Creating Chaos: Lawrence of Arabia and the 1916 Arab Revolt

This 600-mile, weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable even the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror).
T. E. Lawrence biographer Michael Asher called it ‘one of the most daring raids ever attempted in the annals of war.’

By O’Brien Browne

The 1916-1918 Arab Revolt was often carried out by mounted Arab tribesmen, who knew the land intimately and were excellent marksmen (Library of Congress).
The 1916-1918 Arab Revolt was often carried out by mounted Arab tribesmen, who knew the land intimately and were excellent marksmen (Library of Congress).

The train filled with Ottoman Empire soldiers and civilians chugged over a bridge in the Arabian desert. A few yards away a British officer in Bedouin robes raised his hand toward Salem, an Arab tribal warrior gripping the plunger of a detonator box. As the train steamed ahead, the officer dropped his hand and Salem slammed down the plunger. A cloud of sand and smoke blasted a hundred feet into the sky as sizzling chunks of iron and seared body parts tumbled through the air. The train crashed into a gorge, followed by an eerie silence. The officer and Arab tribesmen—wielding swords or firing rifles—dashed toward the smoldering train cars. Within a few minutes the fighting was over, the dead and the wreck were looted, and the raiding party melted back into the desert. It was summer 1917, and the Arab Revolt was in full swing.

The revolt, one of the most dramatic episodes of the 20th century, was a seminal moment in the history of the modern Middle East, the touchstone of all future regional conflicts. Advised by liaison officer T. E. Lawrence—"Lawrence of Arabia"—Arab troops would play a vital role in the Allied victory over the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Arab Revolt of 1916–1918 also saw the development of guerrilla tactics and strategies of modern desert warfare. And the political intrigues surrounding the revolt and its aftermath were as significant as the fighting, for Great Britain and France’s myopic attempts at nation building planted the seeds of the troubles that plague the region to this day: wars, authoritarian governments, coups, the rise of militant Islam, and the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

None of today’s states in the region existed until the 1920s. Before that, the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, which included Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Berbers, Kurds, and Armenians, as well as Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Like all great empires, the Ottoman Empire was successful because for the most part its leaders let their subjects live as they chose.

In the years before World War I, however, the empire had shrunk to what is now known as Turkey, the Middle East, and much of the Arabian coastline. The Ottomans abandoned their successful multicultural formula and instituted a "Turkification" policy that made Turkish the official language in schools, the army, and government. The Arabs—who made up about 60 percent of the empire’s roughly 25 million subjects—and other non-Turkish-speaking groups were furious. The Arabs formed secret nationalist societies and contacted Sherif (a title bestowed on descendants of the prophet Muhammad) Hussein ibn Ali, emir (prince) of Mecca in the Hejaz, the western strip of the Arabian Peninsula. Hussein sent one of his four sons, Abdullah, to link up with Arab nationalists in Syria, and then to Cairo to determine whether the British might aid an Arab uprising.

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