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The Arab Revolt

The Outbreak of the Revolt

Sherif Hussein declared the Arab Revolt on 10 June 1916 in Mecca, calling upon the tribes of the Hejaz to support the uprising against their Ottoman overlords. Some of the earliest military actions were carried out along the railway. Five days before the official declaration of the revolt, Princes Ali and Faisal - Hussein's eldest and third sons - led their Bedouin forces northwards from the heavily defended city of Medina and attempted to demolish stretches of the line by 'tearing off lengths of the metals with their bare hands and throwing them down the bank.' Without explosives, the attacks were in vain. The damage was minimal, and with skilled repair teams and large stocks of rails, the Turks were able to keep services running.

First Raids on the Railway

General Fakhri Pasha, Turkish Ottoman commander of Medina (Madinah) during the Arab Revolt in the First World War

The redoubtable Turkish general Fakhri Pasha was based in Medina, the southern terminus of the railway

At the same time, another group under Prince Faisal, Sherif Husssein's third son, advanced 18 kilometres northwards along the line to Hafira. The aim was to capture the station and then continue up the railway to attack Buwat, 21 kilometres further to the north. However, Faisal's lightly armed Bedouin force was no match for the armoured trains used by the Turks to defend Hafira Station. The prince had no alternative but to call off the attack.

On 8th June, a small Arab force moved 14 kilometres northwards up the line to Muhit Station. Being the closest stop to Medina, it was heavily garrisoned. In addition to the principal station building, there was a large barracks blockhouse and a fortified defence post situated on a nearby ridge.

The Bedouin force opened the fighting with a heavy barrage of fire from their positions in the surrounding hills. At the same time, another section advanced towards the station across open ground. The Turks however, were safely protected behind their solid stone defences and armed with machine guns. They had little difficulty in repulsing the Arab attack. When a relief force of infantry under General Fakhri Pasha arrived from Medina, the Bedouin had no alternative but to disperse and retire into the safety of the hills.

Hafira Station on the Hejaz Railway in Saudi Arabia

Hafira Station, two stops north of Medina, was the target for the second attack on the railway

Prince Faisal decided instead to bring his force back southwards to Medina and attack the garrison with a camel charge. The city however, was even more heavily defended than the stations up the line. Fourteen thousand well-equipped regular Turkish troops, led by an experienced commander, General Fakhri Pasha, were protected by high walls and solid fortifications. In addition, they were equipped with 16 mountain guns and 2 heavy-duty field pieces Unaccustomed to the noise of the guns, an artillery bombardment threw the tribesmen into disarray. Despite Faisal's best attempts to rally them, they fell back to their watering holes.

This engagement was to give Prince Faisal his first real insight into the difficulty of attacking well-armed Turkish regulars with Bedouin forces. And it was no doubt this experience which later made him amenable to T.E.Lawrence's idea of attacking the railway using guerilla style hit-and-run tactics. Pitched battles against the well-armed and properly trained Turkish troops were to be avoided at all costs. Instead, lightning, pin-prick strikes would be carried out at different points along the railway, with the raiding parties disappearing into the safety of the desert before Turkish reinforcements could be brought up.

Medina city walls in First World War (Madinah in Saudi Arabia)

Prince Faisal's Bedouin force was to prove no match for Turkish regular troops and the massive city walls of Medina

Deployment of Ottoman defence forces at Mecca, Medina, Taif and Jeddah at the beginning of the war 

Early Arab Successes

The Arab Revolt was officially declared by Sherif Hussein, the Amir of Mecca, on 10 June. As the dawn prayer came to a close, the Sherif fired a single shot from the window of his palace, a signal to his supporters, who had been infiltrating the city, that they should commence operations against the Ottoman garrison. Their task was made easier by the fact that the majority of the defence force had been posted to the mountain town of Taif, where Ghalib Pasha, the Governor of the Hejaz, had moved to escape the intense summer heat. After a day of intermittent street battles, the Arabs managed to capture the Ottoman's Al Hamidia offices.

Mecca (Makkah) during the Arab Revolt in First World War

Despite initial Arab gains, Mecca was to hold out for nearly a month. Only after an Egyptian artillery battery had joined the siege did the city finally fall

The Sherifian forces however, were unable to take either Jirwal Barracks on the Jeddah Road or Ajyad Fort, overlooking the Haram Mosque in the centre of the city, where the heavily armed Turkish garrisons were equipped with artillery and machine guns. The early advances petered out and the uprising quickly developed into a siege. Over the best part of four centuries, the Ottomans had built up a great store of legitimacy for their right to carry out the sacred duty of administering Mecca, but the news that the garrison of Ajyad Fort had shelled the holy places of the city in their attempt to repel the attackers filtered out into the Islamic world community, helping to bolster Sherif Hussein's own claim to validity.

Ajyad Fort at Mecca in Saudi Arabia

Ajyad Fort, overlooking the Haram Mosque in Mecca, held out against the Arabs until artillery support arrived

With Mecca, the undisputed symbolic key to the control of the Hejaz, standing firm against the lightly armed rebels, it looked as though the Arab Revolt might fall at the first hurdle. The stalemate persisted until July, and was only broken when an Egyptian regular army force, rapidly dispatched by the British administration in Cairo, arrived in the Holy City with a small battery of mountain guns. An attack was mounted against Ajyad Fort, which quickly surrendered. When the Jirwal Barracks finally capitulated on 9 July, the city passed from Ottoman control into Arab hands.

Politicians the world over...

Does the German reaction to the outbreak of the Arab Revolt sound vaguely familiar?

In June 1916, news of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt prompted the following official German wireless messages:

'We are in a position to deny absolutely that there has been any rebellion in the Hejaz at all.'

5 days later...

'A rapid end has been made of local disturbances in the Turkish province of the Hejaz... Order has thus been restored. The small number of participants in the rebellion proves how insignificant the whole affair, so pumped up in the English and French press, has been.'

Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in Arab Revolt during the First World War

After three day's fighting, the important Red Sea port of Jeddah fell to an Arab force supported by the Royal Navy and aircraft from the seaplane carrier RMS Ben-my-Chree

RMS Ben-my-Chree in the Arab Revolt during First World War

The packet steamer RMS Ben-my-Chree, the 'largest and fastest coasting vessel in the world' at the time, was fitted as a seaplane carrier for service during the First World War

Jeddah fell after only three day's fighting to a force from the local Al Harb tribe. Warships from a British naval flotilla bombarded the city from the sea, while aircraft from the seaplane carrier RMS Ben-my-Chree attacked Turkish troops on the ground. The capture of the major Red Sea port enabled Sherif Hussein to keep the sea route to the Hejaz open for the Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca). In this way, returning pilgrims were able to spread the news throughout the Muslim world that the Ottoman Empire no longer held the prestigious honour of governing Mecca, and that Islam's holiest city had now passed into the hands of Sherif Hussein and his Arab supporters. Following the capture of Jeddah, the ports of Rabigh, Yanbu, Al Lith, Al Qunfudah and Um Lejj on the Red Sea fell in quick succession during July and August.

RMS Ben-my-Chree in the Arab Revolt during First World War

The stern of RMS Ben-my-Chree showing its wartime conversion to a seaplane carrier, with hangars for the storage of the aircraft used in the capture of Jeddah

Taif, perched in the Sarawat mountains to the east of Mecca and surrounded by a strong, well-defended wall, took longer to capitulate, holding out until September against the besieging force of Prince Abdullah, Sherif Hussein's second son. Arriving in the area on 10 June with only a small raiding party, the prince immediately called on the neighbouring tribes to join him. The local Bedouin quickly rallied to the Sherifian banner, swelling his force to over 5,000 men.

At the time of the Arab attack, Ghalib Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of the Hejaz, was in Taif, the summer retreat from the extreme temperatures of Mecca. Owing to his presence, there was a large Turkish garrison of some 3,000 men in the town, including the 22nd Infantry Division under Colonel Ahmet. During June, the defence force counter-attacked the Arab positions on the surrounding hills in an attempt to break the siege, but were unable to drive them off. The Turks held firm throughout the summer, until finally with the garrison close to starvation, and the Arabs taking possession of a battery of howitzers supplied by the British, the town fell on 22 September. Ghalib Pasha was escorted to Cairo, where he remained a prisoner of the British until the end of the war.

Ghalib Pasha, Ottoman Governor of Hejaz, in Arab Revolt in First World War

Owing to the presence in Taif of Ghalib Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of the Hejaz, a large garrison force was stationed in the hilltop town

Ottoman defence forces positioned at Taif between July and September 1916

Taif in Saudi Arabia during Arab Revolt in First World War

The summer retreat of Taif, 90 kilometres east of Mecca, held out against the Arab siege for more than three months

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