Skip to main content

The Ottoman Empire

Page 8 – The Arab Revolt, 1916-18

The Arab Revolt began on 5 June 1916. Forces commanded by Sharif Hussein ibn Ali’s sons, the emirs Ali and Feisal, attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina in an attempt to seize the holy city and its railway station. After three days the Arabs broke off their attacks, and the commander of the 12,000-strong Ottoman garrison, General Fakhri Pasha, sent Turkish troops out of the city to pursue the retreating rebels.

Meanwhile, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali publicly proclaimed the revolt on 10 June in Mecca. His forces were more successful there, seizing the city and forcing the small Ottoman garrison to seek refuge in the local fortress. Another of Hussein’s sons, Emir Abdullah, surrounded and besieged the town of Ta’if.

At the same time rebel clans allied to Sharif Hussein attacked Jiddah and other ports along the Arabian coast of the Red Sea. Both sides recognised the importance of the Red Sea ports and the British immediately dispatched a naval flotilla – including the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-My-Chree – to support the Arab forces. The ships bombarded Turkish fortifications and aircraft from Ben-My-Chree attacked Turkish troops in the field, disrupting their efforts to defeat the advancing rebels on the landward approaches.

By the end of July the ports of Jiddah, Yanbu and Rabegh were in Arab hands, allowing the British to greatly increase their supply of arms and equipment to the Arab forces in the Hejaz. Control of the ports also allowed the landing of the first units of the Arab Regular Army – Ottoman Army soldiers captured by the British at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia or the Sinai, who had subsequently volunteered to fight for the Arab nationalist cause. They wore British uniforms with Arab head-dress, and were equipped with modern weapons like heavy machine guns and artillery. An artillery battery and technical specialists from the Egyptian Army provided further support.

The British Army also dispatched their own military mission to liaise between the Arab leadership and the British high command in Egypt. This mission, which from October 1916 included Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence – better known to posterity as Lawrence of Arabia – would increase in size and capability as the war went on. This assistance, especially the artillery, gave the Arab forces the means to finish off the Ottoman garrisons under siege at Mecca and Ta’if.

Sharif Hussein ibn Ali spent the rest of 1916 consolidating his hold on the Hejaz and the coastal ports, building up his army and fending off Turkish counter-attacks. The failure to seize Medina at the start of the revolt proved costly, as the Ottoman Fourth Army sent reinforcements down the entire length of the Hejaz railway to garrison the stations. Ottoman General Fakhri Pasha then sought to recapture the coastal ports, beginning at Yanbu in December. This assault was finally beaten off thanks to the decisive intervention of the Royal Navy flotilla; the same thing happened when Fakhri tried to take Rabegh in early January 1917.

An Allied betrayal?

In November 1917 the war in the Middle East was overshadowed by the disclosure of the Sykes-Picot Agreement by the new Russian Bolshevik regime. In this secret 1916 deal, Britain and France had agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territories into their own zones of influence after the war. This apparent Allied betrayal caused widespread discontent throughout the ranks of the Arab Revolt. Although the Ottoman government tried to exploit the controversy, Arab leaders gambled that the reality on the ground at the end of the war would trump any paper agreement. For Feisal, Lawrence and the Arab Northern Army, the priority was now to reach Damascus before the British did.

Meanwhile, Emir Feisal, with Lawrence as his adviser, had captured the port of Wejh, 150 km north of Yanbu. From here Feisal’s men spent most of 1917 attacking the Hejaz railway. Small raiding parties blew up sections of track and destroyed bridges, water towers and even some weakly defended railway stations. The British, planning to invade Palestine, were keen for the Arab rebels to keep the 12,000 Ottoman troops in Medina tied down.

The potential of the Arab Revolt was recognised by the new British commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), General Sir Edmund Allenby, especially after Lawrence led a group of Feisal’s men on a daring raid to capture the last remaining Ottoman Red Sea port, Aqaba, in June 1917. Aqaba became the new base for Feisal’s army, renamed the ‘Arab Northern Army’. Attacks on the railway continued, and now extended as far north as southern Jordan; Lawrence himself led reconnaissance parties into Syria and made contact with Arab nationalists in Damascus. The spectacular victory of the EEF at the Third Battle of Gaza (Beersheba) in October 1917, and the subsequent British advance into the Jordan Valley, gave renewed impetus to Feisal’s ‘railway war’ further east. 

Despite tensions over the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Arab Northern Army continued to attack the Hejaz railway and assist the British where they could. They played a valuable role in Allenby’s final offensive, which culminated in the Battle of Meggido in September 1918, by attacking the key rail junction at Deraa and elsewhere.

In the wake of this victory Allenby’s mounted troops advanced swiftly through Palestine and Jordan, overrunning what is now modern-day Lebanon and entering Syria. To the east the Arab Northern Army drove northwards in an unspoken race for Damascus. They reached the city on 1 October 1918 to find Australian Light Horsemen entering from another side. The debate over who got there first has continued ever since.

A month later the Ottoman Empire agreed to an armistice and the leaders of the Arab Revolt found themselves locked in tense negotiations with their former allies, the British and French, over the future of the region.

How to cite this page

The Arab Revolt, 1916-18, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated