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Lecture: by Mr. James Barr, author of Setting the Desert on Fire

Event Date: 09/09/2007

Thank you for inviting me. Should say at the outset that I have limited qualifications to speak to you. I do not speak Arabic, and in the course of my research for my book spent ten days in the Kingdom.

My interest in the Arab revolt began unexpectedly, far to the north in Damascus. I was in Syria to look at the castles there, but it was while I was in the back streets of Damascus that I discovered the terminus of the Hijaz Railway. That sparked a vague recollection of TE Lawrence. I have to admit I had never realised how the First World War had touched the Middle East. As I was to find out in the course of my research, the fact that the revolt that began in Mecca in 1916 reached Damascus in 1918 was largely due to the influence of one man, TE Lawrence.

I set out to write a book on how that had happened. There are plenty of books on Lawrence, but most of them are based on earlier books and not the original sources. As a consequence, inevitably they say little that is new. So I was determined to go back to the contemporary sources to write a history of the revolt itself. I was also determined to see the places where the uprising took place. And I admit I was hoping to put Lawrence in his place, both by giving greater space to the others who were involved in the book and by putting the events in a global context. I was to realise that Lawrence was every bit as important as others had made him out to be. But the book still provides a broad perspective on the revolt in the context of the wider war.

I returned to Jordan, following the Hijaz railway southwards into the desert [slides] and making a two day trip across the desert from Wadi Rum to Mudawwarah. Tantalisingly, on the road south, there were signs to Mecca, still six hundred miles or so away.

I hoped to get into Saudi Arabia early the following year. As you could probably have told me, that proved harder than I had anticipated. In the event it was thanks to the then British Ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, that I was able to enter Saudi Arabia.

Why on earth had the ambassador bothered to help me? It is hardly the job of the Foreign Office to lobby for visas for authors. It was only this year that I heard something which seemed to explain Sir Sherard’s willingness, when I went to a lecture he gave at the Royal Geographical Society. He commented that when he was appointed, four out of ten of the books on the non-fiction bestseller list were about Saudi Arabia. But only two of the authors (I think) had ever visited the Kingdom. Now I could understand why he made such an effort to help me.

I flew to Riyadh in March 2005, met a friend there who was based in the country and spoke Arabic, and flew on to Medina where we hired a car with the intention of seeing as much of the Hijaz as we were allowed to.

First stop on the itinerary was the village of Hamra, midway between Medina and the coast, where Lawrence first met Feisal in October 1916.

The problem was that the map I had bought from Stanfords was not much use. The place names did not correlate with the ones used by the British during the war, and the pace of road building in Saudi Arabia is such that, even though the map was only a year old, it was missing some major roads. Google Earth has now made it much easier to get around in places like this.

To find Hamra I relied on copies of maps from the time. This one of the area further north was drawn by a member of the Royal Flying Corps. These proved much more reliable.

Using these, we found the village. As you can see from this it’s an unremarkable spot for what must be one of the most important meetings in the Middle East in the twentieth century. To be honest it was a rather spooky place – derelict and yet clearly not uninhabited – and as this rushed photo suggests, we did not halt for long.

It was here that Lawrence famously wrote that when Feisal had asked him how he liked this spot in Wadi Safra, he had answered: “Well, but it is far from Damascus.” Afterwards he would claim that this opinion fell “like a sword in their midst”, galvanising the Arabs into action.

How had Lawrence ended up in this odd village?

The story starts in 1914, with the Ottoman Sultan’s call for a jihad. That petrified the British. They worried that the 100 million Muslims spread across the eastern British Empire might rise up against the British, distracting them from the western front. But the Sultan had a weak spot. Much of his authority in the wider Muslim world came because of his role as the protector of the holiest Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina.

So the Arab Bureau in Cairo approached Sharif Husein. Husein had two advantages. He was the ruler of Mecca. He was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He was, encouragingly, believed to have little real power to match the symbolism of his titles, making him the ideal puppet. On the downside, he also had many disadvantages. He was an ultra-conservative even by local standards, deeply suspicious, and a control freak.

Nevertheless, the British hoped to persuade him to rise up against the Sultan, splitting Islam in two and throwing the jihad into chaos. Husein was initially reluctant. But by mid 1915 he had changed his mind. There were two threats. First there were the Ottomans, whom he had discovered were trying to kill him. Then there was Ibn Saud. Husein was vying with Ibn Saud for control over the hinterland between Mecca and Riyadh. There were signs that Ibn Saud was winning this tussle, and winning tribesmen on whom Husein depended for his own political clout.

There were a number of reasons for this. The first was the arrival of the Hijaz railway, which reached Medina in 1908, and deprived the Bedu of a traditional livelihood guiding travellers and caravans who paid for their services, and robbing those who wouldn’t. There was also the weather at this time. Several years of severe drought led the Bedu to wander deeper into the desert to search for water – and it was here that they would come across the followers of Ibn Saud – who could offer arms and money if they accepted him as their overlord.

Then there was the disruption caused by the war – which cut off foreign pilgrims and imports like coffee and sugar, had a bad effect on the Hijaz economy which was entirely dependent on the outside world. As one visitor remarked the only things made in Mecca were “swords, daggers and slippers”. Petrol was imported at that time, and short of funds, the people of Mecca and Jeddah were forced to sell the ornate fretwork screens over the windows of their homes [mashrabiyyahs] for firewood so that they could feed themselves. In a society prizing privacy especially this was a humiliating step to have to take.

So Husein needed allies to help him stand up to Ibn Saud. When the British approached him again in mid 1915, he agreed to help, in return for a sizeable empire that the British promised him, but which they never expected they would have to honour. Lawrence’s intervention was to turn that assumption upside down

The revolt began in June 1916. Mecca was captured but the Turks held out in Medina, and the momentum of the uprising fizzled , partly because little thought had gone into how the rebels would be supplied.

The British feared that the Turks would retake Mecca, which they felt sure would reinvigorate the jihad. Some within the British government blamed the Arab Bureau and its chief, Bertie Clayton, for involving them in the adventure. The India Office did not think they should ever have meddled in the Hijaz. The War Office did not want to support any campaign that might distract from the efforts it was making on the Western Front.

From other quarters there was pressure to send enough British troops to bolster the Arab tribesmen. This suggestion appalled the over–stretched military authorities in Egypt and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson in London. To save his own skin, Clayton decided to support the military and oppose sending troops.

That was why he sent Lawrence on a fact–finding trip to the Hijaz in October 1916. Clayton had already come up with the argument for not sending troops. Lawrence’s trip to Arabia was simply designed to give that argument the weight of first hand experience.

Lawrence was then a junior officer . But he entertained ambitions that went far beyond writing reports. One of the first mentions of him in contemporary records is by Ronald Storrs – which mentions how his siesta on the way down to Jeddah was ruined by Lawrence’s decision to do some pistol shooting practice across the deck. Lawrence had been an archaeologist, who volunteered in 1914, was given a desk job in Cairo while two of his brothers were killed in France. He was bored, felt guilty, and had a personal ambition “to rush right up to Damascus and biff the French out of all hope of Syria”.

Once in Arabia, and ostensibly to assess the situation, Lawrence got permission from Husein to go up to Hamra, on the main road through the mountains between Medina and the sea and the most likely route the Turks would take if they were going to recapture Mecca.

The argument for sending troops had been based mainly on the unreliability of the Bedu tribesmen who were Husein’s supporters.

Lawrence went a little further up the road beyond Hamra, saw the serrated mountains ahead of him, and argued that the terrain gave the tribesmen an unbeatable advantage. “The Hijaz war” he wrote, “is one of dervishes against regular troops – and we are on the side of the dervishes.”

This was provocative. Colonel Wilson was Britain’s envoy to Husein, in Jeddah. He had fought the dervishes at Omdurman. His father, Sir Charles, had ended up in command of the Gordon Relief Expedition. Two generations of the Wilson family had expended considerable energies fighting the dervishes. Wilson did not like Lawrence’s attitude. He described Lawrence as a “bumptious young ass” who wanted “kicking and kicking hard at that”. When Lawrence advised his colleagues to dress like Arabs, Colonel Wilson disagreed. ‘I absolutely refuse to disguise myself as an Arab,’ he declared: ‘if I’m scuppered I propose to be scuppered in my own uniform.’

But back in Cairo, Lawrence’s report tipped the balance against a large-scale British intervention, just as Clayton had hoped it would.

Lawrence suggested that Britain should send gold, guns and a handful of advisers to help the Arabs – intending that he should be one of them. Back in the Hijaz that December, he returned to work with Feisal, the most energetic, but also the most malleable of Husein’s sons . Lawrence would later write about Feisal in glowing terms, describing him as the man with the enthusiasm that would “set the desert on fire”. But it is a contemporary comment he made that better reflects the true nature of his relationship with Feisal. “Information had better come to me for him, since I usually like to make up my mind before he does”.

awrence started working on Feisal, persuading him that, in line with his own anti-French ambitions he needed to extend the revolt northwards. Together they came up with a plan to march northwards to Wajh, a small port on the Red Sea coast [slides]. From there Lawrence’s colleagues began a series of lonely journeys into the Hijaz mountains.

They set out to destroy the Hijaz Railway, which kept the Turks who were holding out in Medina in touch with Damascus. There were various possible targets:

  • the track itself
  • the stations along the way
  • the intermittent bridges
  • and the trains themselves, which were irreplaceable.

Herbert Garland was the first to destroy a train in February 1917 near Toweira [slides]. Stewart Newcombe was another of the saboteurs, who set his mind on a spectacular raid that would isolate the Turks’ main base at Al Ula, a hundred miles north of Medina.

The debris from their campaign can still be seen today [slides]. But ultimately the raids proved inconclusive, and frustrating. Their Bedu guides proved reluctant to lead them to the railway fast. The Turks proved very efficient at mending the rails. The stations were very well defended. And because many of the bridges were low to the ground, they could be temporarily replaced with heaps of ballast.
Having wound up his colleagues with his outspoken ideas about guerrilla tactics, Lawrence turned his mind to fomenting rebellion north, in Syria. With Feisal he came up with a plan to try to encourage the Druzes, just east of Damascus to revolt. The Druzes had revolted twice in living memory. Lawrence reckoned it would not be hard to get them to do so again.

The plan was helped by the arrival in Wajh of Auda, an outlaw who led the Huwaytat tribe which roamed the area east of Aqaba.

Auda’s tribe had been badly hit by the drought, and the railway which deprived them of a living. Despite Lawrence’s later claims that the Arab revolt was a political movement, the hard truth is that the tribesmen were easily bought with gold, that the British supplied in large quantities.

It was probably the rumours of the gold, rather than some nascent sense of Arab nationalism, that had drawn Auda to Wajh. Auda suggested that Lawrence ride to Wadi Sirhan, on the modern Jordan/Saudi border, and buy food and forage from the Huwaytat.

Early in May 1917 Lawrence set off for Wadi Sirhan. He set out from the caravanserai at Qalaat Zorayb, just inland from Wajh which you can visit today. There is no charge for entry, though you do have to squeeze under a fence to get in . Just before he did so he met the British politician Sir Mark Sykes. Sykes’s name is resonant today in the Middle East. But then he was little known, because the agreement he had reached with the French a year earlier was secret. This divided the region diagonally in two. Syria went to the French; Iraq, and ultimately Palestine, went to the British.

Until this point Lawrence was under the impression that the British were fighting to support Arab claims to autonomy after the war.

At Wajh, Sykes appears to have told him what he had agreed with the French the previous year. Lawrence – he had been working on the assumption that it was in both the Arabs’ and the British interest to deny the French Syria – was appalled. “We are getting them to fight for us on a lie and I can’t stand it” he would write to Clayton shortly afterwards.

His hopes of a quick and triumphant end to the revolt were shattered in Wadi Sirhan, which was not the verdant pasture Auda had led him to believe. In his diary he summed it up in just two words: “pretty barren.” Auda’s offer was a con. On a further secret mission far to the north, Lawrence discovered that there was little appetite for the widespread rebellion he had hoped to stoke up against the Turks – the reason for this was the great divide there was between the Bedu tribesmen and the Syrian townsmen, who hated the lawless Bedu. Lawrence would have to delay.

Lawrence realised that Aqaba was the nearest port that would enable Britain to support the Huwaytat, and it was a good base from which to try to drive the revolt northwards into territory he had now discovered that Britain had pledged to France. The decision to take Aqaba emerged from the ashes of the original plan. Together with Auda and his Huwaytat, Lawrence rode into the tiny port on 6 July 1917. This moment he captured with this famous photograph.

The capture of Aqaba established Lawrence’s reputation. Lawrence was nominated for the Victoria Cross, but he was deemed ineligible because there were no witnesses. He was instead made a Commander of the Order of the Bath instead. “He ought of course to have a VC”, commented one of his colleagues at the time. ‘still a CB is almost unheard of for a major. However there is nothing they could give him which would be too great.”

Lawrence’s arrival from Aqaba overland was to create one of the coincidences that defined the modern Middle East.

General Allenby had just arrived from France. He had famously been ordered to capture Jerusalem by Christmas by Lloyd George, but he feared that he did not have sufficient resources to do so safely. He was worried that as he advanced the Turks would outflank him through the area south of the Dead Sea and attack his own supply line.

Here Lawrence saw an opportunity to revive the Arabs’ hopes. President Wilson’s declaration of self-determination. He offered Allenby the tribesmen’s help to cover his southern, right flank, by harassing the Turkish forces in a series of raids on the Hijaz railway from Aqaba. Allenby quickly accepted.

That December he reached Jerusalem .

Across the other side of the Jordan valley, Lawrence helped organise a guerrilla war in the open steppe of southern Syria.

His aim was to stop the Turks from using the railway to mount a counter-attack against Allenby. But his underlying motivation throughout was to project the Arabs into the zone promised to the French, and to depict the operations as run by the Arabs without outside assistance. Press reports talked about the work of the Arab army. They never mentioned the substantial role that the British were also playing.

While transport in the Hijaz was mostly by camel, armoured cars played a significant part in the final year of the campaign in Jordan and Syria. The landscape in southern Jordan lent itself well to a new type of warfare, using Rolls Royce armoured cars to attack the railway. Aircraft were also used to support the Arabs, and to maintain close communications with Allenby across the Jordan.

The campaign culminated in a raid on the Syrian town of Dara – a major railway junction which was timed to coincide with Allenby’s advance north in September 1918. This severed Turkish communications between Palestine and Syria, (both rail and telegraph – the great moment in Liman von Sanders’s memoirs when he is asked whether he can donate a prize for a military sports sack race in Constantinople). The Dara raid put the Arabs in a strong position to enter Damascus in triumph shortly afterwards.

The effect of this was to put the Arabs in place in the zone the French wanted for themselves, and this forced the British to admit that they had made multiple promises – to Husein, to the French and more recently to the Zionists that were contradictory. The British were forced to admit to themselves, and then to the outside world, that their promises to the French and the Zionists were worth more than their promise to the Arabs. It was, the Foreign Secretary AJ Balfour reputedly told Lloyd George, “preferable to quarrel with the Arab rather than the French.”

Exactly how much faith Husein had in the promise the British had made has been disputed. Some think Husein was an innocent abroad, some that he knew that the British were lying to him but was doing his best to put himself in the best possible negotiating position. Whichever: Husein placed a highly optimistic interpretation on the correspondence.

And the British knew this. During 1918 they wondered whether to try to let him down gently.
But the idea of doing so was vetoed by Allenby. And the reason why he did so can be explained by politics in Arabia at the time.

Relations between Husein and Ibn Saud had grown tenser and tenser during 1918.

Their dispute focused on control of an oasis between Riyadh and Mecca, at Khurma. Both men claimed it as their own.

The British worried that the dispute might flare into open warfare. If it did, Husein might withdraw Feisal to fight Ibn Saud, leaving Allenby in the lurch. “You know as well as I do”, he warned the War Office in London, “that my operations depend entirely on the cooperation of the Hijaz Arabs.” The British decided not to do anything that might upset the already unstable Husein. So they kept quiet about the fact that they did not plan to honour their promise to him at the war’s end.

The fact was that a united Arab state along the lines dreamed of by Husein would not have worked. But Britain’s failure to address the problem earlier switched the focus from that fact, to the fact that they had gone back on their word.

The result of this was to provide the opponents of the west ever since with plenty of ammunition. Speaking shortly after 9/11 six years ago Osama bin Laden claimed that “our nation has been tasting humiliation and contempt for more than eighty years.” Britain’s decision to let the Arabs down continues to have serious repercussions.

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