Committee Report on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
The Report

(March 1939)


REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE SET UP TO CONSIDER CERTAIN CORRESPONDENCE WHICH TOOK PLACE IN THE YEARS 1915 AND 1916 BETWEEN SIR HENRY McMAHON, HIS MAJESTY’S HIGH COMMISSIONER IN CAIRO, AND THE SHARIF OF MECCA.


Conferences on Palestine

1. At the Sixth Meeting of the Arab and United Kingdom Delegations to the Conferences on Palestine, which was held at St. James’s Palace on the 15th February, 1939, it was agreed that a Committee should be set up to consider certain correspondence, commonly called the “McMahon-Husain Correspondence”, which took place in 1915 and 1916 between Sir Henry McMahon, at that time His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Cairo, and the Sharif of Mecca, afterwards King Husain of the Hejaz, and to furnish a report to the Conference upon this Correspondence.

2. A Committee was accordingly formed, consisting of the following persons:

Representatives of Arab Delegations attending the Conference:

  • His Excellency General Nuri al-Sa’id, Prime Minister of Iraq, (replaced after the first two meetings by:
  • His Excellency Sayyid Taufiq al-Suwaidy, Leader of the Iraqi Delegation after the departure from London of General Nuri al-Sa’id),
  • His Excellency Abdul-Rahman Bey Azzam, Egyptian Minister in Baghdad and Jedda,
  • Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, Palestine Delegate,
  • Musa Bey al-Alami, Palestine Delegate,
  • Mr. George Antonius, Palestine Delegate and Secretary-General, Arab Delegations, with the following as adviser: Sir Michael McDonnell formerly Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Palestine.

Representatives of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom:

  • The Right Honourable The Lord Maugham, P.C., Lord High Chancellor of England,
  • Sir Grattan Bushe, K.C.M.G. C.B., Legal Adviser, Colonial Office,
  • Mr. H.L. Baggallay, First Secretary, Foreign Office, with the following adviser:
  • Mr. J. Heyworth-Dunne, Senior Lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, and as Secretary:
  • Mr. J. R. Colville, third Secretary, Foreign Office.

3. The Committee met at the House of Lords on four occasions, on Thursday, the 23rd February, Friday, the 24th February, Tuesday, the 28th February, and Thursday, the 16th March, and considered the “McMahon-Husain Correspondence” as well as certain subsequent events and documents which either the Arab representatives or the United Kingdom representatives thought might shed light upon the meaning and intention of the Correspondence.

4. At the outset of the proceedings of the Committee, the Lord Chancellor explained that he was not present in any judicial capacity and that he made no claim to decide, as a judge, whether the views of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom upon the questions at issue, or the views of the Arabs, were right: he was present as the representative of His Majesty's Government only, with the sole function of expounding and advocating their views upon these questions.

5. As the Arab delegations to the Conference had previously criticised certain passages in the English text of the Correspondence on the ground that they were not accurate renderings of the corresponding passages in the Arabic text, the Committee considered a number of corrections to the English text suggested by Mr. George Antonius and agreed to by Mr. Heyworth-Dunne. Although the Arab members of the Committee were of the opinion that even with these corrections the English text still failed to represent the best possible rendering of the Arabic text, they agreed that if these corrections were made the English text would be free from actual error so far as anything essential to a proper understanding of the points at issue in the Correspondence is concerned. The changes agreed upon are indicated in the version of the English text presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on the 3rd March, 1939 (Command 5957).

6. At the first meeting on the 23rd February the Arab representatives handed in a memorandum explaining generally the Arab interpretation of the Correspondence.

7. At the second meeting on the 24th February the United Kingdom representatives handed in a memorandum explaining generally the British interpretation.

8. At the third meeting on the 28th February the Arab representatives handed in two memoranda dealing respectively with certain legal points connected with the wording of the Correspondence and the surrounding circumstances in which the Correspondence took place.

9. At the fourth meeting on the 16th March the United Kingdom representatives handed in a statement referring briefly to the memoranda handed in at the third meeting.

10. These memoranda are attached hereto, as Annex A, Annex B, Annex C, Annex D, and Annex E.

11. Summaries of the Arab and the British cases are given in the following paragraphs.

12. The argument of the Arab representatives, as set forth in their Memorandum dated the 23rd February, 1939, may be summarised as follows:—

(a) There is no room for doubt that Palestine was in fact and in intention included by both parties to the McMahon-Husain Correspondence in the area of Arab independence. This is abundantly plain from the terms of the Correspondence itself and is, moreover, borne out by the evidence of the historical background.

(b) The historical evidence is useful for the light it throws on the underlying intentions of His Majesty’s Government in 1915. It proves that British statesmen, in considering the French claim to a special position in Syria (including Palestine), had already felt the necessity of opposing the French claim in so far as it related to Palestine, and to admit it only in so far as it related to portions of northern Syria. The reservation made by Sir Henry McMahon in his note of the 24th October, 1915, must be read in the light of the attitude prevailing in Whitehall at the time.

(c) Throughout the Correspondence, Sir Henry McMahon bases his exclusion of portions of Syria from the area of Arab independence on the plea of French interests. Such geographical description as he and the Sharif give of the portions to be reserved points unmistakably to the coastal regions of northern Syria. The fact that British policy was already in favour of opposing the French claim to the whole of Syria points similarly to the deliberate omission of Palestine from the zone to be reserved on the plea of French interests.

(d) Quite apart from the intentions of the British Government on whose instructions Sir Henry McMahon issued his notes to the Sharif, the text of the Correspondence itself allows no room for doubt as to what was in fact promised.

(e) It cannot be (and it has never been) disputed that Palestine was included in the area demanded by the Sharif Husain as the area of future Arab independence. That area was accepted by Sir Henry McMahon in toto, save for certain reservations. Palestine was not mentioned in those reservations. Whenever he had reason to make an exception, as in the case of the coastal regions of northern Syria, or of the Mesopotamian provinces, Sir Henry McMahon was careful to specify the exception, since the onus of exclusion lay on him. The fact that he does not mention Palestine, either specifically or by paraphrase, makes it impossible for anyone to contend that Palestine was excluded from the area which Sir Henry McMahon had accepted as the area of future Arab independence.

(f) His Majesty’s Government’s contention that the phrase “the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo” included the whole of the Vilayet of Syria is untenable. It rests on the theory that district is equivalent to vilayet, which, in the light of the context as well as of common sense, is demonstrably false.

(g) Even supposing, for the sake of argument, that Palestine had in fact been excluded from the Arab area, its exclusion could only be justified on the plea of the French claim. France ultimately did renounce her claim, so far as Palestine was concerned, and the plea has therefore lost any force which it may have had.

(h) On the strength of these arguments, which are set forth more fully in their Memorandum of the 23rd February, 1939, the Arab representatives contend that the meaning of the Correspondence, whether read as an isolated text or in the light of the historical background and all the surrounding circumstances, is that Palestine was in fact and in intention included in the area in which Great Britain pledged herself to recognise and support Arab independence.

13. The contentions of the United Kingdom representatives were set forth at the second meeting and may be summarised as follows:—

(a) Palestine was in a very special position at the time of the Correspondence having in view its position as the Holy Land of three great religions, the interest which it held for Christians, as well as for Moslems and Jews, all over the world, the large number of religious and other buildings and institutions belonging to non-Arab persons, and the obvious practical interests of Great Britain in a territory so close to Egypt and the Suez Canal. The United Kingdom representatives also contend that Palestine was not a purely Arab country.

(b) The exclusion in Sir Henry McMahon’s letter of the 24th October, 1915, of “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo” from the area of Arab independence claimed by the Sharif of Mecca in his letter of the 14th July, 1915, excluded, and should reasonably have been understood to exclude, the part of southern Syria, consisting of portions of the former vilayet of Beirut and the former independent Sanjaq of Jerusalem, now known as Palestine. The United Kingdom representatives maintain on various grounds elaborated in the memorandum of the 24th February that this phrase covered an area stretching from the Cilician border to the Gulf of Aqaba, to the west of which lay what is now called Palestine.

(c) But whether this contention be right or wrong, and altogether apart from it, if it be wrong, the United Kingdom representatives contend that the reservation made by Sir Henry McMahon in his letter of the 24th October, 1915, in respect of French interests applied, and has ever since continued to apply, to all territory to which France laid claim on the 24th October, 1915, and accordingly to Palestine which was then treated as part of Syria. This reservation would have continued so to apply even if France at a later date, and perhaps as a result of concessions made to her by Great Britain, had totally abandoned her claim to Palestine. But the United Kingdom representatives reject the notion that France has done so as regards Palestine seeing that she maintained her rights as regards Palestine in the “Sykes-Picot” Agreement and subsequently and it is beyond question that as a member of the League of Nations she still has a voice in its disposition.

(d) On the strength of this and other arguments based upon the letter of the 24th October, 1915, and other letters in the Correspondence the United Kingdom representatives contend that the effect of the Correspondence when read in the light of all the surrounding circumstances, including especially those set forth in sub-paragraph (a), was to exclude what is now called Palestine from the area in which Great Britain was to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs.

(e) In addition, the United Kingdom representatives, while admitting that the point has no legal weight on the construction of the letters, desire to a new attention to the fact that Sir Henry McMahon and the late Sir Gilbert Clayton, who were both concerned in the drafting of the letters sent from Cairo, have both placed it on record that it was intended in the Correspondence to exclude Palestine from the area of Arab independence. Sir Henry McMahon said in 1937: —

“I feel it my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving the pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised”;

while Sir Gilbert Clayton, who was on Sir Henry McMahon’s staff in 1915 and 1916, said in 1923: —

“I was in daily touch with Sir Henry McMahon throughout the negotiations with King Hussein, and made the preliminary drafts of all the letters. I can bear out the statement that it was never the intention that Palestine should be included in the general pledge given to the Sharif; the introductory words of Sir Henry’s letter were thought at that time—perhaps erroneously—clearly to cover that point. It was, I think, obvious that the peculiar interests involved in Palestine precluded any definite pledges in regard to its future at so early a stage.”

14. The contentions of the United Kingdom representatives were answered by the Arab representatives in their written Observations of the 27th February, 1939, while the legal aspects of the British argument were commented upon by their adviser, Sir Michael McDonnell. Their answers may be summarised as follows:—

(a) The contention that the sacred character of Palestine and its proximity to Egypt made it inconceivable that Great Britain would hand it over to Arab rule without exacting guarantees is answered by the fact that guarantees for the safety of the Holy Places and for British co-operation in the building up of a sound Arab administration were expressly stipulated for by Sir Henry McMahon, to say nothing of the other guarantees implied in the very nature of the Anglo-Arab compact.' The fact that Sir Henry McMahon did insert such a stipulation in respect of the Holy Places is conclusive proof that he had Palestine in mind when he gave the British pledge to the Sharif Husain.

(b) The contention that the phrase “portions of Syria* lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo” did in fact exclude (and should reasonably have been understood to exclude) Palestine is answered in the Memorandum of the 23rd February, 1939, and, in still greater detail, in Sir Michael McDonnell’s Statement of the 27th February, 1939.

* In the Arabic text: Bilad al-Sham

(c) The contention that Sir Henry McMahon’s reservation in respect of French interests must be held to apply to the whole of Syria is answered in the Observations dated the 27th February, 1939, and in Sir Michael McDonnell’s statement of the same date.

(d) The Arab representatives hold that the proper basis for a judgement on the whole question is primarily the text of the Correspondence itself. The fact that, in a letter published in The Times of the 23rd July, 1937, Sir Henry McMahon declared it as having been his intention to exclude Palestine from the area of Arab independence ought not to be given more weight than it deserves. As Sir Michael McDonnell points out in his Statement, that which Sir Henry said he intended to mean is of no consequence whatever, for it was not he who was giving the pledge but His Majesty’s Government, whose instrument he was. That which matters is what Sir Henry McMahon actually said, not what he may have intended, nor what Sir Gilbert Clayton may have thought he intended.

(e) If account is to be taken of any person’s intention as a means to the better understanding of what was actually said, that person can only be the person responsible for the policy, in this case Sir Edward Grey (afterwards Viscount Grey of Fallodon) who was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the time, on whose instructions Sir Henry McMahon gave the British pledge to the Sharif Husain. Speaking in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923, the late Lord Grey made it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the British Government’s interpretation of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had caused to be given to the Sharif Husain in 1915.

15. The United Kingdom representatives replied at the fourth meeting to the principal points made by the Arab representatives in the statements of which a summary is given in the preceding paragraph. Among the points included in the statement which they handed in on this occasion were:

(a) The United Kingdom representatives stated that, in their opinion, their contention in regard to those regions in which Great Britain was not free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France—a contention which had not, in their opinion, been met by the contrary arguments— remained unaffected.

(b) The words of Lord Grey in the House of Lords in 1923 were used in debate when he had not the terms of the Balfour Declaration before him.

16. Both the Arab and the United Kingdom representatives have tried (as they hope with success) to understand the point of view of the other party, but they have been unable to reach.agreement upon an interpretation of the Correspondence, and they feel obliged to report to the conference accordingly.

17. The United Kingdom representatives have, however, informed the Arab representatives that the Arab contentions, as explained to the committee, regarding the interpretation of the Correspondence, and especially their contentions relating to the meaning of the phrase “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo”, have greater force than has appeared hitherto.

18. Furthermore, the United Kingdom representatives have informed the Arab representatives that they agree that Palestine was included in the area claimed by the Sharif of Mecca in his letter of the l4th July, 1915, and that unless Palestine was excluded from that area later in the Correspondence it must be regarded as having been included in the area in which Great Britain was to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs. They maintain that on a proper construction of the Correspondence Palestine was in fact excluded. But they agree that the language in which its exclusion was expressed was not so specific and unmistakable as it was thought to be at the time.

19. Mention has already been made of the fact that the Committee considered certain subsequent events and documents which the one party or the other regarded as likely to shed light on the meaning or intention of the Correspondence. In the course of this survey the attention of the Committee was drawn inter alia to the so-called “Sykes-Picot Agreement”, the “Balfour Declaration”, the “Hogarth message” (Annex F), the “Declaration to the Seven” (Annex G), certain assurances given by General Sir Edmund (later Viscount) Allenby when commanding the Allied forces in Syria and Palestine (Annex H) and the Anglo-French Declaration of the 7th November, 1918, (Annex I).

20. With regard to the “Hogarth message”, the Committee desire to explain that the Arab representatives rely strongly on a passage in a message delivered to King Husain of the Hejaz by Commander D. G. Hogarth, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, in January, 1918, to the effect that Jewish settlement in Palestine would only be allowed in so far as would be consistent with the political and economic freedom of the Arab population. This passage represents a rendering by the Arab representatives of the corresponding passage in the notes made by King Husain in Arabic at the time of his conversation with Commander Hogarth. The United Kingdom representatives have informed the Arab representatives that it has seemed necessary to His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, in the interests of clarity, to make public the terms of the whole message which Commander Hogarth was instructed to deliver and of the report which he furnished upon his visit (See Annex F).

21. Similarly, the United Kingdom representatives have informed the Arab representatives that it has seemed necessary to His Majesty’s Government to make public the terms of the declaration which was made on or about the 16th June, 1918, to seven prominent Arabs who had previously sent to His Majesty’s Government a memorial on the subject of the future of the Arab countries (See Annex G).

22. It is beyond the scope of the Committee to express an opinion upon the proper interpretation of the various statements mentioned in paragraph 19 and such an opinion could not in any case be properly expressed unless consideration had also been given to a number of other statements made during and after the war. In the opinion of the Committee it is, however, evident from these statements that His Majesty’s Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine, and that these statements must all be taken into account in any attempt to estimate the responsibilities which—upon any interpretation of the Correspondence—His Majesty’s Government have incurred towards those inhabitants as a result of the Correspondence.

T. SUWAIDY
A.-R. AZZAM
AUNI ABDUL-HADY
MUSA ALAMI
G.ANTONIUS

MAUGHAM
GRATTAN BUSHE
LACY BAGGALLAY

16th March, 1939.


Source: UNISPAL