of the T. E. Lawrence Society
Vol. IX, No. 1, Autumn
The French Soldiers in the Arab Revolt
Some Aspects of their Contribution
Christophe Leclerc translated by Hilary Mandleberg
In June 1916, the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, set in train the
revolt of the Arab tribes of the Hejaz against Turkish rule, sounding
the death knell of the four-hundred year old Ottoman Empire. France
reacted immediately. Possessing colonies in North Africa, it could not
remain indifferent to the call to insurrection by one of Islam's highest
authorities. Pierre de Margerie, of the French Foreign Office, wrote,
'If, by agreement with England we discreetly associate ourselves with
the Arabs' efforts to gain their freedom, it would be relatively easy to
prevent their success turning against Christian powers with Muslim
possessions. But if we were to disassociate ourselves from this
movement, then we could, once it had succeeded, find ourselves in the
presence of an Arabised Islam that draws from its conquests new strength
to expand and resist Christian power'.1
The French authorities were anxious to come to an immediate agreement
with the British about the control of the Arab movement. That was to
prove even more necessary since the possibility of the expansion of the
Revolt into Syria could not be excluded. If this were to occur, it did
not escape French notice that the secret agreement of 1916 signed with
the British (known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement) which anticipated the
dismantling and dividing up of the Ottoman empire, risked being
challenged. According to this agreement France was to have direct
administration of an area (including the Lebanon and Cilicia), while the
British would administer a region covering Mesopotamia (present-day
Iraq) and Kuwait. In addition, the Agreement defined areas reserved to a
state or confederation of Arab states under French influence (northern
Syria and the province of Mosul), and under British (southern Syria,
Jordan and Palestine).
Thus, on 5 August 1916, the French Government decided on the creation of
a military mission headed by Colonel Edouard Brémond, doubtless
because 'he was a practicing light in native warfare, a success in
French Africa, and an ex-chief of staff of a Corps on the Somme'.2
The members of this unit, first known as 'Military Mission to Egypt'
(rather than Military Mission to the Hejaz), were to ascertain Sherif
Hussein's needs regarding the training of personnel and supply of arms
and ammunition. They might also 'be called upon to co-operate with the
organisation of the Sherif's contingents and their military operations'.3 By November 1916, the Mission was to reach its operational
level of 45 officers and approximately 1,000 troops. It included in its
ranks some atypical people, such as the Algerian colonel, Cadi, a former
pupil of the Ecole Polytechnique, who was to publish in 1925 a mediocre
book of reminiscences, Terre d'Islam [Land of Islam]; Captain Laurent
Depui, 'a solid man from the Jura, rather taken with mystical dreaming
who, having discovered that he had an Arab ancestor [. . .] claimed to
have returned to his roots by converting to Islam and taking the name of
Sherif Ibrahim';4 and warrant officer Claude Prost, Sherif Hussein's
foster brother.5 The Mission was supplied with 8 Hotchkiss machine gun
sections, 2 artillery sections of mountain guns as well as a battery of
80mm field guns. A political deputation led by the Algerian Si Kaddour ben
Ghabrit, then head of protocol of the Sultan of Morocco and a close
friend of General Lyautey, was attached to the Mission.
The creation of the French Military Mission drew a response from the
English. In fact, the British Government was somewhat alarmed by the
form and plans of the 'Brémond Mission' since it no doubt feared that
it would imperil Britain's privileged position with regard to the
technical and financial support of the Revolt. Colonel Stewart F.
Newcombe, an officer in the Royal Engineers who had been with T. E.
Lawrence and Leonard Woolley on the Sinai expedition in 1914, found
himself in charge of a British military mission. This consisted of Royal
Artillery Majors Vickery, Cox and Marshall, a medical officer.
The first members of the French Military Mission disembarked at
Alexandria on 1 September 1916. The Arab Revolt was at a critical point.
The threat of a Turkish offensive from Medina hung over the pilgrimage
to Mecca which was to take place in October. If there were such an
attack, it was uncertain whether the Sherif's troops could contain these
hardened and better-armed men. But, if the Turks were to capture Mecca,
the Revolt would collapse and, at the same time, so would the Hashemite
dynasty. In order to halt the menace, it was first a question of
organising the disembarkation of European troops at Akaba so that the
Turkish lines of communication beyond Medina could be cut and the enemy
diverted from his main objective. Surprisingly, both Brémond and
Lawrence - who officially joined the Arab Bureau in November - defended
this plan in the same manner.6
But they were to oppose one another when the French advocated a
disembarkation nearer to Mecca, at Rabegh, from mid-September onwards.
Enthused by the welcome given by Sherif Hussein to the pilgrims from
North Africa, Brémond began to promote a more serious commitment by
France to the Hejaz: 'We must maintain our position at this crossroads
[Mecca]. It could have considerable consequences for our commercial
propaganda. It could give us a much-needed element of security for our
Muslim colonies . . . We are the first in Mecca at the moment: it is
worth persisting. But we are at a turning point: Rabegh. The British do
not go there for fear that we will go there. They prefer to run the risk
of seeing the Turks in Mecca . . . If we go to Rabegh, [Sherif Hussein]
would be grateful to us because the British have given him a very curt
refusal'.7 After endlessly defending this project, Brémond almost
persuaded the Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, to
commit British troops to it: 'If Brémond got his way he [Wingate]
would be G.O.C. of a genuine brigade of mixed British and French troops,
with all its pleasant machinery of responsibility and despatches, and
its prospect of increment and official recognition. Consequently he
wrote a guarded despatch, half-tending towards direct interference'.8
Lawrence set about energetically opposing Brémond's initiative.9 A
report by Lieutenant Doynel de Saint Quentin described him as being
'very hostile to the use of purely European troops in Arabia, claiming
that the tribes would immediately abandon the Grand Sherif's cause',10
for Rabegh was situated in the holy territory of Islam where no
Christian was allowed. Accusing Colonel Brémond of 'having motives of
his own, not military, nor taking account of Arab interests and of the
importance of the revolt to us';11 Lawrence easily succeeded in his
opposition. It appears that his report was sufficient to convince the
War Committee in London to defer the disembarkation at Rabegh. Once the
Turks had given up all idea of an offensive against Mecca, it was
eventually completely abandoned. Although he was no more than a simple
Captain at Staff Headquarters in Cairo, Lawrence on this occasion proved
how much influence he had with the highest British authorities. It is
worth noting that, having met the Hashemite princes Abdullah, Ali and,
for the first time, Feisal, in October l916, Lawrence already enjoyed
the reputation of seasoned expert.
In order to carry the Revolt through to a successful conclusion, the
Hashemites had not inconsiderable demands which the British strove to
satisfy: payment of the tribes and of the regular soldiers, plus help
with the winning of further support. Colonel Brémond quickly found the
British leadership in the Hejaz unbearable. He could not possibly match
the subsidies pouring in from the British. The amounts 'injected' into
the Revolt by France (1,250,000 gold francs in September 1916, 975,000
gold francs in 1917 and the same amount again in 1918), were derisory
compared with the tens of thousands of pounds paid by the British. At
the end of 1916, French observers noted that Hussein was able to give
roughly £30,000 (FRF750,000) a month to Feisal while in September 1918,
the subsidy paid by Britain to the Hashemites rose to £220,000 (FRF4,250,000).
Brémond, however, with the aim of undermining Britain's exclusive
influence and of controlling the Revolt's development, was determined to
conduct a voluntarist policy. In the hope of counter-balancing the
influence of Colonel Wilson, the British Consul at Jeddah, he started by
requesting that the Quai d'Orsay create a permanent diplomatic post
representing France with Sherif Hussein. His wish was granted. Mamar
Benazzouz, a former interpreter at the Consulate in Jeddah, was
appointed vice-consul in Mecca. At the same time, Brémond hoped to reinforce
French troops in the field and recommended that the Eastern Legion (a
unit composed of Armenians and Syrians) and the French Military Mission
to the Hejaz be put under a single command. Naturally, he counted on
getting that command. Above all, he feared that, once they had captured
Medina, the Hashemites would take the Revolt into Syria. On 28 October,
a letter to the Quai d'Orsay sounded the alarm: 'We should take care if
the Bedouin capture Medina because their active elements, the partisans
of the greatest Arab kingdom, would immediately attempt to operate in
Syria and in Iraq-el-Arab and we, the French and English, would then
have to expel them from there'.12
In fact, Brémond's audacious suggestions immediately came up against
resolute opposition in diplomatic and military circles. He was disowned
by the Quai d'Orsay who held that the fall of Medina, carried out by
Sherifian troops, could serve France's ambitions. Paul Cambon, the
French ambassador to London, wrote, it 'will have deep reverberations in
Arabia and will be a signal for the uprising of all the Bedouin tribes
of the Druse and the Hauran. It will greatly influence the success of
our eastern plans and will make an important contribution to the
dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.' By confirming that it was
necessary to contain the Arab Revolt within the Hejaz, Brémond was
challenging the Sykes-Picot agreement (of whose existence and tenor no
one had bothered to inform him). 'It is to be . . . feared that the
Sherif will exercise his sovereignty in this region and we would appear
to be reneging on the agreement. All those British colonial civil
servants who are not yet imbued with the spirit of the Entente, do not
hesitate to say so'.13
That was not the end of the matter. On 27
November, the French G.H.Q. at Chantilly sent Brémond a scathing
telegram signed by ]offre. This document reads as follows: 'Firstly:
France and England have recently signed a secret agreement based on the
constitution of an Arab federation comprising Damascus, Homs, Hama,
Aleppo and Mossul. Stop. It appears from your telegrams that you appear
to fear the capture of Medina by the Arabs because of the encouragement that it would give to their aims in Syria. Secondly: The known
state of mind of the British and the Sherif could lead to the belief
that we are trying to renege on the agreement and could have serious
consequences for the development of our plans in the East. Stop. It is
important, therefore, that your attitude does not lend itself to such an
interpretation'.14 Jean Béraud-Villars believes that Joffre's telegram
was the result of Lawrence's intervention: one might even believe that
this message 'right down to the last detail, could have been signed by
Lawrence. Given the precision of its terms, it does not seem possible
that every word cannot but have been inspired by Lawrence.' By ensuring
Brémond's humiliation at the hands of his superiors, Lawrence would
have demonstrated to Brémond 'the full extent of his [Lawrence's]
underground political powers'.15 This ingenious thesis is, however, not
substantiated by any evidence found by the present author.
During the following months, Brémond did not return to favour. On 9
April 1917, François Georges-Picot, named High Commissioner of
Palestine and Syria, advocated the complete recall of the Mission to
France saying that it had 'aroused all sorts of sensitivity' in the
British. On 18 April, he analysed the situation in a letter to Emmanuel
de Peretti de la Rocca. Doubtless lacking in diplomatic qualities, Brémond
comes across as rather pitiful: 'The Colonel talks to me about his best
friends, unaware that they have spoken ill of him. I therefore fear, no
matter how intelligent he may be, that he lacks delicacy and
sensitivity. However, without wishing in the least to attack Brémond's
worth, I think, more than ever, that his Mission should come to an end
as soon as possible'.16
On 13 May 1917, the British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Francis
Bertie, demanded that the French Government immediately recall the
Military Mission headed by Brémond: 'His Majesty's Ambassador has the
honour. . . to inform the President of the Council, the Minister for the
Foreign Office, that it seems highly desirable to His Majesty's
Government that the French Military Mission in the Hejaz, having
completed its task, should be recalled immediately. Unfortunately, the
members of the Mission, without exception, seem to have no sympathy for
Arab aspirations and openly show their feelings. Their attitude can only
prejudice relations and the politics of our allies in the Hejaz, and
could even also affect the whole of future relations between France and
It must be admitted that Brémond never showed any enthusiasm for the
Revolt which had, however, made some progress since January 1917,
taking the port of El Wejh. Firstly, he did not have a
high opinion of the Bedouin: 'Because of their divisions, their
inability to understand a general idea, their love of money, the Bedouin
are easy to buy and influence. They are incapable of any prolonged
effort and do nothing unless they can see an immediate benefit to
themselves'.18 He also could not see any significant military value in
the guerrilla war undertaken by the Bedouin, as the following unedited
passage from the manuscript of Le Hedjaz dans la Guerre Mondiale [The Hejaz
in the World War] shows: 'Anyone who knows anything about being in
command is convinced of the impossibility of a movement of this sort
defeating reasonably well-regulated troops. Uprisings have never
succeeded except thanks to the mistakes of the enemy or their
indecisiveness. All those who have seen "the Arab army" have
deemed it incapable of beating the Turks unless these surrender. Never,
in the course of this whole campaign, have the Arab contingents won
without the support of regular troops, except for two or three
exceptional instances. But the uprising was having some effect. Rain
never halts an attack, but it slows it down considerably'.19
Lord Bertie's request was not satisfied however, and the Mission was
maintained. However, in September 1917, France recognised that Britain
had 'special interests in Arabia',20 and in December, Colonel Brémond
was recalled to France. Would things have turned out differently if
Brémond had not offended the British and made obvious his lack of
enthusiasm for the Revolt? It appears doubtful. Solely preoccupied by
the deadly fighting that was bleeding white its national territory, the
French Government believed that the Sykes-Picot agreement alone would
guarantee France's rights in the immediate post-war period and did not
want to invest too heavily in an Arab Revolt that was so well supported
by the British.
One should note that the military
resources deployed by the French were
always limited. On 1 March 1917, the Mission's staff stood at 47
officers and 1,127 troops. On 1 August 1917, it was reduced to 10
officers, 55 NCOs and 542 soldiers. When one realises that very few of
these French played any effective part in Arabia (most of the Mission
remained stationed at Port Said), one might question the extent of the
military action carried out by the Mission during the Revolt.
On 1 February 1917, only 5 officers and NCOs were assigned to the
Hashemite emirs at Rabegh and at Mecca. Captain Raho of the 2nd regiment
of Algerian Spahis was one of the first (with the British Newcombe and
Garland) to organise acts of sabotage aimed at destroying the Hejaz
railway, the main means of communication for the Turkish troops between
Damascus and Medina. In February, he arrived with a group of Bedouin to
plant a mine to blow up a train. Raho was soon given a detachment of 40
men: these were joined by 200 Bedouin and a new raid was undertaken on
24 August 1917. After a forced march of 85 kilometres, Raho and his men
reached the railway north of the station at Mudurij. Laying dynamite
charges while under constant fire from a Turkish position, the French
succeeded in destroying 5 kilometres of track and 4 bridges. The
detachment carried out a second series of attacks four days
later, 65 kilometres away, near the station of Jeida. On 30 August it
returned to Emir Abdullah's camp in Abu Markha. Captain Raho's
detachment, accompanied by the Bedouin of Sherif Slima, had covered 340
kilometres in the desert in nine days.
Right up until October 1918, the French carried out a large number of
actions on this scale to harass the garrison at Medina.21 It would be
tedious to list here all the raids they conducted. In his thesis, T. E.
Lawrence, la France et les Français [T. E. Lawrence, France and the
French]22, Maurice Larès sets them out with abundant clarity. I will,
therefore, content myself with dealing here only with those actions
carried out jointly by members of the French Mission and T. E. Lawrence.
Upon meeting Emir Abdullah in March 1917, Lawrence understood the need
to destroy the Hejaz railway. This was essential to keep Fakri Pasha in
Medina and to ensure that, besieged in the city with his 10,000 men, he
remained on the defensive. Though Lawrence may be considered the
instigator of these attacks on the railway, he was not the first to
undertake them. Colonel Newcombe, and Captains Garland and Raho had
already carried some out. Nevertheless, Lawrence quickly got down to
work. On 26 March he left Abu Markha with a few Bedouin and with Captain
Raho in order to attack the station at Aba el Naam, 150 kilometres
north of Medina.
In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence takes the credit for deciding on
the raid and its direction. One of Lawrence's most famous detractors,
Richard Aldington, claims that, on the contrary, that the British officers
took part in the action 'under the guidance of Captain Raho'.23 This
hypothesis is plausible since Raho had a good knowledge of explosives,
unlike Lawrence who was still a novice in these matters. In a telegram
dated 7 April 1917, Albert Defrance, French Minister in Cairo, indicated
that Raho 'is leaving with a column of men commanded by Sherif Nasser24
to attack the station at Aba el Naam' and he then adds, 'Captain
Lawrence is accompanying them.'25 Thus it appears that Lawrence's role
in this operation must have been somewhat diminished.
A little while after their departure, Lawrence and his companions had to
face the facts: they were to have a lot of difficulty getting the Turks
out of the station of Aba el Naam. Sherif Shakker, who had promised to
provide 800-900 Ateiba Bedouin, could only manage to get together 380.
With such a reduced force, the assault on a station defended by a whole
battalion could not seriously be considered. On 30 March, the Arabs,
armed with a Krupp gun, bombarded the station and succeeded in
destroying some wagons. They also cleaned out two enemy outposts,
capturing thirty or so prisoners, but they were not bold enough to try
and capture the position. A mine was laid; it damaged a locomotive and
did enough harm to the railway for traffic to be interrupted for about
three days. 'So we did not wholly fail', concluded Lawrence in Seven
Basking in the glory of the undeniable success of the capture of Akaba
in July 1917, Lawrence soon planned to carry out another raid on the
Hejaz railway in conjunction with the French. His objective was to
paralyse the important railway junction of Maan and to take the Arab
Revolt into Syria, thus accompanying the advance of General Allenby's
troops in Palestine.
In order to succeed in this new undertaking, he decided to join forces
with the French Captain Rosario Pisani, a peerless fighter whose career
was closely allied to that of Colonel Brémond.27 Lawrence and Pisani
left Akaba on 26 September. They were accompanied by nine men, two of
whom were gunners of the French detachment. On the way, Lawrence
recruited 80 Bedouin and instructed Pisani in the handling of
explosives. By 3 October, the raiders had reached the railway. Lawrence
and Pisani laid a mine at kilometre 500, near Akabat el Hejazia, but
they had to wait until 5 October for a train to cross the bridge where
the charge had been laid. The mine did not explode. Lawrence and Pisani
then decided to 'lay an electric mine made of 25 kilos of gelignite and
to torpedo the train which [was to] arrive from the south.' Pisani
continued in his report: 'I asked Major Lawrence for the honour of
positioning myself beneath the bridge so that I could blow up the train
and take my revenge for the torpedoing of the Caledonian.28 He pointed
out to me that the position was a dangerous one because of my uniform since, once the train had been blown up and the Bedouin had come out
from under the railway arch, in attacking the Turks, they might fire on
me by mistake. Fais Bey was therefore given the job of firing.'29
On 6 October, a train arrived from the north and set off the mine laid
by Lawrence and Pisani. 'there was a yell from the Arabs, and, headed by
Pisani sounding the women's vibrant battle-cry, they rushed in a wild
torrent for the train [. . .] Our mine had taken out the near arch of
the bridge. Of the locomotive, the fire-box was torn open, and many
tubes burst. [ . . .] The tender and first wagon had telescoped'.30 The
Turks left more than twenty dead. The train had been carrying an
important consignment of flour, sugar and coffee for Emir Ibn Rashid. 'Pisani
superintended the carrying off or destruction of the booty. As before,
the Arabs were now merely camel-drivers, walking behind laden
In his report, Pisani mentions how gunner Ghendouz Mamar ben Tahar had
distinguished himself, drawing 'the admiration of Major Lawrence for his
calm courage'. For his part, Lawrence praised the behaviour of Pisani
who, on 12 November, was awarded the Military Cross for 'brilliant
conduct and excellent service rendered during operations undertaken
against the Hejaz railway'.32
On 1 December 1917, Pisani was at the head of a detachment of 147 men.
Based at Akaba alongside 200 Egyptians and about 100 Indians and Bedouin
under Faisal's command, this group, which had 4 Schneider guns (65mm mountain guns) was to play a decisive military role in the Arab
Following the capture of Jerusalem on 11 December, General Allenby was
able to redefine the task of Faisal's troops (Bedouins and regular
soldiers reformed under the name Northern Army) with the aim of
relieving the right wing of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in
Palestine. At the outset, the Arabs were to try to reach the Dead Sea in
order to join forces with the British troops. Then it was necessary 'to
stop the transport of food up it to Jericho before the middle of
February; and to arrive at the Jordan before the end of March'.33 In
fact, liaison between Faisal and Allenby's troops north of the Dead Sea
could not be achieved as long as Maan remained in Turkish hands. Hence,
while the task of Emirs Ali and Abdullah was to immobilise the garrison
at Medina by definitively cutting the railway, Faisal and Zaid's forces
were to neutralise and, if possible, capture Maan, with a view to
meeting up with British troops at Es Salt.
Lawrence, Joyce and Dawnay suggested to Feisal that he 'destroy the Maan
garrison by posting the Arab Army across the railway in the north, and
forcing them to open battle [. . .] Feisal and Jaafar liked the scheme,
but their officers clamoured for direct attack on Maan'.34 The British
argued in vain, but the Arab officers would not budge. They wanted a
On 12 April, Nuri Said, an Iraqi officer from the Turkish army who had
joined the Arab Revolt, began by capturing Ghadir el Haj, with the help
of the 65mm guns of the French detachment. The next day, the Sherifian
troops, commanded by Maulud Bey, occupied the high ground around Semna,
5 kilometres from Maan. On 17 April, according to Lawrence, 'Jaafar
massed his artillery on the southern ridge, while Nuri Said led a
storming party into the sheds of the railway station. As he reached
their cover the French guns ceased fire. We were wandering in a Ford
car, trying to keep up with the successive advances, when Nuri,
perfectly dressed and gloved, smoking his briar pipe, met us and sent us
back to Captain Pisani, artillery commander, with an urgent appeal for
support. We found Pisani wringing his hands in despair, every round
expended. He said he had implored Nuri not to attack at this moment of
his penury. There was nothing to do, but see our men volleyed out of the
railway station again'.35
The Jordanian historian Suleiman Mousa has aroused
argument by quoting
Nuri Said's account: '[he] has expressed great surprise at the behaviour
of the French commander: "I still remember quite vividly that this
battery did not do its job and that it fired a few shells only, to
determine distance and direction." ' And then, '[. . . ] when
Lawrence arrived at the station, "I expressed to him my pain and
anger at the French guns ceasing fire [. . .] He returned: and in the
afternoon I received a note from him explaining that the battery
commander had returned to camp because his ammunition had run out and he
saw no reason why he should remain in the battlefield. " '36
In fact, the accounts of Sir Hubert Young and medical warrant officer
Lucien Montero whose unpublished diary allows us to follow the daily
progress of Pisani's detachment throughout 1918, enable us to exonerate
Pisani. It is true that the artillery's ammunition had run out on 17
September. In his diary, Montero notes that the division was almost out
of shells on the eve of the attack: 'Three British planes are bombing
Maan. The Bedouin are lying in ambush behind the rocks. Emir Feisal has
been to see our position. We have one gunner wounded. At our last
position we were almost spotted and we withdrew with very little
ammunition'.37 On the 17th, Pisani obviously used what means he could
correctly, firing on the advanced Turkish positions and on the station
itself. On the 18th, Jaafar Pasha took the wise decision to call a halt
to the attack on Maan and to pull back to Semna.
In July 1918, Allenby made plans for his autumn offensive. Its objective
was Damascus. He requested that Feisal maintain the pressure around Maan
in order to attract the maximum number of enemy troops eastwards. Above
all, at the moment of the final offensive planned for mid-September, the
Arabs were to cut the three railway lines that converged at Deraa so
Turks would not be able to send troops and materiel to the Palestine
Placed at the head of a column of men consisting of 400 Sherifian
soldiers, 35 Egyptians, 30 Gurkhas and Captain Pisani's detachment of
140 men, Nuri Said - to whom Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence had been
attached - set off in the direction of Deraa. After stopping at Jafur
where Sheikh Auda Abu Tayi was camped, then at Bair, 'Pisani's coster-like
Algerians'38 rallied the Egyptian and Indian detachments of Captains
Peake and Scott-Higgins as well as Nuri Said and his regulars at Azrak
on 12 September. Bedouin partisans joined them, among whom were Auda and
his Howeitat, Nuri Shalaan, leader of the Rualla (who rallied round at
the last minute), and Sheikh Tallal with Druse cavalry.
On 17 September, the Rualla were assigned the task of capturing the
redoubt protecting the Tell Arar bridge (part of the railway) north of
Deraa. Lawrence explains in Seven Pillars 'Nuri Said moved down Pisani's
guns and fired a few shots. Then the Rualla and troops rushed the
redoubt easily, with only one killed. So the southern ten miles of the
Damascus line was freely ours by nine in the morning. It was the only
railway to Palestine and Hejaz and I could hardly realize our fortune;
hardly believe that our word to Allenby was fulfilled so simply and so
Pisani posted Second-Lieutenant Leimbacher on Tell Arar with the 65s of
Warrant Officer Segala and with Sergeant Matte's machine gunners. They
had to push back the enemy from Deraa while Sergeant Mathieu and his
detachment of engineers set about their task of destruction: 'and
already the French gunners, who also carried gun-cotton, had descended
with intention upon the near bridge. They were not very good, but at the
second try did it some hurt'.40
The same day, part of the column attacked the station of Mezerib in
order to cut the railway west of Deraa, 'So Pisani unfolded his willing
guns and smashed in a few rounds of point-blank high explosive. Under
their cover, with our twenty machine-guns making a roof overhead, Nuri
walked forward, gloved and sworded, to receive the surrender of the
forty soldiers left alive'.41 A little later, the French guns were once
more to play a decisive role, as Pisani indicates in his report: 'The
two sections of 65s . . . open heavy fire on the station and on a small
post guarding a bridge . . . The Sherifian infantry and the Bedouin
horsemen make progress towards enemy positions. Before nightfall, our
accurate shots put the defenders of the occupied bridge and station to
flight. At 10 hours, the bridge is utterly destroyed'.42
While Maan was falling into Arab hands, a Turkish column of about 2,000
men belonging to the 4th Army was retreating towards Damascus. On
27 September they set fire to the village of Tafas and put its
inhabitants to the sword. Hearing of this, Nuri Said gathered a
detachment to meet the Turks. It consisted of two Sherifian companies,
the two sections of French 65 guns with Captain Pisani, and the
machine-gun section of Sergeant Reveau. In his report, Pisani recounts
the confrontation that followed:
'Although the infantry and the Sherifian
gunners . . . only provide
illusory support for our batteries. . . our two sections of 65s open
fire on the enemy. First they hit part of the infantry who, beneath our
hail of shells, scatter and do not take long in fleeing in disarray; the
menaced lorries turn back; the cavalry that turned westwards to surround
us becomes our target. Disarray quickly sets into their ranks and they
flee as quickly as possible, followed by the Bedouin . . . danger was
averted, but the risk had been real'.43
On 28 September, the column left Sheikh Saad for Deraa where it entered
a little ahead of the British cavalry. The following day, this column
and a Sherifian group which had been joined by a section of 65s and a
machine-gun section of the French detachment set off for Damascus. They
reached the town on 1 October. It was the moment of reckoning: Captain
Pisani believed that the column had fully accomplished its mission and
underlined the importance of the part played by the French: 'During the
whole of this month of difficult operations, the entire French
detachment proved to be of great fortitude and showed an excellent
spirit of sacrifice and devotion. One can, without exaggeration,
attribute to them the greater part of the column's success; our
artillery came off best. It was thanks to our 65s that Tell Arar was
captured; thanks to our equipment that the Turks failed on 17 September
in their efforts to prevent us from crossing the railway; that the
station at Mezerib was taken. . . it is above all thanks to our guns
that the great Turkish menace of 27 September was averted and that the enemy, diverted from Sheikh Saad,
was unable to overcome our detachment despite its disproportionate
Pisani's report seems fairly accurate. Lawrence also pays homage to the
French captain and his detachment whom he mentions twenty-two times in
Book X of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, the part played by the
French soldiers during the final offensive on Damascus did not outweigh
the weakness of French involvement in the Middle East nor did it in any
way change the outcome. The British undoubtedly maintained their
supremacy during the whole of the Arab Revolt. What could Pisani's 140
men and the 6,000-7,000 men of the French detachment in Palestine and
Syria do compared to the 200,000 soldiers of Allenby's army?
Logically, the peace agreement could not go in France's favour. 'Faced
with a triumphant Albion in the East desirous of exploiting this victory
for its advantage, France will struggle to preserve its considerable
interests in the region, its influence, and its political power. Having
been too content "to save part of the furniture", it will be
forced, through successive relinquishments, to fall back on playing a
minor political role at the conferences, and this will lead to the
formation of the state of Greater Lebanon and the States of Syria in
1920'.45 It is against this background that the French Military Mission
in the Hejaz, by this time only made up of a few officers under the
command of Georges Catroux,46 was dissolved on 1 August 1920.
This article is a digest of the author's
book, Avec T. E.
Lawrence en Arabie: La Mission militaire française au Hedjaz, 1916-1920
(Paris, L'Harmattan, 1998).
Notes and References
1. Pierre de Margerie, Director of Political and Commercial Affairs at
the Quai d'Orsay, 'Note to the President of the Council'. 19 July 1916,
MAE (French Foreign Office), War series 1914-18, volume 1684, p.70.
2. T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, (London, Jonathan Cape,
1935), hereafter SP35, p.111.
3. General Roques, Minister of War, to Colonel Brémond, 15 August
1916, in Les Armees fransçaises dans la Grande Guerre, Vol. IX: les
fronts secondaires [The French Armies in the Great War: the secondary
fronts], Part 2., Appendices (abbreviation: AFGG 2.), Théâtre d'opérations
du Levant [Theatre of Operations in the East], Paris, Imprimerie
nationale, 1935, annex 70.
4. Henri Lerner, Catroux (Paris, Albin Michel, 1990) p.75. In the 1920s,
Laurent Depui was to help the famous reporter Albert Londres in his
expeditions in the Middle East. Author of a biography concerning Londres,
Pierre Assouline wrote of Depui, 'This enigmatic person fascinates
Albert Londres. If he did not judge the reputation of the famous British
agent to be rather overrated, Londres would happily call Sherif Ibrahim
the French Lawrence of Arabia. And a better one.' (From Albert Londres, Vie et
Mort d'un Grand Reporter [Albert Londres: life and death of a
great reporter], 1884-1932, Paris, Folio collection, Gallimard, 1990,
p.256). In truth, Depui was, above all, a schemer of doubtful morals who
gained renown in 1920 by acquiring the life savings of a Moroccan
officer, Lieutenant Kernag. This serious matter of financial indelicacy
led Major Catroux, the head of the Military Mission in the Hejaz, to
demand his recall to France (SHAT (Service Historique de l'Armee de
Terre), box 7 N 2142).
5. Born in Istanbul, Prost was regarded by Sherif Hussein as 'his
relation, since Muslim law put blood relationships on the same footing
as foster relationships'. In AFGG 2, appendix 262.
6. See my article 'T .E. Lawrence and the French Military Mission to the
Hejaz, 1916-1918' in T .E. Notes, A T. E. Lawrence Newsletter, Honesdale
(USA), published by Dennis W. McDonnell, Vol. III, No. 7, September
7. Brémond to the Foreign Office, 18 October 1916, MAE, Guerre [War]
1914-1918, Vol.1687, p.135.
8. SP35, p.111.
9. For further details, see Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The
Authorised Biography (London, Heinemann, 1989) pp.326-7.
10. Saint-Quentin to Cousse, tel. 98, SHAT , box 17 N 499.
11. SP35, p.111.
12. Brémond to Foreign Office, 28 October 1916, MAE, Guerre [War]
1914-1918, Vol. 1688, pages 178B-182.
13. Paul Cambon to the Foreign Office, tel. 1563, 24 November 1916, MAE,
Guerre [War] 1914-1918, vol. 1689, p.247B.
14. G.H.Q. Chantilly to Brémond, 27 November 1916, MAE, Guerre [War]
1914-1918, Vol. 1689, p.283.
15. Jean Béraud-Villars, Le Colonel Lawrence ou la recherche de
l'absolu, [Colonel Lawrence and the search for the absolute] (Paris,
Albin Michel, 1955) pp.151-2.
16. George-Picot to M. de Peretti, Deputy Director for Africa at the
Quai d'Orsay, 18 April 1917, MAE, Guerre [War] 1914-1918, Vol. 1695,
17. Lord Bertie, British Embassy, Paris, 13 May 1917, MAE, Guerre [War]
1914-1918, Vol. 1695, pp. 255-56.
18. Brémond to the Foreign Office, report No.19, 'Note politique au
sujet du Hedjaz' ['Political note concerning the Hejaz'] 13 October
1916, MAE, Guerre [War] 1914-1918, Vol. 1687, pp.47-8.
19. Edouard Brémond, unedited manuscript of Le Hedjaz dans la Guerre
Mondiale [The Hejaz in the World War], p.29. Brémond's book was
published in 1931.
20. 'Note sur les éléments français du Levant' ['Note on the
French in the East'], Ministry of War, 1 June 1917, SHAT, box 7,
21. The action of the lieutenants from the Maghreb - Bendjennat, Zemori
and Kernag - undertaken for Emir Ali, should also be mentioned here.
From May 1918, the Turks were no longer able to carry out repairs to the
Hejaz railway, damaged by the acts of sabotage carried out by the
Bedouin and their French and British allies. The railway was cut at
several points. Thus Medina was isolated from its bases in Syria.
Nevertheless, the garrison did not surrender until January 1919, well
after the armistice agreed on 30 October 1918.
22. Maurice Larès, T. E. Lawrence, La France et les Français [T. E.
Lawrence, France and the French] (Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne,
Imprimerie nationale, 1980) 558p.
23. Richard Aldington, Lawrence of Arabia: A biographical enquiry
(London, Collins, 1955) p.182. Note by
Jeremy Wilson: This article is written largely on the basis of French
documents. It contains a some statements that are inconsistent with
information in British records. For example, it is wrong to imply, as
the author does at the opening of this paragraph, that Lawrence only
became aware of the need to destroy the railway after he reached
Abdullah's camp at Wadi Ais. He was acting under orders from the British
C-in-C, to prevent the Turks withdrawing from Medina. He had carried mines up from the coast with
the intention of cutting the railway. Likewise, the author is wrong to assume that
Captain Raho would have known more about the use of these particular
explosives than Lawrence. The mines and their detonators had been
developed specially for blowing up trains by Garland, who had taught
Lawrence how to lay them. Lawrence's status vis-à-vis Raho would have
reflected the fact that the British, not the French, were funding and
equipping the Arab Revolt (as the author points out in the penultimate
paragraph). Given the mutual suspicion and rivalry between French and British
officers in the Hedjaz, it is unsurprising that Raho's report should have maximised
his own role and minimised the role played by of Lawrence.
24. When Lawrence describes this raid in Seven Pillars (Chapter XXXIV),
he does not mention Sherif Nasser. Note by Jeremy Wilson: Nor
does Lawrence name Sherif Nasser in the list of significant Arabs who
accompanied the raid in his detailed report on the operation, later
published in the Arab Bulletin. It is therefore possible wither that
Raho's report is incorrect, or that the Sherif in question was not a
person of great importance.
25. Defrance to the Foreign Office, tel. 265,7 April 1917, MAE, Guerre
[War] 1914-1918, Vol. 1694, p.286.
26. SP35, p.203.
27. See my work Avec T. E. Lawrence en Arabie, la Mission militaire
française au Hedjaz, 1916-1920 [With T. E. Lawrence in Arabia, the
French Military Mission in the Hedjaz, 1916-1920] Paris, coll.
'Comprendre le Moyen Orient' ['Understanding the Middle East' series]
l'Harmattan, 1998, p.114-15.
28. When he was assigned to the Mission in the Hejaz, Pisani had
travelled on the Caledonian which was torpedoed twenty miles outside Port
Said on 30 June 1917. There were 51 survivors.
29. Pisani, report no.204, 21 October 1917, SHAT, box 7 N 2138.
30. SP35, p.379.
31. SP35, p.380. '(. . .) we rode off without a man killed or wounded.'
32. Brémond, 15 November 1917, SHAT, box 4 H 27, dossier 3.
33. SP35, p.456.
34. SP35, p.509.
35. SP35, p.520.
36. Suleiman Mousa, T. E. Lawrence: An Arab View, translated by Albert
Butros (London, Oxford University Press, 1966) p.163.
37. From the unedited diary of Lucien Montero, given to the author in
38. SP35, p.586.
39. SP35, p.593.
40. SP35, p.594.
41. SP35, p.599.
42. Captain Pisani report of 3 November 1918, AFGG 2, appendix 779.
43. Pisani, report of 3 November 1918, AFGG 2, appendix 779.
44. Pisani, report of 3 November 1918, AFGG 2, appendix 779. Pisani was
to repeat these events in a report to General Gouraud dated 29 May 1920.
This document shows him to be more vehement when talking about Faisal's
regulars and the Bedouin whom he describes as 'pillagers of wreckages
who are incapable of leading an attack.' SHAT, box 4 H1, dossier 3-1.
45. Gerard Khoury, La France et l'Orient arabe, naissance du Liban
moderne, 1914-1920 [France and the Arab East, the birth of modern
Lebanon, 1914-1920] (Paris, Armand Colin, 1993) p.34.
46. Georges Catroux became one of the figureheads of 'France Libre'
during the Second World War, alongside General De Gaulle. See Henri
Lerner, Catroux (Paris, Albin Michel, 1990) 432p.
Back to the contents
page for this issue
You can buy issues of the Journal
from the online shop.
not necessary to be a member of the T. E. Lawrence Society. To return to the main journal list click here: The Journal