It’s July 1920, and in the Middle East, trouble is brewing. France and Britain have received League of Nations mandates for the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, but implementing them is not going well – and that means war and revolution in Syria and Iraq.
Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to The Great War. By the summer of 1920, both France and Britain were attempting to establish themselves as the new League of Nations mandatory powers responsible for the oversight of Syria and Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. In theory, the British and French were to oversee a gradual transition to independence for the two Arab regions, but in practice, they were also guided by traditional imperial interests. The region was racked by instability following the deprivations and destruction of the Great War and now, the violence would flare into open conflict against British and French rule. In this episode we will cover the Franco-Syrian War and the Iraqi Revolt, also known as the Iraqi Revolution, 100 years ago in 1920.
Let’s start in Syria, where France had been promised the League of Nations mandate. Since the British also had interests in Syria, and had occupied it first, there was some revival of imperial tensions between the two sides. This increased once Feisal became king in March. Feisal was the son of Hussein, who was the head of the powerful Hashemite family, the Sharif of Mecca and King of Hejaz. Hussein was also an important British ally, since he had led the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans during the war. The situation came to a head when the more nationalist leaning Syrian National Congress forced the more moderate Feisal to go back on an agreement he had made with France, and declare full Syrian independence. The Syrian Congress laid claim to Greater Syria, which included Lebanon and British-occupied Palestine as well. As early as January, a nationalist society had informed Feisal of their position in no uncertain terms:
“We are ready to declare war on both England and France.” (Fromkin 437)
The threat to British interests, along with trouble in neighbouring Mesopotamia, eased Franco-British difficulties since both were now suspicious of Feisal. Feisal was ready to work with the French, but at the same time was no friend of the mandate:
“I have no right to discuss it, the people being aware of the danger which it may entail upon their future safety and independence, have bitterly protested against it and refuse to accept it.” (Allawi 279)
It’s worth noting that not all the people in the region opposed French rule, especially the Christian minority in Lebanon.
Feisal’s position between the French and the nationalists, and his own family’s ambitions, have caused lots of historical debate about his true intentions, as well as among contemporaries. Though the French were suspicious of Feisal given his connections to both the nationalists and the British, some saw him as a moderate who they could work with. Parliamentarian Edouard Daladier remarked of Feisal:
“He is a moderate man who is using all his means to convince the Arab radicals to compromise with France.” (Allawi 280)
France needed stability in the region, and at first hoped Feisal could bring it, while accepting their indirect rule. And stability was in short supply in the early summer of 1920. There were numerous local revolts and clashes between different groups: Alawite Muslims rose up in Lattakia, Maronite Christians and Shia Muslims fought around Tyre, and there was trouble around Idlib in the north.
Before long though, relations between Feisal and the French Commander in the region, General Henri Gouraud, deteriorated. Feisal felt Gouraud was encouraging separatism amongst the Christians and Druze in Lebanon, which Feisal and the nationalists viewed as part of Syria. The French army demanded use of the strategically important railway between Aleppo and Riyaq, to supply its garrison in Turkey, which caused an uproar in the Syrian Congress. Feisal tried a compromise which satisfied no one, and finally decided to deny French troops the use of the railway. The French began to prepare for potential war, and safeguarded their flanks by an agreement with Kemal’s Turkey. Fearing a conflict with France which he could not win, Feisal sent an emissary to Gouraud in July, to determine French intentions and ask for full recognition of Syrian independence.
The answer was clear, as France took a firm position with the aggressive backing of their political representative in the region, Gouraud took control of the railway and sent Feisal an ultimatum: Feisal was to reduce his army, punish anyone who had committed a hostile act against France, end conscription, allow French use of the railway, and recognize the French mandate.
This ultimatum interpreted the mandate as a form of indirect imperial rule. To the surprise of the French, Feisal eventually agreed to the terms, even though nationalist Arabs rioted in the streets of Damascus. In any case, Feisal’s answer reached Gouraud after the deadline had run out. This fit French intentions to resolve the situation by force, and French troops began to advance into Syria on July 21, and what is sometimes called the Sharifian War began. Feisal again tried to offer a conciliatory peace to the French, but this offer was rejected.
The French Army of the Levant that entered Syria numbered around 10,000 men, most of whom were North African and Senegalese colonial troops, and even included tanks. Feisal scrambled to assemble enough men to meet the invasion, and called for volunteers in a speech at the ancient Umayyad Mosque:
“I had sought to stop the advance of the enemy army by agreeing to their demands but they betrayed us…If you want your country then go out and defend it.” (Allawi 289)
The Arab force that left Damascus was a mix of green volunteers and former Ottoman soldiers numbering somewhere between 1500 and 4000 men (Allawi 290), and was poorly equipped with leftover and mismatched Ottoman equipment. King Feisal’s force, led by Chief of Staff and Minister for War Yusuf al-Azma, gathered near Maysalun, northwest of Damascus, where at 6:30AM on July 24, the French attack began. For the first two hours, fighting was fierce, and Syrian troops managed to pin down and surround some Senegalese units. But the overwhelming French superiority, and the arrival of a French air squadron, soon turned the tide. Feisal’s army broke, and al-Azma was killed on the battlefield. Despite the crushing defeat of Feisal’s army, the Battle of Maysalun gained symbolic significance, as Ali Allawi has written:
“It was a military disaster, but its name has gone down in Arab history as a synonym for heroism and hopeless courage against huge odds, as well for treachery and betrayal.” (Allawi 291)
It also created a heroine for many Arabs, in the person of Nazik al-Abid, who led the nursing services during the battle and was an outspoken advocate of Arab independence and women’s rights.
For Gouraud, the way to Damascus was now clear. Feisal, who had watched the battle, withdrew south of Damascus, and the city was captured without a fight on July 26. Allegedly, Gouraud or his local commander, General Goybet, is said to have visited the tomb of the medieval Sultan Saladin in the Ummayad Mosque. Saladin is known for having defeated the mostly French crusaders. The French General supposedly remarked:
“Nous voici de retour en Orient, Monsieur le Sultan! We have returned to the Orient, Mister Sultan!”
The French soon divided Syria and Lebanon into five separate states, which they would rule for years to come.
So by September 1920, Faisal had been defeated, and the Kingdom of Syria crushed – but the deposed King now turned his eyes to another region where he might yet find a kingdom: the British mandate of Mesopotamia.
The League of Nations mandate assigned to Britain in spring 1920 included three former Ottoman provinces: those around Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul – the last of which had originally been assigned to the French, but had been given to the British during the Peace Conference. These three regions were quite diverse, with Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shia muslims, and significant Christian and Jewish minorities. There were also different attitudes towards central power and foreign government, tribal loyalties, and a budding nationalist movement as well – split between Sunni and Shia organizations.
The British also faced their own divisions as they attempted to establish control. British forces and defence budgets were stretched very thin, and they were hard-pressed to manage their commitments in Constantinople, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Transjordan, and Egypt, in addition to their other imperial possessions. They also faced an administrative tangle trying to sort out which government department would actually run the mandate, since the foreign office, the India Office, and the Arab Bureau all fought for influence. Opinions were split on what degree of independence Mesopotamia would actually end up with, what kind of government it would have, and whether it should be one, two, or three states.
The people of Mesopotamia were not enthused with their new British mandatories. Some were opposed, in principle, to non-muslim rule. Some of the urban elite were not against British control, while the ex-Ottoman officer’s association and much of the tribal countryside was. In the north, the Kurds demanded their independence and had launched their revolt back in 1919. In general, for those who opposed the British, there was a fear that they would not grant enough independence and would govern harshly. To make matters worse, the British had imposed new and very unpopular taxes. In June, a local Arab politician warned Gertrude Bell, who worked for the British civil administration and was close to T.E. Lawrence:
“You said in your declaration that you would set up a native government drawing its authority from the initiative and free choice of the people concerned, yet you proceed to draw up a scheme without consulting anyone.” (Fromkin 451)
Despite the warning, Bell reckoned that an uprising was unlikely – perhaps because the British mostly remained in the cities, which were much less opposed to them than the countryside.
This fragile state of affairs made some other British administrators on the ground quite uneasy, including Bell’s superior, and head of the civil administration, Colonel Arnold Wilson. In spring, he issued a dire warning to the Government of British India – the source of British troops in the region - in a terse telegram:
“We cannot give effect to [our] mandate without risk of disaster, unless we are prepared to maintain for the next two years at least as many troops in the country as we may have, and in a state considerably more efficient than they are now.” (Karsh296)
Wilson insisted that if the government didn’t send more troops, they should simply leave before things got any worse.
But his reports were considered alarmist, and there was little appetite for more spending or further reinforcing the 30,000 Indian and 4300 British combat troops in Mesopotamia (Khadim)
The spark that set off the revolt in Iraq occurred on June 26, 1920. A local tribal leader was arrested near the village of Rumaitha, but soon other members of his tribe arrived and broke him out of prison. The British decided to retaliate by carrying out an attack on another nearby village and burning it down, but local tribesmen drove them off. The unrest began to spread across the Middle Euphrates region, with several tribes joining forces and besieging Abu Skhair, and Rumaitha, and cutting the railway lines that were vital for British troop movements. Two British forces sent to relive the garrison in Rumaitha were defeated by a force of some 5000 tribesmen.
Before long, the British were losing control of the Middle Euphrates region, and sent reinforcements from Basra in the south. They also decided to withdraw to the city of Hilla, to prevent smaller garrisons from being overwhelmed, and to protect the last approaches to Baghdad. The tribesmen, who were led in the field by Sayyid Alwan al-Yasiri and Sayyid Muhsin Abu Tabikh, now took the offensive, and besieged Kufa and Hilla – and they virtually controlled the countryside as well. The key cities of Najaf and Karbala were abandoned by British troops without a fight, and the tribal and religious leaders set up a local government – though it is still debated whether this was intended to extend across the country.
Kufa quickly became the centre of action, as the Royal Air Force flew missions attacking the besieging Arab forces, and dropped supplies for the garrison. There have been claims that British planes dropped poison gas on the Iraqis, but more recent research makes this seem unlikely, even though Winston Churchill himself declared he was fine with the idea. The gunboat HMS Firefly gave the Kufa garrison supporting fire from the river – and at first, the tribesmen had no answer to the Firefly’s heavier guns. The British sent out yet another relief force to rescue their troops at Kufa, but as they struggled along in the intense heat, they were attacked and defeated by tribal forces at Raranjiyya. Some 180 British and Indian troops were killed, and the Arab forces captured ammunition and an 18-pounder artillery piece. The gun was quickly repaired, brought up to Kufa, and put into action by veterans of the Ottoman Army – and the Firefly was sunk.
The situation was now, from a British point of view, extremely dangerous. The defeats had a dampening effect on morale and increased tensions, as Gertrude Bell confessed:
“It’s a bad business. The military authorities seem to me all through to have [been] more inept than it’s possible to conceive.” (Khadim 77).
General Haldane later wrote he had never been so worried as after Raranjiyya, not even during the Great War:
“From 1914 to the Armistice, except for an occasional brief spell of leave, I was never absent from the Western Front, and my troops often held ground which in the parlance of the time was called “unhealthy.” But these twelve days at Baghdad in 1920, days seemed like years, surpassed all earlier ones in the mental strain which they imposed.” (Khadim 78)
In a bad sign for the British, both Shia and Sunni groups were in revolt alongside each other, a rare occurrence between the rival groups.
The revolt now began to spread to the south, north, and around Baghdad as news of the victory at Raranjiyya spread. But in these regions the uprising did not last as long as was not as intense. One of the reasons is because the British had much better relations with prominent Sheikhs in both north and south. In fact, one of the factors that pushed some one Upper Euphrates tribe into rebellion was quite unrelated to the broader conflict. British officer Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Leachman, who had once declared that the answer to the revolt was quote “wholesale slaughter,” was murdered after a dispute with the son of the Sheikh of the Zoba tribe, who felt he had been mistreated. This incident caused the Zoba and several other groups to revolt, but things soon settled down.
In October, the British also broke the back of the revolt in the Middle Euphrates. Twairij was captured, and Karbala given up to spare the Holy City from damage. The siege of Kufa was finally relieved after three months, causing Najaf to surrender as well. British prisoners were returned, and the rebels were forced to give up their weapons and pay a bounty. Despite the fall of the cities, fighting in the countryside against the tribes continued until the end of November. The eventual settlement with tribes included a vague promise of an independent Arab kingdom that had yet to be defined.
Once the revolt had mostly been brought under control, the British tried to understand what had caused it, but there was no easy answer. Arnold Wilson prepared a report that listed 13 contributing factors, including a conspiracy between Turkey and Faisal, a conspiracy between the Germans and the Turks, and the machinations of the American Standard Oil company. Another intelligence report charted a conspiracy between the Germans, Turks, and Bolsheviks, and some in British circles found other possible culprits, like Pan-Islam or the Jews (Fromkin 453). One of the revolt’s leaders, Sayyid Muhsin Abu Tabikh, was more pragmatic as he later reflected on the immediate causes:
“The British hastened [the revolt’s] timing by their ignorance about the proud personality of the Iraqi and the numerous political mistakes that they committed across the country.” (Khadim 71)
One factor Colonel Wilson didn’t put that much stock into was Iraqi nationalism, as he stated quite plainly:
“What we are up against is anarchy plus fanaticism. There is little or no nationalism.” (Fromkin 453)
And this question of nationalism is at the heart of a historical debate about the revolt in Mesopotamia. Some historians emphasize that the different groups in the region had all sorts of different and sometimes unrelated reasons for rebelling against the British. Others give Faisal’s network of officers in Mesopotamia a prominent role, but question his commitment to the Arab cause and instead put more weight on the imperial ambitions of the Hashemite family, who were prepared to work with British or French if it meant they could acquire power. The nationalist argument, which proved influential in Iraq and the Arab world, is that the uprising can actually be considered an Iraqi Revolution. In this interpretation, the uprising represented the will of the majority of the people – Shia and Sunni -- for re-establishing historic Iraq, which had been under foreign rule from the time of the Mongols in the 13th century. According to this argument, the Iraqi revolution laid the foundation for the eventual independence of Iraq in 1931, which was foreshadowed by the revolutionaries’ self-government of areas they liberated from the British.
Regardless of the cause of the revolt, once it had been put down, the British had some tough decisions to make. Defeating the tribes had cost 450 British dead, about 1500 wounded, and 40 million pounds (Fromkin 453, Khadim 85), and Mesopotamia had shown it could not be governed without changes. Already back in August British newspapers were questioning the government’s policy in Iraq:
“How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?” (Fromkin 452)
The British would take a step back, but the question now was who would be the new leader of Iraq? The British were still split on the question, as was the population. Faisal and his father now began to lobby and pressure the British to put Feisal on the throne of Mesopotamia, and cited wartime promises to the Hashemite family:
“I believe the present evils are not incurable, resulting as they do from misunderstandings between the two peoples.[…] If the pledges given to the Arabs though King Hussein are fulfilled, I am confident things will settle down.” (Karsh 300)
Among the Brits who wanted a Hashemite King, there was some discussion as to whether it would be Feisal or his brother Abdullah. Wilson had opposed Feisal, but even while the revolt was going on, he began to favour him as a candidate that might accept British influence:
“Faisal alone of all Arabian potentates has any idea of practical difficulties of running a civilized government on Arab lines. He can scarcely fail to realize that foreign assistance is vital to the continued existence of an Arab state. He realizes the danger of relying on the Arab Army.” (Karsh 303)
Winston Churchill, who became Minister of Colonies in early 1921, eventually supported Feisal as well.
After months of discussions and further lobbying by the Hashemites, the so-called Sharifian Solution was adopted at the Cairo Conference in March 1921. It was agreed that Feisal would become King of Iraq, and his brother Abdullah became King of Transjordan. Though Britain would still have significant influence, the new Kingdoms enjoyed more autonomy than some Brits had hoped for. Gertrude Bell had seen the writing on the wall in September 1920:
“The agitation has succeeded. No one […] would have thought of giving the Arabs such a free hand as we shall now give them – as a result of the rebellions!” (Khadim 69)
So as 1920 came to a close, Syria and Iraq were now on a clear path to indirect rule by Britain and France via the League of Nations mandates. There would soon be an Iraqi Kingdom, but for some revolutionaries it was bittersweet: the tribes had done the fighting, and Feisal was now King. Poet Ahmad al Safi al Najafi expressed his disappointment: “What a botched revolution; we did the farming and others harvested!” (Khadim 18) Tabikh himself later wrote that the British were far preferable to the Ottomans and that the revolution had brought to power the very same people who had had influence in Ottoman times. (Khadim 95). For now, the dreams of Arab nationalists had been crushed – but a powerful legacy remained. For many, Maysalun still stands as a symbol of resistance against European imperialism, and the Iraqi revolution forced the British to back down, and paved the way for full independence in 1932.
And now it’s time for our roundup segment, where we take a look at what else is going on in July 1920.
In Europe, the Spa Conference took place from July 5th to July 16th. The Allies and Germans discussed the implementation of Treaty of Versailles, and agreed to a disarmament schedule, coal shipments, and the distribution of financial war reparations – but not the total sum.
On the 11th, a plebiscite was held in two regions of East Prussia, which voted to remain part of Germany rather than join Poland.
On the 16th, the Treaty of St Germain went into effect. The treaty had been signed in September 1919 and made peace between the Allies (except the United States) and Austria, and divided the Austrian half of the Habsburg lands between the successor states.
On the 21st, the Interallied Mission to Poland began, which aimed to help bring an end to the Polish-Soviet War.
In North America, on July 5th at the Democratic Party convention, Laura Clay became the first American woman to receive a vote for a presidential nomination for a major U.S. political party.
And finally, on July 27 Mexican rebel Pancho Villa surrendered to government forces, but was permitted to settle down and was given an annual allowance.
More to stuff read
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- Kadhim, Abbas. Reclaiming Iraq: the 1920 revolution and the founding of the modern state (U of Texas Press, 2012).
- Allawi, Ali. Faisal I of Iraq (Yale University Press, 2014).
- Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace (Macmillan, 2009 ).