Arab Role in WW I

What role did the Arab population play in World War I?

The Ottoman Empire dominated by the Turks took sides with the Central Powers in World War 1 to stand up against the allies, and it allowed the Emir of Mecca to take this opportunity up as liberation of Arab lands from the Turkish rule and sided with the French and the British.


Britain attacked Gallipoli, an area south of Istanbul, in March 1915 with the intention of diverting Ottoman Turks from supporting Germany. The British Army faced defeat and witnessed losses of huge nature and it was at this time that Britain got an impulse of taking the vast Arab empire under Ottoman rule under its own rule after the war. For their ever-clever ideas, British government decided to seek an agent that will work for detaching Arabs from Turks. These efforts brought out Hussein as a leading contact for British. This led to Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which although promised Arab independence, did not bind either party in a legal accession. Sharif Hussein launched “Arab revolt” on June 5, 1916 and started to be known as “King of the Arabs”.

Last of the Hashemite Sharifians, King of the Arabs and Emir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein bin Ali reined over Mecca, the Hijaz and Medina, like his ancestors who enjoyed a sovereign rule from 1201 to 1925. Hussein took up the Arab Revolt as he aspired to establish an independent Arab empire that would stretch from Syria (Aleppo) to Yemen (Aden).

T. E. Lawrence, also known as, Lawrence of Arabia, was a military intelligence officer in Cairo and was sent by the British to Mecca on an inquiry mission which led to him becoming the British liaison officer to the Arabs. “Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph” and “Revolt in the Desert” are two of his very famous literary works in which he has chronicled the account of revolt.

The Hashemite Army was divided into among three of Hussein’s sons; Amir Ali, with headquarters of his Southern Army in Rabigh; Amir Abdullah, with headquarters of his Eastern Army in Wadi Ais and Amir Faysal, with the operational base of his Northern Army stationed at Bir Jaydah.

Positioned at around 50 miles West of Hijaz Railway, Amir Faysal succeeded in capturing Aqaba on July 6, 1917, marking a spectacular victory in the Arab Revolt, spreading a fear among the Turkish Army which was operating against the British. This success led to armies moving further and capturing of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.

Till next year, in 1918, Arab Army had gained more strength and was doing all it could to uproot Ottoman Turks. Late that year, victory felt at hand and Ottoman Army began to surrender and retreat to British troops. Sharif Naser from the Hashemite rule and an ally of Arab Revolt was the first one to reach Damascus with his forces, followed by Nuri Sha’lan of the Ruwallah tribe. However, these troops remained outside the city, awaiting the arrival of Sharif Hussein. They were joined by Australian troops and T. E. Lawrence later that day.

United Kingdom had agreed to allow independence to Arab lands if they sided with them against Ottoman Turks in Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. However, the British did not keep their word divided up Arab lands among themselves and the French in a way which was unfavorable to the Arabs. Matters went grimmer with the Balfour Declaration of the 1917 which declared a promise to Jews to make arrangements for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Hijaz region in Western Arab became an independent state under the rule of Hussein, later to be conquered by Saudi Arabia.

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