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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, 'France, Britain, and the Arabs'

by Col. T. E. Lawrence
The Observer, 8 August 1920


There is a feeling in England that the French occupation of Damascus and their expulsion of Feisal from the throne to which the grateful Syrians had elected him is, after all, a poor return for Feisal's gifts to us during the war: and the idea of falling short of an oriental friend in generosity leaves an unpleasantness in our mouths. Feisal's courage and statesmanship made the Mecca revolt spread beyond the Holy cities, until it became a very active help to the Allies in Palestine. The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory. This was great service in our extreme need, and we felt we owed the Arabs a reward: and to Feisal, their leader, we owed double, for the loyal way in which he had arranged the main Arab activity when and where Allenby directed.

Yet we have really no competence in this matter to criticise the French. They have only followed in very humble fashion, in their sphere of Syria, the example we set them in Mesopotamia. England controls nine parts out of ten of the Arab world, and inevitably calls the tune to which the French must dance. If we follow an Arab policy, they must be Arab. If we fight the Arabs, they must fight the Arabs. It would show a lack of humour if we reproved them for a battle near Damascus, and the blotting out of the Syrian essay in self-government, while we were fighting battles near Baghdad, and trying to render the Mesopotamians incapable of self-government, by smashing every head that raised itself among them.

A few weeks ago the chief of our administration in Baghdad was asked to receive some Arab notables who wanted to urge their case for partial autonomy. He packed the delegation with some nominees of his own, and in replying, told them that it would be long before they were fit for responsibility. Brave words - but the burden of them has been heavy on the Manchester men this week at Hillah.

These risings take a regular course. There is a preliminary Arab success, then British reinforcements go out as a punitive force. They fight their way (our losses are slight, the Arab losses heavy) to their objective, which is meanwhile bombarded by artillery, aeroplanes, or gunboats. Finally, perhaps, a village is burnt and the district pacified. It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions. Bombing the houses is a patchy way of getting the women and children, and our infantry always incur losses in shooting down the Arab men. By gas attacks the whole population of offending districts could be wiped out neatly; and as a method of government it would be no more immoral than the present system.

We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him. One in ten of the souls in Mesopotamia to-day belongs to our army. The greenness of the country is being eaten up by them, and the process is not yet at its height. To be safe they demand that we double our existing garrison. As local resources are exhausted this increase of troops will increase the cost by more than an arithmetical progression.

These troops are just for police work to hold down the subjects of whom the House of Lords was told two weeks ago that they were longing for our continued presence in their country. No one can imagine what will be our state there if one of Mesopotamia's three envious neighbours (all nursing plans against us) attack us from outside, while there is still disloyalty within. Our communications are very bad, our defence positions all have both flanks in the air, and there seem to have been two incidents lately. We do not trust our troops as we did during the war.

Then there are the military works. Great barracks and camps have had to be constructed, and hundreds of miles of military roads. Great bridges, to carry motor-lorries, exist in remote places, where the only local transport is by pack. The bridges are made of temporary materials, and their upkeep is enormous. They are useless to the civil Government, which yet has to take them over at a high valuation; and so the new State will begin its career with an enforced debt.

English statesmen, from the Premier downwards, weep tears over the burden thrust on us in Mesopotamia. 'If only we could raise a local army,' said Lord Curzon, 'but they will not serve' ('except against us,' his lordship no doubt added to himself). 'If only we could find Arabs qualified to fill executive posts.'

In this dearth of local talent the parallel of Syria is illuminating. Feisal had no difficulty in raising troops, though he had great difficulty in paying them. However, the conditions were not the same, for he was arbitrarily deprived of his Customs' revenue. Feisal had no difficulty in setting up an administration, in which the five leading spirits were all natives of Baghdad! It was not a very good administration, but in the East the people are less exigent than we are. Even in Athens Solon gave them not the best laws, but the best they would accept.

The British in Mesopotamia cannot find one competent person
- but I maintain that the history of the last few months has shown their political bankruptcy, and their opinion should not weigh with us at all. I know ten British officials with tried and honourable reputations in the Sudan, Sinai, Arabia, Palestine, each and all of whom could set up an Arab Government comparable to Feisal's, in Baghdad, next month. It also would not be a perfect government, but it would be better than Feisal's, for he, poor man, to pull him down, was forbidden foreign advisers. The Mesopotamian effort would have the British Government behind it, and would be child's play for a decent man to run, so long as he ran it like Cromer's Egypt, not like the Egypt of the Protectorate. Cromer dominated Egypt, not because England gave him force, or because Egypt loved us, or for any outside reason, but because he was so good a man. England has stacks of first-class men. The last thing you need out there is a genius. What is required is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines. It is no good patching with the present system. 'Concessions to local feeling' and such like rubbish are only weakness-concessions, incentives to more violence. We are big enough to admit a fault, and turn a new page: and we ought to do it with a hoot of joy, because it will save us a million pounds a week.

Source: DG 311-15
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 24 January 2006

 



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