The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920

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On the eve of World War I, the Ottomans were in bad shape, having fought three ruinous wars in as many years. In 1911, the Italians attacked three Ottoman Vilayets in North Africa (now Libya). This unprovoked attack sparked opportunist assaults on Ottoman territories in South-eastern Europe by the Balkan League, bringing about a further retraction in the Ottoman frontier. European powers and Balkan nations posed a real threat to the integrity of Ottoman patrimony. The Ottoman Empire badly needed a strong ally.

For most of the nineteenth century, the Ottomans forged close relations with Britain and France whose common geo-strategic interests centred on barring Russia’s access to the Dardanelles. To be sure, a British admiral, Arthur Limpus, had served as head of the Ottoman naval fleet since 1912, while the anticipated arrival of two massive dreadnoughts from British firm Vickers & Armstrong would further tilt the naval advantage toward Turkey over traditional rivals, Greece and Russia.

However, in the two years before the outbreak of World War I, Germany began cementing closer economic and military ties with the Ottomans. Germany and Turkey signed a secret defensive pact on 2 August 1914, all but ensuring the Ottomans would enter the Great War on the side of the Central Powers. For the German High Command, the main contribution Turkey could make to the war effort was to disrupt British, French and Russian shipping in the Canal Zone as well as to stoke unrest in Allied colonies with large Muslim populations.

The Ottomans delayed entering the conflict until October 1914, and almost immediately, Britain and Russia struck key Ottoman military posts in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. Early military success lulled Allied commanders into a false complacency as Britain and France believed the Ottomans were on the brink of collapse. In early 1915, Allied statesmen and military commanders devised a massive naval offensive to capture Istanbul. This would bring a swift Ottoman capitulation and precipitate the early surrender of the Central Powers. Despite overwhelming naval superiority, however, the Entente powers failed to achieve the decisive breakthrough. All too often, Allied war planners underestimated their plucky opponents.

The Ottoman Empire proved far more resilient than the Entente powers ever imagined. Indeed, the Middle East campaign lasted almost as long as the stalemate on the western front. It helped to prolong the war by tying up Allied forces that could have been shifted to the western and eastern fronts. Rather than being taken out early, the Ottomans went on to inflict a series of defeats over Allied forces, beginning with the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Like the stalemate on the western front, the trenches of the Ottoman campaign were strewn with soldiers from across Britain’s global empire, including the ANZACs.

As the war unfolded, the Ottomans found themselves increasingly under siege on several fronts. The fall of Mecca in 1916, followed by Baghdad and Jerusalem in 1917, ended centuries of Ottoman rule in those deeply symbolic places and left the Ottoman war effort in tatters. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, which restored the pre-1914 boundaries to Turkey and set aside Russia’s “historic” claim to Constantinople, was but a minor reprieve. In the end, the Ottomans paid the ultimate price for siding with the Central Powers: the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

The consequences still reverberate today, creating deep and long-lasting hatreds between peoples who had long lived peacefully together under the Turkish caliphate. After the war, former Ottoman territories in the Middle East and Persia were partitioned into imperial mandates as concluded, in 1916, by two British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot (the Sykes-Picot agreement). The legitimacy of these boundaries has been contested ever since.

“These outlandish agreements”, argues Eugene Rogan, “were concluded solely to advance Britain and France’s imperial expansion”. Most Middle East conflicts in the post-war period can be traced to the boundary settlements made during the 1914-1918 conflict. In 2014, on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militia seeking to create a broad Islamic union, tweeted to its followers that it was “smashing Sykes-Picot”. As Rogan rightly observes, with revolutionary turmoil in Egypt, civil wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and enduring violence between Israelis and Palestinians, “the borders of the Middle East remain controversial―and volatile”.

Eugene Rogan has done a splendid job retelling the story of the sacrifices, tragedies and successes of the Ottomans during the Middle East campaign from 1914 to 1918. All the major confrontations are dealt with in an even-handed manner, while his judgements on the most contentious issues associated with the Ottoman campaign, including the genocide of Armenian and Syrian Christians living in Ottoman territory, are fair and accurate. This is a major achievement.

 

Eugene Rogan. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Mark Donoghue has held faculty appointments at the Australian National University, National University of Singapore and the University of Notre Dame (Australia). He is currently on the faculty of SIM University, Singapore. He has published extensively in the field of the history of economic thought and has a biography of William Thomas Thornton forthcoming.

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