Review of “The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East” by Eugene Rogan

The Great War, or World War I, took place not only in the two well-known main theaters of France (the Western Front) and in Russia (the Eastern Front), but also in several lesser known theaters such as Northern Italy, Serbia, Greece, and sub-Saharan Africa. Among the outer theaters, the war in the Middle East, directed against the Ottoman Empire, was the most significant in terms of strategy and in its lingering effects even today. Eugene Rogan, a professor of history at Oxford, has written a thorough overview of that conflict in The Fall of the Ottomans.

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The war by the Entente Powers (England, France, and Russia) against the Ottoman Empire took place primarily on four fronts: (1) in eastern Anatolia, against the Russians; (2) on the Gallipoli peninsula, against the British Empire and, to a lesser degree, France; (3) in Mesopotamia [modern Iraq] against the British; and (4) in the Arabian Desert and Palestine, against the British and their quirky and only occasionally dependable allies, the Arabs.

The Ottomans were soundly beaten by the Russians in eastern Anatolia, and lost substantial territory to them. However, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist government in 1917, they voluntarily returned all the conquered land to the Ottomans!

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The Ottomans handed the British a crushing defeat on the Gallipoli Peninsula after an enormous loss of life under execrable conditions for both sides. The battle was over control of the Dardanelles, the narrow strait in northwestern Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The hero of the monumental battle was the Turk, Mustafa Kemal, who later became “Ataturk,” the father of modern Turkey. Interestingly, Rogan attributes the British decision to attempt to “force the straits” more to Lord Kitchener than to Churchill, who took most of the blame.

Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

The Ottomans also trounced the British invasion of Mesopotamia at first, surrounding and capturing the entire British force at Kut al-Amara. However, the British launched a second invasion up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which succeeded in capturing Bagdad, although efforts to rescue the first invasion force were unavailing.

The final defeat of the Ottomans was effected by the British invasion from Egypt, through the Sinai, and then up through Palestine and Syria. The British were aided by the Hashemite tribe of Arabs from Mecca, who conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula (but not Medina). The British conducted a war of movement, and the Ottomans were never able to establish a defensive line. The destruction of the Ottoman army in Syria forced them out of the war. The fall of Aleppo, the final battle of the war, took place on 26 October 1918, just a few days before Germany signed the Armistice on the Western Front.

Rogan is excellent at relating this complicated story, working in the political considerations that affected the battleground decisions. For instance, the stalemate on the Western Front was what induced Kitchener and Churchill to sponsor the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, and the disaster at Gallipoli caused the British to stray too far from their base of supply in Mesopotamia, resulting in the loss of several divisions at Kut.

Australian troops charging Turkish trenches at Gallipoli

Australian troops charging Turkish trenches at Gallipoli

Rogan also emphasizes the role religion played in many aspects of the war. Because the Ottoman Sultan was also the caliph – not only the head of government of the Empire, but also the spiritual head of all Muslims, his German allies urged him to call for jihad, for all Muslims to go to war in support of the caliph against the infidel British, French, and Russians. The British were terrified that their Muslim subjects in India would answer the call. The French also were concerned because of their colonies in North Africa. In the event, there were relatively few desertions to the Ottoman side. Fortunately for the British, the Hashemite rulers of central Arabia (the Hijaz) feared the Turks and were inveigled into an alliance with the British. As rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Hashemites seemed to count as much or more to Muslim Arabs than the Turkish Sultan, and the jihad never materialized.

Religion also played a major part in the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians, a group of Christian subjects who had little loyalty to their Turkish overlords. Much has been written about the “Armenian Genocide,” and Rogan comes down squarely on the side of those who say the Turks systematically attempted to exterminate that ethnicity by executing the young men and rounding up the women, children, and elderly and marching them to the Syrian desert with scanty supplies and little or no protection from Arab and Kurdish marauders. Even deniers of the genocide acknowledge that between 600,000 and 850,000 Armenians perished because of war time activities. Armenian historians put the number closer to between 1 million and 1.5 million. In addition, the Ottoman regime accused Assyrian Christians of collaboration with the Entente Powers, and 250,000 out of a total population 620,000 were killed during the war.

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April, 1915

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April, 1915

Arab and Kurdish marauders were a significant force in the rural areas of the Ottoman Empire. They preyed not only on the Armenians, but on stragglers from all the armies, whether Ottoman, Indian, or European. They were so dangerous and unruly that when an Ottoman garrison in Palestine surrendered to the British, the British allowed the garrison to keep their arms during their march to internment for protection against the local tribesmen.

During the course of the war, the British entered into several agreements with various parties (e.g., the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration) concerning the disposition of Ottoman lands at the conclusion of hostilities. The Russians were promised eastern Anatolia and Constantinople; the French were promised what is now Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon; the Hashemites were promised “all the Arab lands”; and the world’s Jews were promised “a homeland…in Palestine.” Obviously, not all these promises could be kept. The results of these overlapping promises and betrayals are still being felt today.

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The Ottomans fared very badly at the Paris Peace Conference. Rogan asserts that “the Ottomans ultimately fell more as a result of the terms of the peace than of the magnitude of their defeat.” Virtually the entire empire was divided up and distributed to the victorious Entente Powers and even a few scraps were given to the Italians and Greeks, who “piled on” at the end once it was clear who would win.

In May 1919, Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, was ordered to supervise the demobilization of the Ottoman troops in central Anatolia. He chose to disobey those orders, and mounted a resistance movement, the Turkish National Movement, centered on the city of Ankara. Rogan writes:

By 1922, after an intense war on three fronts—against the Armenians in the Caucasus, the French in Cilicia, and the Greeks in western Anatolia—the Kemalists achieved total victory over the foreign armies in Turkey.”

The boundaries of the modern Turkish state (basically, Anatolia plus a littoral in Europe near Istanbul) were now set. The Turkish Grand National Assembly then voted to abolish the Ottoman Sultanate and establish a (sort of) democracy. Kemal became known as “Ataturk,” which translates as “father of the Turks.”

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

The Turks were not able to reclaim the European or Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of the modern states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Arabia were set at the Paris Peace Conference. The disasters attendant to that process are nicely set forth in David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. The Hashemites were granted control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, but they lost it in a war with Ibn-Saud, who founded modern Saudi Arabia.

Many Americans have a modest understanding of the war against the Ottomans, arising from such excellent motion pictures as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gallipoli,” and “The Light Horsemen,” which are fairly accurate although superficial. I would thoroughly recommend reading Rogan’s book before seeing or re-seeing any of those films in order to put the events portrayed into a broader context.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Published by Basic Books, 2015

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