WWI and the Origins of Modern Conflicts

Key Terms

  • The McMahon-Hussein correspondence (July 14 1915-January 30 1916)
  • Sykes-Picot Agreement (November 1915-March 1916)
  • The Balfour Declaration (2nd November 1917)

Key issues

    • What were the competing claims of Zionists and Arab Nationalists?
    • What agreements, declarations and promises did Britain enter into with Arabs and Jews during WWI and why?
    • Why were those agreements, declarations and promises confusing at best and misleading at worst?
    • Why did the British make the Balfour Declaration?


World War I (1914-18) has been described as the most transformative event in the history of the Modern Middle East (Martin Bunton). Having been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, the former Ottoman empire was broken up and six new successor states were created: Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine. Turkey was able to secure its independence, but the other five were controlled by the French (Syria, Lebanon) and the British (Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan). Britain’s failure to reconcile the mutually exclusive demands for self-determination among Arab and Jewish communities led to the intensifying conflict that still exists today.

  1. British Diplomacy in WWI

    Britain’s long-standing strategic goal was to protect both the overland trade route to India and Sea route through the Suez Canal (after its opening in 1869), now considered the jugular vein of the Empire. The British had previously supported the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansionism, but when it sided with Germany during WWI, they were forced to re-think. By the time the war ended, Britain had put her signature to declarations and promises which were at best confusing and at worst contradictory.

    Firstly, in 1915, in the so-called McMahon-Hussein correspondence Britain’s high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, promised Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz region of Arabia and the protector of Islam’s holiest cities – Mecca and Medina, that Britain would support the creation of an independent Arab kingdom and control over Islamic holy sites (including Jerusalem?) in return for Arab support against the Ottomans. Britain thought that an alliance with Hussein would reverse the call to jihad issued by the Ottoman sultan-caliph to stir up trouble among Muslims in the British Empire – particularly in India. McMahon believed that it would relieve pressure on the Suez Canal. However, McMahon was vague about the precise definition of this territory (see for example the letter of McMahon to the Sharif of Mecca dated October 24th 1915). The British later claimed that the area of Palestine was excluded from the promises, but the evidence suggests that the area of modern Lebanon only was excluded.

    Secondly, the British then decided that the area of Palestine was too important as a buffer-zone to the Suez to offload it after the War was over and began to recalculate its strategic interest in the future region of Palestine. These re-calcalculations led to negotiations with the French. In 1916, the British officially recognised the long-standing claims of her French allies to Syria, while staking her own claims to Palestine and Transjordan in 1916, in an agreement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the British and French diplomats who drew it up.

    Thirdly, in 1917, the British through the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour declared its support for a Jewish Homeland in a letter to Lord Rothschild, leader of British Jewry, having been informed by Chaim Weizmann, of Jewish influence over both American governments and Russian revolutionaries. The Balfour Declaration did not commit Britain to the establishment of a Jewish state but to a Jewish ‘national home’ – a phrase previously unheard of in diplomatic correspondence and therefore vague.

    Finally, in relation to Versailles in 1919, Britain signed up to a raft of commitments regarding the rights of all peoples to independence and self-determination.

    Why did Britain make the Balfour Declaration?

    Given that the British had already promised to support the emergence of an independent Arab state, and the fact that the Sykes-Picot agreement already muddied the waters there, why would they make matters so much worse by promising to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine? This promise, more than the Sykes-Picot agreement and more than Jewish Zionism, might well be the single most important cause of the Palestinian conflict we know today. Why did the British do it?

    At a War Cabinet meeting, held on 31 October 1917, the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour (who had become a supporter of zionism) suggested that a declaration favourable to Zionist aspirations would allow Great Britain “to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.” It may seem unreal to us now, but there were several reasons why the British thought this would work at the time.

    1. In 1917 the war with Germany was finely balanced. There appeared to be no prospect of either side gaining an outright victory in the near future (when victory came in 1918 it came as a surprise to the British). Only the addition of significant new forces on one side or the other seemed likely to tip the scale. Britain’s willingness, beginning early in 1916, to explore seriously some kind of arrangement with “world Jewry” or “Great Jewry” must be understood in this context. Britain hoped to attract the support of Jews generally: they believed that by supporting the creation of a home for the Jewish people the support of Jewish people everywhere – including those within Germany itself – would be attracted. In addition, Jewish money might be attracted to help finance the war effort.
    2. More directly, they thought the Jewish Question might help them shore up America’s support for an outright victory in the war. Woodrow Wilson had previously said that only both sides accepting ‘peace without victory’ could end the war. But Wilson also believed in self-determination and two of his closest advisers were avid Zionists: Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. The Jewish Question might provide added incentive for the Americans to fight for outright victory.
    3. The British hoped Jews could have the same influence on Russia. Having undergone a revolution in March 1917, there were questions about Russia remaining in the war. The Bolsheviks were promising to take Russia out of the war if they got into power. One of the leading Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky, was Jewish. Five days after the Balfour declaration, the Bolshevik revolution took place.
    4. Perhaps most importantly, Britain hoped to achieve their strategic goal of protecting Suez from French and Arab interference. By providing a solution to the Jewish question, Britain hoped to gain control of the region as a mandatory nation, and indeed this turned out to be the case. This is why the mandate document of 1922 so closely reflects the Balfour Declaration – the offer to the Jews was part of the justification for the British gaining the territory. It helps explain why the British generally more favourable towards the Jews – it would seem – than towards the Arabs to whom they had made similar promises in 1915. For example, the first British Commissioner in Palestine, Herbert Samuel, was himself a Zionist and following the Arab revolt of 1936 the Zionist Orde Wingate helped organise the Haganah in guerrilla tactics. When the Peel Commission suggested a partition, it proposed giving the most fertile territories to the Jews.


    1. Identify countries in the Middle East today: Map starter
    2. Why was the situation so different prior to WWI?
    3. Why was the Balfour declaration controversial?
    4. Developing comprehension skills for question (a)
      • Practice the (a) question on p. 11 of the Edexcel textbook in class; and then tackle the (a) question on p. 12
        • Students highlight key words in question
        • Students highlight at least three points in the source which answer the question
        • Peer assess answer
    5. Homework: Explain key features of the Balfour declaration (7 marks)
    6. Additional reading for those who cannot sleep – or who are truly keen – Charlotte Kelsted, ‘100 years after the Balfour Declaration – revisiting Herbert Samuel’s Legacy’.
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