LIKE TWO SHIPS headed for a collision in the dark of night—or rather, given that part of the world, like two desert caravans separated by trackless wastes but following intersecting routes—the Arab and Jewish nationalist movements pushed relentlessly forward, oblivious to each other, fated nonetheless to coincide eventually. During 1916 the Zionists in London gained strength. Early in 1917 Weizmann and his allies made the crucial connection with Sir Mark Sykes, a giant step toward gaining the support of British policy makers for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. During this same period Sharif Hussein and his sons had won British backing for the establishment of an Arab kingdom, part of which, they appear to have expected, would include Palestine. With British encouragement, they launched their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in early June 1916. Then, during the following months, as the Zionists in London moved toward their ultimate objective, Sharif Hussein and his sons fought their way toward theirs, with this difference: They had to employ the skills not only of diplomacy but of the battlefield as well; and they placed their own lives in the balance.
“What befits a person who has been heaped with the goodwill of the Caliph and who has been elevated to the highest honors, when that person betrays the Caliph by joining the latter’s enemy?” asked the leading ulema, or holy men, of Damascus. They had been convened by order of the Ottoman authorities shortly after the sharif proclaimed his revolt. And the ulema answered: “Deposition and death.”1 Hence the fatwa directed against Hussein and his family: It would be, as they always had known it must be, war to the knife.
At the outset of the revolt,2 Sharif Hussein and his sons had mobilized no more than twenty thousand fighting men, mainly from desert and hill tribes, rarely from towns. The hill tribesmen were “hard and fit, very active, independent, cheerful snipers,” but they knew little of military discipline and resisted any attempt to impose it. They consented to serve as soldiers only under their own sheikhs and only for limited periods. If they wished to go home to see their wives and children while on service, no one would stop them so long as they provided someone to take their place. Moreover the various tribes nourished grievances against each other, which could be settled only by blood. As a result, “no man quite trusts his neighbor, though each is usually quite wholehearted in his opposition to the Turks. This would not prevent him working off a family grudge by letting down his private enemy.” Weighing them up, T. E. Lawrence concluded that Sharif Hussein’s entire army would not be able to defeat a single company of Turks, properly entrenched. Rather, a single company of Turks could defeat the sharif’s entire army. Consequently, “the value of the tribes3 is defensive only, and their real sphere is guerilla warfare.”
This realization dawned earlier in some quarters than others. Most British military men, less imaginative than Lawrence, saw the tribesmen merely as picturesque mounted rabble, “a horde of Arabs,” as one described them. When confronted by a hostile force, such men on their camels and horses would “spread in a fanlike movement4 over the whole horizon … eternally sweeping about for no apparent reason, unless it be bravado or the instinct of the kite. Drop a shell in front of them and they will swerve like a flight of teal, make a wide detour at full gallop, and appear on the other flank.” Orthodox British soldiers did not understand, let alone appreciate, such men and certainly did not know how to make good use of them.
Neither, apparently, did the sharif or his sons, at least to begin with, for all their intimate knowledge of the people of the Hejaz, and for all their prewar military campaigns. Their initial strategy was to mobilize the tribesmen and to hurl them against the cities and towns where Ottoman forces and officials were stationed in numbers—Mecca, Taif, and Medina, most prominently, but also, and crucially in this first stage of rebellion, the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Once those places had been captured, they intended to press the remaining Ottomans gradually from their country. It nearly didn’t happen.
In Mecca, as we have seen, the sharif’s forces captured the acting Ottoman governor and commandant at his headquarters in the holy city. The fighting had been fierce but relatively brief. An Ottoman detachment held out in a well-defended fortress on the outskirts of the town, however, and the Arabs required big guns transported from Jeddah to bombard and subdue them. Even so they persisted in their defiance for a month—the last Ottoman detachments did not surrender until July 10. The Turkish deserter Muhammad al-Faruki, who had been summoned by Sharif Hussein from Cairo, crowed to Gilbert Clayton, the Cairo intelligence officer who had debriefed him and believed his lies and had thereby helped to set the entire rebellion on its course: “I have drunk the cup5 of happiness for being able to hit the mean Turks actually. Praise be to GOD … Sir, each gun I fired had echoed in my heart with pleasure and gladness … No better life than it is now.” His celebration was premature.
Consider the circumstances that enabled those guns to be transported from Jeddah to Mecca. They had been removed from Jeddah when its Ottoman defenders surrendered to the emir of the Harb tribe and four thousand of his men, followers of Sharif Hussein. In fact, however, the Harb tribe had not defeated the Ottomans. A Turkish newspaper explained: “Our small force6 of a few hundred at Jeddah had to cope with brigands by land and the British by sea; [but] they only surrendered when water and ammunition were exhausted.” David Hogarth, now chief of the Arab Bureau in Cairo and editor of its Arab Bulletin, agreed. At the outset, he wrote, two British patrol boats and a seaplane had softened up the Turkish defenders with bombs and cannonades; when, on Friday, June 16, the town finally gave in, however, it did so “probably more through7 lack of water and ammunition than Arab attack.” A specialist newspaper published in London, Great Britain and the Near East, put even a more pacific gloss upon the affair: “At Jeddah, the Shereef’s8 men merely camped outside the walls, until the mayor, delegated by the Commandant and the Mutessarif, came out to parley.”
Meanwhile neither the siege of Medina (led by Feisal and Ali) nor the siege of Taif (led by Abdullah) was prospering. At Taif, Abdullah chose to waste time rather than lives, as the British snidely commented, and did not hurry to attack the town, realizing, no doubt, that it was not self-supporting and that therefore time was his ally. Every morning his batteries hammered the town walls; every afternoon his cavalry demonstrated their skills on horseback while harmlessly firing their rifles into the air, within view of the Turks but just out of range of their artillery; and every evening the Turks repaired their walls. So the weeks passed. “The people at Mecca9 are getting restless at the long resistance at Taif, and the Sherif has asked for an aeroplane to fly over it. He thinks that it would persuade the garrison to surrender at once,” reported a British officer in Cairo. The sharif was mistaken, however, for the Turks did not surrender until September 23, three and a half months after the siege had begun. Again, lack of food and ammunition, not Arab military prowess, proved decisive.
Medina turned out to be a much tougher nut to crack than Taif. In fact, it did not crack at all during World War I and only surrendered in January 1919.
Ali and Feisal, it will be recalled, had proclaimed the Arab Revolt outside Medina on June 5, 1916. First they tore up stretches of the railway connecting the city with Damascus; then they stormed in. A fierce and desperate battle ensued. The Turks threw back the Arabs and advanced upon suburban areas in their turn, bringing sword and fire, pillage and rape—indeed, Armenian methods—but no decisive victory. Only then did the siege of Medina commence. The city grew enough food on its own, so it could not be starved as Taif had been, although it could be made to suffer. It boasted walls as sturdy as Taif’s, and it contained four forts jammed with well-armed Ottoman soldiers. Worst of all, from the Arab point of view, it still possessed the railway. The Arabs had torn up the track, but Turkish soldiers quickly repaired it. The railway was the Ottoman’s lifeline to Damascus; so long as they controlled it, Damascus could send men, guns, ammunition, and other supplies down the line and keep Medina going.
The Ottoman general Fakhri Pasha felt sufficiently confident in Medina’s ability to resist the siege that he established a defensive perimeter outside the city walls. Opposing them,10 Feisal’s and Ali’s besieging tribesmen formed a loosely maintained circle. They carried a variety of ancient, inaccurate, and oft-mended shooters, as well as British-supplied Japanese rifles that had a disconcerting tendency to explode when fired; the ammunition was of the wrong caliber altogether. To remedy these material deficiencies, the British sent guns and ammunition to Rabegh, a port town on the Red Sea, roughly halfway between Mecca and Medina but to their west. A duplicitous chief in Rabegh, who thought the Turks would win, simply took what the British offloaded and kept it in his own stores. Eventually this man was sent packing and the British equipment was successfully transported inland, but it proved insufficient. As a result, “at Medina the Arab11 forces appear rather depressed. The Turkish superiority in guns and machine-guns makes them [Arabs] unable to do anything serious.” The Arabs and the British worried that when Fakhri Pasha realized the weakness of the forces arrayed against him, he would break through the ring of encircling Arabs and march the hundred miles south to Mecca. If he did so, he could take that city and end the rebellion then and there.
In fact, Fakhri Pasha sent out more than one sortie from Medina but never an army big enough to defeat the besiegers decisively—a lack of initiative the British officers found difficult to explain. During August 3–4 something like a major battle developed about twenty miles south of Medina on the Mecca road, but it had no clear victor. Attention then turned to Rabegh, not merely because it served as a conduit for British equipment but because a strong Arab force there could back up the tribesmen surrounding Medina; and if Fakhri’s armies ever did break through the ring and head south, a reserve at Rabegh could cut them off or if necessary take them from the rear. Could the Arabs hold Rabegh themselves, or should the British send troops to help them? They could not send Christian troops, for then the sharif would be seen to depend upon infidels. Eventually Ali and his followers peeled off from the siege to occupy Rabegh themselves. The British sent no troops but promised to help defend the port from the sea if necessary. Feisal, meanwhile, tired of banging his head against the walls of Medina, retired in disgust some miles south to Hamra to recuperate. He left behind soldiers of the Harb tribe to maintain the rather ineffective blockade.
So in the fall of 1916 the Arab Revolt hung fire: Ali occupied Rabegh, indeed was practically pinned there; Feisal sat in Hamra, where at least his forces interposed between Medina and Mecca; and Abdullah finally returned from Taif to Mecca to counsel his father and then after a period of months rode north with troops to station somewhere above Medina, thereby completing the encirclement and threatening the railway line. Nevertheless the trains continued to run, and Medina gave no indication of surrender. “The situation in the Hijaz,12 though not yet alarming, is decidedly serious,” Storrs wrote to George Lloyd. This appraisal appears accurate.
The question occupying minds on both sides was how to break the stalemate. Fakhri Pasha thought to do so by threatening Yanbo, an Arab-controlled port some thirty miles to his west and eighty miles up the coast from Rabegh. Had he taken that town, he might have swept south to take Rabegh as well; in other words, to threaten Yanbo was to threaten Rabegh, which was to threaten Mecca too. Hurriedly the British dispatched a portion of their Red Sea fleet to protect the town. Fakhri’s troops backed off, but the threat they posed remained. Meanwhile Feisal thought to take pressure off Yanbo by menacing Wejh, another port, this one some 180 miles farther north. Moreover, if he managed to establish a base at Wejh, then he, like his brother Abdullah, could threaten any number of points along the Damascus-Medina railway line.
Here it is important to point out that the British navy had the power to support any Arab advance upon any Red Sea port by transporting Arab fighting men in ships from port to port, and by shelling the Turkish garrisons from offshore. They controlled the Red Sea.
Feisal decided to capture Wejh with such British assistance. He summoned his youngest brother, Zeid, to take over a portion of his army at Hamra. He intended to lead the remainder along the coastal road to Wejh. What followed illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Arab military at this point in their national struggle.
At Medina, a Turkish mounted infantry patrol pushed through a weak spot in the line of remaining besiegers; thereupon many Arab soldiers deserted their posts and rushed to save their families in the villages, now threatened, behind them. Zeid himself beat a hasty retreat to Yanbo. When Feisal hurried back13 to Medina to repair the damage, the left wing of his own army suddenly retreated for no apparent reason. A little later, when Feisal ordered a general retreat, these soldiers stubbornly refused to retire farther but instead chose to engage the Turks on their own in a battle of twenty-four hours’ duration. They then broke off to rejoin their commander in chief. Their leaders explained to Feisal that they had retired in the first instance not from cowardice but only because they wished to brew their coffee undisturbed!
Meanwhile Ali’s army had marched out of Rabegh to help in the advance to Wejh; then upon hearing a false report of the defection of an allied tribe, it had marched back into Rabegh again.
Feisal finally set out for Wejh with approximately four thousand camel corps and four thousand infantry. It was a much larger native force than had been seen in living memory in Arabia, in fact “the largest Arab force ever assembled,” according to one authority. The spectacle amazed and awed all who witnessed it, which was as Feisal intended. The mighty army stirred the Arab imagination; it was a coup de théâtre, a recruiting device. Feisal carried only an eight-day supply of food and thirty-six hours of water, planning to stop along the route where he knew wells to be located. In the end, for the last two and a half days of the advance, his 380 baggage camels went without food, and the army marched the last fifty miles on half a gallon of water per man and no food at all. T. E. Lawrence accompanied them. Even that famous stoic was impressed by the Arab display of endurance. The lack of food and water, he wrote, “did not seem in any14 way to affect the spirits of the men, who trotted gaily into Wejh singing songs and executing sham charges; nor did it affect in any way their speed or energy. Feisal said, however, that another thirty-six hours of the same conditions would have begun to tell on them.”
Notice, however, that Feisal’s army did not capture Wejh; his men entered the town without encountering any resistance. In fact, Feisal had left behind in Yanbo a contingent of 550 Arab troops, deeming them inferior, and arranged for British ships to transport them north; they would attack Wejh from the sea in concert with his own approach by land. But when the 550 arrived, Feisal and his army were nowhere to be seen. While en route to Wejh, Feisal’s army had learned that Abdullah’s force had fought a successful engagement with the Turks north of Medina, and they immediately halted to celebrate and did not cease celebrating for some time. Up in Wejh, however, the punctual British stuck to the schedule. One warship commenced to fire upon the Turkish positions. Another brought the 550 men to land. They divided into three15 groups, “about 100 who really meant fighting and advanced directly against the Turkish position,” recorded a British captain who observed the battle, “about 300 who moved along the beach and incontinently went off to loot and fight in the town [and] … about 100 who sat on the beach and did nothing during the whole operations.”
Whatever the British opinion of them, the Arabs who took Wejh had taken a crucial position. Feisal, traveling by land, arrived two days later on January 25, deeply embarrassed to have missed the fight. But local chiefs and tribesmen, impressed by the victory and by the enormous force Feisal had marched up the coast, flocked to join his rebel army anyway. Moreover, now that the port was in Arab hands, General Fakhri Pasha would have to turn his back upon them to attack Yanbo or Rabegh, an impossibly dangerous maneuver. For the same reason, he would hesitate even more to risk a march on Mecca. He was locked in to Medina, the railway his lifeline. At the same time, with Wejh secure, Feisal and his augmented force finally could turn their undivided attention to that railway. It was the Turkish jugular vein. They intended to cut it.
So much for the front lines of the revolt. Simultaneously, in Mecca,16 the grand sharif was establishing his government. He appointed a cabinet or administrative council of nine members dominated by his sons, even though at the moment they were occupied in the field of battle. Hussein made Ali his grand vizier, Abdullah his foreign minister, and Feisal his minister of the interior. The remainder of cabinet posts—justice, public works, wakf and holy places, education, and finance—he filled with notables of Mecca. He appointed a legislative assembly headed by a president and vice president, with twelve members to represent the sharifian clans, the holy places, and the secular population. Also he founded in Mecca a newspaper, Al Kibla, for purposes of publicity and propaganda.
At one level the weight of this new regime bore lightly upon the people of the Hejaz. “The return to chthonic17 conditions has meant the restoration of tribal or family authority and a great decrease in the exercise of the central government,” reported Lawrence. The grand sharif understood that his people, whether townsmen or Bedouin, loathed intrusive government officials. He even suspended the collection of taxes (although not the collection of customs in the ports).
At the same time, however, Hussein intended to rule with a heavy hand in that his administration would enforce strict Sharia law, as set out in the Quran. “We fortify ourselves18 on our noble religion which is our only guide,” he declared. That meant undoing reforms carried out by the modernizing Young Turks. The sharif suspended the Turkish civil code, which meant suspending the Young Turk prohibition on slavery. It meant reinstating the archaic Muslim legal approach to women—for did not the good book say, as Hussein fondly pointed out, that “a man shall have twice a woman’s share”? In rebelling against the Young Turks, the sharif meant to throw off the onerous Ottoman yoke, but let us be clear: He meant, too, to set back the clock in certain crucial respects. Lawrence wrote in disbelief: “The Sherif intends,19 when there is time, to extend the principles and scope of the Sharia to cover modern difficulties of trade and exchange!”
He also intended to establish his authority beyond the shadow of a doubt. This, he decided, meant assuming a new and more impressive title than Emir or Grand Sharif. On the morning of October 29, 1916, the notables of Mecca, secular as well as religious, gathered at his palace. Hussein came to greet them. “The deputies of the nation hailed him with hearts full of joy and respect and love,” wrote the reporter for Al Kibla. Abdullah now “explained” to his father the purpose of this congregation. It wished to present him with a petition which ran in part as follows:
We have known no Moslem Emir who has feared God and obeyed His word, who has clung to the traditions of His religion—the Koran—in word and deed, more than you have done yourself. We have not known a man more capable to take charge of our affairs than you are … We proclaim Your Majesty as King, and we swear to God that we shall always be loyal and obedient to you.
It was a climactic moment, carefully prepared for by the clandestine communiqués with Kitchener and Storrs and McMahon; the establishment of contact with the Syrian conspirators; the risks his sons had run for him in Constantinople, Damascus, and Medina; the risks they all ran still. But Hussein professed before the notables of Mecca to have been taken by surprise: “I have never thought such a thing necessary … I swear to you by God Almighty that this thing which you ask me to do now has never occurred to me, nor did I ever think of it when you and I started our blessed movement.”
When the coronation was finished, Abdullah, who had helped to stage-manage the event, dispatched a telegram in French to the British high commissioner in Egypt, and to his fellow foreign ministers at The Hague, Christiania, Copenhagen, Petrograd, Bucharest, Berne, Washington, Rome, Paris, Havre, Corfu, and Kabul. The telegram requested20 that their governments recognize his father’s new title, Malik el Bilad el Arabia.
What precisely did the title mean? The English translated it as21 “King of the Arabs” or “King of the Arab Nation.” Did that mean king of all Arabs everywhere? The grand sharif seemed to think so. He said in his speech of acceptance to the Meccan notables: “The Arabs of Syria and Iraq … are yearning to be united with us and to restore their freedom and glory. I have received messages from their notables to this effect.” He intended a loose sort of rule, a kingdom or empire in which important constituents, while recognizing his headship, enjoyed a form of home rule. Abdullah, on the telephone with an English official, did not think other Arab leaders would dare object: “The History of the Emir of Mecca goes back to the Abbasides. It is not important whether those people would agree or not.”
But what if the British did not agree? Recall their skepticism of any large, independent Arab kingdom. Recall, too, the ambiguous cribbings and hedgings by which McMahon’s letters had attempted to restrict Hussein’s territorial ambitions; recall, above all, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, latterly become a Tripartite Agreement, which envisioned a British-dominated Iraq, a French-dominated Syria, and an internationalized Palestine. Finally recall that by this date the mandarins of the Foreign Office were just beginning to consider the possibility of a Jewish-dominated Palestine.
In short the ambitions of the newly declared “King of the Arabs” conflicted with those of Great Britain, which, not surprisingly, determined to rein him in, although without discouraging his revolt. They must design for him a title that both he and they could accept: if not King, then perhaps His Majesty the Sharif, or if that was unacceptable, then perhaps Sultan; or if it must be King, then King over a carefully delimited territory. Finally McMahon suggested King of the Hejaz22 as a suitable compromise, and the title stuck. It was a comedown, and surely Hussein knew it, but there was nothing he could do. He depended too heavily upon British advice and material support. The episode reveals to us, even if it did not make plain to him, how little he was a free agent, and how wide was the gap between the future he envisioned for himself and his people and the future envisioned for them all by the British government.
Hussein and his soldier sons depended upon British support, but the British argued among themselves about how much to give them. Those who believed the war would be won on the Western Front, the so-called westerners, begrudged sending even a single man to help the Arab Revolt—a sideshow within a sideshow, as they deemed it. Those who believed the Western Front was a killing field from which neither side would emerge victorious sought a way around it. These “easterners,”23 as they were called, favored the landing at Gallipoli, the campaign in Mesopotamia, and support for the sharif’s rebellion, among other strategies.
In London the government alternated between the two poles, sometimes favoring one, sometimes the other. In the Middle East, it is safe to say, every Briton who counted advocated the “eastern” position. Of course the British maintained a sizable force in Egypt in order to safeguard the Suez Canal, and no westerner opposed that. But they would not augment it to help the sharif. “With another British Cavalry24 Division I think I might almost guarantee to clear the Turks out of southern Palestine and relieve the pressure on the Sherif,” Sir Archibald James Murray, the normally cautious British commanding officer in Egypt, informed the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson. Here is Robertson’s position: “My sole object is25 to win the war and we shall not do that in the Hejaz.” Murray did not get the extra cavalry division.
The British army in Egypt had beaten off a first Ottoman invasion in February 1915. Under Murray it beat off a second attack in August 1916. Now slowly, warily, systematically, without reinforcements, Murray pushed his line of defense farther north and east into the Sinai. But that was still a long way from Sharif Feisal in Wejh or Grand Sharif Hussein in Mecca or Abdullah and Ali and Zeid in Jeddah and the vicinity of Medina. The British army in Egypt would play no central role in their drama for some time to come.
But a short, blue-eyed, blond-haired, lantern-jawed, hard-as-nails young man whom Hogarth had known at Oxford and now had brought into his intelligence operation in Cairo would do so. T. E. Lawrence, perhaps unfairly, came to overshadow every other British officer and Arab Bureau colleague serving in the Middle East. Some of these men were daredevils themselves, but none of them possessed Lawrence’s flair and charisma, or his genius for publicity; and of them all, only he could write like an angel. Even his dispatches back to the Arab Bureau read almost like literature, albeit literature advocating military stratagems and informed by an acute military intelligence. An example:
The Hejaz war is26 one of dervishes against regular troops—and we are on the side of the dervishes. Our text-books do not apply to its conditions at all. It is the fight of a rocky, mountainous, ill-watered country (assisted by a wild horde of mountaineers) against a force which has been improved—so far as civilized warfare is concerned—so immensely by the Germans as almost to have lost its efficiency for rough-and-tumble work.
His trenchant and beautifully written reports established his reputation, first in the Middle East and then beyond. “Lawrence is quite27 excellent,” Clayton, the director of intelligence in Cairo, informed the director of intelligence in London, “you may take his stuff as being good.”
As practically everyone knows, Lawrence emerged from an unconventional background. His father, Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, heir to an Irish baronetcy, abandoned his wife to live with his daughter’s governess. He then changed his surname to Lawrence. They did not marry but had five illegitimate sons, of whom Thomas Edward was the second. The family lived in modest circumstances, eventually moving to Polstead Road, Oxford, where young Ned (as he had been nicknamed) attended high school and then Jesus College, Oxford University. Already he knew that he wanted to become an archaeologist. Before the war he traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Middle East, learning and mapping the countryside, participating in important digs, studying the people and their language and dialects. When war broke out, he volunteered for service. Inevitably the authorities posted him to Cairo to work for intelligence; but bored with opening mail, answering the telephone, decoding telegrams, and designing postage stamps, Lawrence managed to transfer to his old Oxford mentor, Hogarth, at the Arab Bureau. His duties there bored him too, so in mid-October 1916 he jumped at the chance to accompany Ronald Storrs to Jeddah for consultations with Sharif Abdullah.
The next step in the Lawrence saga is again well known. They journeyed by ship down the Red Sea; Lawrence took potshots at glass bottles lined up on the rail, much to the annoyance of Storrs, who would rather play chess. They arrived in Jeddah28 to be greeted by the British agent, Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Wilson, whom they both viewed as dull-witted, even though he served as principal adviser to Grand Sharif (as he still was) Hussein. The French, jealous of Britain’s growing influence in the region, had likewise established a consulate in Jeddah under Colonel Edouard Brémond. Their aim was to support the Arab Revolt just enough that it could continue to harass the Turks without actually liberating Syria, for which they had their own postwar plans. Thus the English in Jeddah engaged in an awkward pas de deux with their “froggy Allies,” as General Murray once termed them; they were partners in the Great War with common enemies and common purposes, but they had competing interests in the Middle East, which Sykes and Picot had resolved only momentarily. At one dinner, perhaps searching for something to discuss that would not lead to friction, Brémond mentioned that one of his staff had purchased, not for an hour or an evening but body and soul, une “jeune négresse.” Storrs recalled Brémond going on to explain: “A Negress, [but] she29 is Circassian; only one calls such women Negresses.” This was, Storrs considered, “a curious and pleasing convention.”
Lawrence, who as we have seen wanted “to biff the French out of Syria,” made the most of the situation. He attended a meeting where Storrs and Wilson informed Abdullah, who had traveled down from Mecca, that the British would not send airplanes or troops for the rebellion, even though these had been promised. In this conference Wilson tried to keep up, but his rudimentary Arabic rendered him the third man out among the Britons. Storrs confided to a friend, “He reminds me of30 a very low-geared bicycle working at full speed day and night.” But “super cerebral Lawrence” impressed Storrs with his knowledge of the language. Moreover he impressed Abdullah “with his extraordinarily31 detailed knowledge of the Turkish Army.” When Abdullah telephoned to his father in Mecca and put Storrs on the line to explain matters, the Englishman suggested, on the spur of the moment, that Lawrence visit Feisal, who was at Hamra, barely maintaining the siege of Medina, to assess the situation. Storrs implied to the grand sharif that Lawrence then might be able to persuade the British government to send troops and airplanes after all. Of course, that was what Lawrence wanted the government to do, if only to keep the French out.
So he leaped at this chance, arranged by Storrs and endorsed by Hussein. Next day he took ship from Jeddah to Rabegh, first stage of the journey to Hamra. At Rabegh he met Ali and the youngest of the four brothers, Zeid. Ali did not approve of Lawrence’s mission. Infidels did not travel in the Hejaz, he reminded him. Moreover hostile tribes stood in the way. He would permit Lawrence to journey inland only in great secrecy, after dark, wearing an Arab cloak and head-cloth and adjured to silence. It was a hard, dangerous passage, difficult for Lawrence, who was as yet unused to traveling by camel, let alone in the desert heat, as he had to do the second day of his journey. But of such experiences would his legend be made, and finally he and his guides arrived in Hamra and the long lean figure of Feisal stood before him: “I felt at first glance32 that this was the man I had come to Arabia to seek—the leader who would bring the Arab Revolt to full glory.”
Lawrence had to report back to his superiors on Feisal’s needs and persuade them to make them good—and then the British must actually do so. In this respect it did not hurt that back in London Asquith’s government had just fallen, and that a new one led by David Lloyd George, a confirmed easterner, had taken its place. Soon Lawrence and Feisal were planning the assault upon Wejh and then undertaking it. By the time they entered the town and claimed it for the Arab Revolt, the two men were comrades. Feisal gave him his own white silk gold-embroidered wedding garments to wear in the desert heat. The image we all have of Lawrence of Arabia, whitely shimmering in Arab costume, was beginning to take shape. The two men began planning the next stage of the war with Turkey—“to set the desert on fire” as Lawrence put it—by attacking the railway line.
Sykes made his connection with Weizmann, and Lawrence cemented his with Feisal, in January 1917. Thus did the Zionist and the Arab movements hasten at ever increasing speed toward a point of convergence.