Committee Report on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
Annex B

(March 1939)


(See paragraph 7.)


1. The Lord Chancellor has listened with interest to the statements made at the first meeting of the Committee by the various Arab members of the Committee, explaining the views held by the Arabs in general in regard to the proper interpretation of the so-called “McMahon-Husain” Correspondence; and he has since read with equal interest the memorandum by Mr. Antonius communicated to him at the same meeting.

2. Owing to the short space of time available for the preparation of the present memorandum, it may be found that there are points made in the Arab statements or in Mr. Antonius' memorandum which have not been specifically covered; but it is hoped that this memorandum will nevertheless serve to explain on general lines the views held by His Majesty’s Government about the correspondence now under discussion.

3. As the members of the Committee are aware, all Governments of the United Kingdom from 1915 onwards have held firmly to the opinion not only that Sir Henry McMahon intended by his correspondence with the Sharif of Mecca in 1915 and 1916, and especially by his letter of October 24th, 1915, to leave the territory now known as Palestine outside the area of Arab independence, but also that the Correspondence in question could not then and cannot now be read as having any other meaning.

4. In order, however, to understand the attitude of His Majesty’s Government it is necessary to take into account not only the words of the Correspondence itself, but all the surrounding circumstances.

5. For a start and above all, it is imperative to remember the unique position which Palestine held then, as now, as the Holy Land not only of the Moslems, but also of the Christians and the Jews, and as a country in which all European and American countries were deeply interested. It was more important for the Christians and the Jews even than for the Moslems, since for members of the first two religions it was the principal, and in fact the only, Holy Land, whereas for Moslems it was second in importance to the Hejaz. It is no exaggeration to say that for Christians, and also for Jews, Palestine is as important as are Mecca and Medina for Moslems.

6. Moreover, Palestine could not be considered even in 1915 as exclusively Arab territory. It is realised that one of the Arab spokesmen has stated that, on the contrary, it was, unlike the coastal regions further to the north, unmistakeably “purely Arab”, and that this is a factor which must be taken into account in assessing the surrounding circumstances. But it must be remembered that apart from any Jewish population there may have been it was filled with Christian churches, schools and institutes of all kinds, while thousands of Christian pilgrims and tourists went there every year. These institutions were scattered over the land. Some towns, such as Bethlehem, were almost purely Christian. In fact, in 1912 there were only 300 Moslems out of 11,000 inhabitants. In Nazareth, out of 15,000 inhabitants 10,000 were of different Christian religions—Greeks, Latins, Maronites and Protestants. The great majority of these Christians were no doubt Arabs by race, but even so a large residue of foreign Christians and foreign Christian interests remained.

7. Great Britain clearly had no right and no authority in 1915 to say that if the Allies succeeded in wresting from the Ottoman Empire a land of such importance to the Christian world they would hand it over to the rule of another independent Moslem Power without first obtaining every kind of guarantee whereby the Christian and Jewish Holy Places should be protected and free access to them allowed, at least as fully and freely as in Ottoman times.

8. It is therefore inconceivable that Sir Henry McMahon should have intended to give the Sharif an unconditional promise that Palestine was to be included in, the area of Arab independence. The fact that the question of guarantees was not even mentioned makes it clear beyond all doubt that Sir Henry McMahon never supposed for a moment that his letter would be read as including Palestine in this area; and it is surely reasonable to believe that the Sharif of Mecca, who showed such legitimate concern for the Moslem Holy Places of the Hejaz, must have understood the strength of Christian sentiment on this point, and realised that no British official could possibly undertake to assign Palestine to another Moslem State without making the most express reservations with regard to-the Christian Holy Places.

9. Another highly important factor was the rapidly growing port of Haifa. This port and other ports on the Palestinian coast were very important from the British point of view, having regard to the great interests of Great Britain in the Suez Canal. It must have been apparent to any informed observer that in the event of a victory for the Allied Powers Great Britain would require guarantees precluding the use of Palestinian territory, and particularly of such ports as that of Haifa, for future attacks on Egyptian territory.

10. As regards the interests of France, it is common knowledge that in 1915 France laid claim to the eventual exercise, if not of actual sovereignty, at any rate of a considerable degree of influence, over wide and to some extent undefined areas in the Middle East; and the existence of these claims must have been known to the Sharif of Mecca, as the result of information received from Arab nationalists in Syria with whom he had been in communication, if from no other source, even before the first mention of French interests in the Correspondence.

11. Having regard to these considerations it is in this case again inconceivable that Sir Henry McMahon should have omitted all specific mention of French and British interests in what is now called Palestine unless he had regarded Palestine as automatically and obviously excluded from the area in which he was promising the Arabs independence; and it is almost as difficult to understand how any reader of the letter who was acquainted with the general political situation in the Middle East could have supposed, at any rate without further and most precise enquiry, that Palestine was intended to be included in that area.

12. The general position in 1915 must also be borne in mind. The Turks were in control of both Syria and Palestine and had not been beaten. Great Britain had France and Russia for her main Allies, but she also had to consider a number of other countries in Europe, particularly, Italy. She could not give a pledge to the Sharif which might involve her in serious difficulties at the end of the War with the most important countries in Europe.

13. To turn now to the actual words of the “McMahon Pledge” in the letter of October 24th, 1915, these must be read in the light of certain discussions which took place between the British High Commissioner in Cairo and Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi concurrently with parts of the McMahon-Husain Correspondence.

14. Al-Faruqi may not have been an accredited representative either of the Sharif of Mecca or of the leaders of the Arab nationalist movement in Damascus, none of whom may have been aware until later of the tenour of his discussions with the High Commissioner in the autumn of 1915. But he was unquestionably well informed as to the views and aspirations of the Arab leaders and no Arab would be likely to deny, either then or now, that he was putting their claims at their lowest when he said (as he did) that the Arabs would fight for “the districts of Aleppo, Hama and Homs and Damascus”, that by “districts” he must have meant the surroundings of these towns in the widest possible sense and that he cannot possibly have meant that the Arabs would fail to fight for any part of the Mediterranean hinterland from the Cilician border to the Gulf of Aqaba. This point is important because the phrase subsequently used in Sir Henry McMahon’s letter was adapted from al-Faruqi’s own words.

15. It was furthermore al-Faruqi who expressed the opinion that the Arabs might accept a general reservation by Great Britain of the areas in which she was not free to act without detriment to her allies, and although His Majesty’s Government do not wish to lay too much stress on this, seeing al-Faruqi was not a plenipotentiary, the point is germane to a consideration of what Sir Henry McMahon had in mind when giving the pledge.

16. All these considerations must be remembered when any attempt is made to attach a special and specific meaning to certain words in the correspondence of 1915 and 1916. The correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and the Sharif may appear at this date to be far from clear in its meaning. But the circumstances summarised above, as well as all the numerous anxieties pressing upon any official in Sir Henry McMahon’s position at that time, and the position in Arabia, are all relevant to a consideration of the text. This is true above all if the meaning of the pledge is considered in the broad light of the probable intentions of the two parties; but it is also true if it is considered in the narrower light of the actual legal interpretation of the words of the pledge, for in such a case as this, where the language used has given rise to controversy and speculation, it is legitimate to take all the surrounding circumstances into account when attempting to reach a decision as to what the words could and should have been taken to mean.

17. In the light, then, of all these surrounding circumstances, the case of His Majesty’s Government rests on two main points:

(1) a specific, geographical, reservation with regard to the areas in which Great Britain could promise the Arabs independence:

(2) a general reservation with regard to the same area.

18. As regards (i), the view of His Majesty’s Government has always been that the phrase “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Kama, Homs and Aleppo” embraced all that portion of Syria (including what is now called Palestine) lying to the west of inter alia the administrative area known as the “Vilayet of Syria”.

19. It is true that there were no Vilayets of Homs or Hama, but it is also true that both Damascus and Aleppo were the capitals of Vilayets, and the reference to Damascus should alone have sufficed to establish Sir Henry McMahon’s meaning. The additional mention of Homs and Hama was evidently made because al-Faruqi had mentioned them and to ensure that the intervening territory of which they were the most important towns should not be excluded from the area consigned to Arab rule. Obviously no reference was intended to non-existent Vilayets.

20. It is also true that the official Turkish name for the Vilayet of which Damascus was the capital was “Vilayet of Syria”, but there should have been no misunderstanding of this phrase, especially as the writer of the letter had already found it necessary to use “Syria” (even though there was a Vilayet of that name) in order to describe comprehensively a vague geographical area evidently including the Vilayets of Syria and Beirut, the independent Sanjaq of Jerusalem, the Province of the Lebanon, and part of the Vilayet of Aleppo.

21. It may be worth adding at this point that the phrase “districts of Damascus, etc.” would hardly have been desired by the Sharif to be taken to mean small areas immediately surrounding the towns in question (as one of the Arab spokesmen argued, if the Lord Chancellor has correctly understood him, at the first meeting) since if this had been the case the territory in which the Arabs would have been denied independence would have been brought much further east than on a more liberal interpretation of the phrase. The non-Arab territory would in fact have reached eastwards almost to the outskirts of Damascus and the other towns, and have covered substantial portions of Transjordan and considerable sections of the Hejaz Railway.

22. Nor is it denied that in one sense there was no territory east of the Vilayet of Aleppo and that if the letter of October 24th, 1915, was to be interpreted by the Sharif on the lines suggested by His Majesty’s Government the area of Arab independence would not reach the Mediterranean, although the fact that it would not do so was not mentioned in the letter.

23. As regards the first point, it must be remembered that Sir Henry McMahon was not attempting to define with any great accuracy the eastward limits of the territory which he was excluding from the area of Arab independence, and he clearly used a phrase to define in a general way a stretch of territory lying along the Mediterranean coast some of which might lie outside, and some of which might lie inside, the “districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo”, but all of which lay to the west or in the western parts of those districts.

24. As regards the second point, the Lord Chancellor does not feel that it is possible to base any conclusions on the fact that the exclusion of access to the Mediterranean for the Arab area of independence was not specifically mentioned by Sir Henry McMahon. If the areas which he defined as lying outside that area were so situated that access to the Mediterranean was denied there was no necessity to say so in so many words.

25. The Lord Chancellor has taken note of the argument based upon the fact that in his letter of December 14th, 1915, Sir Henry McMahon only referred to the possible exclusion from the area of Arab independence of the two Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and these two only, without any mention of the Sanjaq of Jerusalem or of other areas. But it seems clear that in referring to these two Vilayets, Sir Henry McMahon was merely replying to a point raised by the Sharif in his letter of November 5th, 1915, and it does not seem possible to draw any particular conclusion from this circumstance.

26. This no doubt leads to another point made by one of the Arab spokesmen: that seeing how much importance the Sharif attached throughout the correspondence to the Vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, and to the Vilayets of Mesopotamia, the Sharif would unquestionably have referred in even stronger terms to Palestine (or the Sanjaq of Jerusalem) had he had the slightest suspicion that it was being excluded from the area of Arab independence. This may well be the case, but surely the opposite conclusion can equally well be drawn, that the Sharif understood and accepted the fact that because of its special position as a country interesting all the world Palestine was a territory which had to be reserved for special treatment.

27. The same considerations apply to the fact that in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif referred to “the northern parts and their coasts”. It is possible in this case again to conclude that Palestine was accepted by him as lying outside the area of Arab independence. But in any case, the words “northern parts” or “northern coasts” could legitimately be taken by the reader of a letter written in the Hejaz as meaning the whole Mediterranean coast.

28. The foregoing arguments with regard to the specific reservation are offered in order to show that in regard to each point of criticism it is possible to find a probable reason for what: Sir Henry McMahon had in mind. But the Lord Chancellor would not for a moment wish to suggest that this passage in the letter which Sir Henry McMahon sent on October 24th, 1915, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Government was clear or well-expressed, or that any of the other territorial references (on either side) were clear or well-expressed, or that it is upon such arguments that His Majesty’s Government rely in the presentation of their case.

29. The best explanation which His Majesty’s Government can give as to what was meant by the phrase “districts of Damascus etc.” in the letter of October 24th, 1915, is that the phrase was borrowed from al-Faruqi and used in the same wide and general sense as that in which he himself used it, i.e. as one which covered the Syrian hinterland southwards to the Gulf of Aqaba.

30. But although His Majesty’s Government consider that the specific reservation should have sufficed to exclude Palestine, they attach less importance to this point than to the general reservation.

31. The wording of the general reservation is, in view of His Majesty’s Government, perfectly clear. It limits the area to which Sir Henry McMahon's pledge was to apply to:

“... those portions of the territories therein (i.e. in the area claimed by the Sharif) in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France.”

In other words, the pledge did not extend to any territory in which Great Britain was not free to act without regard to French interests on the date on which the letter was despatched, i.e. on October 24th, 1915.

32. It must also be made clear, since the point has been raised by the Arab members of the committee, that, in the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, any subsequent developments which may at later dates have modified the extent of the area in which Great Britain was free to act without detriment to French interests are irrelevant to a consideration of the extent of the area to which the pledge applied on October 24th, 1915 and has continued to apply ever since.

33. Now, if there is anything which is certain in this controversy it is that Great Britain was not free in October, 1915, to act in Palestine without regard to French interests. It may be perfectly true that under the influence of Lord Kitchener and others His Majesty’s Government before and after the outbreak of the war were anxious to restrict the French claims on the Levant coast if they could find a legitimate means of doing so. But there is a great difference between desiring an object and attaining it. It can be stated as a fact that at the time of the Correspondence France claimed the Mediterranean littoral as far south as the Egyptian border and as far east as Damascus, and it was not until the Spring of 1916 that these extreme claims were modified as the result of discussions culminating in the so-called “Sykes-Picot” Agreement.

34. As has been stated, the Sharif must have realised the possibility and even the extreme probability of the existence of a French claim to Palestine, even if he did not know of it for a fact, and in view of the circumstances, and of the extensive British and religious interest in Palestine, the wording of the “McMahon pledge” ought surely to have suggested to him and to any other reader of the letter that Palestine was excluded from, or, to say the least, not clearly included in, the area of Arab independence.

35. There are some further points which must be noted in connexion with the Correspondence. In paragraph 2 of the Sharif’s letter of November 5th, 1915, and in the fourth paragraph of Sir Henry McMahon’s reply of December 14th, 1915, it is made clear that many important details regarding the territorial situation were left over for a later settlement.

36. Furthermore, in his letter of January 1st, 1916, the Sharif agrees to leave for future consideration the French occupation of “Beirut and its coasts”. Whatever may have been meant by this phrase—and it might well be argued that the “coasts”of Beirut extended as far as the Egyptian border—it clearly excluded the coasts of Palestine as far south as the limits of the Vilayet of Beirut, i.e. as far south as a point just north of Jaffa. This in itself amounted to a provisional acceptance of a reservation of nearly half of Palestine.

37. The “Sykes-Picot” Agreement of May, 1916, has already been mentioned, as has also the fact that the claims of France at the beginning of the War extended over the whole of Palestine, as well as to Damascus and Aleppo. In this connexion it must be remembered that Sir Mark Sykes was definitely sympathetic towards the Arab cause and he must clearly have negotiated the agreement in the belief that the reservations in the pledge of October 24th, 1915, justified his concluding an agreement in the form which it eventually assumed. His Majesty’s Government have no doubt that he was right.

38. Moreover, Sir Mark Sykes secured a great concession from the French negotiators as regards the Sanjaqs of Hama, Damascus and Aleppo, which, as a result of what al-Faruqi had said at a slightly earlier period, His Majesty’s Government had reason to suppose were vital to the Arabs. It was an exceedingly difficult task to obtain this concession from the French Government and it was genuinely believed at the time that the arrangements would (to quote from an official report of the period) “adjust the fundamental divergencies of Arabs and French regarding Syria.”

39. In the agreement Palestine was admittedly to be international. The Sharif of Mecca was, however, to be consulted, and the form of government was to be agreed upon with (amongst others) his representatives. These points are generally overlooked, but if they are taken into account it is difficult to see how the agreement can fairly be represented as a breach of faith with the Sharif. Moreover, as has already been emphasized, His Majesty’s Government were not, in 1915, in a position to give the sovereignty of Palestine to the Arab people. They had to consult their Allies and other countries having interests in that territory just as they are now obliged to consult the members of the League of Nations.

40. The form of the promise given to the Sharif assumes particular importance in connexion with the “Sykes-Picot” Agreement. It is apt to be forgotten by the Arabs. It was to the effect that Great Britain was prepared “to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs” and “when the situation admits Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice, and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories”.

41. His Majesty’s Government maintain that Great Britain has substantially carried out these promises—in the face of great difficulties. They may regret that she. could not carry them more fully into effect; but she never gave, and the Sharif could not have thought she was giving, a promise of such a kind as might involve her in war with any of her allies in order to fulfil His Arab aspirations in every part of the territory which the Sharif had claimed.

42. The Balfour Declaration is a subject of frequent complaint, but it cannot be supposed that Mr. Balfour would have made it had he thought that Palestine had been included in the promise given in Sir Henry McMahon’s letter of October 24th, 1915. It should, however, be observed that the grievance as regards which the Arabs complain is dependent very largely on the view which is taken as to the meaning of, and the implications said to be derived from, the Declaration. It is not within the scope of this memoradum to express an opinion as to the validity of the Zionist view on this matter; but it must be remembered that the Declaration expressly safeguards the civil and religious rights of the Arabs, and this qualification is one of great importance and should have a far-reaching effect on policy.

43. It is hoped that these explanations will convince the Arab members of the Committee that Sir Henry McMahon never had any intention of including Palestine in the area of Arab independence; and furthermore that he never had any reason to suppose that his intention was not perfectly clear to the Sharif. But whether this hope is realised or not, His Majesty’s Government must make it clear that they repudiate very strongly any suggestion of breach of faith on the part of their predecessors or of themselves.

44. In conclusion, the Lord Chancellor would remind the Committee that what matters today is the existing state of affairs. The Mandate was given to Great Britain with the approval of some fifty-two nations from all parts of the world, and its existence as an obligation incumbent upon His Majesty’s Government, which His Majesty’s Government cannot themselves alter, is a fact which cannot be ignored. Cannot all concerned recognise the reality of these facts and work together to make a fair settlement in the existing circumstances?