Born in Taif, (now Saudi-Arabia) as third son of the Sharif Husayn b. Ali of Mecca, Faysal grew up among the Atybeh tribe in the Hijaz. After his boyhood he accompanied his father to Istanbul in 1891. In 1909 Faysal returned to Mecca and took part in expeditions against the Idrisi of Asir in 1912/13. 1913 he was elected to the Ottoman parliament as representative for the city of Jidda. 1916, while on a visit to Damascus, he came in close contact with Arab nationalists and joined the secret Arab society "Al-Fatat". After the beginning of the "Arab Revolt" in June 1916 he commanded the forces of the Arab Northern Army that acted as the mobile right wing of Allenby's Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). The main task of Faysal's army was to destroy the Turkish lines of communication to prevent troop movements to the main battle fields of Gaza and Megiddo. After the defeat of the Ottoman forces, Faysal, on 3 October 1918, made his triumphant entry into Damascus where he became head of an Arab military administration (O.E.T.A.E.=Occupied Enemy Territory Administration East) which comprised the interior of Syria from Aqaba to Aleppo.
At the Peace Conference in Paris, Faysal tried to prompt the British to fulfil the promises they had made to his father in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence (July 1915-January 1916); that is the creation of an independent Arab state. But he soon was confronted with the fact, that Great Britain felt bound to the secret Sykes-Picot-Agreement with France (May 1916) and that the French were not willing to give up their claims in Syria. On 7 March 1920 Faysal was crowned by the Syrian National Congress as King of Syria. In April 1920 the Conference of San Remo decided to give France the mandate for Syria that led to the battle of Maysalun (24 July 1920) and Faysal's expulsion from Syria by the French. In August 1921 he was enthroned King of Iraq. On 8 September 1933 he suddenly died of a heart attack during a stay in the Swiss capital of Bern.
II. The Arab revolt
The Hashemite Army was divided into three bodies, each commanded by a son of the Sharif Husayn: The Southern Army under Amir Ali, with its HQ in Rabigh; the Eastern Army under Amir Abdallah with HQ at Wadi Ais; and the Northern Army under Amir Faysal, poised at Wajh with its inland forward operational base at Bir Jaydah, some 50 miles due West of the Hijaz Railway. Faysal's military task was to form efficient units out of the Bedouin auxiliaries which could withstand regular Turkish forces and at the same time, to use their mobile capabilities in a guerrilla warfare to destroy bridges and railway lines. His political task was to seek the support of Arab tribes that lay across his projected route of advance to the North. His assignment was "one of political proselytisation: to preach the gospel of Arab emancipation and fire the minds of the tribes with the glow of his own fervour" (Antonius: 219). On 6 July 1917 Faysal's army captured Aqaba, perhaps the most spectacular success of his forces - one that marked a "turning point" (El-Edross: 101) in the Arab campaign. Now the Arabs held an important supply base only 130 miles south-east of the EEF, threatened the flank of the Turkish Army operating against the British in Palestine and in the Sinai and the Turkish forces that were deployed in Arabia and along the length of the Hijaz Railway from Amman to Madina. Faysal was now able to comply effectively Allenby's wish to destroy the Turkish lines of communication.
The main object was the railway station of Dera, which was the focal point in the Turkish road and rail communications system, but which lay outside the strategic reach of Allenby's cavalry. On 18 September 1918 Faysal's army, operating from its forward base in Azraq, destroyed the railway around Dera and thus isolated the village completely. A day later the battles of Megiddo began, leading to the annihilation of the Turkish 7th and 8th Army.
After the battles of Megiddo the British and Arab troops moved rapidly forward to the North. Between the 30 September and 1 October 1918 Damascus was captured, followed by the capture of Homs (15 October), Hama (17 October), and Aleppo (25 October).
III. Some remarks on Faysal's character
Until now no biography exists that covers Faysal's whole lifespan. Thus, it is not easy to sketch a uniformly accepted picture of this man, a dazzling person in the years of early Arab nationalism. Particularly because the years of the Arab revolt and Faysal's two-year-reign in Damascus 1918-1920 were glorified and - sometimes - mystified by both Western and Arab scholars it is hard to catch Faysal's real character. One can find descriptions that show him as a weak and powerless ruler acting as a puppet of the extreme nationalists (Kedourie: 240-247). Other historians assert exactly the opposite, praising his admirable qualities of patient leadership (Longrigg 1965: 872; Morris: 94), his uniqueness among Arab rulers (Khaddurie: 237), and his efforts to modernise the country he ruled (Rayhani: 191-204). It is at least obvious that he possessed outstanding capabilities as a military leader and that he was an integrating personality during the days of the Arab revolt, holding together a mixed force of Bedouin auxiliaries, Arab regulars and a small contingent of European soldiers. When Faysal entered the field of politics he clearly showed a lack of experience, but one must not forget that he was left alone by the ally whom he trusted most: Great Britain.
Despite his defeat by the French in Syria 1920 Faysal remained the hope of the Arab nationalists in the 1920's and early 1930's, in their efforts to achieve independence and unity for the Arab countries that were placed under European mandates. In those days he was the only Arab leader who could deal with all sides, primarily because he was accepted as the unifying leader by both the British and the French and by the other Arab leaders (Porath: 249/250). It is difficult to say if he was accepted by the people he ruled. In the case of the Syrian years (1918-1920) it is easier to argue that he was accepted because he came as a victorious commander who freed the country from the Turks; in the case of Iraq (1921-1933) one may guess that he was much more a stranger who was established by the British, and about whom the elites of the country were very sceptical. In either case, for the Arab nationalists his sudden death meant a shock because it shattered in a particular historical moment their dreams of Arab independence. In the Arab world his death was perceived with great sorrow; the Arabs had lost one of the most famous men of their history.
Appendix A. The Arab Northern Army
Commander: Amir Faysal b. Husayn
Deputy Commander: Amir Zayd b. Husayn
1. Regular Army (2000)
Commander: Jafar Pasha al-Askari
COS: Nuri as-Said
Ist Division (Aqaba) = Hashimite Infantry Brigade (two Battalions 400 men)
2nd Division (Quwayra) = Hashimite Infantry Brigade (800)
Artillery (Eight Guns, 150)
Hijaz Camel Corps (Battalion)
2. Irregular Force (6000)
Sharif Nasir b. Ali, Sharif Ali b. Arayd, Sharif Abdul Muin, Sharif Shakrani, Sharif Mastur, Sharif Takhaymi.
3. British Military Mission
Commander: Colonel P.C. Joyce
Hijaz Armoured Car Battery; One Flight RFC; One Company Egyptian Camel Corps; Transport/Labour Corps.
4. French Detachment
Commander: Captain Pisani
Two Mountain Guns; Four Machine Guns.
Source: El-Edroos: 117.
Antonius, George: The Arab Awakening. The Story Of The Arab National Movement, Beirut 1962.
Edroos, Ali el-: The Hashemite Arab Army 1908-1979. An Appreciation of Military Operations, Amman 1980.
"Faysal al-Awwal", in: Zirikli, Khayr al-Din al-: Al-A'lam. Qamus Tarajim (A Biographical Dictionary), Vol. 5, Beirut 19794, p. 165/166.
Husri, Sati' al-: Yawm Maysalun, Beirut [n.d.].
Husri, Sati' al: The Day of Maysalun. Translated from the Arabic by Sidney Glazer, Washington 1966.
Kedourie, Elie: The Chatham House Version and other Middle-Eastern Studies, London 1970.
Khadduri, Majid: Independent Iraq 1932-1958. A Study in Iraqi Politics, London 1962.
Kirkbride, Alec: An Awakening. The Arab Campaign 1917-18, London 1971.
Longrigg, Stephen Hemsley: Iraq 1900 to 1950. A Political, Social and Economic History, London 1962.
--- : "Faysal I", in: The Encyclopaedia of Islam. New Edition, Vol. II., Leiden/London 1965, p. 872
Morris, James: The Hashemite Kings, London 1959.
Porath, Yehoshua: "Iraq, King Faysal the First and Arab Unity", in: Studies in Islamic History and Civilization, ed. by M. Sharon, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 237-265.
Rayhani, Amin al-: Faysal al-Awwal, Beirut 1934.