The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence

THIS BRINGS US to the crux of the matter, the rock on which British-Arab relations subsequently foundered, the misunderstanding, or perhaps the duplicity, that eventually colored everything else.

The most important letter in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence was McMahon’s reply to the grand sharif, written while Faruki’s farrago of truths, half-truths, exaggerations, and downright lies were fresh and unquestioned in British minds, and while the alarming reports about Bulgaria and Gallipoli and Mesopotamia were likewise fresh. McMahon dated the message October 24, 1915, and immediately took up the question of the boundaries of the future Arab state:

The districts of Mersina1 and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab and should be excluded from the proposed limits and boundaries. With the above modification, and without prejudice to our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits and boundaries and, in regard to those portions of the territories therein in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her Ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter.

Subject to the modifications referred to above, McMahon wrote, Britain would recognize and support the independence of the proposed Arab federation with borders previously defined by Sharif Hussein—that is to say, with the borders first traced in the Damascus Protocol. She would guarantee the Muslim holy places against external aggression. She would advise and assist the Arabs in establishing suitable forms of government in the various states that would comprise the federation. In return, the Arabs must agree to look only to Britain for advice and support and must accept that Britain could assert special measures of administrative control in the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra.

McMahon wrote in English—he could neither speak nor write in Arabic—so his letter to Hussein had to be translated. Storrs wrote of the translation process in his memoirs: “Our Arabic correspondence2 with Mecca was prepared by Ruhi, a fair though not a profound Arabist (and a better agent than scholar); and checked often under high pressure by myself. I had no Deputy, Staff or office, so that during my absence on mission the work was carried on (better perhaps) by others, but the continuity was lost.” What Storrs did not record3 was that his own knowledge of written Arabic likewise was limited. Conceivably the imbroglio that resulted from this most infamous letter can be traced to nothing more than an imprecise rendering of English into Arabic caused perhaps by ignorance or even by haste.

At any rate, once it had been translated, McMahon gave the missive to Hussein’s “trusted and excellent messenger, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Arif Arayfan,” who set out once again upon the long and difficult journey from Cairo to Mecca. Hussein would have received and read it with some satisfaction. But in certain respects he would have found it vague and perhaps even troubling.

Parts of the crucial paragraph require explanation, but regardless of the language in which they are read, they are not ambiguous. McMahon’s first qualification to Hussein’s suggested boundaries was the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta: These he wished to exclude from the proposed Arab kingdom because he suspected that France would claim them after the war, or even possibly because Britain might wish to claim Alexandretta before the French did. As for the second qualification regarding “our existing treaties with Arab chiefs,” this referred primarily to the line of principalities along the east coast of Arabia on the Indian Ocean with which the British government in India had established relations. With regard to the “portions of territories … in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her Ally, France,” McMahon simply was recognizing that Britain’s most important partner in the war might make additional territorial claims in Syria that Britain would likely be obliged to support, although she did not know precisely what the claims might be and actually rather begrudged them. And finally, as for Baghdad and Basra, McMahon mentioned them to satisfy the territorial ambitions of the British government in India, which still wanted to annex portions of Mesopotamia.

At the time, however, the phrase that may have caused the grand sharif to raise his eyebrows highest, and that created untold trouble afterward, is the one about excluding from the Arab kingdom “the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo.” The key word is “districts,” simple enough in the English language but ambiguous when translated, as it was by Ruhi or Storrs or conceivably someone else in Cairo, into the Arabic wilāyāt. This is the plural form of the Arabic word wilāyah, which means vilayet, a political jurisdiction in Turkish, but “vicinity” or “environs,” a geographical expression in English. To boil down what became an exceedingly acrimonious, even tortuous argument (one that I have no intention of entering, let alone attempting to settle), Arabs claimed that Hussein understood the word to mean “vicinity” or “environs” and therefore not to refer to Palestine, which is south of the line connecting Damascus, Hama, Homs, and Aleppo, not west of it as any glance at a map will quickly show and clearly not within the vicinity or environs of any of those towns. The British and Zionists have argued4 to the contrary, however, that since wilāyāt can mean vilayets and since the vilayet or “province” of Damascus extended all the way south to Ma’an and beyond down to Aqaba, therefore McMahon did indeed mean to exclude Palestine from the Arab kingdom because Palestine is indubitably west (not south) of Ma’an.

Perhaps it will be helpful for American readers to think of the problem in the following terms: Presume a line extending from the districts of New York, New Haven, New London, and Boston, excluding territory to the west from an imaginary coastal kingdom. If by districts one means “vicinity” or “environs,” that is one thing with regard to the land excluded, but if one means “vilayets” or “provinces,” or in the American instance “states,” it is another altogether. There are no states of Boston, New London, or New Haven, just as there were no provinces of Hama and Homs, but there is a state of New York, just as there was a vilayet of Damascus, and territory to the west of New York State is different from territory to the west of the district of New York, presumably New York City and environs, just as territory to the west of the vilayet of Damascus is different from territory to the west of the district of Damascus, presumably the city of Damascus and its environs.

Which meaning of district McMahon really intended, “vilayet” or “vicinity,” whether he was even aware of the several meanings, and whether the translator was aware of them have been at the crux of the disagreement that ensued.

It is also worth mentioning that in 1915 the French were still claiming that Palestine fell within their Syrian sphere of interest. Therefore McMahon conceivably did not mean to exclude Palestine from King Hussein’s proposed Arab kingdom when he referred to the territory lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs, and Aleppo in the first part of his letter, but that he did mean to exclude it when he referred a little later to the possibility of postwar French claims that Britain would be obliged to support. But we cannot know for certain, since he did not say as much in any part of his correspondence with Sharif Hussein.

The argument over these bare bones would rage first when it came time to recast the Middle East after World War I; then among the champions of the British Mandate in Palestine, their Arab opponents, and their Zionist supporters; and finally, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, among interested parties and academics representing all points of view. Over the years proponents of the Arab side have often made reference to perfidious Albion; they assert that McMahon knowingly misled Sharif Hussein about Palestine. From the other side, Zionist scholars have defended McMahon, arguing that he did not mislead the sharif, who understood and accepted from the start that Britain meant to exclude Palestine from the Arabian kingdom and discovered a longing for that country only after 1917; and that even if McMahon’s strictures about territory were vague, as the Arabs charged, Britain’s territorial promises depended upon the Arabs carrying out a successful revolt on their own, which they never did, relying instead upon British support to defeat the Turks. In short, the Zionists asserted that even if McMahon’s letter did fail to exclude Palestine from the projected Arab kingdom, it made no difference because the letter was not legally binding. Meanwhile assorted historians5 of the British role in the Middle East have either excoriated the high commissioner for the sloppiness of his language or praised him for being a subtle guardian of his country’s imperial interests.

Scholars have assiduously combed the archives in search of a contemporary document that states unambiguously McMahon’s intention. Possibly they found it in a self-exculpatory letter he wrote to his former chief in India, the Viceroy Lord Hardinge. Hardinge was furious with McMahon, first for giving away the British position in Mesopotamia to the Arabs (he wanted outright annexation and not mere “administrative control”) and second, and more generally, for taking Sharif Hussein’s ambitions seriously. He did not believe that Hussein or any other Arab could organize and lead a united Arab kingdom. McMahon replied defensively, “What we have to arrive at6 now is to tempt the Arab people into the right path, detach them from the enemy and bring them on to our side. This on our part is at present largely a matter of words, and to succeed we must use persuasive terms and abstain from academic haggling over conditions.”

This remark seems almost an admission of intent to deceive, which is how Hardinge interpreted it. McMahon had “impl[ied] that the negotiations [over Arabian boundaries] are merely a question of words and will neither establish our rights nor bind our hands in that country,” he wrote to the secretary of state for India, Austen Chamberlain, in a letter that practically smokes with indignation. “I do not like pledges7 given when there is no intention of keeping them.” But McMahon was not acting very differently from the way his new master in London, Lord Kitchener, had acted one year before, when he trailed the caliphate in front of Sharif Hussein in order to tempt him into an anti-Ottoman rebellion. Kitchener did not consider that Britain’s hands were bound by that earlier gesture, and already the Foreign Office was backing away from it. Is it strange, then, that his subordinate, McMahon, who likewise aimed to motivate the grand sharif, made additional “nebulous” (as he termed them) proposals?

At any rate, it was the grand sharif’s reaction to McMahon’s letter that counted. We may guess that he gathered with his sons again in the palace in Mecca, parsing the Egyptian high commissioner’s words very carefully indeed. In his reply of November 5, 1915, he accepted some of them and rejected others. While immediately renouncing claim to the vilayets of Mersina and Adana “in order to facilitate an agreement [with the British] and to render a service to Islam,” he held firm with regard to the land west of Damascus, Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. Only now he called this territory “the provinces [vilayets] of Aleppo and Beyrout and their sea coasts.” Essentially, and contra McMahon, he was reserving for the new Arabian kingdom lands stretching down the Mediterranean shoreline from Alexandretta past Haifa nearly to Jaffa (although not below). Moreover in claiming the vilayet of Aleppo, he was not merely refusing McMahon’s demand to exclude Alexandretta from his future kingdom; he was reaffirming his claim to it and to adjoining territory reaching to the thirty-seventh parallel. Nor, in Mesopotamia, would he cede unconditionally Britain’s right to administrative control of the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra: “We might agree to leave8 under the British Administration for a short time those districts now occupied by the British troops without the rights of either party being prejudiced thereby … and against a suitable sum paid as compensation to the Arab kingdom for the period of occupation.” But Hussein extended to the British an inducement of his own: As soon as a “clear and final reply … to the questions and problems set forth above” had arrived, he and his followers would take “the necessary action … with the least possible delay.”

From the sirdar, Reginald Wingate, Hussein’s letter wrung a grudging respect: It “proves very conclusively9 that he is by no means a nonentity, but … somewhat of a statesman and diplomat.” From the Foreign Office it elicited rather a different response. “For sheer insolence10 it would be difficult to find any passage to equal Para. 2 of the Sherif’s message,” fumed one official, and Sir Edward Grey added in red ink in his jagged handwriting, “The proposals are absurd.” But if British promises to Hussein were merely a matter of words (as McMahon had asserted to Hardinge), and if they did not commit Britain to any specific future policy, why should Britain even care when Hussein made assertions of his own? Whatever “absurd” objections and stipulations the grand sharif might raise, Britain should simply postpone dealing with them.

Moreover, why should the British not concentrate upon the positive? As if to assuage them, as if to emphasize his offer to take “the necessary action,” Hussein had instructed his messenger to deliver oral communications that he knew the British would find to their liking. “Feeling amongst Arabs is very11 favorable to us,” McMahon reported the courier telling him on behalf of Hussein; the “Sherif impressed upon him readiness and intention of Arabs to begin work at once.” The grand sharif finally was on the verge of jumping their way. Would McMahon not have thought it best to refrain from raising difficulties that could only delay this long-desired action?

McMahon peppered London with telegrams urging that he be given a green light in his dealings with Sharif Hussein and warning of the repercussions if permission were refused. So did the others in Cairo who favored the forward policy. Clayton urged the War Office to “meet the Arab party12 generously on the lines of the Sherif’s proposals.” Mark Sykes brought this same message to London, as did his friend Aubrey Herbert. Herbert left Cairo in October, ahead of Sykes, composing a memorandum for the Foreign Office aboard ship: “If the leaders of the Arabs13 come in with us … the situation will be much eased and our defensive position will be greatly improved.” Upon reaching London, he lobbied Grey’s private secretary, Sir Eric Drummond; also Lord Robert Cecil, the parliamentary secretary of state for foreign affairs: “If the Germans get to Constantinople while we are negotiating [with the sharif] we have lost the trick.” Speed was of the essence, Herbert thought, and yet Britain’s messengers to the grand sharif, dispatched by Wingate from Khartoum, “probably eat hashish, ride on donkeys that fall lame or are taken by brigands.” He saw Sir Vivien Gabriel at the War Office. “Promise the French big14 concessions, Nigeria,” Herbert advised; “send Curzon or a great man to Paris to say they must make this concession, send Clayton as plenipotentiary across the Red Sea [to Mecca].” “This was15 … a psychological time,” Herbert had written in his shipboard memo; “if we don’t gain the Arabs now we might well lose them altogether.”

Yet Grey and his team of officials hesitated. The exhortations coming in from Cairo and its advocates in London were strong, but a counterblast from India nearly balanced them. “We have been greatly16 disturbed by the assurances given by McMahon to the Grand Sherif of Mecca,” Lord Hardinge wrote to Arthur Nicolson, the under secretary of state for foreign affairs, on November 12, 1915. “I trust that the Foreign Office will be able to get McMahon out of the hole into which he has fallen.” And three days later: “I devoutly hope17 that this proposed independent Arab State will fall to pieces if it is ever created. Nobody could possibly have devised any scheme more detrimental to British interests in the Middle East than this.” There was another reason to think twice before plunging, Hardinge added with great percipience: “Two-thirds of the population18 in Baghdad and Busrah are Shias and the Shia holy places of Kerbela and Nejef are in the province of Baghdad and have no connection whatsoever with Mecca or the Sherif thereof. To place these provinces under the Sunni ruler of Mecca would be the negation of all national and religious claims in those two provinces.”

Well founded though his objections to the Cairo plans might be, however, Hardinge had only one strong ally in the cabinet, the secretary of state for India, Austen Chamberlain. Against this single advocate of caution were ranged a variety of bigger guns, of whom (when it came to military and strategic matters) Kitchener was biggest of all. And Kitchener favored the forward policy. In fact, “the Arab movement [is] his19 and no other man’s,” Sykes judged. Kitchener, it will be recalled, had been aware of the grand sharif’s discontent with the Ottomans even before the war. He was the one who, at Storrs’s urging, had directed Cairo to sound out the sharif when the war began. A little later he had sent Mark Sykes as his personal agent to get a grip on the Middle East. While Sykes remained abroad, Kitchener had been encouraging McMahon and the Egyptian military commander, General Sir John Maxwell, to “do your best20 to prevent any alienation of the Arabs’ traditional loyalty to England.” He tried hard to persuade Asquith to stake a claim to Ottoman territories before the French could by landing a British force at Alexandretta, but failed, much to his own and Cairo’s disappointment. He believed that an Arab revolt would serve Britain’s imperial interest. He did not take India’s objections to it seriously, although he sympathized with the Indian government’s desire to annex portions of Mesopotamia. Moreover he was convinced of the military value to Britain of Arabian help; at the very least it would deny an increment of strength to Germany and Turkey. Kitchener, then, wished McMahon to persuade Grand Sharif Hussein to throw down the gauntlet to Turkey as soon as possible. He was not troubled by Hardinge’s scruples about vague language. For his part, Grey thought McMahon should be given flexibility in his dealings with the grand sharif. He opposed Chamberlain too. Against Kitchener and Grey, the officials in the Foreign Office who shared Chamberlain’s skepticism were powerless. McMahon received his green light.

Now we may imagine McMahon huddled with his advisers in Cairo drafting the communication they all hoped would conclude the protracted correspondence and bring Grand Sharif Hussein to the sticking point. They worked at a feverish pitch, afraid the Germans and Turks would beat them to the punch. Wingate, who was coaching Clayton from Khartoum on how to approach the man in Mecca, spoke for them all: “I live in almost hourly21 anticipation of some announcement that the Sultan of Turkey has granted the Arabs of Arabia autonomy.” He thought “a reply to the Sherif22 [should] be dispatched at once containing assurances.”

But McMahon, when he wrote the final draft of his letter, cagily reverted to the style of his first letter, which is why to this day we cannot be sure what his intentions were with regard to Palestine. Far from clarifying the crucial points, he chose to leave them in abeyance. Where his second and third messages had been murky about Arabia’s future borders, in this one he did not discuss them at all. So he wrote to Grand Sharif Hussein on December 17, 1915: “With regard to the vilayets23 of Aleppo and Beyrout the Government of Great Britain have taken careful note of your observations, but as the interests of our Ally France are involved the question will require careful consideration and a further communication on the subject will be addressed to you in due course.” With regard to Mesopotamia, he wrote that the adequate safeguarding of Britain’s interests “calls for a much fuller and more detailed consideration than the present situation and the urgency of these negotiations permits.” But as inducement to the sharif to act and as asignal that Britain would be generous with her potential Arabian ally, he added, “I am sending by your trustworthy messenger a sum of £20,000.”

Possibly the grand sharif interpreted the money as an earnest of Britain’s intention to pay for what he hoped would be the temporary occupation of Baghdad. At any rate, he too was willing to postpone settling the border issue. Why? Because while his relations with the Turks had continued to deteriorate, his relations with the plotters had strengthened; increasingly rebellion seemed to him the most likely and most hopeful course (see Chapter 7). He wanted the British on board as much as they wanted him.

He replied to McMahon in a letter dated January 1, 1916. With regard to “the matter of compensation for the period of occupation [of Mesopotamia:] We … leave the determination of the amount to the perception of her [Britain’s] wisdom and justice.” With regard to “the Northern Parts and their coasts,” as he confusingly termed them this time, he was conciliatory too, albeit exceedingly careful. He accepted McMahon’s suggestion that their future be decided at a later date in order “to avoid what may possibly injure the alliance of Great Britain and France and the agreement made between them during the present wars and calamities.” But he would not yield the point altogether. McMahon “should be sure that at the first opportunity after this war is finished we shall ask (what we avert our eyes from today) for what we now leave to France in Beyrout and its coasts.” And as if to underline his determination, he brought the matter up again a few lines below. After the war, he declared, it would be “impossible to allow any derogation that gives France or any other Power a span of land in those regions.”

Much as McMahon had ended his letter with a sweetener (of £20,000), so Sharif Hussein ended his with a promise he knew the British would value: “We still remain firm24 to our resolution which Storrs learnt from us two years ago, for which we await the opportunity suitable to our situation, especially that action the time of which has now come near and which destiny drives towards us with great haste and clearness.” Thus the two sides edged closer together, each for its own reason, and each with private reservations.

In his last letter McMahon had assured Hussein that once he launched the rebellion, Britain would prove a staunch and faithful ally; she would not negotiate a peace “of which the freedom of the Arab peoples and their liberation from German and Turkish domination do not form an essential condition.” Only one final matter remained. Hussein reminded his potential ally that “we shall have to let you25 know in due course our requirements in the way of arms, ammunition and so forth.” McMahon replied in the fourth and final note of this famous series (they would continue to correspond, but not over essential points, until McMahon returned to London later in 1916): “You will doubtless inform us by the bearer of this letter of any manner in which we can assist you, and your requests will always receive our immediate consideration.” This would have to do, and it was good enough. Now the spring was wound up and the plot would move forward. But the deferred question of Syrian, Lebanese, and especially Palestinian borders, and of Britain’s role in Mesopotamia, remained a stumbling block to future understanding and good relations.

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