THE FALL OF THE OTTOMANS: THE GREAT WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, $32, 485 pages
For obvious reasons, most English-language books published on the Great War of 1914-1918 are Eurocentric, focused on the grinding trench warfare of the Western Front. Even the occasional glances eastward seldom got beyond the Gallipoli campaign, and even these accounts stressed the role of Australian and New Zealander troops, not the Middle Eastern armies.
Now comes an absolutely magnificent account of the war from the viewpoint of the Ottoman Empire, which sided with Germany during the conflict and suffered a crushing defeat that turned much of the Middle East into British and French colonial satraps. Eugene Rogan, a British scholar now teaching at Oxford, lived in the Middle East for years. Importantly, he had the linguistic ability to do research in Turkish and other archives seldom visited by Western historians.
His account is geopolitical and military writing at its best — taut, anecdotal and extraordinarily researched. A tangled story, to be sure, one that both commands and rewards the reader’s attention.
The Ottoman Empire was in dire straits at the turn of the century, torn by internal dissent and outside threats; indeed, it had become known as “the sick man of Europe.” The primary fear was encroachment by Czarist Russia, which longed for access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. For defense, the Turks scraped together enough money — including pocket change donated by schoolkids — to have a British shipyard construct two Dreadnaught-class battleships. When war erupted in 1914, the British simply confiscated the vessels from their slips and flagged them for the Royal Navy. Coupled with long-standing grievances, such was enough to cause the Turks to side with the Germans.
Britain and other Entente nations considered war with the Ottomans as a sideshow to the main fighting on the continent. Predictably, the Ottomans lost three early, bloody battles on the fringes of their empire.
The Ottomans also made a serious miscalculation about the estimated 240 million Muslims living in colonies of the British and French (notably India, North Africa and Egypt). These persons shrugged off Ottoman calls (leavened with German propaganda) for a jihad against their colonial overlords. To be sure, there were a handful of defections, but Indian troops did much of the fighting in the theater.
Things began to go desperately wrong for the Entente in the theater when Winston Churchill, First Lord of the British Admiralty, conceived of a scheme to seize Istanbul with a naval bombardment, thus foiling any attempt by the Germans to cut British sea links to India. Churchill’s naval attack failed, whereupon the British ground commander, Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, flooded the Gallipoli peninsula with scores of thousands of ground troops. He failed, and miserably so. The battle scenes described by Mr. Rogan — with mounds of bodies rotting unattended — are the most grisly 29 pages I have encountered in half a century of reading about warfare. (Contrary to conventional history, Mr. Rogan faults Kitchener, not Churchill, for the disaster.)
Yet worse was to come for the British. A sizable army was surrounded by Turks when trying to seize Rut, a town 100 miles below Baghdad in what is now Iraq. Rations were down to five ounces per person a day (less for Indian troops, who would not eat horse meat). Thirteen thousand British troops were captured, including five generals — “the British army’s worst surrender ever,” writes Mr. Rogan. “Trees were dangling with corpses” of native troops who had fought with the British.
Concurrently, the Turks rid themselves of an ethnic population that they had long viewed with disdain: the Armenians. Racial hatred combined with wartime hysteria led the Turks to charge (falsely) the Armenians with siding with the Entente. A secret oral order was issued: “Exterminate all Armenian males 12 years of age or older.” Areas were to be “repopulated” so as not to contain more than 10 percent Armenians. The displaced were marched off into the desert in what an American diplomat reported as “the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has ever seen.” The estimated death far exceeded a million.
(A postwar Turkish tribunal — one torn by internal politics — passed death sentences on 18 persons for their role in the massacres; only three lower-ranked officials went to the gallows. Armenian exiles struck back with “Operation Nemesis,” the assassination of five of the convicted principals.)
But the Ottoman successes, spectacular as they might be, were offset by deep tribal and religious divisions. British intelligence operatives — with more promises than sincerity — persuaded the large Arabic population stretching from Arabia to Iraq to break with the Ottoman-German alliance in return for postwar independence under Hashemite rule. This sorry saga is well-known: Syria (and Lebanon), rather than becoming independent, were handed to the French. The stretch of territory then known as Palestine-Transjordan went to the British. The enclave of Palestine was to become divided into Jewish and Arab states. Egypt remained under British rule.
Some of the blame must be assigned to President Woodrow Wilson, whose “Fourteen Points” program for peace guaranteed self-determination for such states. The American president yielded on every point at the Versailles peace conference. Mr. Rogan concludes (and I must agree) that “outlandish agreements were concluded solely to advance Britain’s and France’s imperial expansion.”
But were these broken agreements the reason for the seemingly incessant turmoil in the Middle East? As Mr. Rogan makes plain, the region has been a cauldron of political and religious hatreds for centuries, and one could conclude that the outcome of the Great War simply extended an existing situation.
The war in the Middle East was no “sideshow,” but a tragedy that was every bit as costly and bitter as the fighting on the Western Front.
• Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.