Arabian Peninsula

Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century
German map of the Arabian Peninsula and northeast Africa

Arabia was a part of the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century, although the Sublime Porte had never managed to establish absolute sovereignty over the peninsula. Arab tribes, who were leading a nomadic life, were not only refusing to obey the ruler in the distant Istanbul, but they were also raiding imperial property and frequently rebelling against Ottoman governors. Istanbul did not have the military force to deter the Arabs from raiding and rebelling against the Empire and, more importantly, it had failed to establish the socio-economic conditions, which would enable the locals’ transition from a nomadic life-style to a settled one, as well. Uprisings began to break out, particularly in mountainous strongholds and regions that were out of the reach of the government in Istanbul. For a long time, the only thing that the government could do was to make payments to certain tribes to prevent them from taking up the arms and, most importantly, to prevent them from attacking the pilgrims making their way to Mecca.

Map showing the route of Hejaz Railway

In 1910 and 1911, the Arabian Peninsula was, together with Syria, one of the major centers of unrest within the Ottoman Empire. In the latter case, local uprisings were triggered by the implementation of government policies that were perceived to be threatening local leaders’ privileges. In the Arabian Peninsula, on the other hand, Arab leaders’ main motivation as to resist the centralizing measures of the government, such as census registration, taxation and the Hejaz Railway, which was connecting Damascus to Medina and was in operation since 1908. As the unrest was escalating, the Sublime Porte decided that it had to adopt a tougher stance with regard to the events unfolding in this part of the Empire.

Turkish officers with the members of a local tribe in Yemen | "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri" (Istanbul Military Museum)

In the summer of 1910, a group of Druzes, who were living in the East Jordan region, began to raid Ottoman settlements. Istanbul deployed a force commanded by Faruk Sami Pasha to deal with this uprising. Having suppressed the Druze uprising, Faruk Sami’s forces moved to Transjordania to deal with Bedouin rebels. After this expedition was finished, the government began to invest more to improve the socio-economic conditions in this region.

The situation was a little different further south in Asir and Najd, which were under the control of the Saud family. In 1910, the Sublime Porte increased its military presence and strengthened its administration in these regions, where the government was also counting on the loyalty of certain local notables, such as Ibn Rashid of Najd and Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who were fighting against the Sauds.

Turkish troops in Yemen | "Birinci Dünya Savaşı'nda Türk Askeri Kıyafetleri (T.Örses & N.Özçelik)

Further south, in far-away Yemen, where the Empire’s hold was tenuous and the hereditary ruler of the region, Imam Yahya, who was also enjoying the support of the Shiite population had revolted. In 1910, he declared a holy war against the Ottoman Empire. The government responded by sending a major force under the command of Ahmet İzzet Pasha. Major İsmet Bey (later İsmet İnönü) wrote in his memoirs that Ahmet İzzet Pasha obtained the support of local sheiks and ordered an offensive against the rebels. It has then taken only ten days to reach and San’a, but it would take several months more to clean off all of Yemen. According to İsmet Bey, the main opponent of the Ottoman forces was not Imam Yahya but an outbreak of cholera. After a series of battles during 1911, the two sides decided for a peace. Imam Yahya was to keep his autonomy as well as his religious and political influence and he would receive financial concessions as well. In return, no guns were to be fired in Yemen.

Hejaz and the Holy Places

Hejaz had a special place among all the provinces in the Arabian Peninsula, since it was home to the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Since the Abbasid era, the most powerful figure in this region was the Sharif of Mecca, who was the head of the sharifs representing Prophet Mohammad’s family of Hashim and the traditional steward of the two holy cities. In 1517, after the Ottoman Sultan Selim II conquered Syria and Egypt, the Sharif of Mecca had acknowledged the supremacy of the Ottoman caliph, but maintained a great degree of local autonomy. From this time onwards, Hejaz was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman governors, but the effective rulers were the Hashemite grand sharifs.

Fahreddin Paşa and Basri Paşa with the chief of the Shammar Tribe, Ibn-ur-Rashid | "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri" (Istanbul Military Museum)

It was in November 1908, when Sayyid Hussein Bin Ali was appointed by Istanbul as the new Sharif of Mecca. As soon as he took the office, Sharif Hussein began to collaborate with Ottoman administrators, military and civilian, to help them with the uprisings in the peninsula. He fought, among others, against Ibn Saud and Idrisi of Asir, who were not only rebelling against the Empire, but also jeopardizing Hussein’s quest for predominance in the Arabian Peninsula. He wanted to prove to the Sultan and the Sublime Porte that he was a reliable ally, but at the same time he was not sympathetic towards the government’s centralization efforts and reforms in the region, because he considered these to be a threat against his unchallenged local power.

As the war was dawning, the government in Istanbul was investing more and more in good relations with Arab tribes. The CUP government had consolidated its power and it was valuing the services of Sharif Hussein in restoring the order in the region and winning the hearts and minds of the Arabs. By 1914, dissidence among Arabs was either resolved, shelved or exiled. However, it has to be noted, that Istanbul was not alone in its efforts to increase influence on the Arab world. There was competition: Britain.

The year 1914 saw an intensification of the competition between Istanbul and London for the allegiance of Arab tribes and the emergence of rumors of an Arab alliance under an Arab caliph. At the same time there were contacts between Hussein’s son Sharif Abdullah and the British authorities in Egypt. Feeling the need to remind Hussein that Hejaz was still Ottoman territory, the Sublime Porte appointed Colonel Vehib Bey to the dual post of governor and commander of the armed forces in Hejaz in January 1914.

Camel transport used by Turkish troops | Harp Mecmuası

As soon as Vehib Bey was in Medina, he found himself in direct conflict with Sharif Hussein, since they could not agree on priorities and jurisdiction. This was not what Istanbul wanted. Hussein was still valuable as an ally, but he had to be kept under control. Vehib Bey repeatedly sent reports to Istanbul, asking for Sharif Hussein to be dismissed, because he “desired the downfall of the state” and “would not forego the smallest opportunity to cooperate with the enemy if there was a hostile attack against the Red Sea coast.”

Upon entering the war, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet Reşad, who was at the same time the Caliph of all Muslims in the world, issued a “jihad”, holy war, against the Triple Entente. Since 1913, the government was resorting on Islamic propaganda in the Arab provinces and with the call for jihad now all Muslims were asked to fight together with the Sultan’s troops. The jihad was not meant to pit the Muslims of the world against Christian powers, since the Ottoman Empire was itself allied with two of them, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Rather, as Hasan Kayalı wrote, it was “designed to increase domestic support for the government’s war efforts and to provide an obstacle to the Entente’s mobilization campaign”. The Entente's campaign as mentioned by Kayalı included British efforts to increase its influence on Arab tribes and to motivate them to fight against the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish doctor taking care of a wounded soldier

Sharif Hussein blessed the jihad in Mecca, however he had doubts about whether he should join the jihad himself or side with British interests. This is why he embarked on, in Kayalı’s words, a “waiting game”, during which he maintained contact with both sides.

Cemal Pasha Arrives

In December 1914, Cemal Pasha undertook the command of the Fourth Army in Damascus and began to prepare his expedition on the Suez Canal. He asked Hussein to participate in this expedition in command of his Bedouin forces. Hussein was hesitant; he did not commit himself, but pledged to send units under the command of his son Sharif Ali.

A Turkish outpost along the Hejaz Railway

In February 1915, as Cemal was moving towards Suez, taking with the bulk of Ottoman forces stationed in Hejaz, Hussein assured Enver Pasha that he would protect the Caliph’s (i.e. the Ottoman Sultan’s) interests in the holy places, as long as attacks on his own position are not tolerated. By that time, the person whom Hussein saw as the main source of such attacks, Vehib Bey, was appointed as the commander of the Third Army in the Caucasus and left Hejaz.

Cemal’s expedition to the Suez Canal ended in disappointment and as soon as he was back in Damascus, in May 1915, he was granted emergency powers. Having found “evidence” about dissident activities of Arab opponents in the French consulates in Beirut and Damascus that were closed down, Cemal Pasha began to prosecute Arab cultural and political leaders. A Francophile Maronite priest was publicly executed for treason against the Empire, and this was followed by trial at the military court in Aleyh of eleven Beiruti leaders, who were hanged on August 21, 1915 in the town square.

Cemal Pasha continued to establish a reign of terror and conduct reprisals against Arab opponents. At the end of May, Sharif Faisal, another son of Hussein, visited Cemal Pasha and told him that his family is ready to fight for the Ottoman cause. On July 10, Hussein himself gave similar assurances to Cemal Pasha. At the same time Hussein was also in contact with Enver, who thanked the Sharif for his services, asked him to organize an Islamic Society and spread Islamic propaganda in the region and provided him with money and arms.

Cemal Paşa with Arab leaders in Damascus | Australian War Memorial

Four days after assuring Cemal Pasha his loyalty to the jihad, Sharif Hussein commenced his secret correspondence with the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, whose intention was to weaken the Ottoman war effort by opening a new front at its rear. This correspondence would continue until January 1916 and result in an alliance of the Sharif and Britain against the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish officers from the Medina Division | "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri" (Istanbul Military Museum)

However, it would be wrong to say that the Turks were in total negligence of Hussein’s aims. The Ottoman governor in Medina, Basri Pasha was sending reports stating that he is suspicious of Sharif Ali, who is openly involved in anti-Ottoman propaganda among the tribes, and he believes that the good-will shown by the Sharifs is nothing but a cover up aimed at winning time. Similarly, Cemal Pasha was also anticipating that things could go wrong in Hejaz and the Sharifs were not to be trusted. For this reason, he sent Fahreddin Pasha, commander of the XII Corps to Medina.

According to an article in Temps newspaper, Sharif Hussein had made a deal with the British as early as January 1, 1916 and he waiting for an opportunity to declare his revolt. At that time, if I had been aware of the situation, I would immediately have Sharif Faisal arrested in Damascus and Sharif Ali arrested in Medina. I would even send a Turkish division to Mecca to detain Sharif Hussein and his other sons. In that way I could have this cursed rebellion suppressed before it even broke out. However, I had no concrete evidence whatsoever to prove the wrongdoings of these traitors. (Cemal Pasha in his memoirs)

Arab Revolt

Hejaz Operations 1916-1917

By May 1916, it was clear for Cemal Pasha what Hussein’s intentions were. He cabled Basri Pasha and Fahreddin Pasha, asking them to take defensive positions, to strengthen the positions along the railway and to avoid by all means firing the first shot. On May 22, reinforcements departed from Syria towards Medina. On the night of May 23/24, the first shot was fired by Hussein’s forces. Arab rebels attacked the Ottoman outposts around Medina, thus starting what was to be known as the Arab Revolt. A few days later, the rebels began to shell the city of Jiddah, supported by artillery fire from the British fleet in the Red Sea. The Ottoman garrisons in Jiddah, consisting of two infantry regiments and one mountain battery, could resist only for one week.

Fahreddin Paşa, his staff and Arab leaders during a religious ceremony

Ottoman reinforcements arrived in Medina on May 31 and the Hejaz Expeditionary Force was established under the command of Fahreddin Pasha. It was to face Hussein’s forces of around 50,000 men, who had less than 10,000 rifles. These men were mostly the nomads of Arabian deserts, since the inhabitants of cities like Mecca, Taif and Jiddah did not show much interest for Hussein’s cause. As David Fromkin wrote: “support for the revolt was confined to Hejaz and some adjacent tribal areas; his (Hussein’s) supporters consisted of a few thousand tribesmen, subsidized by the British exchequer, and a handful of non-Hejazi officers, who were either Allied prisoners of war or émigrés residing in British controlled territory.” However, Arabs’ military success continued. By the end of September 1916, rebels had taken the coastal cities of Rabegh, Yenbo and Qunfida.

Camel cavalry during a rest break

Facing Hussein’s repeated success, the Ottoman government decided to fight the war on two fronts. On the propaganda front, intensive efforts were commenced in Arab provinces to discredit Hussein. To pursue this campaign, Sharif Haydar was appointed as the new and legitimate Emir of Mecca, and he took office in Medina in August 1916.

Turkish artillery in Arab desert | Harp Mecmuası

On the military front, the Turks were planning to switch from the defensive to the offensive and capture Mecca, which was in the hands of Hussein’s forces. On September 14, 1916, Enver Pasha met with Cemal Pasha in Syria and discussed this issue. They needed forces in Palestine to fight against the British. Therefore, the plan to attack towards Mecca was given up; instead a defensive stance focusing on Medina was to be maintained.

Fahreddin Paşa and soldiers at Rawda-al-Mutahhara in Medina | Ottoman History Pictures Archive

The situation was worsening, both in Palestine and in Hejaz. The Arab rebels were supported by the British, who in October 1916 sent an officer to work with the Arabs. This man was Captain T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence obtained assistance from the British fleet to repulse Ottoman attack on Yenbo in December 1916. He also convinced Arab leaders (i.e. Hussein’s sons Faisal and Abdullah) to co-ordinate their actions in support of British strategy and to focus on the Hejaz Railway instead of the city of Medina. On January 3, 1917, Faisal’s forces began an advance northward along the Red Sea coast towards Wejh. The Ottoman garrison in the city could resist only for two days and had to withdraw towards Medina.

By early 1917, Arab rebels had won the upper hand in the Arabian Peninsula. They were not only superior in numbers, but they had established an effective logistics system for carrying food and water as well. On the other side, Turks were retreated to a defensive position in Medina with small detachments scattered along the Hejaz Railway. Given the desperateness of the situation Enver Pasha and Cemal Pasha decided to evacuate Hejaz and concentrate on Palestine.

But emotionally, it was not an easy thing to abandon the holy cities of Islam, which had been under Ottoman control for almost four centuries. Sultan Mehmet Reşad, supported by Talat Pasha and Fahreddin Pasha, managed to persuade Enver and Cemal on this matter. The final decision was to stay in Hejaz and to defend Medina at all costs. Only the sick and wounded were to leave and they would take with themselves the holy relics of Islam to Istanbul. Other than those, the army was to stay and fight. Another person to leave Medina, for security reasons, was the Emir of Mecca, Sharif Haydar, who left on March 14, 1917.

Defending Medina

Medina was under siege. Sharif Abdullah had established his headquarters near Medina and he was blocking the roads leading to the city, so that the Turks could receive no supplies or reinforcements. The remaining Turkish forces were doing their best defend the city as well as stations along the railway, which were under the attack of Arab camel cavalry, supported by the British, who were inflicting damages on Turkish positions. Lawrence was not only providing strategic support for the Arabs, he was also contacting the tribes, which had remained outside the revolt, and recruiting them by paying them in gold.

Fahreddin Paşa inspecting a unit in Medina | "Medine Müdafaası" (N.K. Kıcıman)

On July 12, 1917, Aqaba, the only remaining Ottoman port on the Red Sea, fell to the Arab forces, which made it easier for the Arabs to receive British supplies. After the fall of Aqaba, Lawrence went to Cairo, where he met with General Allenby and arranged the cooperation of Arab rebels with British forces to the north in Palestine. This meant that the direction of the war had changed. Hejaz and Palestine was connected and the Arab Revolt was now proceeding towards Syria.

Medina, 1916

What was left in the Arabian Peninsula was a handful of Turkish troops defending Medina under the command of Fahreddin Pasha. They could receive neither supplies nor reinforcements. In a cable he sent on March 7, 1918 to Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who was then the commander of the Yıldırım Group of Armies, Fahreddin Pasha wrote that he could provide no more than 2,000 calories per day for each soldier. Animals were underfed too and every day five camels and five horses were starving to death. The situation was worsening day by day and although they needed 16 tons of supplies per day, they did not even have half of it. He asked Mustafa Kemal to help him in this matter: “Please, do not let Medina fall just because of hunger.”

Feridun Bey, an officer who was in Medina at the time, wrote in his memoirs: “We were not concerned about those bandits and their cooperators who were surrounding us. What we were affected by was the difficulty in finding bread. In those sacred lands, there were plenty of dates growing, but that was all. Nothing else to feed ourselves with. But suddenly we saw that blessings were pouring down from the sky!” What this officer saw as blessing was grasshoppers. Having no option left, Fahreddin Pasha had to order his men to eat grasshoppers. In a decree he issued, he stated that grasshoppers contain nutrition and they taste like birds. He even provided guidelines on how to cook grasshoppers: “Boil them. Take away the heads and legs. Mix them with rice. Serve with lemon and olive oil.” Such were the living conditions of the Turkish troops who remained in Medina to defend the holy city of Islam.

These Turkish troops were still fighting. Encounters with Arab rebels were still taking place in the desert surrounding Medina. They could not be helped, but Istanbul was aware of what was going on.

With what hope did you undertake the defense of Medina? At that time we could find no reason other than your adherence to Islam… Everybody was desperate, everybody was hopeless about Medina. It was only you, who were happy and smiling. Today the fronts are far from being enjoyable. Medina had to be evacuated and every single remaining soldier had to be sent to Gaza. You were not happy about this: Don’t let me take down the banner raised by Sultan Selim with my own hand. How many soldiers can you sacrifice for Medina, one thousand, three thousand? Give me what you can and I will not let a single foreigner, that’s what you said. But they withdrew all the forces. What is left to you was a handful of heroes. Today you are defending our sacred city with these heroes, who are already sacrificed. (Falih Rıfkı Bey, who had also served in Syria as an officer in Cemal Pasha’s Fourth Army, in his article in the newspaper Akşam issued on November 30, 1918)

Fahreddin Paşa and the officers of Medina Division | "I. Dünya Savaşı'nda Osmanlı Cepheleri" (Istanbul Military Museum)

Fahreddin Pasha and his men were intended to defend Medina at all costs. However, on October 31, 1918, all Ottoman garrisons received a cable from the Chief of Staff Ahmet İzzet Pasha: “We signed an agreement with the Entente powers to be effective as of today, October 31, 1918, afternoon. Representatives of the mentioned states informed their armies in Bulgaria, Syria and Iraq about this issue. Conditions of the agreement must be strictly adhered to and the receipt of this correspondence must be confirmed. Details to be provided later.”

Fahreddin Paşa consulting with Arab tribal leaders | "The Golden Warrior" (L.James)

This cable was followed on November 6, by a cable sent by Ahmet İzzet Pasha directly to Fahreddin Pasha: “After having done all kinds of sacrifices for religion and honor for four years, the fact that our alliance lost the war forced the Ottoman state to sign an armistice with the Entente. According to one of the clauses of the armistice, Ottoman units and garrisons in Hejaz, Asir and Yemen have to surrender to the nearest Entente commander. It is certainly acknowledged that for you, my comrades in arms who have been executing their duty of honor for years, agreeing with such a terrible condition can only result from the patriotic feeling of saving the motherland from definitive death. I am sure that you will crown your sacrifices, which are appreciated even by our enemies, by fully complying with this heavy task.”

Turkish troops preparing to evacuate

Fahreddin Pasha was not willing to abandon Medina. He did not give a negative reply to the government, but tried to gain some time. He received the same order again twice, on November 28 through a cable by the new Minister of War Cevat Pasha and on December 8 through a courier, Cpt. Ziya Bey, who brought the order in person. On December 27, he gathered all of his staff for a meeting. The camp was divided. Some of the officers were determined to follow Fahreddin Pasha and stay in Medina, whereas others, led by Lt.Col. Emin Bey, were thinking that resistance was futile and they had to follow the government’s orders in order to minimize losses. They could achieve no agreement.

An armed train car carrying Turkish troops

On January 5, 1919, Col. Ali Necip Bey, commander of the 58th Division, visited Fahreddin Pasha. He told him that as the commander of the forces in Medina, he has the final word on the issue of surrender, and the officers have decided that they would do whatever he orders them to do. However, Ali Necip Bey added, none of them could really see any solution other than surrender. After long discussions, Fahreddin Pasha agreed.
On January 7, more than two months after the armistice, the representatives of Turkish, Arab and British forces signed an agreement on the “Evacuation of Medina and the Evacuation of Ottoman Forces to Coastal Regions and Their Homelands”.

On January 10, Fahreddin Pasha left Medina, after making a final visit to the holy places of Islam. He wanted to stay there, but the agreement could not be effective as long as he stayed in Medina. His officers had to seize the “Desert Tiger” by force and hand him to the British. Feridun Bey described the scene in his memoirs: “At that moment, those who were begging him looked at each other realizing that the time has come to execute a decision that was already made. Suddenly they seized they surrounded the Pasha and, without being able to stop the tears falling from their eyes, they seized him… Facing this collective act of his closest commanders, Fahreddin Pasha had nothing left to do but to succumb to his fate in deep sorrow.”

Fahreddin Paşa with Ali Necip Bey | "Medine Müdafaası" (N.K. Kıcıman)

Turks surrendered in Medina a total of 654 officers, 6,000 men, 30,000 rifles, 75 machines guns and 22 artillery guns of different sizes. Fahreddin Pasha, his officers and the Turkish troops remaining in the city were all sent to prisoner camps in Cairo, in violation of the armistice signed with Arabs and the British.

After the war, Cemal Pasha wrote in his memoirs that the Arab Revolt spelled disaster on the Arab world and Sharif Hussein, who was after his own ambitions, was a traitor to Arabs and Muslims. Several contemporary historians come close to this argument. Efraim and Inair Karsh, for example, argue that “Hussein was no champion of national liberation seeking to unshackle the Arab Nation from the chains of Ottoman captivity: he was an imperialist aspirant anxious to exploit a unique window of opportunity for substituting his own empire for that of the Ottomans.”

Today in Turkey the recollection of the Arab Revolt is still intense in the minds of Turks, who most often express their views of this issue by stating “the Arabs have stabbed us in the back.” However, one should be careful at this point, given the gap between the historical perception and the facts. It should be remembered as well that none of the Arab units of the Ottoman Army defected to Sharif Hussein and nor did any notable political or military figure of Arab origin joined him. The majority of Arabs remained loyal to the ideological foundation of the Ottoman Empire, which was loyalty to the centre in the name of Islam.