ONE DAY DURING the Peace Conference, Arnold Toynbee, an adviser to the British delegation, had to deliver some papers to the prime minister. “Lloyd George, to my delight, had forgotten my presence and had begun to think aloud. ‘Mesopotamia . . . yes . . . oil . . . irrigation . . . we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine . . . yes . . . the Holy Land . . . Zionism . . . we must have Palestine; Syria . . . h’m . . . what is there in Syria? Let the French have that.’ ”1 Thus the lineaments of the peace settlement in the Middle East were exposed: Britain seizing its chance; the need to throw something to the French; a homeland for the Jews; oil; and the calm assumption that the peacemakers could dispose of the former Ottoman territories to suit themselves. For the Arab Middle East, the peace settlements were the old nineteenth-century imperialism again. Britain and France got away with it—temporarily—because the United States did not choose to involve itself and because Arab nationalism was not yet strong enough to challenge them.
At their meeting in London in December 1918, just before Wilson arrived in Europe, Lloyd George and Clemenceau found time to agree on a division of the Ottoman empire’s vast Arab territories, stretching from Mesopotamia on the borders of the Persian empire to the Mediterranean. Both men were still buoyed up by their victory over Germany and by the novel but apparently warm friendship between their two nations. Clemenceau was delighted at his reception as the London crowds went mad, cheering, whistling and throwing hats and walking sticks into the air. “Really,” said Mordacq, Clemenceau’s aide, “among such a phlegmatic and cold people, that spoke volumes.” The conversation on the Middle East was short and good-humored. “Well,” said Clemenceau, “what are we to discuss?” Lloyd George replied, “Mesopotamia and Palestine.” Clemenceau: “Tell me what you want.” Lloyd George: “I want Mosul.” Clemenceau: “You shall have it. Anything else?” Lloyd George: “Yes I want Jerusalem too.” Clemenceau: “You shall have it but Pichon will make difficulties about Mosul.”2 (Mosul was about to become important because of oil.)
Lloyd George apparently gave Clemenceau promises in return: that Britain would support France, even against the Americans, in its demand for control over the Lebanese coast and the interior of Syria, and that France would have a share of whatever oil turned up in Mosul. Clemenceau was so generous, the French later claimed, because Lloyd George had also assured him that he could count on British support for his demands in Europe, particularly along the Rhine. Lloyd George does not mention that part of the deal in his memoirs. Were the French wrong or the British being perfidious (again)? Unfortunately there was no official record of the conversation. It was an ill-omened start for an issue that was to poison French-British relations during the Peace Conference and for many years after.3
What came to be called the Syrian Question (although it really related to all the Ottoman Arab territories) need not have done so much damage. Britain and France had already made their deal on the Middle East with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The unexpected collapse of the Ottoman empire, however, stirred up old dreams and old rivalries. The bickering, which dragged on through 1919, was about more than territory. It was about Joan of Arc and William the Conqueror, the Heights of Abraham and Plassy, about the Crusades, about Napoleon in Egypt and Nelson’s destruction of his fleet at the Battle of the Nile, about the scramble for Africa, which had so nearly led to war over Fashoda, Sudan, in 1898, and about the competition for influence between French and Anglo-Saxon civilization.
Lloyd George, a Liberal turned land-grabber, made it worse. Like Napoleon, he was intoxicated by the possibilities of the Middle East: a restored Hellenic world in Asia Minor; a new Jewish civilization in Palestine; Suez and all the links to India safe from threat; loyal and obedient Arab states along the Fertile Crescent and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates; protection for British oil supplies from Persia and the possibility of new sources under direct British control; the Americans obligingly taking mandates here and there; the French doing what they were told. At a private dinner just before the end of the war his closest advisers found him “in a very exalté frame of mind,” “very intransigent.” He wanted to exclude France as much as possible from the Middle East, even at the cost of breaking previous promises. And that meant above all Sykes-Picot, “that unfortunate Agreement,” as Curzon put it, “which has been hanging like a millstone round our necks ever since.”4
Like so many of the other deals that haunted the Peace Conference as unwelcome guests, Sykes-Picot was made in the midst of the war, when promises were cheap and the prospect of defeat very real. In 1916, the war was going badly for the Allies. In the east the Gallipoli landings had failed and in Mesopotamia a large force from India had surrendered. The British wanted to start a new offensive against the Ottomans from Egypt but to divert resources from the Western Front they had to have French agreement. What they offered as bait was an agreement on the future disposition of the Ottoman empire.
The two negotiators were both Catholic, and both knew the Middle East at first hand. Picot had been consul-general in Beirut before the war, and Sykes had traveled widely from Cairo to Baghdad. Picot was born into that French upper middle class which produced so many of France’s diplomats, colonial governors and high-ranking bureaucrats. Tall and pompous, conservative and devout, he cared equally for his own dignity and that of France. He was close to powerful colonial lobby groups in France; his brother was treasurer of the Comité de l’Asie Française, which in spite of its name was much concerned with the Middle East.5
Sykes, by contrast, was one of those wealthy, aristocratic dilettantes who fluttered around the fringes of British diplomacy. He never had much formal schooling—tutors on the great estate in Yorkshire, brief interludes at boarding schools and a couple of years at Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in amateur theatricals. He was enthusiastic, energetic and frequently impractical. T. E. Lawrence said of him: “He saw the odd in everything, and missed the even. He would sketch out in a few dashes a new world, all out of scale, but vivid as a vision of some sides of the thing we hoped.” He loved practical jokes, drawing caricatures, the Yorkshire countryside and the British empire. He hated cities, routine and pacifists. He was devoted to his wife and six children, perhaps because of his own unhappy childhood with a drunken and promiscuous mother and a neurasthenic and cold father. He adored the old, unspoiled Middle East of the desert and simple peasants; he blamed the French and international finance for modernizing and corrupting the old society. He admired French culture but thought France did not deserve its empire. “The French,” he said after visiting French North Africa, “are incapable of commanding respect, they are not sahibs, they have no gentlemen, the officers have no horses or guns or dogs.” 6
Curiously, Picot and Sykes managed to work well together. Their plan, which was approved by their respective governments in May 1916, was reasonable enough, if you were a Western imperialist. The Syrian coast, much of today’s Lebanon, was to go to France, while Britain would take direct control over central Mesopotamia, around Baghdad, and the southern part around Basra. Palestine, a thorny issue because of the intense interest of other Christian powers (Russia in particular), would have an international administration. What was left, a huge area that included what is now Syria, Mosul in the north of Iraq, and Jordan, would have local Arab chiefs under the supervision of the French in the north and the British in the south. (The Arabian peninsula was not mentioned, presumably because no one thought all those miles of sand worth worrying about.) The agreement appeased the French, who had considerable investments along the Syrian coast and who saw themselves as protectors of the area’s large Christian communities, such as the Maronites around Mount Lebanon. It suited the British equally well, and they had cleverly placed the French between themselves and the Russian empire as it reached southward.7
Almost as soon as the deal was made, the British nevertheless began to regret it. Would it not be wiser to control Palestine, so close to the Suez Canal, directly? This was much urged by British officials in Egypt. Why should the French get Mosul? When Russia dropped out of the war in 1917, it suddenly seemed less essential to have France as a buffer. Sykes, reported a colleague as news of the Ottoman surrender came in, “has evolved a new and most ingenious scheme by which the French are to clear out of the whole Arab region except the Lebanon and in return take over the protectorate of the whole Kurdo-Armenian region from Adana to Persia and the Caucasus.” 8
In France, a heterogeneous colonialist lobby—fabric manufacturers in Lyon, who wanted Syrian silk; the Chamber of Automobile Manufacturers, who noted that Mosul was wonderful country for driving; Jesuit priests, whose order ran a university in Beirut; the financiers, officials and intellectuals in the Comité de l’Asie Française—urged their government to stand firm. Syria, for this lobby, was invariably Greater Syria, stretching south to the Sinai and east into Mosul. Parliamentary groups pointed out the strategic imperatives. France already had Algeria and Tunisia along the south shore of the Mediterranean; now it must add Morocco. It was too late, alas, for Egypt, snaffled away by the British in a devious maneuver in 1882. But it was not too late for Lebanon and its Syrian hinterland and Palestine. The Quai d’Orsay sent memoranda to Clemenceau on “this heavy but glorious burden.” France’s connection with Syria went back to the Crusades. It had already done much to protect Christians and bring civilization to all the Arabs. Now the locals were counting on France to repair the damage done by years of Turkish rule. France must not give up Syria. French public opinion would be rightly enraged if “after such a war and such a victory, which has consecrated the preeminent role of France in the world, its position [were] inferior to what it was before August 1914.”9
The British position hardened. The Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet, set up in 1918 to work out British policy in the Middle East, returned repeatedly to the need to contain their ally. If France got Palestine and Syria, Britain, according to Curzon, the committee’s chairman and moving spirit, would be obliged to keep a large force in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and the vital route to India. And there were other routes, overland or by air (a new possibility), from the eastern end of the Mediterranean through Syria and Mesopotamia, or farther north along the Black Sea and past the Caucasus. Balfour pointed out that this was a dangerous argument: “Every time I come to a discussion—at intervals of, say, five years—I find there is a new sphere which we have got to guard, which is supposed to protect the gateways of India. Those gateways are getting further and further from India, and I do not know how far west they are going to be brought by the General Staff.” His colleagues remained determined to destroy Sykes-Picot.10
Even before the French realized this, British actions aroused their suspicions. French Catholics had been dismayed when British forces under General Sir Edmund Allenby swept the Turks out of Jerusalem just before Christmas 1917. The “Protestant peril” was taking over the Holy Land. The French colonial lobby watched anxiously as the Egyptian pound became the currency first in Palestine and then in Syria, and trade flowed south. When Picot rushed to Palestine to try to protect French interests, he found Allenby and his staff uncooperative. In the summer of 1918, as the last great German offensive battered the Western Front and the British prepared another major offensive into Syria, the Quai d’Orsay warned that French public opinion would not accept that “France be deprived of benefits which were rightfully hers by those who diverted their troops at the crucial moment.” French anxiety was not allayed by the subsequent refusal of the British military authorities to hand over full powers to French representatives in the areas of Syria earmarked for France under Sykes-Picot. The British also kept an ominous silence about their long-term plans. Picot, less hard-line than many of his colleagues, tried to warn Sykes of the mood in France: “The spiteful see it as evidence of hidden intentions. Even the others are becoming anxious.” The British refused to take French concerns or Picot himself seriously: “rather a vain and weak man,” said one officer, “jealous of his own position and of the prestige of France.”11
Although the British and the French acted as though the Middle East was theirs to quarrel over, they did have to pay some attention to their allies. The vague promises that had been made to Italy during the war— promises of access to ports such as Haifa and Acre; of a say in the administration of Palestine; of equal treatment in the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea—could be safely ignored and generally were. The United States was a different matter. While Wilson assumed that the Arabs would need guidance, presumably from Britain and France, he took seriously the idea of consulting the wishes of the locals. “Every territorial settlement involved in this war,” he had said to Congress in his “Four Principles” speech of February 11, 1918, “must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned.” Gaston Domergue, a former minister of colonies and vice chairman of the official French committee to formulate France’s colonial aims, quite rightly exclaimed, “The obstacle is America!” 12
With a smooth shift of gears, the Europeans began to talk the language of the Americans. It was quite clear, said Domergue, that “we need a colonial empire to exercise, in the interests of humanity, the civilizing vocation of France.” The British were equally adept at putting old imperial goals in appealing new clothes. It would not do to upset the Americans; as Smuts told his colleagues on the Eastern Committee: “You do not want to divide the loot; that would be a wrong policy for the future.” On the other hand, if the Americans could be persuaded that the British were respecting Arab wishes, they might put pressure on the French to give up some of what they had been promised under Sykes-Picot. Cecil, high-minded and devious, warned that “the Americans will only support us if they think we are going in for something in the nature of a native Government.” Curzon concurred: “If we cannot get out of our difficulties in any other way we ought to play self-determination for all it is worth, wherever we are involved in difficulties with the French, the Arabs, or anybody else, and leave the case to be settled by that final argument knowing in the bottom of our hearts that we are more likely to benefit from it than is anybody else.”13
The British and French governments, in a declaration that was circulated widely in Arabic, conveniently discovered that their main goal in the war on Ottomans had been “the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.” Words were cheap. The British, as Curzon had said, were confident that Arabs would willingly choose Britain’s protection. The French did not take Arab nationalism seriously at all. “You cannot,” said Picot, “transform a myriad of tribes into a viable whole.” Both powers overlooked the enthusiasm with which their declaration had been received in the Arab world; in Damascus, Arab nationalists had cut electric cables and fired off huge amounts of ammunition in celebration.14 The British and the French who had summoned the djinn of nationalism to their aid during the war were going to find that they could not easily send it away again.
At the end of November 1918, a dark, handsome young man who claimed, with some justification, to speak for the Arabs boarded a British warship in Beirut bound for Marseille and the Paris Peace Conference. Feisal, descendant of the Prophet and member of the ancient Hashemite clan, was clever, determined and very ambitious. He was also dazzling. No matter that he had been brought up in Constantinople; he was everyone’s image of what a noble desert Arab should be. Lansing, normally so prosaic, thought of frankincense and gold. “He suggested the calmness and peace of the desert, the meditation of one who lives in the wide spaces of the earth, the solemnity of thought of one who often communes alone with nature.” Allenby, the tough old British general, saw “a keen, slim, highly strung man. He has beautiful hands like a woman’s; and his fingers are always moving nervously when he talks.” With “the cavalry of St. George” (gold sovereigns), British weapons and advisers, Feisal had led an Arab revolt against the Turks.15
The British had gambled in backing him, and in so doing they had given undertakings that sat uneasily with that other set of promises in Sykes-Picot. In 1915 Sir Henry McMahon, a senior official in Cairo, had opened conversations with Feisal’s father, Hussein, the sharif of Mecca. “A small neat old gentleman of great dignity and, when he liked, great charm,” Hussein was interested more in the fortunes of his own family than in Arab self-determination. Immensely proud of his ancestry, which he could trace back for dozens of generations (and frequently did), he was head of one of the Arab world’s most ancient and distinguished families, guardian of Islam’s holiest sites throughout the Hejaz, and proud owner of the phone number Mecca 1. McMahon, in what has remained a highly controversial correspondence with the sharif, promised that, if the Arabs rose against the Turks, they would have British assistance and, more important, their independence. To safeguard French and British interests a few areas were specifically exempted from Arab rule: the area west of a line stretching more or less from Aleppo in the north to Damascus in the south—in other words, the coast of Syria and Lebanon—as well as the old Turkish provinces of Baghdad and Basra. The boundaries between the exempted territories and the rest were not made clear. The British later argued, in defiance of geography, that Palestine also lay west of the Aleppo–Damascus line. And what did independence mean? Hussein and his supporters assumed that, even in the exempted areas, the government would be Arab under European supervision; the rest, from the Arabian peninsula, up through Palestine to the interior of Syria and to Mosul in the north of Mesopotamia, would be an independent Arab state. This was not quite how the British envisaged it.16
In 1915 the details of what was an exchange of promises, not a firm treaty, did not matter that much. Perhaps it is also fair to say that neither side was negotiating in entirely good faith. Hussein wildly exaggerated his own influence when he hinted at vast Arab conspiracies waiting for his signal. In 1915, his position was precarious. He had spent much of his life waiting in Constantinople for the Ottomans to appoint him sharif and he recently had learned that they were thinking of deposing him.17 Close at hand, he faced a formidable rival in Ibn Saud, who was welding together the tribes of the interior to challenge him. From the British point of view it was not at all clear that the Arabs would ever rise, or that the Ottoman empire would collapse, or even that the Allies could win the war. Like the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Hussein-McMahon letters were a short-term expedient rather than a part of a long-term strategy. And there was yet another promise made in those war years that was going to cause trouble to the peacemakers. The Balfour Declaration, telling the Jews of the world that they could have a homeland in Palestine, was issued by the British government and subscribed to by the French and later the Americans. It was not clear how it meshed with the agreements with the Arabs.
Promissory notes given in wartime are not always easy to collect in peace but in June 1916, when the Arab revolt started, the British had every reason to feel pleased with their diplomacy. The sharif promptly proclaimed himself king of the Arabs, although the British would only recognize him as king of the Hejaz. Four of his sons fought the Turks, but the one who stood out was Feisal. Riding at Feisal’s side was his fair-haired, blue-eyed British liaison officer, later to become even more famous as Lawrence of Arabia.
A distinguished scholar and a man of action, a soldier and a writer, a passionate lover of both the Arabs and the British empire, T. E. Lawrence was, in Lloyd George’s words, “a most elusive and unassessable personality.” He remains a puzzle, surrounded by legend, some based in reality, some created by himself. It is true that he did brilliantly at Oxford, that he could have been a great archaeologist and that he was extraordinarily brave. It is not true that he created the Arab revolt by himself. His great account, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is part history, part myth, as he himself admitted. He claimed that he passed easily as an Arab, but Arabs found his spoken Arabic full of mistakes. He shuddered when the American journalist Lowell Thomas made him famous, but he came several times in secret to the Albert Hall to hear his lectures. “He had,” said Thomas, “a genius for backing into the limelight.” When he chose, Lawrence was enormously charming. His friends ranged across worlds and classes, from the desert Arabs to E. M. Forster. He could also be brutally rude. When his neighbor at a dinner party during the Peace Conference said nervously, “I’m afraid my conversation doesn’t interest you much,” Lawrence replied, “It doesn’t interest me at all.”18
In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the description of Lawrence’s first meeting with Feisal is epic: “I felt at first glance that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek—the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.” His impressions at the time give a more human Feisal: “He is hot tempered, proud, and impatient, sometimes unreasonable, and runs off easily at tangents. Possesses far more personal magnetism and life than his brothers, but less prudent. Obviously very clever, perhaps not overscrupulous.”19
That last was equally true of Lawrence. To Feisal he held out the vision of the throne in an independent Syria, one that included Lebanon, and played down the other promises the British had made, to the French or to the Jews. He made sure that Feisal’s forces got credit for the capture of Damascus, much to the annoyance of the Australians who actually did the work. Feisal was appointed the chief administrator of Syria. Lawrence did all this for the Arabs but also for the British. He himself did not know which were the more important to him. Sometimes he talked of the Arabs as “we” and the British as “you.” Like other pro-Arabists, he hoped that the Arabs would happily and willingly choose limited self-government under the benevolent supervision and control of the British. Self-determination, he told Curzon’s Eastern Committee, was “a foolish idea in many ways. We might allow the people who have fought with us to determine themselves.” Britain’s imperial needs would thus neatly mesh with Arab nationalism—and he would not have to choose between them.20
The French saw Lawrence as Feisal’s “evil genius” who had turned the simple Arab against them. When Lawrence arrived with Feisal at Marseille in November 1918, wearing, as a French colonel noted in disgust, “his strange white oriental dress,” they told him he was welcome only as a British officer. Lawrence left France in a fury, but turned up for the start of the Peace Conference, still in Arab dress. While he was fêted by the British and the Americans, the French muttered darkly about his unreasoning hatred of their country. He had taken, it was said, his Croix de Guerre and paraded it on a dog’s collar. Clemenceau, hoping to avoid a confrontation with Britain over Syria, agreed to see him. He reminded Lawrence that the French had fought there in the crusades. “Yes,” replied Lawrence, “but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.”21
The French, who suspected that the British hoped to use Feisal to weaken their own case for Syria (“British imperialism with Arab headgear,” in the words of one French diplomat), did not want him or Lawrence in France at all and would have stopped them in Beirut if they had known in time. But they hesitated to turn Feisal away at Marseille; there was always a faint chance that he could be detached from the British. Feisal was greeted correctly but coolly and informed that he had no official standing and that he had been badly advised in making his trip. He was dragged off on a tour of the battlefields to keep him away from Paris and it was only when he threatened to leave that he was given an audience with Poincaré. The French also doled out a Légion d’Honneur, which Feisal received, as fate would have it, from General Henri Gouraud, who was later to turn him off his throne in Syria.22
When he went on to London, Feisal found a warmer welcome but with undercurrents that unsettled him. The British suggested that he might have to accept French overlordship in Syria. They also wanted him to agree that Palestine was not part of Syria, as the Arabs maintained, and to sign an agreement with Chaim Weizmann, leader of the World Zionist Organization, recognizing the Zionist presence there. Feisal was lonely and at sea in an unfamiliar world. He needed British support in the face of French hostility. He signed at the beginning of January; the validity of the document, like that of so many others dealing with the Middle East, has been debated ever since.23
When the Peace Conference opened, the French tried to drive a wedge between Feisal and the British. His name was omitted from the list of official delegates. When Feisal complained, a French Foreign Ministry official said bluntly: “It is easy to understand. You are being laughed at: the British have let you down. If you make yourself on our side, we can arrange things for you.” After the British protested, the French grudgingly allowed Feisal to attend as an official delegate, but only as representing his father’s Hejaz. Lawrence was close at his side, chaperon, translator and, because Feisal was receiving a subsidy from the Foreign Office, paymaster. The French press attacked Feisal as a British puppet; French intelligence opened his letters and delayed his telegrams back to the Middle East. In an ultimately unsuccessful gambit, the Quai d’Orsay also nurtured the Central Syrian Committee, which claimed to speak for Syrians around the world and which wanted, it said, a greater Syria, including the Lebanon, under French protection. The main effect was to make Arab nationalists even more suspicious of the French.24
On February 6, the delegation from the Hejaz finally got its chance to address the Supreme Council. Feisal, in white robes embroidered with gold, a scimitar at his side, spoke in Arabic while Lawrence translated. It was rumored that Feisal merely recited the Koran while Lawrence extemporized. The Arabs, Feisal said, wanted self-determination. While he was prepared to respect the exemptions of the Lebanon and Palestine, the rest of the Arab world should have its independence. He invited Britain and France to live up to the promises they had made. While Lloyd George posed questions designed to show the contribution the Arabs had made to the Allied victory, Wilson asked only whether the Arabs would prefer to be part of one mandate or several. Feisal tried to dodge what was an awkward question, stressing that the Arabs preferred unity and independence. If the powers decided on mandates, then, he hinted, his people would prefer the Americans to anyone else. When Feisal, with Lawrence, called on Wilson privately, they found him reserved and noncommittal, although years later, when things had gone badly for Feisal, he maintained that Wilson had promised that, if Syria really established its independence, the United States would protect it.25
The French foreign minister tried to catch Feisal out. As a British observer reported maliciously, “Pichon had the stupidity to ask what France had done to help him.” Feisal at once praised the French while managing to point out the very limited amount of aid France had sent. “He said it all in such a way that no one could possibly take offence and of course Pichon looked a fool, as he is.” A few days later the French returned to the attack, producing Arabs who claimed that their people, whether Christian or Muslim, wanted nothing so much as French help. Unfortunately, as the gray-bearded spokesman for the Central Syrian Committee was launching into his two-hour oration, an American expert slipped Wilson a note pointing out that the speaker had spent the previous thirty-five years in France. Wilson stopped listening and wandered about the room. Clemenceau whispered angrily to Pichon, “What did you get the fellow here for anyway?” Pichon replied with a shrug, “Well, I didn’t know he was going to carry on this way.” Clemenceau’s own view was that Feisal’s demands were absurdly extravagant, but he still hoped to avoid an open confrontation with the British, especially since the discussions on the terms to be offered Germany were reaching an acute stage.26
The French also brought in a delegation asking for a separate Lebanon under the protection of France, whose praises they sang. “Her liberal principles,” said its leader, “her time-honoured traditions, the benefits Lebanon never failed to receive from her in hard times, the civilisation she diffused throughout made her prominent in the eyes of all the inhabitants of Lebanon.” France had historically been the protector of the Christian communities throughout the Ottoman empire but it had particularly close ties to the Maronites, who probably formed a majority in the wild country around Mount Lebanon. In 1861 France had forced the Ottomans to set up an autonomous province there. Maronites had fought side by side with French Crusaders; they claimed, improbably, a family connection with Charlemagne; like French Catholics, they looked to the pope in Rome rather than to the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople; and, most important perhaps, they admired French culture almost as much as the French themselves. When Maronite leaders outlined a greater Lebanon, to include the Bekáa Valley and most of the coast from Tripoli to Sidon, as well as a large number of Muslims, France was sympathetic.27
Although Clemenceau himself was mainly concerned at the Peace Conference with France’s security in Europe, he could not entirely ignore his own colonial lobby. He told Kerr, Lloyd George’s assistant, that he “personally was not particularly concerned with the Near East. France, however, had always played a great part there, and from the economic point of view a settlement which would give France economic opportunities was essential, especially in view of their present financial condition. He further said that French public opinion expected a settlement which was consonant with France’s position. He could not, he said, make any settlement which did not comply with this condition.” He was prepared, as he had shown at that famous disputed conversation in December 1918, to go a long way to accommodate the British; he could not give them everything in the Middle East.28
In the press of urgent business before Wilson left for his short trip home on February 14, nothing was decided about the Arab territories and the issue continued to fester. The main source of the trouble was that the British were still undecided about what they wanted. Should they keep their hands off and let the French have Syria, as they had promised in Sykes-Picot and as the Foreign Office preferred? Curzon’s Eastern Committee and the military hastened to point out the dangers if France should end up controlling a swath of former Turkish territory from Armenia in the north to the borders of Palestine in the south. Then there were those, like Lawrence himself, who felt that Britain had an obligation to the Arabs and to Feisal in particular and could not therefore simply abandon them to the French. Lloyd George tended to agree; as he told the British empire delegation, “we could not face the East again if we broke faith.” He would give France Syria only if there was no alternative. On the other hand, he did not really want to alienate the French. As on other issues, Lloyd George tried to keep his options open. He delayed withdrawing British occupation troops from Syria, thereby persuading the French, if they needed persuading, that the British were untrustworthy. As Balfour complained:
We have got into an extraordinary muddle over the whole subject, partly owing to the unreasonableness of the French, partly owing to the essentially false position in which we have placed ourselves by insisting on a military occupation of a country which we do not propose under any circumstances to keep ourselves, while excluding those whom we recognise are to have it, and partly owing to the complicated and contradictory character of the public engagements into which we have entered.29
While Wilson was away, the British floated various schemes, all of which would leave France with nothing like what it would have had under Sykes-Picot. Lloyd George urged Clemenceau to accept Feisal as ruler of Syria and warned him that if he did not, there could be war in Syria. The British further infuriated the French with a plan to rectify the borders of Palestine, which would have taken, the French complained, almost a third of Syrian territory in the south. “The notes coming in from the French government,” said the British ambassador in Paris, “could hardly be worse if we were enemies instead of allies.”
Lord Milner, the British colonial secretary who had been given responsibility for the Syrian issue, arrived in Paris to reassure the French that “we did not want Syria and had not the slightest objection to France’s being there.” He even persuaded Clemenceau, an old friend, to meet Feisal and see if they could work something out. Unfortunately, the attempt to assassinate Clemenceau came on February 19, before the meeting could take place. Milner, claiming he did not want to bother Clemenceau, never followed up; Clemenceau refused to have anything more to do with Milner. A few weeks later, Lloyd George apparently went back to Sykes-Picot, but three days later he produced yet another map leaving France with Lebanon and the port of Alexandretta in the north and Syria virtually independent under Feisal. Clemenceau complained bitterly to House that Lloyd George always broke his promises. The French government was under intense pressure from French colonialists; even the Quai d’Orsay was stirring up a press campaign to demand the Syrian mandate. “I won’t give way on anything any more,” Clemenceau assured Poincaré. “Lloyd George is a cheat. He has managed to turn me into a ‘Syrian.’ ”30
On March 20, with Wilson back in Paris, Pichon and Lloyd George went over the whole history again in the Council of Four. Sykes-Picot, said Wilson in disgust afterward, sounded like a type of tea; “a fine example of the old diplomacy.” Sykes himself was dead by this time, carried off in the great flu epidemic, and Picot was in Beirut, trying valiantly to uphold his country’s interests in the face of a hostile British military administration. Allenby, who had been summoned to Paris from Damascus, warned that the Arabs would violently oppose a French occupation. Wilson tried to find a compromise. After all, as he pointed out, his only interest was in peace. Why not send a fact-finding inquiry to ask the Arabs themselves what they wanted? The Peace Conference, he said, using a favorite formula, would find “the most scientific basis possible for a settlement.” To annoy the British, Clemenceau slyly suggested that the commission look at Mesopotamia and Palestine as well. With the insouciance that drove the French colonial lobby mad, he told Poincaré that he had agreed to the commission only to be nice to Wilson and that, in any case, the commissioners would find nothing but support for France in Syria, “where we have traditions of 200 years.” The French president was horrified. As he told his diary, “Clemenceau is a man for catastrophes; if he cannot prevent them, he will also provoke them.” Lloyd George agreed to the commission, but privately thought it a dreadful idea, and so, on second thought, did Clemenceau. The two stalled when it came to naming their representatives, with the result that Wilson, in exasperation, finally decided in May to go ahead unilaterally and send his own commissioners out to the Middle East.31
When Feisal heard the initial news that a commission was to be appointed, he drank champagne for the first time in his life. He was confident, as was the ubiquitous Lawrence, that it would confirm Syrian independence under his rule. The months in Paris had been frustrating and boring for both men. A flight over the city helped relieve their feelings. “How dreadful, to have no bombs to throw upon these people,” Feisal exclaimed. “Never mind, here are some cushions.” Lawrence became increasingly difficult, playing silly practical jokes such as throwing sheets of toilet paper down a stairwell at Lloyd George and Balfour one evening. In April, Feisal and Clemenceau had their long-delayed meeting, at which they discussed yet another plan providing for a mild form of French mandate, which had been drawn up by British and French experts. Clemenceau found Feisal friendlier and more reasonable than before and believed that Feisal had accepted the terms. In fact, Feisal was stalling, on Lawrence’s advice. By May, when it was quite clear that there was no agreement and no serious Allied commission of inquiry, Feisal was safely back in Damascus.32
In Paris the wrangling between Britain and France went on, culminating, on May 21, with a violent scene between Clemenceau and Lloyd George over the whole Ottoman empire. Clemenceau pointed out that France had agreed to the incorporation of Cilicia into an Armenian mandate under the United States. He reminded Lloyd George that he had given up Mosul the previous December. “I have thus abandoned Mosul and Cilicia; I made the concessions you asked of me without hesitation, because you told me that, afterwards, no difficulty would remain. But I won’t accept what you propose today; my government would be overthrown the next day, and even I would vote against it.” Clemenceau threatened to go back on his offer of Mosul. That put before the Peace Conference the question of not just Mosul but the whole area stretching south to the Persian Gulf, now known as Iraq, an issue the British had managed to avoid up to this point.33
Mesopotamia—the term the British used loosely to refer to the old Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra—had scarcely been mentioned at the conference except as a possible mandate to be held, everyone assumed, by Britain. British troops were in occupation, British administrators from India were running it and British ships were sailing up and down the Tigris. No power was likely to challenge the British claim: Russia and Persia were too weak, the United States uninterested. France, until that stormy session of the Council of Four in May, had apparently given up any claim. Clemenceau spoke in anger but he may have also begun to realize just what he had given up so blithely: oil.
Coal had been the great fuel of the Industrial Revolution, but by 1919 it was becoming clear that oil was the fuel of the future. Tanks, aircraft, lorries and navies all needed oil. British petroleum imports alone quadrupled between 1900 and 1919 and most of the increase, worryingly, came from outside the British empire: from the United States, Mexico, Russia and Persia. Control of oilfields, refineries and pipelines was clearly going to be important in the future, as it had been in the Great War, when “the Allied cause,” according to Curzon, “floated to victory upon a wave of oil.” No one knew for certain whether Mesopotamia had oil in any quantity, but when black sludge seeped out of the ground and lay in pools around Baghdad, or gas fires flared off swamps in Mosul, it was easy to guess. By 1919, the British navy was arguing, without awaiting further evidence, that the Mesopotamian oilfields were the largest in the world. It seemed foolish to hand over control of any part to the French, whatever Sykes-Picot said. As Leo Amery, one of Lloyd George’s bright young men, wrote: “The greatest oil-field in the world extends all the way up to and beyond Mosul, and even if it didn’t we ought as a matter of safety to control sufficient ground in front of our vital oil-fields to avoid the risk of having them rushed at the outset of the war.”34
Clemenceau, who had once said, “When I want some oil, I’ll find it at my grocer’s,” had by now grasped the importance of the new fuel. He had given up formal control over Mosul but he insisted to Lloyd George that France should have its share of whatever was in the ground. Walter Long, the British minister of fuel, and Henry Bérenger, his French counterpart, a man who believed that oil was the “blood of victory,” were put to work. They produced an agreement under which France would have a quarter-share of the Turkish Petroleum Company and in return would allow two pipelines to be built across Syria from Mosul to the sea. Both sides agreed that they did not want the Americans, who were starting to take an interest in Middle East oil, muscling in. Unfortunately, what was a reasonable compromise got caught up in the confrontation over Syria. “There was a first-class dogfight,” Henry Wilson noted in his diary, “during which the Tiger said Walter Long had promised the French half the Mesopotamian oil! Lloyd George asked me if I had ever heard of this. Of course, never. Whereupon Lloyd George wrote at once to Tiger and said that arrangement was cancelled.” The Foreign Office did not find this out until some months later, which shows the confusion in British policymaking at this period. It was only in December 1919, after Britain and France had finally settled their dispute over Syria, that the oil issue was put to rest, on very much the same terms that Long and Bérenger had agreed. As part of the deal, the French government also agreed permanently to abandon France’s claim to Mosul.35
The British knew that they did not want the French to have Mosul, but beyond that their own policy toward Mesopotamia developed by fits and starts. The initial British campaign there in 1914 had been defensive, designed only to protect the Persian Gulf from the Turks. Once they had secured their bridgehead, they had been drawn north toward Baghdad. A young political officer, Arnold Wilson, wrote to his parents: “The only sound thing is to go on as far as possible and not try to look too far ahead.” Four years later the British had gone very far indeed, up to the Kurdish areas on the borders of Turkey, and Wilson was now head of the British administration. 36
Arnold Wilson was handsome, courageous, stubborn and stoical. His school report said: “He has fought his faults bravely and the worst of them are perhaps exaggerated virtues. His talent is for management and organization and he is capable of a great deal of work for others and unselfishness. His manners are his worst foe.” He loathed dancing, gossip and idleness. He quoted scripture freely; his finger never hesitated on the trigger. He had, in short, the qualities of a great proconsul of empire at a time when proconsuls were becoming obsolete.37
When the war started, Wilson was in the north of Turkey, near Mount Ararat, completing an immense project to map the boundary between Persia and Ottoman Turkey. (The border has stood with scarcely a change.) He and a colleague made their way back to Britain via Russia and Archangel. As he was about to join his regiment in France, he was ordered back to the Middle East, to join the Mesopotamian campaign as assistant to Sir Percy Cox, the chief political officer. When, at the end of the war, Cox was called away to deal with Persian matters, Wilson was his obvious replacement. From April 1918 to October 1920 he governed Mesopotamia.38
Wilson, like most of the other British there, assumed that Britain was acquiring a valuable new property. With oil, if Mosul had any worth exploiting, and wheat, if irrigation was done properly, the new acquisition could be self-sufficient; indeed, it might even return money to the imperial treasuries. Wilson urged the government in London to make Mosul part of its war aims and, just after the Turkish armistice, he made sure that British forces moved in. Mosul was, he argued, important for the defense of Baghdad and Basra. 39 With the collapse of the Ottomans and the Russian Revolution, it had also gained wider strategic importance. The British were backing anticommunist forces in Russia as well as the little independent republics that had sprung up in the Caucasus. One way of doing this, and of preventing the spread of Bolshevism farther south, was to open up communications between Persia and the Caucasus, and that meant through Mosul.
Wilson had firm ideas about how the area should be ruled. “Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul should be regarded as a single unit for administrative purposes and under effective British control.” It never seems to have occurred to him that a single unit did not make much sense in other ways. In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together. Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf; Baghdad had strong links with Persia; and Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria. Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs make one country. As in the Balkans, the clash of empires and civilizations had left deep fissures. The population was about half Shia Muslim and a quarter Sunni, with other minorities from Jews to Christians, but another division ran across the religious one: while half the inhabitants were Arab, the rest were Kurds (mainly in Mosul), Persians or Assyrians. The cities were relatively advanced and cosmopolitan; in the countryside, hereditary tribal and religious leaders still dominated.40 There was no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab. Before the war, young officers serving in the Ottoman armies had pushed for greater autonomy for the Arab areas. When the war ended, several of these, including Nuri Said, a future prime minister of Iraq, had gathered around Feisal. Their interest was in a greater Arabia, not in separate states.
Arnold Wilson did not foresee the problems of throwing such a diverse population into a single state. He was a paternalist who thought the British would remain for generations. “The average Arab, as opposed to a handful of amateur politicians in Baghdad, sees the future as one of fair dealing and material and moral progress under the aegis of Great Britain.” He urged his government to move quickly: “Our best course is to declare Mesopotamia to be a British Protectorate under which all classes will be given forthwith the maximum degree of liberty and self-rule compatible with good and safe government.” His superiors in London ruled that out. They preferred indirect rule, something the British had used in the Indian princely states and Egypt. It had the advantage of being cheaper than direct control—an important consideration, especially in 1919. As Balfour pointed out, when the Eastern Committee was talking away about all the glorious possibilities that lay before Britain: “We consider the advantage to the natives, the advantage to our prestige; we consider certain things connected with trade and commerce, and all the rest of it; but money and men I have never seen referred to, and they seem to me to be the governing considerations.” And indirect rule did at least bow in the direction of Arab self-determination and liberal opinion. “What we want,” said a senior official at the India Office, “is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won’t cost very much, which Labour can swallow consistent with its principles, but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.” 41
This was easier said than done. There was a new spirit stirring in the Arab world and farther afield. In India, nationalists were rallying behind Gandhi; in Egypt, the Wafd party was growing day by day. Arab nationalism was still weak in Iraq, but it was already a potent force in Syria and Egypt. Arnold Wilson’s oriental secretary and trusted adviser realized this, even if he did not.
Gertrude Bell was the only woman to play a key figure in the peace settlements in her own right. Thin, intense, chain-smoking, with a voice that pierced the air, she was accustomed to being out of the ordinary. Although she came from a rich, well-connected family, she had broken with the usual pattern of her class—marriage, children and society—by going to Oxford and becoming the first woman to receive a first-class degree in history. She climbed the Matterhorn and pioneered new routes in the Alps. She was a noted archaeologist and historian. She was also arrogant, difficult and very influential. In November 1919, when the British commander-in-chief in Baghdad held a reception for eighty notables, they left their seats to crowd around her.42
With only her servants and guides for company, Gertrude Bell had traveled all over the Middle East before the war, from Beirut to Damascus and from Baghdad to Mosul. She loved the desert: “Silence and solitude fall round you like an impenetrable veil; there is no reality but the long hours of riding, shivering in the morning and drowsy in the afternoon, the bustle of getting into camp, the talk around Muhammad’s fire after dinner, profounder sleep than civilization contrives, and then the road again.” 43 By 1914, she was widely recognized as one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Middle East. In 1915, she became the first woman to work for British military intelligence and the only woman officially part of the British expedition to Mesopotamia.
She herself did not believe in rights for women. Nor did she like most of her own sex. “It is such a pity,” she said loudly in front of a young English bride, “that promising young Englishmen go and marry such fools of women.” Her best friends were men: Lawrence, St. John Philby (father of a notorious son), Feisal and, for a time, Arnold Wilson. She loved passionately but never married. When her first great love turned out to be a gambler, her father refused his permission, and her second was already married. On Christmas Day in 1920 she wrote to her father: “As you know I’m rather friendless. I don’t care enough about people to take trouble about them, and naturally they don’t trouble about me—why should they? Also all their amusements bore me to tears and I don’t join in them.” 44
She threw herself into her work in Mesopotamia. “We shall, I trust,” she wrote to her father, “make it a centre of Arab civilisation and prosperity.” The Arabs, she assumed at first, would play little part in their own government. “The stronger the hold we are able to keep here the better the inhabitants will be pleased.” She got on well with Arnold Wilson in those early days. He was, she reported enthusiastically to her parents, “a most remarkable creature, 34, brilliant abilities, a combined mental and physical power that is extremely rare.” Wilson in turn admired her “unwearying diligence” in dealing with paperwork. She was, he told his family, “extraordinarily vigorous and helpful in many ways.” Together they waited for word from their superiors about what would happen to Mesopotamia. It did not come. “I presumed,” said Wilson, “that if their oracles were dumb it was because their doubts were even greater than ours.” As they waited, Bell began to change her mind about the sort of government Mesopotamia needed. Arabs would have to play a larger role than she had at first thought. 45
In January 1919, Arnold Wilson sent Bell off to Cairo, London and Paris to try to find out what was happening. In February, he followed her to Paris, where she was putting the case for a country in Mesopotamia. As she wrote rather grandly to her family, “I’m lunching tomorrow with Mr. Balfour who, I fancy, really doesn’t care. Ultimately I hope to catch Mr. Lloyd George by the coat tails, and if I can manage to do so I believe I can enlist his sympathies. Meanwhile we’ve sent for Colonel Wilson from Baghdad.” She was convinced, rightly as it turned out, that the fate of Mesopotamia was linked to settlement of the dispute over Syria: “We can’t consider one without the other, and in the case of Syria it’s the French attitude that counts.” She had been spending a great deal of time with Lawrence and Feisal and now shared their hope that the French might be persuaded to have Feisal as king of an independent Syria. Arnold Wilson disapproved strongly of Lawrence and his views: “He seems to have done an immense amount of harm and our difficulties with the French seem to me to be mainly due to his actions and advice.”46
The talking and the lobbying accomplished little. As Montagu, secretary of state for India, wrote plaintively to Balfour: “We have now collected in Paris Miss Bell and Colonel Wilson. They are responsible to me. They come to me and say ‘We are here. What do you want of us?’ I can give them no information of what is going on.” While the peacemakers prevaricated, in Mesopotamia unrest was spreading: among Kurds and Persians, who were restless under Arab domination; among the Shia, who resented Sunni influence; among tribal leaders challenged by British power; among high-ranking officers and bureaucrats who had lost their status with the collapse of the Ottomans; and among the increasing numbers of Arab nationalists. Bell worried from the sidelines. In April she wrote to her old friend Aubrey Herbert, himself anxious about Albania, “O my dear they are making such a horrible muddle of the Near East, I confidently anticipate that it will be much worse than it was before the war—except Mesopotamia which we may manage to hold up out of the general chaos. It’s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can’t stretch out your hand to prevent them.”47
That spring Egypt blew up. Egyptians had never taken happily to British rule, even though the British tried to disguise it by governing through a khedive. By the time the war started, Egypt had the foundations for a strong national movement: powerful religious leaders, local magnates and a growing professional class, who were building links to each other and downward, into the huge peasant population of the Nile delta. The war itself brought fresh trouble. When the Ottoman empire, still nominally the overlord of Egypt, declared war on Britain in 1914, the British declared a protectorate. That infuriated many Egyptians, as did the influx of quantities of British and Australian troops, and the accompanying rise in prices. The British sent out contradictory messages about the future: on the ground, their hold over the country tightened, but the government in London used Woodrow Wilson’s language. The Fourteen Points themselves were received enthusiastically in Egypt.48
In November 1918, just after the Anglo-French declaration to the Arabs used precisely that language of self-determination, a prominent Egyptian nationalist led a delegation to speak to Sir Reginald Wingate, the head of the British administration in Egypt. Said Zaghlul was a distinguished lawyer, a literary man and a former minister of education. He had come out of traditional Egypt, from a landowning family in the delta, but with the patronage of a princess from the royal family he had moved into the more modern, cosmopolitan world of Cairo. The British had initially counted him as one of their supporters. “He should go far,” thought Lord Cromer, the first British proconsul in Egypt: “He possesses all the qualities necessary to serve his country. He is honest; he is capable; he has the courage of his convictions.” By 1914, however, the British were less enthusiastic. Zaghlul, perhaps because he had not been made prime minister, perhaps out of genuine conviction, was moving into the nationalist camp.49
In his interview with Wingate, Zaghlul demanded complete autonomy for the Egyptians. They were, he told Wingate, “an ancient and capable race with a glorious past—far more capable of conducting a well-ordered government than the Arabs, Syrians and Mesopotamians, to whom self-government had so recently been promised.” He asked permission for a delegation (or wafd) to travel to London and Paris to present the nationalists’ demands. When Wingate refused, Egyptians protested furiously: “Extremist Indians had been given a hearing by Mr. Montagu; the Arab Emir Feisal was allowed to go to Paris. Were Egyptians less loyal? Why not Egypt?” 50
By the start of the Peace Conference, petitions were circulating about Egypt; thousands, then hundreds of thousands, signed. The protests coalesced into a movement, appropriately called the Wafd. Zaghlul urged the khedive to demand complete independence. On March 9, the British authorities arrested Zaghlul and three other leading nationalists and deported them to Malta. The following day, strikes and demonstrations broke out all over Egypt. In an unprecedented gesture, upper-class women poured out of their seclusion; “I did not care if I suffered sunstroke,” said one; “the blame would fall on the tyrannical British authority.” 51 The protests turned violent; the telegraph wires were cut and railway tracks torn up. On March 18, eight British soldiers were murdered by a mob. The British suddenly faced losing control of Egypt altogether.
In something of a panic, the British government hastily imposed martial law and dispatched Allenby to bring the Egyptians into line. To London’s considerable surprise, he rapidly concluded that he must release the nationalist leaders from detention in Malta and allow them, if they wished, to travel abroad if he was to have any hope of working with the Egyptians. Zaghlul made his way to Paris, where he apparently had little success in winning support from the other powers.52 He had, however, impressed on the British that changes had to be made in the way they ran Egypt. Although it took many months of negotiations, in 1922 the British government finally conceded Egypt’s independence. (It kept control, however, of the Suez Canal and foreign policy.) Zaghlul became prime minister in 1924.
India, the reason the British were in Egypt at all, also worried the British in 1919. Indian nationalism was even further developed than Egyptian. What had once been polite requests for limited self-government had now turned into demands for home rule. During the war, Mohandas Gandhi had arrived from South Africa with the tools of political organization and civil disobedience which he had perfected to transform the largely middle-class Indian National Congress into a formidable mass movement. Rapid inflation, the collapse of India’s export trade and the revelations of how British military incompetence had wasted the lives of Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia disillusioned even those Indians who had thought that at least British rule provided good government. Although Britain promised a gradual move toward self-rule in 1917, it was being outflanked and outwitted.
Indian nationalists noted President Wilson’s talk of self-determination with approval but at first they paid little attention to the Peace Conference. India had no territorial claims, or at least not ones that the Indians themselves cared about. (The British officials in the India Office tried, unsuccessfully, to put in claims for Indian mandates over Mesopotamia and German East Africa. 53) It was represented not by its own leaders but by Montagu, the secretary of state for India, and two carefully chosen Indians: Lord Satyendra Sinha, a distinguished judge who was useful on committees, and the Maharajah of Bikaner, who said very little but gave nice dinner parties. The peacemakers were taken by surprise, and the British alarmed, when a seemingly minor matter—the abolition of the caliphate in Constantinople—suddenly became a major cause in India.
Indian Muslims, who made up a quarter of British India’s population, had been quietly unhappy for some time at the prospect that the end of the Ottoman empire might bring the end of the spiritual leadership that the sultan exercised over the world’s Muslims. Mosques throughout India prayed for him as caliph in their weekly observances. The war had pulled Indian Muslims in two directions. A small minority openly sided with the Ottomans and were put in jail for saying so; the rest, sullenly or sadly, remained quiescent. When rumors floated back from Paris to India in 1919 that the powers were planning to divide up the Ottoman empire, depose the sultan and abolish the caliphate, Muslim newspapers published articles beseeching the British to protect him, and local notables formed caliphate committees. Petitions poured in to the British authorities, claiming, inaccurately, that Wilson had promised to protect the caliphate. The government of India urged the British government to leave the sultan in Constantinople with some sort of authority over Muslim holy places throughout the Middle East. In Paris, Montagu warned his colleagues repeatedly of the risks of alienating a large group of Indians who had been notably loyal to the British. His warnings, and his prickly personality, merely produced irritation. Lloyd George wrote to him: “In fact throughout the Conference your attitude has often struck me as being not so much that of a member of the British Cabinet, but of a successor on the throne of Aurangzeb!” 541
On May 17 Lloyd George grudgingly agreed to bring before the Council of Four a deputation, which included the Aga Khan, to ask that the Turkish parts of the Ottoman empire not be parceled out among different powers, and that the caliphate be allowed to continue. Lloyd George himself was impressed: “I conclude that it is impossible to divide Turkey proper. We would run too great a risk of throwing disorder into the Mohammedan world.”55 Unfortunately, four days later, on May 21, he and Clemenceau had their violent argument over the Middle East settlement and the whole issue, including the caliphate, was put off indefinitely.
In India, the Muslims were increasingly anxious. The local committees organized themselves into a central caliphate committee. The chief Muslim political organization, the Muslim League, sent a deputation to see Lloyd George. What was much more serious, Gandhi decided to throw his and Congress’s support behind the movement. Skinny, introverted, obsessed equally with his bowels and his soul, attuned always to the political currents in India but listening as much to his own complicated heart, Gandhi was an unlikely political genius. In the caliphate agitation he saw an opportunity to build bridges between Hindus and Muslims and to embarrass the British authorities.
India was already uneasy. The great flu epidemic had carried off twelve million Indians (Gandhi used it as an example of Britain’s moral unfitness to rule India). Muslims were incensed over the caliphate, workers were striking and peasants were protesting about their rents. The government of India made matters worse by introducing legislation to increase its arbitrary powers. In March and April, the big cities saw huge demonstrations and public meetings. On April 6 Gandhi called for a general strike across India. Although he urged his followers to refrain from violence, there were sporadic outbreaks of looting and rioting. The worst trouble came in the Punjab where, on April 13, at Amritsar, a panicking British officer ordered his troops to fire point-blank into a large crowd. The Amritsar Massacre, as it came to be known, galvanized even moderate Indian opinion against the British. The British, especially those in India, started to panic. Was there, a local English-language newspaper asked, “some malevolent and highly dangerous organization which is at work below the surface?” Were the disturbances caused by Bolsheviks? Infiltrators from Egypt? Or perhaps a worldwide Muslim conspiracy? Perhaps it was more than coincidence that a war had just broken out with Muslim Afghanistan and that Ibn Saud’s forces, largely drawn from a puritanical Islamic movement, were sweeping across the Arabian peninsula.56
Their Egyptian and Indian troubles shook British confidence and brought home yet again the limits of British power. Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, had tried repeatedly to make his government aware of this; as he wrote to a friend in April 1919, “My whole energies are now bent to getting our troops out of Europe and Russia and concentrating all our strength in our coming storm centres, viz. England, Ireland, Egypt and India. There you are, my dear.” Even if they pulled troops back from areas such as the Caucasus and Persia, the military were not sure that they could deal with the “storm centres.” Britain’s armies were melting away. In the Middle East alone, Allenby was demobilizing an average of 20,000 men a month during the spring of 1919.57
The troubles also brought home the costs. “Do please realize,” Churchill—now colonial secretary—wrote to his private secretary in the Colonial Office on November 12, 1921, “that everything that happens in the Middle East is secondary to the reduction of expense.” As Curzon reported gloomily to Balfour after a particularly inconclusive cabinet discussion in the summer of 1919: “This fact did emerge; the burden of maintaining an English and an Indian Army of 320,000 men in various parts of the Turkish Empire and in Egypt, or of 225,000 men excluding Egypt, with its overwhelming cost, is one that can no longer be sustained.” Lloyd George, who had seen no urgent need to make the peace settlement for the Ottoman empire, finally started to pay attention. In August 1919, just before he went on holiday, Balfour provided him with an admirably lucid summary of the problems although, typically, he offered no solutions: “The unhappy truth . . . is that France, England and America have got themselves into a position over the Syrian problem so inextricably confused that no really neat and satisfactory issue is now possible for any of them.” Lloyd George was also becoming uncomfortably aware of the depth of French anger.
To complicate matters further, Feisal had been displaying an unwelcome independence since his return to Syria in May. In one of his first speeches in Damascus, he told his Arab audience, “It now remains for you to choose to be either slaves or masters of your own destiny.” He was rumored to be talking to Egyptian nationalists about a common front against the British and to Turkish ones about a possible reunion with Turkey. His agents were spreading propaganda into Mesopotamia. In a conversation with Allenby, Feisal claimed that Woodrow Wilson had told him to follow the example of the American Revolution: “If you want independence recruit soldiers and be strong.” If Feisal did decide to lead an uprising, the British military authorities in Syria warned Lloyd George, they could not contain it.58
In September, Lloyd George, who moved quickly once he had made up his mind, decided that Britain would pull its troops out of Syria and let the French move in. After difficult conversations, Lloyd George and Clemenceau agreed on the handover of power. (There was still to be trouble over the border between Syria and Palestine, which was not finally settled until 1922. 59) The Americans protested weakly and talked of self-determination, but they were no longer a serious factor. By the end of 1919 the other outstanding issues between Britain and France had been settled: Mosul’s oil was to be shared, more or less along the lines that had been agreed six months earlier.
At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, where the terms of the treaty with the Ottoman empire were approved, the British and French, their differences temporarily forgotten, awarded themselves mandates, the British for Palestine and Mesopotamia, the French for Syria. In theory these were not valid until they were confirmed by the League of Nations. Not surprisingly, a League dominated by Britain and France did this in 1922.
The Arabs were consulted, but only by the Americans. Wilson’s Commission of Inquiry, which Clemenceau and Lloyd George had declined to support, had duly gone ahead. Henry King, the president of Oberlin, and Charles Crane, who had done so much to help Czechoslovakia’s cause, doggedly spent the summer of 1919 traveling through Palestine and Syria. They found that an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants wanted Syria to encompass both Palestine and Lebanon; a similar majority also wanted independence. “Dangers,” they concluded, “may readily arise from unwise and unfaithful dealings with this people, but there is great hope of peace and progress if they be handled frankly and loyally.”60 Their report was not published until 1922, long after the damage had been done.
In September 1919 Feisal was baldly informed that Britain and France had reopened their discussions on the Middle East. The British made sure that he did not arrive in London until after Lloyd George and Clemenceau had reached their agreement. Feisal protested; he was not going to submit to French rule. The British, perhaps with some embarrassment, merely urged him to talk to the French. From Oxford, Lawrence watched helplessly as his government abandoned his old friend and the Arabs. He read and reread a poem about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and often, his mother recalled, he sat in her house, “the entire morning between breakfast and lunch in the same position, without moving, and with the same expression on his face.”61
In Paris, Feisal got a cool welcome. “After having covered him with flowers and sung his praises in every key, the French press,” reported Mordacq, “practically drew him through the mud and heaped lies and insults on him.” Clemenceau was sympathetic but firm; the French would accept Feisal as ruler in Damascus, so long as he could maintain order. He would, of course, call on French troops in any emergency. Feisal, in a grand gesture, presented Clemenceau with his horses; two were beautiful Thoroughbreds, reported Mordacq, the rest only so-so. The Tiger, in any case, was on his way out, and French official views, never sympathetic to Arab nationalism, were hardening. French rule needed to be consolidated in Syria, especially with Turkish nationalists attacking French forces in Cilicia. The new government in France, elected in November 1919, was much more interested in empire than Clemenceau’s had been. Poincaré’s successor as president, Paul Deschanel, was later to assure a deputation of fellow colonialists that the Mediterranean and the Middle East were cornerstones of French policy. (Shortly afterward he was found talking to the trees in the gardens at the Elysée Palace.) Although Feisal lingered on in Paris until January 1920, he failed to get a firm agreement with the French. He went home to Damascus, disappointed not only in the French but also in the British; in his words, “he had been handed over tied by feet and hands to the French.”62
Back in Damascus, Feisal found a deteriorating situation. The French high commissioner, General Gouraud, the man who in happier days had given Feisal his decoration, believed in being firm with the Arabs. Arab nationalists themselves were increasingly belligerent, encouraged in part by the example of D’Annunzio in Fiume, who appeared to be getting away with defying the powers. In the wide Bekáa Valley with its great ruined Roman city at Baalbek, Arab irregulars sniped at French troops. (In the 1970s, radical guerrillas from around the world found the valley similarly convenient.) Behind the scenes, there was tremendous pressure on Feisal to make a declaration of independence, even if it meant war with France. Feisal reluctantly went along with the current. On March 7, 1920, the Syrian Congress proclaimed him king of Syria, and not of the circumscribed Syria agreed upon by Britain and France, but of Syria within its “natural boundaries,” including Lebanon and Palestine and stretching east to the Euphrates. There were clashes with French troops. Shortly afterward, another congress claiming to speak for Mesopotamians also met in Damascus. It declared independence, proclaimed Feisal’s brother Abdullah king, and demanded that the British end their occupation. 63
Even within Syria, however, Feisal did not have complete support. Lebanese Christians, who did not want to get caught in a dispute with France, proclaimed their separate independence at a huge meeting on March 20, 1920, and chose as a flag the French tricolor with a Lebanese cedar in the center. 64 Meanwhile, Arab radicals accused Feisal of being too complaisant with the French. In July, Gouraud sent Feisal an ultimatum, demanding, among other things, unconditional acceptance of the French mandate over Syria and punishment of those who had attacked the French. Feisal appealed desperately to the other powers, who responded with nothing more than murmurs of sympathy. On July 24, on the road to Damascus, French troops swept aside a poorly armed Arab force. Feisal and his family went into exile in Palestine and then Italy.
To bring Syria under control, the French shrank it. They rewarded their Christian allies by swelling the borders of Mount Lebanon with the Bekáa Valley, the Mediterranean ports of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, and the land in the south, north of Palestine. Thousands of Muslims now joined a state dominated by Christians. The result was a Syria which even after the French finally left still remembered what it had lost, and a Lebanon dancing uneasily around unresolved religious and ethnic tensions. In the 1970s, Lebanon blew up; to no one’s surprise but the outside world’s, the Syrian government took the opportunity to send in its troops, which have stayed ever since.
For the Arabs, 1920 remains the year of disaster: Palestine gone, then Syria, Lebanon and finally Mesopotamia. In the summer of 1920, rebellions broke out over about a third of Mesopotamia, up and down the Euphrates valley and in the Kurdish areas of Mosul. Bell, who had long since come around to the view that Mesopotamia must have self-government, had warned of this. Arnold Wilson, with whom she was no longer on speaking terms, blamed it all on outside agitators and the influence of his namesake’s Fourteen Points. 65 Railway lines were cut and towns besieged; British officers were murdered. The British reacted harshly, sending punitive expeditions across the land to burn villages and exact fines. In a new but very effective tactic, their aircraft machine-gunned and bombed from the air. By the end of the year, order had been restored and Wilson had been replaced by his old mentor, the more diplomatic Cox.
The events in Mesopotamia shook the British government badly. “We are at our wits’ end,” said Churchill, “to find a single soldier.” Critics asked whether Mesopotamia was worth the cost. Curzon, Churchill and Lloyd George all wanted to keep it if they could. The practical, and cheap, solution, which Bell and Cox had been urging, was to find a pliable Arab ruler. Conveniently, they had Feisal, to whom, after all, they did owe something. At a conference in Cairo in March 1921, Churchill, as colonial secretary, agreed to make him king. As a second prize, his older brother Abdullah, “a sensualist, idle, and very lazy,” would get the little state of Transjordan. Feisal was duly invited to visit Mesopotamia, where the stage management of Cox and Bell produced a stream of supplicants asking him to stay as their king. St. John Philby, who favored a republic and said so loudly, was sent packing. An election produced a vote of 96 percent in favor of Feisal. Bell designed his flag, his coronation and his kingship. “I shall have to set about getting proper ceremonial for Feisal’s court,” she sighed. On August 23, 1921, in the cool of the early morning, Feisal was crowned king of what was henceforth known as “the well-rooted country”: Iraq. “It was an amazing thing to see all Iraq, from North to South, gathered together,” reported Bell. “It is the first time it has happened in history.”66
Gertrude Bell remained close to Feisal at first but, as he grew in experience and confidence, he chafed under the stream of advice.67 He was proving generally to be less amenable than the British had hoped. He pushed for the independence of his new country, and in 1932 Iraq joined the League of Nations as an independent state. Feisal died the following year. His son, a cheerful playboy, died in a car crash in 1939. His successor, Feisal’s grandson, was killed in the coup of 1958 which made Iraq a republic. Hussein, Feisal’s father, who had hoped to found a great Hashemite dynasty to run the Arab world, lost first his reason and then his throne in the Hejaz in 1924, when Ibn Saud finally overran it and created the kingdom that still bears his name. The only Hashemite kingdom that still survives is Jordan, where Abdullah, much to everyone’s surprise, proved a very effective ruler. Abdullah’s great-grandson is now king.
T. E. Lawrence, never really happy again after the war in the desert, also died in a crash, in 1935, when he swerved on his motorcycle to avoid two boys. Gertrude Bell committed suicide in 1926. Arnold Wilson left public service to work for Anglo-Persian Oil. At the age of fifty-five he was killed in action as an air force gunner over Dunkirk. Picot, whose agreement with Sykes had caused such trouble between France and Britain, ended his career under a cloud. Replaced in Syria in 1920, he was shipped off to Bulgaria, where he caused a scandal by an open affair with a woman of dubious reputation. Another posting in Buenos Aires brought more scandal and stories of unpaid bills. He retired from the French diplomatic service in 1932 and disappeared from history.68
Britain and France paid a price for their role in the peace settlements in the Middle East. The French never completely pacified Syria, and it never paid for itself. The British pulled back in Iraq and Jordan as quickly as they could, but they found they were stuck with Palestine and an increasingly poisonous atmosphere between Arabs and Jews. The Arab world as a whole never forgot its betrayal and Arab hostility came to focus on the example of Western perfidy nearest at hand, the Zionist presence in Palestine. Arabs also remembered the brief hope of Arab unity at the end of the war. After 1945, those resentments and that hope continued to shape the Middle East.