Committee Report on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
Annex A

(March 1939)

Royal Egyptian Embassy, London.
Office of the Secretary-General,
Arab Delegations to the Palestine Conference.
23rd February, 1939.


1. The question has a historical background going back to pre-War days when France was putting forward claims to special rights in Syria in the event of a break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

2. The French claim was to a large extent recognised by Great Britain in a declaration from Sir Edward Grey which the French Prime Minister made public in the French Senate on the 21st December, 1912.

3. The term Syria in those days was generally used to denote the whole of geographical and historic Syria, that is to say the whole of the country lying between the Taurus Mountains and the Sinai Peninsula, which was made up of part of the Vilayet of Aleppo, the Vilayet of Bairut, the Vilayet of Syria, the Sanjaq of the Lebanon, and the Sanjaq of Jerusalem. It included that part of the country which was afterwards detached from it to form the mandated territory of Palestine.

4. Although Great Britain had in 1912 accepted the view that Syria was politically a French preserve, the thought began to gain ground in certain British circles that, in the event of a break-up of the Ottoman Empire, an effort should be made to detach southern Syria as far north as Haifa and Acre to form a separate entity and to fall under British influence. It is a matter of common knowledge among those who knew Lord Kitchener’s mind that he became strongly imbued with the idea and worked for its propagation in official circles before the War.

(Note.—Colonel S. F. Newcombe, D.S.O., R.E., 30, Brechin Place, S.W.7, and Colonel Sir Vivian Gabriel, C.S.I., C.M.G., C.V.O., 40, Wilton Crescent, S.W.I, were both associated with the late Lord Kitchener over this question and may be in a position to furnish evidence.)

5. At Lord Kitchener’s instigation, a military survey of the Sinai Peninsula was carried out in 1913 by Captain (now Colonel) S. F. Newcombe, R.E. The result of this survey went to confirm Lord Kitchener in his view that southern Syria up to Haifa and Acre and down to the Gulf of Aqaba would be, on political and strategic grounds, an indispensable asset to the British Empire in the event of a break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

6. This view governed Lord Kitchener’s policy in his dealings with the Arabs. When war broke out, he entered into communication with the Sharif of Mecca, and he took other steps with the various departments of the British Government including the India Office and the Government of India, to try and impress upon them the desirability of resisting the French claim to the whole of Syria, in view of the importance of southern Syria and of Alexandretta to the British Empire of the future.

7. In March, 1915, largely at Lord Kitchener’s instigation, a committee was set up by the Prime Minister to inquire into the whole subject of British interests in the Ottoman Empire. It is believed that Lord Kitchener gave evidence before that committee. In any case, the committee is known (as stated in the Report of the Palestine Royal Commission) to have reported in June, 1915, in favour of detaching southern Syria from the area of French influence.

8. This historical background is of fundamental importance for the understanding of what followed. When, in July, 1915, the Sharif Husain sent his first note to Sir Henry McMahon, the British Government had already received the recommendations of the committee as to the desirability of differentiating between northern Syria and southern Syria in respect of the French claim to the whole country. The reservations made by Sir Henry McMahon in his note of the 24th October, 1915, must be read in the light of the attitude prevailing in White-hall at the time. Throughout the Correspondence, Sir Henry McMahon is at pains to explain to the Sharif that the only portions of Syria which Great Britain wished to exclude from the area of Arab independence were those portions in which Great Britain felt that she was not free to act “without detriment to the interests of her ally, France”. This same qualification is expressed in different wording by Sir Henry McMahon in his note of the 14th December, 1915, when he says that “with regard to the Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut, the Government of Great Britain have taken careful note of your observations, but, as the interests of our ally, France, are involved, the question will require careful consideration and a further communication on the subject will be addressed to you in due course”. Similarly, the Sharif, throughout the Correspondence, is clearly under the impression that the only portions of Syria in question are those of the northern coastal regions of Syria, that is to say the Lebanon and its seaboard, which he understands Great Britain to wish to reserve solely because of French claims. Southern Syria (i.e. Palestine) could not have formed part of the reserved territories because Great Britain, far from wishing it to be included in the area of French influence, wanted it to be included in the area of Arab independence, that is to say, within the sphere of future British influence.

9. An examination of the text will confirm this interpretation in more ways than one. In the first place, it should be made clear that Sir Henry McMahon never defines the area of Arab independence in his own words. What he does is to accept the frontiers proposed by the Sharif in toto save for certain reservations. It follows therefore that, unless it can be shown that Palestine was specifically or even indirectly mentioned in these reservations, it must be held to be included in the area proposed by the Sharif and accepted en bloc by Sir Henry McMahon. Nowhere in the Correspondence is there any mention of Palestine or southern Syria or of any of the administrative divisions of Syria which corresponded to the territory now known as Palestine. While certain portions of the area are specifically, if somewhat loosely, singled out for exclusion from the area of complete Arab independence, no mention is made anywhere, even indirectly or by implication, of that part of Syria which was known in Ottoman administrative parlance as the Sanjaq of Jerusalem.

10. A good deal has been made of the possible constructions to be put upon the exact meaning of the word vilayet. The use of that word throughout the Correspondence calls for explanation. The word vilayet is the Turkish form of the Arab word wilaya. In Arabic, the word is used to denote a province, or region or district without any specific administration connotation. In Turkish, the word was borrowed from the Arabic to denote certain specified administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire with precise limits and boundaries. In a correspondence such as this which was conducted in Arabic, the word used was the Arabic term wilaya, and this use did not always necessarily correspond to a Turkish vilayet. For instance, the Arabic-text speaks of the wilaya of Mersin, the wilaya of Alexandretta, the wilaya of Damascus, the wilaya of Homs, the wilaya of Kama; and yet there were no administrative divisions in existence at any time in the history of these regions, which bore any of those designations. These phrases can only make sense if the word wilaya is read in its proper Arab significance of region or district without any reference whatever to administrative boundaries.

11. The English translation circulated by the United Kingdom Delegation shows the Arabic word ivilaya in its Turkish form of vilayet throughout. This is not only a misleading rendering, but it is also unjustified for another reason. The McMahon notes were issued from the Residency in Cairo in Arabic, and that Arabic text was itself a translation from an English original. In that English original the word used in several contexts was the word district, as is shown by the quotations in the White Paper of 1922 and in the Report of the Palestine Royal Commission (Chapter II, paragraph 5). It would avoid unnecessary confusion if the United Kingdom Delegation could see their way to restoring the term district wherever it occurred in the original English text.

12. The British Government’s contention is that Palestine was excluded by implication, when Sir Henry McMahon notified the Sharif that “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo” were to be excluded from the area of Arab independence. This contention was publicly sponsored by Mr. Winston Churchill in 1922, when, speaking as the Secretary of State for the Colonies, he tried to argue that the word districts in that phrase was to be read as equivalent to vilayets; and that, since the “Vilayet of Damascus” included that part of Syria—now known as Transjordan—which lay to the east of the River Jordan, it followed that that part of Syria—now known as Palestine—which lay to the west of the Jordan was one of the portions of territory reserved in Sir Henry McMahon’s phrase.

13. An examination of the text shows that the British Government’s argument is untenable. In the first place, the word districts in Sir Henry McMahon’s phrase could not have been intended as the equivalent of vilayets, because there were no such things as the “Vilayet of Damascus”, the “Vilayet of Homs” and the “Vilayet of Hama”. There was one single Vilayet of Syria of which Damascus was the capital and two smaller administrative divisions of which Homs and Hama were the principal towns. Sir Henry McMahon’s phrase can only make sense if we take his districts as meaning “districts” in the current use of the word, that is to say, the regions adjacent to the four cities, and his reservation as applying to that part of Syria—roughly from Sidon to Alexandretta—which lies to the west of the continuous line formed by those four cities and the districts immediately adjoining them.

14. Again, in his third note dated the 14th December, Sir Henry McMahon refers to the regions which he wished to exclude as being in “the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut”. Had he had Palestine in mind, he would certainly have added “and the Sanjaq of Jerusalem”. The fact that he did not goes to confirm the conclusion that the only portions of Syria which it was proposed at the time to reserve in favour of France were the coastal regions of northern Syria.

15. Lastly, in giving the pledge contained in his second note, Sir Henry McMahon stated that Great Britain recognised as the area of Arab independence all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca in which she was “free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, Franc”. Both in that note and in his subsequent note of the 14th December, he justified his exclusion of certain parts of Syria on the grounds of Great Britain’s regard for French interests. If, then, Great Britain were to find herself at the end of the War free to act in respect of any portion of Syria which she had felt bound to reserve in favour of France, the reservation loses its justification and indeed whatever force it may have had when it was originally made; and that portion of Syria which was no longer destined to be included in the sphere of French interests—as was eventually the case with Palestine—must, in default of any specific agreement to the contrary, necessarily remain within the area of Arab independence proposed by the Sharif and accepted by Great Britain.

In this connection, it should be pointed out that there is an important discrepancy between the official English text and the Arabic version of Sir Henry McMahon’s note of December 14, 1915. In speaking of the exclusion of the two vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut, Sir Henry says: “but, as the interests of our ally France are involved in them both”. The words in italics do not occur in the official English text, but they occur in the Arabic version which reached the Sharif Husain. The force of those three words is to show once more that Sir Henry McMahon had only those two vilayets in mind and that he could not have been thinking of a third province lying outside the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut.

16. In a letter which appeared over his signature in The Times of July 23, 1937, Sir Henry McMahon declared that, in giving the pledge to King Husain, it was not intended by him to include Palestine in the area of Arab independence; and that he had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in the pledge was well understood by King Husain.

These declarations of Sir Henry McMahon’s will not bear investigation. In the first place, Sir Henry’s function was that of an intermediary charged with the task, not of framing policy, but of carrying out the policy laid down by his official chiefs and conveying it to the Sharif Husain in accordance with the instructions issued to him by the Foreign Office. Even if the intention behind the words used could be invoked as an argument to invalidate or distort the proper and ordinary meaning of the words he used, it is not Sir Henry’s intention that might count but the intention of the responsible Minister— in this case, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—on whose instructions Sir Henry McMahon was acting. If intentions are to be taken into account despite the obvious and unmistakable meaning of the words used, then it would be necessary to search for such evidence as is available in the files of the Foreign Office to throw light on the Secretary of State’s intentions. Some evidence on that point is already public in the speech which Viscount Grey of Fallodon delivered in the House of Lords on the 27th March, 1923. The relevant extracts from that speech are appended to this Memorandum, together with the remarks made by Lord Buckmaster on the same occasion. Viscount Grey makes it clear that, for his part, he entertained serious doubts as to the validity of the British Government’s interpretation of the scope of the pledges which he, as Foreign Secretary, had given to the Arabs in 1915.

17. In the second place, leaving aside for a moment the question of the underlying intention and turning to the text itself, it will be found that the words used throughout the Correspondence can only be interpreted as meaning that Palestine was not, directly or indirectly, excluded from the area of Arab independence. The phrase “districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo”, as stated in paragraph 13 above, could only have meant the districts adjacent to those four cities. It is also obvious that the Sharif Husain understood that the portions of Syria to be reserved were those lying immediately to the west of those four cities and no more. In his note of the 5th of November, 1915, he speaks of the Vilayets of Aleppo and Bairut and “their maritime coasts”; while in his note of the 1st of January, 1916, he describes the regions proposed for exclusion as “the northern parts and their coastal regions”, and, lower down in the same note, as: “Beirut and its coastal regions which we will overlook for the moment on account of France.” Moreover, Sir Henry McMahon himself, in his note of the 30th of January, 1916, speaks of those portions of Syria which were to be excluded as “the northern regions”, thereby showing that, at the time at any rate, he did not differ from the Sharif in regarding tic reservations as applying only to the northern coastal regions of Syria.

18. Lastly, there is the evidence provided by the Sharif’s subsequent actions in regard to Palestine, which shows that he had always understood that part of Syria to have remained within the area of Arab independence. No sooner was the Balfour Declaration issued than he sent in an immediate protest to the British Government to ask for an explanation. This action and other actions taken by the Sharif in subsequent years may be held to fall outside the scope of the present Committee’s investigation, which is understood to cover only the examination of the text of the McMahon Correspondence. But they are historic; I facts nevertheless; and in the light of those facts, Sir Henry McMahon’s declaration that he had every reason to believe the contrary loses its force and indeed appears meaningless.

19. The contention that the British Government did intend Palestine to be removed from the sphere of French influence and to be included within the area of Arab independence (that is to say, within the area of future British influence) is also borne out by the measures they took in Palestine during the War. They dropped proclamations by the thousand in all parts of Palestine, which bore a message from the Sharif Husain on one side and a message from the British Command on the other, to the effect that an Anglo-Arab agreement had been arrived at securing the independence of the Arabs, and to ask the Arab population of Palestine to look upon the advancing British Army as allies and liberators and give them every assistance. Under the aegis of the British military authorities, recruiting offices were opened in Palestine to recruit volunteers for the forces of the Arab Revolt. Throughout 1916 and the greater part of 1917, the attitude of the military and political officers of the British Army was clearly based on the understanding that Palestine was destined to form part of the Arab territory which was to be constituted after the War on the basis of independent Arab governments in close alliance with Great Britain.

20. In conclusion, it should be pointed out that the English text of the McMahon Correspondence, which was communicated confidentially by the United Kingdom Delegation to the Arab Delegations, contains certain errors of translation, some of which affect the meaning perceptibly. It would be desirable in the general interests if a revision of the translation were to be undertaken before that text is made public.

(Signed) G. ANTONIUS
Secretary-General of the Arab Delegations.

(See paragraph 16 of Annex A.)

The following, are the extracts referred to from the speech of Lord Grey:

“A considerable number of these engagements, or some of them, which have not been officially made public by the Government, have become public through other sources. Whether all have become public I do not know, but I seriously suggest to the Government that the best way of clearing our honour in this matter is officially to publish the whole of the engagements relating to the matter, which we entered into during the war. If they are found to be not inconsistent with one another our honour is cleared. If they turn Out to be inconsistent, I think it will be very much better that the amount, character and extent of the inconsistencies should be known, and that we should state frankly that, in the urgency of the war, engagements were entered into which were not entirely consistent with each other.


“I am sure that we cannot redeem our honour by covering up our engagements and pretending that mere is no inconsistency, if there really is inconsistency. I am sure that the most honourable course will be to let it be known what the engagements are, and, if there is inconsistency, then to admit it frankly, and, admitting that fact, and having enabled people to judge exactly what is the amount of the inconsistency, to consider what is the most fair and honourable way out of the impasse into which the engagements may have led us. Without comparing one engagement with another, I think that we are placed in considerable difficulty by the Balfour Declaration itself. I have not the actual words here, but think the noble Duke opposite will not find fault with my summary of it. It promised a Zionist home without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the population of Palestine. A Zionist home, my Lords, undoubtedly means or implies a Zionist Government over the district in which the home is placed, and if 93 per cent, of the population of Palestine are Arabs, I do not see how you can establish other than an Arab Government, without prejudice to their civil rights. That one sentence alone of the Balfour Declaration seems to me to involve, without overstating the case, very great difficulty of fulfilment.”

“It is not from any prejudice with regard to that matter that I speak, but I do see that the situation is an exceedingly difficult one, when it is compared with the pledges which undoubtedly were given to the Arabs. It would be very desirable, from the point of view of honour, that all these various pledges should be set out side by side, and then, I think, the most honourable thing would be to look at them fairly, see what inconsistencies there are between them, and, having regard to the nature of each pledge and the date at which it was given, with all the facts before us, consider what is the fair thing to be done.”

The following are the extracts referred to from the speech of Lord Buckmaster:—

“If those documents are accurate—and I am bound to say that, upon the face of them, they appear to me to be perfectly sound—they show unmistakably that there has not been, as the noble Viscount Lord Grey suggested, something in the nature of casual inconsistency between different announcements at different times, but that a deliberate pledge has been given on the one hand, which has been abandoned on the other. No amount of examination and no amount of comparison will ever enable the two things to be reconciled, because these documents show that, after an elaborate correspondence in which King Hussein particularly asked to have his position made plain and definite so that there should be no possibility of any lurking doubt as to where he stood as from that moment, he was assured that within a line that ran north from Damascus through named places, a line that ran almost due north from the south and away to the west, should be the area that should be excluded from their independence, and that the rest should be theirs.”


“I do not profess to have any knowledge of foreign politics. I have always believed that they can be summed up in two sentences. I believe that we ought to say what we mean, and I think we ought to do what we say. I believe it was because the Noble Viscount, Lord Grey of Fallodon, took those simple phrases as his motto and he achieved the astonishing success which followed his discharge of the great and responsible duties of the Foreign Office. We certainly meant what we said in 1915. We did not do what we said in 1918. I would ask the Government even now to retrace their steps at the earliest moment, and go back to obedience to the promise that we gave at a moment when we were gravely beset by difficulties, to the relief of which the Arab help in no slight degree contributed.”