The Australian Light Horse Part 2 – Lawrence of Arabia and the caliphate

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.
Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

What would the great Arabologist TE Lawrence have made of ISIS? Lawrence would surely have seen them as a brutal rejection of every 18th century European enlightenment value he believed in, though he would have admired their strength in Arab brotherhood. He was a fervent servant of Empire, but honest enough to wince at Britain’s long duplicity in the region. He would also have acknowledged his own part in creating the conditions to enable ISIS’s leader extraordinary claim to the caliphate. He would have recognised the new caliph’s call for a jihad against infidels because that is what confronted him in December 1915 after Gallipoli was evacuated.

Lawrence was an intelligence officer in Cairo when he heard the news from Constantinople. The emboldened Sultan, flush from victory in the Dardanelles, used his dual role as caliph to urge Islamic people to launch jihad against “the infidel”. Despite the hypocrisy of the Sultan’s own infidel German military advisers Lawrence recognised the power of the call, particularly to restive Arabs, to proclaim a Muslim brotherhood against the Allied invaders at their Egyptian and Iraqi borders.

Lawrence was a gifted analyst with his own ambitions for Arabia and Britain. He came up with a new plan to end the war in the east. His bold strategy insisted the Sultan be stripped of his powers as caliph, a central role in Islamic society. The first caliph was the prophet Mohammed and the dispute over his successor split Islam into Sunni and Shia sects. The Caliphate became a Sunni institution passed down to Arab and later Turkish leaders. The caliph was an ecclesiastic role which kept Constantinople at the centre of the Arab world for centuries, despite its crumbling power. Passing the caliphate to a non-Turkish Muslim leader whom Britain would support, Lawrence thought, would undermine Turkey from its religious heart.

He believed the caliphate should go to Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein was in the pay of the Turks but Lawrence thought he could be bought out. Lawrence also needed to cut the Hejaz railway line which linked Turkey with Arabia. He reasoned the Arabs would support this because the railway enabled Turkish administration which hampered Arab collection of tolls and taxes. Lawrence wanted to see the rule of many small Arab nations relying on Britain for support, though he also knew of the secret Sykes-Picot pact to split the region between Britain and France. A British double cross, he thought, was worth the risk to ensure victory in the war. He struck a productive partnership with Hussein.

But Lawrence also knew he could not defeat Turkey without conventional military might. The most vital part of that strategy was the Light Horse. The fight would take take place over a vast area of Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Arabia. The Light Horse would be shock troops in a wide ranging war where trenches weren’t a problem. Harry Chauvel also saw the Light Horse would now be sent to Arabia, which was a dilemma. He wanted an assignment in France but he also saw the opportunities if he stayed with the horses. The likelihood was he would be made a leader of an Australian division under Birdwood. Chauvel became commander of the mounted divisions, committing him to the Middle East.

Once again he turned a blind eye to soldiers playing up in bars and brothels because he knew what they could do under fire. The pressure increased in March 1916 with the fall of the Iraqi city of Kut. Situated 160km south-east of Baghdad, the city was as far as the Mesopotamian campaign would advance up the Shatt Al-Arab and the Tigris river. At Kut the Turks surrounded a British force leading to a siege. The Turks also threatened Sinai and the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India and Australasia. While Lawrence was sent to Kut to bribe the Turks to free the British (he failed), Chauvel and the Light Horse were thrown into the battle to save the Suez.

Chauvel knew horses would be vital and needed a strong remount depot. He turned to an old schoolfriend he trusted to do the job: renowned horse whisperer Banjo Paterson. The pair met at Sydney Grammar, both were from military stock and both joined up. Paterson resigned his commission after the Boer War but he signed up again in 1914 hoping to become a war correspondent but ending up in a veterinary unit. He returned to Australia to recruit a remount unit breaking in horses.

The importance of the Paterson-trained horses was increased after German planes began bombing raids in Sinai in May 1916. Once the alert was sounded, riders and horses would rush into the desert and stay as still as possible. Camouflaged by scrubs and palms they were difficult to spot from the planes. While Chauvel’s men were frustrated by endless patrols, Lawrence was making headway. He could not stop Kut from falling but he met Arab leaders in Basra where he made promises of Arab freedom to chose their own leaders. Lawrence set in motion an Arab desert campaign dovetailing with the British Army in Palestine. It would be 1917 before Chauvel or Lawrence would achieve success.

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