out to mean that he acted as Chief Staff Officer to Faisal.

The Arab forces available at this stage were roughly as follows:-

1st Group under Sherif Ali. 8,000 tribesmen located to the South of Medina.

2nd Group under Sherif Abdullah 4,000 tribesmen located to the East and North of Medina.

3rd Group under Sherif Faisal 9,000 tribesmen and Syrian deserters from the Turkish Army located to the West of Medina.

The operations round Medina continued with varying success until the Autumn of 1916 it was decided by Lawrence to move Northwards and attack Wedj with a view to using it as a base for operations against the Turkish lines of communication from Damascus to Medina. It had become quite obvious that with the forces at his disposal, Faisal could not hope to capture Medina - its garrison was too strong and too well equipped for the badly organised Arabs to capture. So it was decided to keep the commander of Medina merely occupied by a series of feint attacks whilst cutting the railway line linking him with the main forces in Syria. Faisal began to realise that the fate of the Hejaz hung on the result of the Palestine battles, and that he could best help the British force by containing as many Turkish troops as possible, and by keeping the Turkish Headquarters continually on the " qui vive ". Costly assaults on Medina were therefor unnecessary, and Abdullah and Ali confined their efforts to annoying the Turks as much as possible, whilst avoiding casualties to the utmost.

Faisal therefore withdrew from West of Medina to Yenbo, and, after refitting and reorganising his tribes he proceeded North towards Wedj, the Royal Indian Marine Ship Hardinge " acting as store ship, and various vessels of the Red Sea fleet proceeding direct to cover the town with their guns. All these ship movements were arranged by Rear Admiral W.E.D. Boyle in collaboration with Lawrence. Owing to lack of water, the Arab advance on Wedj was delayed, and on their arrival, they found that the Turks had hastily evacuated the place and that Marines landed from the fleet were in possession. Lawrence now proceeded to Cairo to inform G.H.Q. of the needs in arms, ammunition, money and food supplies and whilst he was there it came to Sir Archibald Murray's notice that there were more Turkish troops fighting the Arabs than were fighting him. The Arab revolt was therefore , from a British point of view entirely fulfilling its raison d'etre.

The time spent at Wedj was used for organising the available personnel into some semblance of an army. Many prisoners who had been taken on the Palestine and Mesopotamian fronts, Syrians in the main were volunteering to participate in the revolt. They were paid 2-10-0 per month, clothed in a form of khaki uniform, armed with the British Short Lee-Enfield rifle, fed, and supplied with S.A.A. ad lib. Proper battalions were formed having the establishments of British battalions, but a formation equivalent to a Brigade or Division was not attempted. The Commander-In-Chief was Jaafa Pasha ( who was the Premier of Iraq at that time) who had been captured during the Senussi rising.

Whilst this was going on, demolition parties under the direction of British officers, were destroying culverts and cutting the rails on the Hejaz line round about Diraa.

Lawrence now turned his eyes further North, the objective being the capture of Akaba, with a view to using it as a base, and forming a loose right flank to the British forces in Palestine, but the persuasion of the Arab chiefs was very uphill work. Lawrence in his book "The Revolt in the Desert" says :- If they suspected that we wanted to drive them, either they were mulish or they went away. If we comprehended them, then they would go to great pains for our pleasure. Whether the results achieved were worth the effort, no man could tell. Englishmen accustomed to greater returns, would not, and indeed, could not, have spent the time, thought and tact lavished every day by Sheikhs and Emirs for such meagre ends. Arab processes were clear, Arabs minds moved logically as our own, with nothing radically incomprehensible or different, except the premises: there was no excuse or reason, except our laziness and ignorance, whereby we could call them inscrutable or Oriental, or leave them misunderstood. The arrival of Auda Abu Tayi from the region to the east of Maan helped things forward. The great personality of the man, his renowned leadership, and his extraordinary ability as a fighting man, gave those chiefs and tribes whose feeling for the Arab cause was only lukewarm, just that impetus which was required. In addition, his tribe the Howeitat, were of the finest fighting stock in Arabia, and they were thoroughly conversant with the territory through which it was intended to launch the attack on Akaba. It was to be an extreme example of a turning movement, since it involved a march of six hundred miles to capture a position which lay under the guns of a fleet lying at the head of the Gulf of Akaba. To have attacked the place from the south along the coast road would have been futile: all the defences were facing S. and S.W. and in addition they were far too strong for an irregular force such as was at the disposal of Faisal.

By the 9th May 1917 everything was ready, and in the afternoon the expedition set out. It was made up of the various leaders of the Revolt - Lawrence, Sherif Nasin of Medina, Nesib El Bekri of Damascus who was to represent Faisal to the Syrians, Auda Abu Tayi from the east of Maan, all with their various escorts. The main body was to be picked up in Nebk area, where the Howeitat tribe was grazing and waiting for their leader Auda.

The railway was crossed at Dizad about twenty miles North east of Diraa, and here the line was cut , and the telegraph wires broken by a simple mean of cutting them and attaching the ends to several camels, the beasts then being driven until the weight of uprooted telegraph poles precluded any further movement. The march continued on through Arfaja towards Nebk, where eventually Auda'S men were located.

Arrangements were made with Nuri-Shalaan the Emir of the Jafar-Azrak area to shelter all the women and children of the Howeitat whilst the fighting men were away, and also to take care of the flocks.

The little of about 500 strong set out from Nebk on the 19th June, 1917, found the wells at Bair destroyed and had to push on to Jafar Flats where the Howeitat had a series of large wells suitable for the supply of large numbers. These wells too were destroyed, but after several hours work, the largest of them was dug out and all that night the camels were being watered. It was of vital importance that the force should push on to Abu Lisan, the key position to the Akaba road, since the camp at Jafar was under observation during the daytime from the outpost of Maan. But the watch was careless because the Turkish garrison believed water impossible either here or at Bair. So the day was spent resting whilst scouts went out towards the Negb in the neighbourhood of Abulisan. In the evening, the force started out, and after driving off the garrison of Ghadir El Haj proceeded toward Abu Lisan.

At dawn this latter place was attacked and by night it was captured, the Turkish losses being 300 killed and 100 prisoners, many of them wounded. Gueria and Khadra fell in quick succession, the Arab force now found themselves in possession of the seaward ends of the Wadi Itham gorge, with the Turkish garrison of Akaba between them and the British vessels lying at the head of the Gulf. The Turkish Command found his position desperate, and after some parleying surrendered with his entire garrison.

The position now was that the Arabs were now completely spent, without food or ammunition and 700 Turkish prisoners on their hands. Help was necessary and that quickly. So Lawrence immediately started out to Suez and after an amazing effort arrived in Egypt and arranged for food and ammunition supplies to be shipped immediately to Akaba.

As this occupation of Akaba marks a definite stage in this little campaign, the transference of the Arab effort from the southern Hejaz to the operations on the right flank of the British forces in Palestine, it is proposed to here make mention of the part which the Royal Flying Corps took in the southern operations.

In the early part of 1917, "C" Flight No. 14 Squadron moved to Rabegh, then Wedj and from those places carried out reconnaissance of the railway line. But these do not appear to have been utilised very much by the personnel making raids against the railway and the small garrisons stationed thereon. They would have been of great value in giving an " all clear " for demolition parties and would therefor have enabled these latter to work in comparative security. Bomb raids were also carried out against small railway stations and various culverts, but without any decisive result. The main value of the aircraft lay in the moral effect they had upon the Arabs: they believed they could achieve almost the impossible, and they were happy in the knowledge that Turkish machines used occasionally to come south from Maan and bomb them, now kept away. I believe that if it had not been for these aircraft, the Arab revolt might have completely caved in. Then again, they were of great value in carrying officers about from place to place, journeys if performed by the normal means of communication i.e. camel, would have taken days of extremely uncomfortable travel. We must therefore admit that in the absence of any material results, the Flight completely justified its existence.

When the Arabs moved off for the attack on Akaba, the Flight was moved to Egypt for refitting. It made its appearance again at Akaba in the latter part of 1917 under the title of "X" Flight.