History Thread: Bremond of Arabia

In June 1916, the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire erupted. Sherif Hussein of Mecca, head of the Hashemite Dynasty and guardian of the Holy Cities, had been compelled to rebel against Turkish rule due to rumors that Enver Pasha’s governor planned to depose, or assassinate him. The High Commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had extended Hussein a promise of an independent Arab Kingdom, though the terms offered were vague enough that Hussein interpreted it as extending from the Arab peninsula north to Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The British, for the time being, did nothing to disabuse him of this, even as they entered into negotiations with France for the postwar partition of the Middle East.

Hussein’s forces, led in the field by his sons Faisal, Abdullah and Zeid, captured Mecca and defeated several small Turkish garrisons without difficulty. But they ran into difficulties against the large, well-armed Turkish garrison at Medina, which repulsed repeated attacks with machine guns and artillery. British support initially was fleeting, consisting of a handful of military advisers and shipments of small arms that availed Hussein’s forces little. Hussein’s efforts seemed ready to die stillborn, if the Allies did not increase their support.

Sherif Hussein

The European allies were as mutually suspicious of each other’s Middle Eastern ambitions. British officers followed the example of Lord Kitchener, whose confrontation with the French at Fashoda two decades earlier instilled a longstanding distrust of French ambitions. The French government, in turn, hoped to expand their empire into Syria and Lebanon, with their traditional connections to France. French officials worried that a successful Arab Revolt would result “in the presence of an Arabized Islam that draws from its conquests new strength to expand and resist Christian power.” Whichever power took initiative in supporting the Arabs could win their trust and alliance in postwar division of the spoils.

Thus in September 1916, Colonel Edouard Bremond received a summons to the Quai d’Orsay. Bremond was a veteran officer who’d spent most of his career in Algeria; he was a fluent Arabic speaker with an understanding of Islam, and seemed ideal for influencing Hussein against his British benefactors. “If you can pull the Englishmen’s legs, that’s the best service you can do us,” an official told him. Bremond soon arrived in Port Said, Egypt with a small detachment of advisers and Moroccan and Algerian troops to train and arm Hussein’s forces. Before the British established a substantial presence in the Hejaz, the advance guard of Bremond’s Military Mission was already on the scene.

The French military mission (source)

Bremond’s arrival came as a surprise to British officials in Egypt, who were notified by a message promising “Colonel Bredus” would arrive in Port Said. General Sir Reginald Wingate, the Governor-General of Sudan, opposed sending British troops to aid Hussein, for fear of inflaming Muslim opinion. General Archibald Murray, who commanded the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, worried about Bremond’s urgings to dispatch Allied troops to the Hejaz. Murray “would be sorry if for political reasons the French render the Sharif material assistance,” he wrote to a colleague. Oft-criticized for his later failures to capture Gaza from the Turks, Murray was astute enough to recognize Bremond’s game.

As Hussein’s revolt floundered, debates raged about the wisdom of landing a force of Indian Muslim troops at the ports of Rabegh or Alexandretta; only a token force of Egyptian machine gunners and artillerymen joined the Arabs, along with more effectual aid from the Royal Navy along the Red Sea coast. Murray, Wingate and others viewed the landing of Allied forces there, especially Europeans, would undermine Hussein’s credibility; could a would-be caliph maintain support backed by Christian bayonets? Bremond’s arrival would force an issue the British weren’t eager to face.

Bremond (second from right) with staff and Arab allies

When Bremond arrived at the port city of Jiddah, he received a “rapturous welcome” from the assembled Arabs. He was instantly put in touch with Sherif Hussein (McMahon and other British officials had been forced to use intermediaries), engaging the Hashemite leader in a long telephone conversation. With Hussein’s permission, Bremond began importing Moroccan Berber units, initially 400 officers and men, which fought alongside the Hashemites in early skirmishes around Jiddah and Mecca. “The French have stolen a march on us in a region in which they hitherto have had no influence,” Secretary of State for India Sir Austen Chamberlain fumed.

Bremond immediately formed a rapport with Hussein’s son Abdullah. The Hashemites were grateful of French assistance as their rebellion teetered on the verge of collapse. But they also had no illusions about their motives, which became evident when Bremond encouraged the Hashemites to assume a purely defensive posture until Allied troops could arrive. Abdullah confided in Bremond that “if the English do not land European troops in the Hejaz, it is not because they fear Moslem opinion, but because they are afraid of bringing you in after them.” Abdullah might well have remarked that he considered their suspicions well-founded.

Nonetheless, Bremond’s personal grace belied his gruff exterior. Sir Ronald Storrs, the British diplomat who served as a crucial contact between Cairo and Mecca, was impressed by Bremond when the two men met in Jiddah in November 1916. Storrs was touched when, after Bremond learned that his cousin had been wounded on the Western Front, he proposed a toast to Storrs and his English allies. Storrs praised Bremond’s “un-French absence of panache” as he explained “his duty and his pride to drink to the Alliance, and to say how much pleasure it gave him to be associated with Englishmen.” Intelligence officer Gilbert Clayton was similarly impressed, telling General Wingate that Bremond “is a strong, keen, practical man and will I hope introduce a spirit of ‘ginger'” to the Arabs.

Sir Ronald Storrs

But Storrs was accompanied by a young intelligence officer, Captain T.E. Lawrence, who reacted differently. Lawrence recounted their meeting as “curious interview, that between an old soldier and a young man in fancy dress; and it left a bad taste in my mouth.” 1 Bremond offered the tee-totaling Lawrence a drink of scotch whiskey, then confided his fears of Arab independence. He viewed the landing of Allied troops as imperative to contain the Arab rising in the Hejaz, limiting their influence to the Holy Cities and the outlying desert. Otherwise, “the partisans for a great Arab kingdom seek afterwards to act in Syria, and in Iraq,” he observed, “from where we—French and English—must then expel them.”

Lawrence was taken aback by Bremond’s blunt imperialism. By no means a Francophobe, he had undertaken a cycling tour of France while researching his undergraduate thesis on medieval architecture. But Bremond’s comments confirmed his suspicions about France’s true motives. More than once, Lawrence expressed a hope that by supporting Hussein’s rebels, the British government “can rush right up to Damascus, & biff the French out of all hope of Syria.” Despite his knowledge of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Lawrence trusted his countrymen to honor their commitments to Arab independence far more than he did the French.

Further, as Lawrence acknowledged, there was a severe clash of temperament. French historian Jean Beraud-Villars notes that “Bremond and Lawrence had nothing in common;” Bremond, a professional soldier, regarded Lawrence as a flippant adventurer while Lawrence considered the Frenchman a perfect example of the arrogant, spit-and-polish regular he despised. Indeed Bremond’s initially cordial relations with other British officers, and with the Arab leaders, contrasted with Lawrence’s open dislike towards him. Their relationship was poisoned from the beginning, and Lawrence set about making himself a nuisance towards Bremond.

T.E. Lawrence

Soon after their first meeting, Bremond received an extraordinary message from General Joseph Joffre, the French Army’s Chief of Staff.2 Joffre, perhaps viewing Bremond as exceeding his brief, upbraided the Colonel for “trying to go back on our agreements” with the Hashemites by containing them in the Hejaz and causing the British to assume the worst. “It is important that your attitude does not lend itself to this interpretation,” Joffre commented, encouraging Bremond to offer more substantial and enthusiastic support for his allies, Arab and British.

Whatever his reservations Bremond, a professional soldier, did his best to oblige. Noting the Arabs’ need for artillery (“one cannot capture a town with a telegram”), Bremond wrote Joffre’s office requesting some quick-firing mountain guns for his Arab allies. With France on the verge of its great struggle at Verdun, artillery was scarce and the request was denied. Lawrence unfairly accused Bremond of “keeping the batteries idle for a year” as a “lever” for his plan to land French troops in the Hejaz. Bremond, however, argued persistently for the Arabs and arranged for 80mm guns to join Abdullah’s forces, with French artillery crews which outclassed the outdated Krupp guns provided by the British.

Bremond also imported Muslim officers from Algeria experienced both in guerrilla warfare and handling Arab troops. The Bedouin particularly grew to appreciate Captain Muhammad Ould Ali Raho, who had served with the elite Algerian spahi units and joined the Bedouin in raids on the Hejaz Railway beginning in February 1917. While the British officer Henry Garland introduced the practice, Raho’s raids inflicted more lasting damage on the railroad. Raho also led the Bedouin on raids against Turkish outposts in the Hejaz, helping to keep Fakhri Pasha’s garrison bottled up in Mecca. In a single raid in October 1917, Bedouin led by Raho destroyed over five kilometers of track; on another occasion, his men captured a Turkish column carrying 20,000 pounds of gold, to their delight.3

Faisal’s army advances on Wejh

Another remarkable Muslim officer was Lieutenant Sid Mohamed Lalhou, who served in the Sultan of Morocco’s bodyguard before allying with France. Working with Faisal’s brother Ali, Lalhou commanded a mixed force of Algerian and Bedouin cavalry in a series of sorties outside Medina, working to keep Fakhri Pasha’s sizable Turkish garrison pinned down. In early 1917, Lalhou’s troops fought a pitched battle with the Turkish garrison at Bir Derouich, inflicting 125 casualties for a loss of just 2 men killed and 10 wounded – a lopsided casualty rate comparable with any of Lawrence’s famous victories.

Despite such engagements, the British began to take precedence. Plans of landing troops at Rabegh were abandoned as Faisal’s army seized Wejh on January 23, 1917 with assistance from the Royal Navy and no active French participation. 4 Bremond discounted the Bedouin’s military worth, commenting that “he who counts on the support of the Bedouins resembles a man who would like to build his house on water,” a view he shared with many British officers.5 Instead, Bremond proposed an Anglo-French landing at Aqaba, a crucial Red Sea port in modern Jordan. The British politely hesitated; Faisal bluntly refused. “Had [I] had French guns to reply…to the Turks,” Faisal puckishly commented, “he would have gone straight to Medina” against Bremond’s wishes.

Bremond (who privately dismissed Faisal as “dull and headstrong”) attempted to turn Faisal against the British, commenting that the European Allies possessed “such deep and rooted seeds of discord that no permanent friendship could be hoped for.” But Faisal, for the time, preferred to rely on the British and particularly Captain Lawrence, with whom he forged a close partnership. With Lawrence’s advice and the troops of Bedouin leader Auda abu Tayeh, Faisal proved that the Arab Revolt could advance northward without French assistance. On July 6th, Auda and Lawrence accepted the surrender of Aqaba’s garrison, giving the Arab rebels a crucial base for northern operations.6

Arab troops advance on Aqaba, photographed by Lawrence

After Aqaba, Lawrence (returning to Cairo in Arab dress) persuaded General Edmund Allenby, who’d replaced Murray, to provide the Arabs with more arms, advisers and money. Faisal was appointed an army commander in Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force and his guerrillas operated, in theory at least, as a wing of the British. Rene Doynel de Sant-Quentin, the French consul in Cairo, reported this development to his wary chiefs in Paris. Although concerned about the marginalization of Bremond’s Military Mission, he judged Lawrence “too loyal not to defer to the orders of his chiefs if they clearly lay out a policy of Franco-British cooperation.” If frustrated by Lawrence’s exploit, Bremond was impressed enough to recommend him for a Croix de Guerre.7

Along with British reinforcements came a fresh influx of French soldiers, mostly French and Moroccan, who adjusted themselves to the new alliance. Among them was the remarkable Captain Rosario Pisani, a bearded Algerian of Corsican ancestry already renowned as a colonial fighter. Pisani assisted Marshal Lyatuey in his pacification of Morocco, winning a Croix de Guerre for suppressing a mutiny among native troops. En route to Port Said, his troop ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, leaving Pisani eager for revenge. Kirkbride, serving with Allenby’s staff, called Pisani “a brave man and efficient soldier” who “looked like a brigand disguised, unconvincingly, as a French officer.” Where Bremond won over most of his British and Arab colleagues with cordiality, Pisani did so with resourcefulness and swashbuckling courage.

Rosario Pisani

Bremond intended for Pisani to undermine his British allies. He warned the Captain that Lawrence wanted “an English Syria and has some difficulty giving up this idea.” Nonetheless, Pisani showed a remarkable degree of independence from Bremond. He joined Lawrence on railroad raids, leading demolitions and commanding artillery detachments in battle against the Turks. In one of Lawrence’s railway raids, he led a small party of Bedouin against a crashed train. Dodging heavy enemy fire and emitting a shrill battle cry, Pisani and his entourage killed at least twenty Turks while overrunning their position; Pisani himself suffered a minor wound from a Turkish officer.8

Pisani’s courage and ingenuity impressed the Arabs as much as the British. During the final Allied offensive, Faisal’s commander Nuri al-Said9 appealed to Pisani for help fighting off German airplanes which were bombing his troops outside Deraa. Pisani obliged, organizing four mountain guns into a crude anti-aircraft battery. When next the German bombers appeared, Pisani “let fly some optimistic shrapnel” while Nuri aimed several Hotchkiss machine guns skyward, which proved sufficient to drive off the attackers.10 When not fighting in the field Pisani also organized an intelligence network behind Turkish lines, which funneled crucial military intelligence to Allenby during his advance into Palestine.

But even as Allied fortunes turned, the Anglo-French rivalry continued. Francois Georges-Picot met with Allenby soon after the British general captured Jerusalem in December 1918. Lawrence described how Picot insisted upon a French share of civil authority in the Holy City. “A silence followed,” Lawrence writes, “salad, chicken mayonnaise and foie gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched.” Allenby resolved this awkward impasse by telling Picot “in the military zone, the only authority is that of the commander-in-chief – myself.” The incident reminded Lawrence that “one cannot go on betting that France will always be our friend.”

Francois Georges-Picot

Colonel Bremond became a casualty of this distrust. Colonel Cyril Wilson, Lawrence’s immediate superior, complained of Bremond’s “nasty ways,” asserting that “he creates more beastly situations for me than one would have thought possible,” while a Foreign Office diplomat bemoaned Bremond’s “deliberately perverse attitude and policy.” Even officers who originally liked Bremond protested his involvement in political matters, such as obstructing attempts by British officials to establish a Hejaz national bank in Jiddah. Soon the Arab Bureau in Cairo lobbied the French government to replace Bremond, with a hint that doing so would reflect positively on France’s postwar designs in the region.

Shortly after Picot’s interview with Allenby, Colonel Bremond was relieved of command and reassigned to France, where he became chief of staff of an infantry corps. Bremond went willingly and played an honorable role in the final defeat of Germany. But Bremond never saw the justice of his appointment, believing (not incorrectly) that Lawrence and Wilson connived at his reassignment. Pisani and others, however, continued serving alongside the Hashemite forces under the command of Colonel Cousse, whose forces numbered over 1,100 men by the fall of 1918.

During Allenby’s final offensive into Syria in September 1918, Pisani led his Algerian troops (half mounted on mules, the rest on foot) alongside Faisal’s Bedouins and the Egyptian Camel Corps, destroying Turkish railroads, bridges and infrastructure. Pisani distinguished himself in these engagements with his usual courage, directing his guns under fire and acting heedless of danger. During one skirmish with Turkish soldiers, he suffered a minor injury to the shoulder and afterwards lamented that “a bruise…did not qualify him for a wound stripe.” Wound stripe or no, Sir Reginald Wingate happily acknowledged that the “resourcefulness in the most difficult service and climatic conditions” of Pisani’s detachment “have always largely contributed to the success of the combined operations.”

Lawrence and Faisal at Versailles; Pisani is directly behind Faisal

Bremond’s predictions of discord between Allies proved prescient. Emir Faisal installed himself at Damascus against the wishes of France, then traveled to Paris to argue for Arab independence at Versailles. Bremond was appointed Faisal’s minder during his time in France, and took the Emir on a tour of France’s Great War battlefields. Faisal grew frustrated, appealing to his wartime comradeship with Bremond and saying “if I’m wasting my time here, it would be better for me to return to Damascus.” Eventually, after an interview with President Poincare, Faisal joined T.E. Lawrence as he lobbied the Big Four at Versailles for Arab independence – a cause from which Bremond, nor Captain Pisani, could not dissuade him.11

After the war, Bremond returned to the Middle East as the Governor of French-occupied Cilicia until Mustafa Kemal’s reconquest of Turkey. Bremond accompanied General Henri Gourard in his conquest of Syria, deposing Faisal’s regime and installing their “mandate” by force. Faisal was soon after installed by the British as King of Iraq, while Syria erupted in periodic rebellion against French rule. The mandate lasted until World War II, when British troops drove out the Vichy garrison and granted Syria independence.

French troops conquering Syria

Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom slights and insults Bremond and his colleagues (Pisani excepted). Bremond largely ignored Lawrence’s postwar celebrity, but after reading Seven Pillars‘ popular abridgment, Revolt in the Desert, he became furious and felt compelled to respond. His resultant memoir, Le Hedjaz dans la guerre Mondiale, excoriates Lawrence both for his difficult personality12 and his disruption of Anglo-French harmony. Bremond belittled Lawrence’s achievements as the result of “two hundred thousand pound sterling” and argued that “European civilization could only exist through a Franco-British understanding” – an observation that might have been sincere, but contradicts his own comments to Faisal during the Arab Revolt.

Edouard Bremond and his French Military Mission played an important, often-overlooked role in the Arab Revolt. Historians often treat Bremond as “the anti-Lawrence” for his soldierly bearing and straightforward imperialism. But Bremond was every bit as devious as Lawrence, and as apt to disregard his superiors; as Jeremy Wilson notes, “Bremond’s activities caused deep irritations at all levels in the British hierarchy” despite his professed yearning for Anglo-French entente. From a post-imperial perspective, it’s difficult to celebrate a man who lacked even the guilt and self-doubt Lawrence experienced; and no matter how he attacked Lawrence for the postwar Middle East, Bremond deserves his share of the blame.

Sources and Further Reading

Unfortunately, Bremond’s memoir is only available in French and difficult to find. There was a recent French-language biography by Remy Porte, Edouard Bremond: L’anti-Lawrence d’Arabia (2022) from which the header image is drawn. I recognize that relying on primarily English sources may bias the article, as Anglosphere historians (let alone Arab ones) tend not to have a flattering view of Bremond. Readers can judge for themselves how much this is the case.

Besides the linked articles, I relied upon Richard Aldington, Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (1955); James Barr, Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918 (2007) and A Line in the Sand: The Anglo French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948 (2012); Jean Beraud-Villars, T.E. Lawrence, or the Search for the Absolute (English edition 1958); Alec Kirkbride, An Awakening: The Arabian Campaign, 1917-1918 (1971); T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926); Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015); Sir Ronald Storrs, Orientations (1937); Bruce Westrate, The Arab Bureau: British Policy in the Middle East, 1916-1920 (1992); and Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence (1989).