David Semple September 9, 2018
Out Of Arabia
Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence returned to his home in Oxford on leave from Syria in October 1918 after the British conquest of Damascus. He left his Hashemite Arab colleague and ally Emir Faisal in Damascus, facing the prospect of reporting to a French instead of British liason officer. The Sykes-Picot agreement was still in force. Therefore, France was to have the protectorate over Syria. Faisal was to be the administrator in Syria, which now excluded Lebanon, under French guidance.
This is where the film Lawrence of Arabia ended and where our story of Lawrence’s important post-war achievements begins.
Lawrence arrived in London to present Faisal’s point of view on Syria. He was now determined to secure control of Syria for the Arabs. He met Lord Robert Cecil, son of the Conservative prime minister during the twilight years of the Victorian era. Cecil, who twenty years later formed the Watching Committee to overthrow prime minister Neville Chamberlain, was sympathetic to Lawrence’s views, including the re-negotiation of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence. After another meeting with a senior military official, Lawrence’s vision of postwar Arabia was presented to the War Cabinet. In Lawrence’s plan, Faisal was to rule Syria whilst his older brother Zaid was to rule northern Mesopotamia and his other brother Abdullah was to rule southern Mesopotamia.
On October 29, 1919 Lawrence addressed the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet. Lord Curzon, chairing the meeting, praised Lawrence’s accomplishments in Arabia. Lord Robert Cecil was present at the meeting and Lawrence’s views received a very sympathetic reception. The British government wanted to get out of the Sykes-Picot treaty as much as Lawrence wanted to. For David Lloyd George, the prime minister, Palestine should be wholly governed by the British, without the French, and the Arabs and Jews should work together.
The next day, Lawrence met King George V, who offered him a knighthood, which he politely declined. He told the King that his part in the Arab revolt was dishonorable to himself and the government, that he had mislead the Arabs. He intended to fight for a fair settlement of Arab claims. Lawrence told the King that the British government were ‘crooks’, saying he had made promises to Faisal which were not fulfilled. He was very direct with the King but seemed not to offend him.
Lawrence presented a paper to the War Cabinet on November 4, calling for an independent Arab state in Syria ruled by Faisal. He wanted the French out of Syria. In Mesopotamia, he called for the creation of a British-controlled Arab state, together with Jewish settlements in Palestine, not under international control as set out in Sykes-Picot, but under British control.
The war ended suddenly on November 11, 1918. Germany had not been invaded but a new government in Berlin surrendered with an Armistice based around building the post-war world on the principles of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the most important of which was the right of all nations to self-determination. Like the Atlantic Charter in 1941, the Fourteen Points called for the end of imperialism and the creation of a world governmental body which became the League Of Nations.
Lawrence was invited to join the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, which began in January 1919, after the 1918 British general election gave David Lloyd George’s coalition government a massive victory. The government was dominated by the Conservatives, with the Liberal Party very much the junior partner in the coalition. Lawrence represented Faisal as his official translator, much to the chagrin of the French, who did not welcome the Arab presence at the conference.
Lawrence was critical of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, under which France and Britain agreed to divide up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. He felt ‘guilty’ about British imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Yet he performed his own imperial duties with precision. So Lawrence was just as guilty as David Lloyd George and other senior British ministers in promoting Britain’s imperial vision. He did not want a new British-run ‘caliphate’, which the late Lord Kitchener had wanted. He wanted the Arabs to build modern nations, much as did Mark Sykes, the government minister for the Middle East, whom Lawrence distrusted.
The Arab Revolt was a ‘terrorist’ war against the Ottoman Empire supported and financed by the British government, an important sideshow in Britain’s war in the Middle East. Sadly, Lawrence taught the Arabs how to make bombs. Thus, he unintentionally laid the seeds of today’s Arab terrorism. General Allenby was the liberator of Palestine and Syria. Lawrence, however, played a decisive role in the British makeover of the Middle East. Today he is more famous than Allenby, Lloyd George and the Arab kings he created, thanks to Lowell Thomas’ 1919 documentary film about Lawrence, David Lean’s 1960s film classic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and his own attempt to write a literary masterpiece, ‘Seven Pillars Of Wisdom’.
Lawrence stayed at the same hotel as Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, who attended the conference to represent the Zionists. They had first met each other in Palestine in 1917, where Meinertzhagen dismissed the Arab Revolt as a sideshow of little importance to Allenby’s campaign in Palestine. Despite this, they spent an increasing amount of time with each other as the conference dragged on. A contemporary of Winston Churchill at Harrow, Meinertzhagen very much liked Lawrence, whom he described as having a mind as ‘pure as gold’, observing that ‘any form of courseness or vulgarity repelled him physically. He had perfect manners, if consideration for others counts, and he expected good manners from others. The war shattered his sense of nature. He was shaken off his balance by the stresses, hardships and responsibilities of his campaign. These all went to accentuate and develop any eccentricities of his youth’.
In a passage from his diary dated April 8, Meinertzhagen wrote, ‘I have been seeing a good deal of Lawrence and have got to know him well. He is a complex character, his moral barometer jumping about from extreme depression to hilarious practical jokes’. As they eat lunch together Lawrence ‘confesses that he has overdone it and is now terrifield lest he is found out and deflated. He told me that since childhood he had wanted to be a hero, that he was always rushing between wanting to be in the limelight and hiding in utter darkness but the limelight has always won’. Lawrence confessed to Meinertzhagen ‘it has all gone too far and that others are pushing him into the limelight’.
Like Meinertzhagen, Lawrence also supported Zionism, nationhood for the Jewish people in Palestine, and hoped it would raise the material standards of the Arab people. Some writers try to argue that Lawrence was only a token Zionist, just to support official British policy, but this isn’t true.
Lawrence accompanied General Allenby when he walked through the Jaffa Gate on December 11, 1917, the day the Mayor of Jerusalem surrendered the Holy City to Great Britain. Lawrence called it ‘the supreme moment of the war, the one which for historical reasons made a greater appeal than anything on earth’.
Historian Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, said that Lawrence supported the Zionist project to create a Jewish state in Palestine:
‘He believed that the only hope for the Arabs of Palestine and the rest of the region was Jewish statehood — that if the Jews had a state here, they would provide the modernity, the ‘leaven,’ as he put it, with which to enable the Arabs to move into the 20th century.’
These were Lawrence’s words on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, at the end of the First World War: ‘Speaking entirely as a non-Jew, I look on the Jews as the natural importers of Western leaven so necessary for countries of the Near East.’
Lawrence played a key role in negotiating an agreement in London and Versailles between Emir Feisal and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann at the end of the Great War. The Hashemite leader –who had resided in Damascus since the city was liberated by the Australians – wanted to become King of Syria, which included Palestine and Lebanon, and he agreed with Weizmann that Palestine could become the home to five million or more Jews.
Lawrence despised Islamic fundamentalism and anything else which kept the Arab people backward. At the same time, he spent enough time working with the Arabs to know their weaknesses, especially the Arab tendency towards tribalism. Ultimately, like many Britons of that time, he glamorised the desert Bedouin of Arabia and distrusted the urban Arabs of Syria.
The Paris Peace Conference turned out to be a disappointment for Lawrence, who was unable to get the support of President Wilson for an independent Arab state. Faisal conceeded Palestine but was unable to get French support for an independent Arab state in Syria and Mesopotamia. Lawrence had lost patience with both French and British officials. The United States turned down responsibility for mandates in both Armenia and Palestine.
In Paris, Lawrence received the news of the death of his friend Sir Mark Sykes from the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed over forty million people worldwide during the next two years. Lawrence’s father also died from the flu in April. Sykes had contracted the flu during his recent trip to Syria, where he continued to pursue his efforts to satisfy the contradictary claims of Arabs, Jews and Armenians. Perhaps if he had lived, the history of the Middle East might have taken a different road, Britain found it hard to satisfy the different sides in the Palestine conflict. Sykes was overworked. Had he lived, however, it is likely history would have followed the same narrative of poor relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
After returning to England following his father’s death, Lawrence advised Faisal to return to Syria. They were getting nowhere in Paris for their plan to create an Arab kingdom in Syria under British, instead of French, protection. French newspapers printed hostile articles about both Lawrence and Faisal, so Lawrence set off for Egypt in late May to collect his war diaries. His airplane, however, crashed in Rome. After a short stay of recovery at the British Embassy in Rome, he resumed his journey, having to make several emergency landings, thus delaying his arrival in Cairo until late June. Whilst in Crete, he was informed by St John Philby, later to be an advisor to Ibn Saud in Arabia, that war had broken out between Ibn Saud and King Husayn. The British government was financing both sides in the war, with the Foreign Office supporting King Husayn and the India Office supporting Ibn Saud. By the time he got to Cairo, Ibn Saud had won a decisive victory. This decided the fate of Arabia in favor of Ibn Saud. The Hashemites were now kings without a kingdom and Lawrence was more determined than before to find them a kingdom in Damascus.
Returning to the Paris Peace Conference from Egypt, Lawrence confessed to Richard Meinertzhagen on July 20, that ‘he had been involved in a huge lie – “imprisoned in a lie” was his expresion – and that he has friends and admirers intended to keep him there. He was now fighting between limelight and utter darkness. It was slowly corroding his soul’. He could accomplish little more in Paris so Lawrence returned to academic life in Oxford at the end of the summer. Lawrence was demobilized from the Army, retaining the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
By the end of the year, British troops had withdrawn from Lebanon and Syria. The British government advised Faisal to get the best deal he could from the French. Faisal stayed in Damascus, declaring himself King of Syria and the Arabs in March 1920. During the San Remo Conference of April 1920, Britain received the Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia, whilst France got the Mandates for Lebanon and Syria. This led to a Franco-Syrian war, which ended in defeat for Faisal at the Battle for Mayasalun on July 24, 1920. Faisal was booted out of the Syria by the French and moved to England in August.
Colonel Lawrence: Maker Of Nations
Lowell Thomas, the famous American broadcaster, was sent by the United States government to write newspaper articles and make films that would increase American support for the war. Thomas set off to Palestine, as an accredited war correspondent, to cover General Allenby’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In Jerusalem, Thomas met Colonel Lawrence, who agreed to let the American make a film about the war in the desert. In his book ‘The Desert Hath Pearls’, Rex Hall writes, ‘Returning to America, Thomas, early in 1919, started his lectures, supported by moving pictures of veiled women, Arabs in their picturesque robes, camels and dashing Bedouin cavalry, which took the nation by storm, after running at Madison Square Gardens in New York. On being asked to come to England, he made the condition he would do so if asked by the King and given Drury Lane or Covent Garden … He opened at Covent Garden on 14 August 1919 … And so followed a series of some hundreds of lecture–film shows, attended by the highest in the land …’
Lawrence was already a legend in the British army but Lowell Thomas’ documentary film ‘With Allenby In Palestine And Lawrence In Arabia’ went on to make him the most famous war hero of the First World War. It helped create the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, and no doubt helped boost the sales of his book ‘Revolt In The Desert’ when it was finally published in 1927. It was a box office hit. Everyone wanted to see it. After failing to achieve his aims at the Paris Peace Conference, Lawrence returned to London to find himself the most famous man in England. ‘With Lawrence In Arabia’ not only made Lawrence a living legend, but it opened doors at newspapers for Lawrence to draw attention to the injustice he felt that the British and French committed against the cause of Arab home rule in the Middle East. It also opened doors for Lawrence in Whitehall now that Lawrence was more famous than David Lloyd George and General Allenby.
Lawrence’s real legacy came after the Arab Revolt (most Arabs still fought on the side of their fellow Moslem Turks, especially the Palestine Arabs). Hired to be part of Winston Churchill’s team in Egypt at the Colonial Office in 1921, Lawrence was instrumental in helping Churchill sort out the compromises that allowed Britain to satisfy all its promises made to Arabs, Zionists and Britain’s French ally during the war.
When Lawrence returned to Oxford in April 1920, having completed his book ‘Seven Pillers Of Wisdom’, the political situation in the Middle East had seriously deteriorated. The San Remo Conference ended in the division of the Middle East between France and Britain. By the end of the summer, Faisal had been kicked out of Syria by the French and Britain was holding down a revolt in Iraq (Mesopotamia). Lawrence launched a press campaign against British policy in the Middle East, particularly towards the Arabs and Faisal. There was much sympathy for Lawrence’s views amongst many members of what we today call ‘the Establishment’.
David Lloyd George, the prime minister, followed Lawrence’s newspaper campaign about British foreign policy in the Middle East with great attention. Lloyd George was the most dynamic British statesman of the 20th Century. Coming to power in December 1916, when Britain was stuck in a stalemate which had dragged the war out for two long years, he feared Britain might lose the war. His War Cabinet was, however, much more capable than that of his predecessor in No 10 Downing Street, Herbert Asquith. Three developments turned the war in Britain’s favor. The convoy system was set up to protect ships coming from America from enemy attack. The tank was invented under the supervision of Winston Churchill, who returned to the government in July 1917 as Minister of Munitions. Lloyd George, like Churchill in the Dardanelles in 1915, turned to the Ottoman front and called for the conquest of Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the British people. Within a year of his entering No 10, General Allenby walked through the Jaffa Gate in what can now be called the climactic moment of British imperial history.
In 1920, problems kept mounting for the government. Abdullah, Faisal’s brother, was threatening to attack the French in Syria. Britain was having to maintain an expensive army of 50,000 men to put down Kurdish and Arab revolts in Iraq. Problems between Arabs and Jews were growing in Palestine, following the Arab riots at the Nabi Musa Festival in Jerusalem, which ended in a murderous anti-Jewish pogrom. Lloyd George met Lawrence in Downing Street to talk about these issues. Lawrence advised the prime minister to put all policy making in the Middle East under one department instead of splitting this responsibility between several departments, including the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the India Office. Lloyd George decided to appoint Winston Churchill to take charge of remaking the map of the Middle East.
As Colonial Secretary, Churchill was given special responsibility for Britain’s mandates for Iraq and Palestine. Lloyd George told Churchill that it was of the utmost importance that he reduce the administrative costs of governing these former parts of the Ottoman Empire. Just a few months earlier, however, Churchill tried to convince Lloyd George to withdraw from northern Iraq for strategic reasons. He was a critic of the prime minister’s overall strategy in the region, saying that Britain had become over-extended in the Middle East. Now, as Colonial Secretary, he was given overall control of Middle Eastern policy. He now had to accept the fact that Britain was going to establish a long-term presence in the region. His new task was to reduce Britain’s direct commitments in the Middle East and arrange for Britain’s interests in the region to be protected by offering financial subsidies to local national rulers and defensive arrangements for them using squadrons of the Royal Air Force.
Churchill thought his task would be made much easier if he was able to improve Britain’s relations with the Turkish national movement under Mustapha Kemal. Lloyd George was completely opposed to the Turkish takeover of Asia Minor, the former Ottoman territory of Anatolia. He saw Constantinople as a ‘hot bed of every Eastern vice’. In contrast to Churchill, Lloyd George thought that the Turks were ‘shifty’ and that Greece was now the ‘coming power in the Mediterranean’. But Churchill argued, ‘We ought to come to terms with Mustapha Kemal and arrive at a good peace with Turkey’ instead of supporting Greek and Italian territorial claims in Anatolia. He continued to argue with Lloyd George that the Ottoman Empire should be restored to its pre-war frontiers, even suggesting the European powers renounce their claims on Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Lloyd George continued what Churchill called his ‘vendetta against the Turks funtil the Chanak Crisis of 1922. By this time, Churchill had abandoned his support of Turkish nationhood and came round to supporting Lloyd George’s planned war against the Turks in support of Greece. This lead to the end of the Coalition Government in October 1922, together with the political downfall of both Lloyd George and Churchill.
Winston Churchill set up a new Middle East Department. He would reduce military expenditure by putting responsibility for the defence of the region under the newly created Royal Air Force. As War Minister he had successfully put down the revolts in Iraq from the air. Churchill was an admirer of Lawrence, having met with him on his return from Syria. He was very impressed with Lawrence at the Paris Peace Conference and thus appointed him as a Special Advisor to the Colonial Office with responsibility for dealing with the Arabs. Lawrence sounded out Faisal about this appointment, telling him that they must make a fresh start in sorting out the outstanding issues left unsolved in Paris the previous year. Faisal agreed to put aside his objections to French rule in Syria and Lebanon. Lawrence was a strong supporter of the Sharifian solution, favouring the Hashemites as rulers of Iraq and Syria. Having suffered much guilt, because of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement, in getting the King of the Hijaz’s support in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Lawrence wanted to reward the Arabs with a degree of sovereignty in their own lands. Gertrude Bell, the eccentric English aristocrat who had explored the region during the war, was appointed Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner of Iraq, Sir Percy Cox, who also attended the conference. Sir Herbert Samuel, the High Commissioer of Palestine and General Allenby, now High Commissioner of Egypt, participated in the Cairo Conference of March 1921, along with other senior British military and civil administrators.
Lawrence started working at the Colonial Office in February 1921. Lawrence and Hubert Young, with whom he had worked during the Arab Revolt, set about drawing up the agenda for Churchill’s planned conference in Cairo. They provided both the questions and the answers to avoid any disagreements in Cairo. Lawrence told Churchill, ‘You must take a risk. Set up a native king in Iraq and hand over defence to the RAF instead of the Army’. Lawrence had the support of the Air Force in making the latter recommendation.
The Semiramis Hotel was the first hotel in Cairo to be built on the Nile River. It was such a grand hotel that Egyptians called it their ‘Queen of the Nile’. Adorned with hanging gardens and beautiful rooms that reflected the cultures of three continents, Europe, Africa and Arabia, it was filled with life-sized ebony statues, red-carpeted staircases and exquisite chandeliers. Here amidst all the exotic splendour of Egypt during two weeks in March 1921, Winston Churchill and his officials carried out a series of meetings designed to set out a new policy for the Middle East. Military leaders and civil administrators pored over the often conflicting set of British policies laid out in British correspondence with the Hashemites, the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
In Cairo, it was Lawrence’s Sharifian plan that prevailed in the end. The British felt it was imperative to bring the Hashemites back onside after the fallout from Faisal’s removal from the throne of Syria. Faisal and Abdullah were more of a threat to Britain left out of power than they would be in power. Tensions between Abdullah and the French were very high following the end of his brother Faisal’s brief reign as King of Iraq. The India Office, like the Cairo Office, now supported the concept of governing in the Middle East through protectorates rather than through direct British rule. This strengthened support for the Lawrence’s Sharifian solution, wherein the Arab territories would be ruled by the sons of King Hussein.
Winston Churchill had come to Cairo with a policy of reducing costs in the region. Unlike General Allenby, Churchill was wary of Arab nationalism. Allenby won the argument with regard to Egypt, however. The Allenby Declaration gave Egypt formal independence, subject to British rights of control over defence and the foreign policy of the Egyptian government. The Cairo Conference resulted in the complete makeover of the newly acquired British territories in the Middle East. Faisal was to be offered the throne of Iraq, subject to consultations with the people of Mesopotamia. The Kurdish areas in Mosul were to be absorbed into the new kingdom. Iraq, which was made up from combining the three Ottoman Vilayets (or provinces) of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.
Having accepted the proposals set out by the Middle Eastern Department in London, Churchill decided to separate Trans-Jordan from Palestine to form an Arab state. In the eastern part of the Palestine Mandate, across the River Jordan, the British feared the worst from Abdullah’s threat to attack Syria. They feared this could lead to a retaliatory French attack on Palestine. Churchill therefore took it upon himself to meet Emir Abdullah in Jerusalem, having decided to offer Abdullah a role to play in the eastern part of the Palestine Mandate, Trans-Jordan. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and his special advisor, Richard Meinerzhagen, were not happy with this arrangement, as the Balfour Declaration had promised all of Palestine to the Jewish people, subject to the protection of the rights of Moslems and Christians.
However, both Faisal and Abdullah dropped their respective claims on Western Palestine, knowing the British Mandate was to become a Jewish territory under the terms of the Balfour Declaration. The French were happy with Lebanon and Syria. The Hashemites got control of Mesopotamia (now called Iraq) and Trans-Jordan under British protection. The Zionists were given Western Palestine, leaving only the Palestine Arabs unhappy. Britain made no promises to the Palestinian Arabs because they supported Germany and Turkey during the war.
As Martin Gilbert concluded in his biography of Winston Churchill, ‘In three days, two new Arab states had been created, their sovereigns chosen, and a part of the Zionist cause lost by default’.
Decades later Richard Meinertzhagen wrote about these events thus:
‘Both Lloyd George and Balfour told me that in giving the Jews their national home in Palestine they meant the whole of Biblical Palestine, that is to say the whole of the country occupied by the Jewish tribes, including Moah and Ammon. But Churchill, encouraged by Lawrence, gave the whole of Transjordan to that miserable Abdullah, thus depriving Israel of a vital territory, and allowing a complete encirclement of Israel by Arabs’.
Not happy about handing Trans-Jordan to Abdullah, Meinertzhagen told John Shuckburgh, the new head of the Middle East Department, ‘I wished to see Churchill on the question; he told me it was no good as the matter was settled; so I rang up Eddy Marsh and told him that I must see the S of S at once and down I went foaming at the mouth with anger and indignation.
Churchill heard me out; I told him it was grossly unfair to the Jews, that it was yet another broken promise and that it was a most dishonest act, that the Balfour Declaration was being torn up by degrees and that the official policy of H. M. G. to establish a Home for the Jews in Biblical Palestine was being sabotaged’.
Winston Churchill and Sir Herbert Samuel left Egypt for the over-night train to Gaza on the evening of Wednesday March 23. They arrived in Palestine the next morning only to be greeted by an Arab demonstration against the British Mandate. Arab crowds in Gaza shouted ‘Down with the Jews’ and ‘Cut their throats’. The Colonial Secretary met the Mayor of Gaza, who presented him with a list of demands from Muslim-Christian associations in Haifa. As Churchill and Sir Herbert Samuel waved at the Arab crowd, they did not realize the crowd were chanting anti-Jewish slogans. They heard ‘Cheers for the Minister’ not ‘Death to the Jews’. Lawrence knew what the Arabs were shouting, but he did not dare to translate it for Churchill.
Lawrence played a key diplomatic role in helping Churchill create the post-Ottoman Middle East, pioneering the art of airborne shuttle diplomacy between Palestine, Egypt, Trans-Jordan and Iraq. On February 16, he met Faisal to discuss Iraq and Transjordan. On February 18, he drew up the agenda for Cairo with Young. On March 24, he left Cairo to meet with Abdullah in Amman. On April 21, he flew to Cairo to meet Faisal. On May 11, he returned to London. He spent the summer and autumn of 1921 criss-crossing the Middle East on diplomatic missions to Abdullah in Amman, to King Husayn in Jiddah and the Iman of Yeman. Churchill needed it to appear that the people of Iraq wished to call Faisal to the throne. Gertrude Bell, now converted to Lawrence’s Sharifian plan for Iraq after her initial opposition, was given the task of selling a Sunni king to the majority Shia population of Iraq and to the Jews of Baghdad, who had lived there a thousand years longer than the Arabs. The Kurds wanted an independent state in the old Vilayet of Mosul. This territory was originally given to France in Sykes-Picot. In Paris, the French gave it to Britain in return for their acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine. Mosul was right at the center of the oil producing area of the country, so it was incorporated in Iraq under Faisal.
Together with Sir Herbert Samuel, Churchill met Abdullah in Jerusalem on Monday March 28 at Government House. Churchill made it clear to Abdullah that, if the Arabs did not interfere with the Zionist project in the territory west of the Jordan River, Britain would not apply the Zionist clauses in Eastern Palestine across the river. Churchill proposed to Emir Abdullah that the Trans-Jordan part of Mandate Palestine become an Arab province run by an Arab governor who would recognise British control over the Arab Administration. The Arab governor would report to Britain’s High Commissioners for Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Abdullah offered to take control of the entire Mandate, reporting direct to Sir Herbert Samuel. When that idea was rejected by Churchill, Abdullah suggested uniting Palestine and Iraq as the best way of uniting Jews and Arabs. This too was rejected by Churchill.
Abdullah told Churchill the Arabs feared they were being kicked out of Western Palestine to make way for Jewish immigrants. ‘The Allies appeared to think that men could be cut down and transplanted in the same way as trees’. Churchill tried to allay his fears: ‘Jewish immigration would be a very slow process and the rights of the existing non-Jewish population would be strictly preserved’.
Churchill promised that ‘Trans-Jordan would not be included in the present administrative system of Palestine, and therefore the Zionist clauses of the mandate would not apply. Hebrew would not be made an official language in Trans-Jordan, and the local Government would not be expected to adopt any measures to promote Jewish immigration and colonisation’.
Churchill and Sir Herbert Samuel suggested that, in future, Abdullah may have a more important role to play in the greater region if he was successful in getting under control Syrian nationalist agitation against the French. Churchill did not promise, but he did suggest to Abdullah that, should he prove to be a successful governor in Trans-Jordan, he may yet become King of Syria, perhaps at some point in the future. Abdullah agreed to halt his advance in Syria. In return, he would administer Trans-Jordan, the area east of the Jordan River, and he would receive cash subsidies from Britain. Churchill and Samuel made it clear that, if the Arabs did not interfere with the Zionist project in the the territory west of the Jordan River, Britain would not apply the Zionist clauses in Palestine east of the river.
Churchill was attempting to buy off Abdullah’s claims on Syria in return for the offer of a position in Palestine. In preparation for this, Churchill brought with him from London a memorandum which limited the Balfour Declaration to Western Palestine, west of the Jordan River, in return limiting the territory of Arab independence to only that east of the Jordan. The Balfour Declaration contained no details of the Jewish homeland’s geographical borders. What we see at Cairo is Churchill’s proposal of a ‘Two-State Solution’ for Mandate Palestine, a Jewish country to the west of the river and an Arab country to the east. Abdullah’s rule over that part of the Mandate was originally meant to be for a temporary period. Today, his great-grandson sits on the throne of Jordan. Trans-Jordan would become ‘an Arab province or adjunct of Palestine’, according to Churchill. For Lawrence, Abdullah was ‘a person who is not too powerful, and who is not an inhabitant of Trans-Jordania, but who relied on His Majesty’s Government for the retention of his office’.
During late April and the first week of May, Lawrence flew back and forth between Abdullah in Amman and Faisal in Cairo. Abdullah was offered a down payment of £5,000 in gold against his annual subsidies. Faisal was offered a substanial subsidy together with the promise of British military support should the Iraqi people revolt against him. Ibn Saud was paid £100,000 in gold to leave Husayn in charge of the Kingdom of the Hijaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
‘I take most of the credit of Mr Churchill’s pacification of the Middle East upon myself’, Lawrence later wrote to Robert Graves, ‘I had the knowledge and the plan. He had the imagination and courage to adopt it’. Lawrence had the vision and managed to impose his ideas on everyone. It was perhaps his greatest achievement during a long and distinguished career that was, at this point in 1921, only half finished, for he went on to do many great things during his last decade in the Royal Air Force.
What Lawrence did to remake the Middle East was absolutely the right thing to do at that time. There never existed any chance of creating a large Arab federation, primarily because of the strong tribal divisions within the Arab world. Syria and Lebanon were home to large Christian, Jewish and Kurdish minorities. Iraq not only contained Christians, but also the Kurds in the former Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, which France had handed over to the British, in exchange for Alsace-Lorraine, during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Winston Churchill and Colonel Lawrence pulled off a series of master diplomatic strokes which largely satisfied the principles of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. (Lawrence, an idealist, very much resembled President Wilson, whereas Lloyd George and Churchill mastered the art of real-politick). The Kurdish in Mosul and the Christians in Lebanon were the only forgotten people in the game of nation building after the First World War.
Sadly, the British failed on Palestine after the fall of Lloyd George, when the only influential politician in Britain to champion the Zionist cause after 1922 was Winston Churchill.
The Arabs let themselves down in Iraq and Jordan. Feisal did nothing to satisfy the minorities in Iraq. This led to the overthrow of the Hashemites in 1958, with Nasser of Egypt acting as the main culprit plotting against the Hashemite kingdoms. After a pro-Nazi coup, Iraq supported Hitler in 1941. Britain was forced to overthrow the pro-Hitler Iraqi government very quickly. When Iraq became fully independent after the Second World War, its government attacked the newly-independent State of Israel, thus breaking the Hashemite commitment to support an independent Jewish state.
King Abdullah made the same mistake in 1948 when Jordan joined the war against Israel, much against his better instincts. He had relinquished all claims on what was left of Palestine to Churchill in 1921. Then he fell a victim to his own greed and discussed with Golda Meir the possibility of taking over some of the Arab parts of Palestine on the condition that Jordan did not attack Jewish settlements and neighborhoods. He broke that promise, with British officers (in charge of Jordan’s army) charging into Jerusalem to murder Jews. All the Arab nations failed militarily in 1948, except Jordan, which annexed the ‘West Bank’. But the West Bank turned out to be a liability for Jordan, becoming a hotbed of Palestinian terrorism that ended in the bloodshed of Black September in 1970. Abdullah was assassinated in Jerusalem by a Palestinian Arab, a member of the infamous al-Husseini family which chose tie its fate to Nazism and genocidal antisemitism.
Lawrence and Churchill cannot, however, be blamed for the failures that followed the creation of new nation states in the Middle East in 1921. Much as George W Bush cannot be blamed for the shortcomings of democratic rule in post-Saddam Iraq.
The Arabs had to be controlled in order to prevent the rise of a new caliphate. Sadly, current Arab rulers are largely responsible for all their own problems today, not the ambitious architects of Arab freedom – Lawrence and Churchill. It’s not the fault of the West that the Arabs threw away (and continue to throw away) the opportunities handed to them on a silver platter by Britain and America. It’s the failure of Arab rulers to control the uncontrollable forces that arise out of ideologies like Islam.
History is filled with empires and nation states. Empires, however, figure much larger on the maps of world history than nation states. From Ancient times, the Middle East and much of Europe have been under the control of empires rather than nations, in particular after the rise of Babylon, Greece, Persia and Rome. Ancient Israel, perhaps the original nation state, came under the rule of Rome and the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years before the Moslem conquests in the 7th Century. The rise of Islam annihilated the Ancient world, including Egypt and Israel, called Palestine by the Romans. Islam did not allow for the existence of nation states. There was only ever the ummah, the world empire of the Moslem people. The Islamic empire that dominated the Middle East for fourteen centuries was finally defeated by Great Britain in 1918. After President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Europe was transformed from a continent of empires into a continent of nation states.
And so Winston Churchill and Colonel Lawrence gave the conquerers of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine the right to rule themselves as citizens of nations for the first time in Modern history. Except in Israel. This was the only country in which the indigenous people ruled themselves. The indigenous people of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon continue to be persecuted in their own countries by the descendants of the Arab invaders who emerged from the deserts of Arabia to conquer the the Levant at the onset of the Dark Ages. Today Egyptian Coptics, Assyrians and Kurds are amongst the most persecuted people in the world, persecuted by Moslems. Lawrence tried to give the Arabs freedom in the hope that they would build a new civilization after the end of Turkish rule. Thus far the Arabs have failed. This may be down to the continued dominance of Islam. The Jews, however, succeeded where the Arabs failed. The third commonwealth of Israel, much smaller than its Ancient predecessors, has succeeded in creating the greatest civilization in the history of the Jewish people. While there is hope for the Jews in the Middle East, there is still hope for the Arabs, the Coptics and the Kurds. Democracy in Iraq may point the way for the Arab world in the Levant. The influence of Israeli freedom may also bring positive changes to the region in future decades. Time will tell.
Lawrence and Churchill knew the problems of Islam. But, short of permanent British colonisation, they did better than anyone else could have done. Thanks to these two men, Britain came out of the conquest and liberation of the Ottoman Empire with honor.
the return of colonel lawrence Copyright 2018 david robert semple