In September 1923, after Britain created Transjordan, the Reserve Mobile Force, commanded by Capt. Frederick G. Peake, was reorganized and merged with all other forces in Transjordan, and given the name al-Jaysh al-Arabi (Arab Army), more commonly referred to as the Arab Legion. The Legion served initially as a force for British colonial rule in Transjordan. Just as importantly, the Arab Legion also served as the protectors of the regime of King Abdullah I ibn Hussein, and even played a central role in constructing Jordanian national identity itself, including tieing that sense of identity and nationhood to loyalty to the Hashimite monarchy. Like the modern Jordanian army, the Arab Legion was widely viewed as the best-trained and best-equipped army in the Arab world.
The Arab Legion began as a small, elite armed force of a little over a thousand men. Peake organized it to high efficiency, recruiting Arab volunteers from Transjordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Hijaz. Peake recruited mainly villagers rather than bedouin. By 1926 Peake had 1,500 men. Between 1923 and 1926 the Arab Legion fought bedouin raiders, repulsed incursions by the Wahhabi Ikhwan, established order, and extended the centralizing power of the Hashimite state. From its inception until 1957, the costs of the Arab Legion were subsidized entirely by Britain.
The creation of the Transjordan Frontier Force (TJFF) in April 1926, to protect the borders from Saudi Arabia's territorial ambitions, resulted in a reduction in the Arab Legion's strength. This changed, however, when Capt. John Bagot Glubb arrived from Iraq, in November 1930, to be second in command to Peake. Glubb created the Desert Mobile Force, composed mainly of bedouin, and provided it with fast transport and communications facilities. This force was able to shore up the Arab Legion's diminished functions and was the nucleus of the striking force of the future Jordan Arab Army.
The Arab Legion was further strengthened in the period from 1936 to 1939 with augmentation of manpower, arms, and equipment. Glubb succeeded Peake as commander of the Legion at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Unlike Peake, who had seen the bedouin as the central challenge to Hashimite rule, Glubb shifted the emphasis completely toward bedouin recruitment, co-opting the tribes to be loyal bastions of support for the monarchy. During the war, the Arab Legion's main task was to support Britain by thwarting any attempt by the Axis powers to encroach on British or French interests in the mandated areas. In May 1941 the Legion reinforced British troops who had been rushed from Palestine to crush Rashid Ali al-Kaylani's rebellion in Iraq. The Desert Mobile Force won a battle at Falluja and, in cooperation with the Basra-based British-Indian military contingent, entered Baghdad at the end of May.
When Jordan gained full independence in 1946, the Arab Legion remained under Glubb's command but was transformed into a regular national army and renamed the Jordan Arab Army. It participated in the Arab–Israeli War of 1948, acquitting itself well despite its small size, and resisting Israeli assaults on East Jerusalem. At the end of hostilities, it was in complete control of the West Bank, which was formally incorporated into the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan in April 1950. In the 1950s, demonstrations in Jordan protested the Baghdad Pact, the continuing presence of British troops in the kingdom and of British officers commanding the Jordanian army. In a hasty attempt to reassert legitimacy, King Hussein ibn Talal in 1956 dismissed and deported the long-serving Glubb. Although the incident caused a temporary diplomatic rift with Britain, British subsidies to the Arab Legion continued without interruption.
Under the command of General Ali Abu Nuwwar, the Jordanian Arab Army underwent a process of "Arabization," in which all British officers were dismissed and replaced by Jordanians. Abu Nuwwar also pursued a policy of modernization and professionalization of the army, moving beyond Glubb's model of a bedouin-dominated force to one that represented Transjordanians of varied village, town, and tribal backgrounds. Palestinians too were recruited into the army, but the institution then and now remained nonetheless largely East Bank or Transjordanian, both in the enlisted ranks and even more so in the officer corps. In 1957 the last British troops left the kingdom but unrest nonetheless reached the ranks of the army itself, as the palace thwarted an attempted coup by nationalist officers (allegedly including Abu Nuwwar himself), purged the ranks of suspect officers, and reinforced the army as the most loyal base of Hashimite support. That same year, the Eisenhower administration in the United States declared Jordan "vital" to the U.S. interests, particularly as an anti-communist bulwark in the regional and global Cold War. In material terms, this increasingly close U.S.-Jordanian alliance resulted in a steady shift toward ever larger reliance on U.S. military aid and arms. This process accelerated further following Jordanian and Arab losses to Israel in the 1967 war.
Anticipating that war was imminent, King Hussein hastened to sign a military alliance with Egypt. This placed the Jordanian army under direct Egyptian command as Israeli forces launched a surprise attack in June 1967. In the six days that followed, Jordanian forces fought tenaciously in the West Bank, and desperately attempted to retain control of East Jerusalem. The task proved too difficult, given the lengthy cease-fire lines demarcating the West Bank. Despite strong efforts, the outnumbered and outgunned Jordanians were ultimately defeated, losing the Holy city and indeed all of the West Bank to Israeli forces. After the war, the trend toward closer U.S.-Jordanian military cooperation continued, as Jordan relied heavily on U.S. arms, material, training, and financial assistance in reconstructing the Jordanian armed forces.
In the wake of the disastrous 1967 war, tensions within Jordan increased between the Jordanian army and guerrilla forces from the Palestine Liberation Organization. For a brief period in 1968, however, the two forces collaborated successfully in repelling an Israeli attack. Following Palestinian guerrilla attacks against Israeli forces routinely responded with massive retaliation. In March 1968, Israeli forces assaulted Karama, a town in the Jordan valley and base of Palestinian fighters. Unlike the 1967 war, this conflict proved more of a pitched battle, with heavy losses on all sides. Palestinian guerrillas and Jordanian soldiers, supported by artillery and tanks of the Jordanian army, eventually repelled the attack, and Karama quickly became legendary. The town's name, significantly, means "dignity." But despite the military success at Karama, the battle soon added to Palestinian-Jordanian tensions as each side claimed to have played the decisive role in the Arab victory. Ultimately, the episode fed into the tensions that culminated in the Jordanian Civil War. From "Black September" 1970 through the summer of 1971, Jordanian army units (particularly bedouin-dominated units) defeated Fidaʾiyyun forces and expelled them from the kingdom. The civil war was a particularly brutal affair, involving considerable urban warfare and the shelling of many Palestinian refugee camps. Given its losses in the 1967 war, and the trauma of the 1970–1971 civil war, Jordan refused to open up a third front in the Arab–Israel War of 1973. Instead, King Hussein sent a small contingent of Jordanian soldiers to Syria to bolster the Syrian front against the Israelis. Since that time, Jordan renounced its claims to the West Bank (1988) and signed a peace treaty with Israel (1994) formally ending hostilities between the two countries.
The Jordanian armed forces remain the heirs of the original Arab Legion. The Jordanian army continues to occupy a privileged position within Jordanian society as a central pillar of the Hashimite state, with close transnational ties (in both equipment and training) to military counterparts in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Pakistan. Especially since the 1999 succession to the throne of King Abdullah II ibn Hussein (former commander of the special forces units within the Jordanian army), Jordanian troops have played an increasingly large role in United Nations peace-keeping throughout the world.
see also abu nuwwar, ali; arab–israel war (1948); basra; glubb, john bagot; jordanian civil war (1970–1971); peake, frederick gerard; transjordan frontier force; west bank.
Glubb, John Bagot. The Story of the Arab Legion. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976.
Lunt, James. The Arab Legion, 1923–1957. London: Constable, 1999.
Massad, Joseph A. Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Vatikiotis, P. J. Politics and the Military in Jordan: A Study of the Arab Legion, 1921–1957. New York: Praeger, 1967.
Updated by Curtis R. Ryan
"Arab Legion." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/arab-legion
"Arab Legion." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved March 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/arab-legion
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