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Captain Rosario Pisani on the Hejaz Railway during the Arab Revolt in the First World War

The French Military Mission

Colonel Édouard Brémond 

When the Arab Revolt broke out in June 1916, the French Government, concerned about the effect it might have on the Muslim populations of their colonial possessions, decided to back the uprising. In order to be seen to be providing support, a military mission was established in August 1916. Known as the 'Military Mission to Egypt', it was led by Colonel Édouard Brémond, a highly regarded officer who had fought in North Africa as well as the Western Front. With his experience of warfare in desert terrain, T.E. Lawrence described him as 'a practicing light in native warfare, a success in French Africa, and an ex-chief of staff of a Corps on the Somme'.

Colonel Edouard Brémond of the French Military Mission in Arab Revolt during First World War

Col. Brémond, a veteran of several campaigns in North Africa, was the ideal choice to lead the French Mission

Colonel Edouard Brémond of French Military Mission in Jeddah during Arab Revolt in First World War

Col. Édouard Brémond, commander of the French Mission to the Hejaz, in conversation with the Governor of Jeddah

Within a few months, the mission counted 42 officers and some 1,000 troops. It included a detachment of engineers, a signals corps, medical staff and artillery logisitics, It had at its disposal 8 Hotchkiss machine gun units, 2 mountain gun artillery units, a battery of 80mm field guns and 396 pack animals. French combatants were to play an important role in the campaign on the railway, fighting alongside the Arabs and British. While they participated in actions from the Hejaz northwards into Jordan and Syria, it was in the southern sector that they would make their most important contribution. In particular, they forged good relations with Sherif Hussein's two eldest sons, Prince Ali and Prince Abdullah, whose armies operated mainly in the Hejazi sector of the railway line between Medina and Tabuk.

Captain Rosario Pisani with Prince Faisal at camp of French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Officers of the French Military Mission, including Captain R. Pisani (right), accompanying Prince Faisal on a visit to their desert camp

French Combatants

Captain Mohammed Raho, a veteran of 15 campaigns in North Africa, had already been operating with Prince Abdullah's forces for three months prior to the successful raid on the Hejaz Railway with T.E. Lawrence at Abu Na'am Station in March 1917. On 13 January, Prince Abdullah attacked an Ottoman convoy two days north of Abu Na'am on its way to Medina. 'During the engagement Captain Raho charged, sabre in hand, at the head of the cavalry, displaying to the Arabs the great bravery which had made him legendary. After some fierce fighting, the convoy, including two lieutenant colonels and 20,000 pounds of gold destined for Yemen, was captured'. (Colonel Édouard Brémond - Le Hedjaz dans la guerre mondial) The Prince relinquished the gold to his Bedouin force. Captain Raho estimated that the tribesmen numbered 15,000 and that 5,000 of them returned to their tribal camps once the spoils had been divided. Captain Raho remained attached to Prince Abdullah's army and undertook several attacks on the Hejaz Railway and the Ottoman defensive positions throughout the war.  In August 1917 he led a force of 40 French regulars and 200 tribesmen on a major raid north of Mudarraj Station, carrying out demolitions on four bridges and five kilometres of track. In the unforgiving summer heat, he then moved southwards through the harsh arid terrain to Jeda'a Station where on 28 August, he destroyed four kilometres of track and telegraph line.

Captain Raho of the French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Captain Raho (left) was attached to Prince Abdullah's force which operated in the Hejazi sector of the railway

Captain Raho of the French Military Mission on the Hejaz Railway in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Capt. Raho (in uniform) carried out several raids on the line, including the one at Abu Na'am Station with T. E. Lawrence

Hejaz Railway in valley between Mudarraj and Wayban Stations in Arab Revolt during First World War

The railway running through a valley north of Mudarraj Station, in the sector where Capt. Raho carried out demolitions on four bridges and five kilometres of track in August 1917

Bridge on Hejaz (Hijaz) Railway near Mudarraj Station in Saudi Arabia

This 12-arch bridge, three kilometres north of Mudarraj Station, is the longest between Mudarraj and Wayban, the area in which Capt. Raho carried out his major raid of Aug 1917

In one respect the French enjoyed an advantage over the British, as they held within their ranks many North African officers. The Algerian Lt. Col. Cadi arrived in Rabigh at the end of 1916 with eight officers and 50 men under his command. In the southern sector between Medina and Tabuk, French officers made regular raids on the line throughout the war. Prominent among them were Adjutant Claude Prost, Lt. Zemori, Adjutant Lamotte and Lt. Kernag. Prost was posted to Prince Abdullah's forces, under the command of Captain Raho. Lamotte was attached to Prince Faisal's forces and took part in the major coordinated offensive on the railway south of AlUla in July 1917. Lieutenant Kernag played an important role, supporting Arab forces with an artillery battery of six mountain guns. He had two officers and 14 men under his command.

Captain Laurent Depui of the French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during the First World War

Captain Laurent Depui converted to Islam and henceforth become known as Chérif Ibrahim Depui 

Arab camp on the Hejaz Railway in the Arab Revolt during the First World War

Arab camp, under the command of Ja'afar Pasha, in the shelter of a rocky outcrop at the edge of a valley

In June 1917, Captain Laurent Depui was posted to the French Mission in the Hejaz. He led a company of machine gunners and carried out a number of raids on the railway with Prince Ali's forces in the southern sector. His conversion to Islam and an excellent command of Arabic enabled him to establish a close relationship with the prince, Sherif Hussein's eldest son, and he became his Chief of Staff until the conclusion of the war. As a mark of his respect and gratitude, Prince Ali positioned him at his right side during the official ceremony to mark the surrender of the Ottoman garrison at Medina in January 1919.

French Captain Rosario Pisani with Arab tribesmen on the Hejaz Railway in Arab Revolt during First World War

The combination of Arab tribesmen with French artillery support created raiding parties that would prove extremely effective against the Ottoman railway garrisons

Captain Rosario Pisani

Perhaps the most active and influential of the French combatants in the Arab Revolt was Captain Rosario Pisani of the 2nd Regiment of Algerain Spahis. Of Maltese origin, he joined the French Mission in 1917 at the direct request of Colonel Brémond, who had been his commanding officer in Morocco before the war. He was assigned to the Sherifian Northern Army under Prince Faisal, Sherif Hussein's third son. This force moved northwards out of the Hejaz as advances were made, particularly following the capture of Aqaba in July 1917, to attack the sections of the Hejaz Railway in Jordan and Syria. As Lawrence was also attached to the Northern Army, the two men took part in several raids together, with Pisani providing artillery support for the attacks.

Captain Rosario Pisani of the French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Captain Rosario Pisani, (Algerian Spahis) carried out several attacks against the Hejaz Railway with  Lawrence

Captain Rosario Pisani artillery, part of the French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during the First World War

An armed column under the command of Capt. Pisani making its way over the brow of a hill in southern Jordan

After Aqaba was taken, General Maurice Bailloud in Egypt reorganised the French deployments, placing 150 men under Pisani's command and providing him with a battery of modern 65mm Schneider mountain guns, artillery pieces which Colonel Brémond had been requesting since the beginning of the mission. Pisani participated in numerous raids on the railway, several of them with T. E. Lawrence. In April 1918, his artillery battery played a major role in the assault on Ma’an in southern Jordan. Although the town itself could not be taken, during the offensive a series of attacks to the south led to the destruction of 125 kilometres of the track and seven stations.

65mm Schneider mountain gun in the Arab Revolt during First World War

The 65mm Schneider mountain gun was small, light and could be broken down into 4 parts for pack animal transport

General Maurice Bailloud and General Edmund Allenby during the First World War

General Maurice Bailloud (left), Inspector-General of French forces in Egypt, with General Edmund Allenby

Ma'an on the Hejaz Railway in Jordan in 1914

Ma'an in 1914. The town was the headquarters of the Ottoman 1st Composite Force VII Corps, with a garrison of 7,000, and could not be taken in the attack of April 1918. The important railway station almost fell to the Arabs, led by Nuri Said, but Captain Pisani's artillery bombardment was cut short at a critical moment by a lack of ammunition

In September 1918, during the final stages of the campaign, Pisani and Lawrence took part in a series of engagements, during which they cut the main Hejaz Railway and the branch line between Haifa and Dera'a, thus severing the Turkish lines of communication two days before the launch of Allenby's great offensive against the main Ottoman army on the coastal plain. On 17 September, an Arab force under Nuri Said, accompanied by Major H. Young (Indian Army) and Captain Pisani's artillery battery, attacked and captured an important defensive Turkish outpost on the railway near Tel Arar. Second Lieutenant Leimbacher with a section of artillery and one of machine-guns took up position on a hill overlooking Dera'a and prevented an attempt by the Turks to break out. At the same time Sergeant Mathieu carried out demolitions to the track both to the north and south of the town, including the blowing up of a small 2-arch bridge.

Captain Rosario Pisani and Nuri Said during the Arab Revolt in the First World War

Capt. Pisani (left) with Nuri Said (centre), the Chief of Staff of the Arab regular forces

The raiding party, including Pisani, Lawrence and Nuri Said, then moved northwards to Muzeirib. Their main target was the Hejaz Railway station, but from the old fortress they saw movement in the French D.H.P. (Chemin de Fer de Damas, Hama et Prolongements) depot and couldn't resist an attack. The Arabs quickly overpowered the defenders with a charge and inside found grain, flour, weapons and horses. The party then moved around the lake to approach the Hejaz Railway station on the Dera'a to Haifa branch line.

Muzeirib Station on the French DHP Damas, Hama et Prolongements railway in Syria

All that remains today of the French D.H.P. Muzeirib Station, attacked by Pisani's raiding party in Sept. 1918

Following a bombardment by the French artillery detachment, the garrison capitulated. Lawrence describes the surrender: 'So Pisani unfolded his willing guns and smashed in a few rounds of point-blank high explosive. Under their cover, with our twenty machine guns making a roof overhead, Nuri Said walked forward, gloved and sworded, to receive the surrender of the forty soldiers left alive.' (Seven Pillars of Wisdom). After the station had been taken, Lawrence and Young cut the telegraph line and blew up a section of the track, while Sergeant Mathieu carried out the demolition of the station and its water tower.

Muzeirib Station and town fort on the Hejaz Railway in Syria during the First World War

Muzeirib Station on the strategically important Hejaz Railway Dera'a to Haifa branch line. The town fortress is in the background

After a failed night-time attempt to blow up the large bridge No. 14 in the Yarmuk Valley at Tel Shehab, the raiding party moved southwards on 19 September to Nessib. From a hilltop vantage point Captain Pisani's artillery began a sustained bombardment of the station and 'before long, ragged holes appeared in the roofs and sheds.' Having pinned the garrison to their buildings, Pisani's detachment moved towards their main target, the long bridge one kilometre north of the station. The French artillery and six machine guns opened heavy fire on the deeply dug-in defensive redoubt, until finally the bridge guard crawled out and deserted their posts. While Pisani kept up a barrage on the roads between the bridge, the village and the station, Lawrence slipped down under the arches of the bridge and blew it up with a huge 800 lb. explosive charge.

In his report on the engagements in this final stage of the campaign, Pisani paid homage to the bravery of his men. 'During these months of gruelling operations, the entire French detachment demonstrated enormous endurance, with an excellent spirit of sacrifice and devotion to duty. One can, without any exaggeration, attribute a large part of the Allied column's success to their service.' In recognition of the role Pisani played in the campaign, Prince Faisal included him in his entourage at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference at Versailles.

Camp for French Military Mission near the Hejaz Railway in Arab Revolt during the First World War

French encampment for a detachment of the military mission engaged in operations against the Hejaz Railway and the Ottoman forces in the Middle East

Hejaz Railway in Yarmuk Valley on the border of Syria and Jordan

Looking westwards along Wadi Yarmuk. The raid on Muzeirib Station cut the strategically important Dera'a to Haifa branch line, which ran down the length of the valley to Lake Tiberias

Captain Rosario Pisani of the French Military Mission with Maulud Muklis in the Arab Revolt during First World War

Capt. Pisani (left) with Maulud Mukhlis, an Iraqi who fought for the Ottomans before joining the Arab Revolt

Captain Rosario Pisani artillery column of French Military Mission in the Arab Revolt during the First World War

Column of Captain Pisani’s artillery detachment making its way across the desert during the wartime campaign

Prince Faisal with Captain Rosario Pisani at Versailles in 1919

As a mark of his gratitude for the important role played by Captain Pisani (3rd from right) in the Arab Revolt, Prince Faisal included him in his entourage for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference at Versailles

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