The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East review
The Ottoman Empire, already in a parlous state in 1914, was torn apart by the end of the first World War, as the cataclysm exposed its ethnic and religious fault lines
Lost cause: Turkish infantry during the first World War. Photograph: Bain/Library of Congress
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920
‘Tis all a chequer board of nights and days where Destiny with men for pieces plays.”
The words of the Persian poet and mathematician,Omar Khayyam, written nearly 1,000 years ago, could not be more apposite to Eugene Rogan’s detailed account and analysis of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time the First World War started, the Ottoman Empire was in a parlous state. When the Sultan Abdulhamid II came to the throne in 1876 – of the two who had preceded him, one had cut his wrists while the other left office after three months – he was seen as a young reformer who introduced the idea of parliamentary democracy. However, when the first elected parliament refused to support his jihad against an increasing Russian threat, he cast democracy aside and took over the reins of government himself. Two years later, following unrest in the Balkans, the Treaty of Berlin relieved the Empire of two fifths of its Balkan territories and led to Cyprus being controlled by the British, Tunisia by the French and Egypt handed into the care of the British.
It was this chaos, augmented by the Sultan’s autocracy, that led to the 1908 Young Turk Revolution which, like many revolts, looked like a good thing at the time. But, five years on, after the Italian/Turkish war – when Italy sought to occupy the Libyan hinterland – the 1913 Treaty of London resulted in the Ottomans losing a further 60,000 acres of territory and four million inhabitants. This was devastating to a regime which, following the end of the Byzantine era, took on the role of “the greatest Islamic empire in the world” but which, by 1914, was now diminished beyond recognition.
Small wonder, therefore, that Ottoman victories such as that at Gallipoli smelled so sweet to a population whose morale was at an all-time low.
Eugene Rogan, an American of Scottish extraction, took a two-year sabbatical from his post as Director of Oxford University’s Middle East Centre to work on this book. His previous book, The Arabs, is a detailed study of a complex people and this latest publication is every bit as kalaidescopic, reminding us of “. . . the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman Empire, where Arabs, Kurds, Greeks and Armenians had as much claim to an Ottoman identity as the Turks did”.
In 1914, there were 100 million Muslims living under British imperial rule, with 20 million in the French Empire and a further 20 million in the Russian Empire, all of which meant that loyalty within the ranks of the colonised could never be taken for granted. The various jihads issuing from Istanbul were problematic to Muslims in distant lands when mobilisation was paramount. So, while the Ottomans, in their recruitment drive, instructed their village headmen to use “drums, joy and gladness”, their German allies set up a camp for Muslim PoWs in Berlin with the aim of encouraging the mainly North African prisoners to break from their former colonial masters and join the Ottoman army. Within the camp was built an ornate mosque funded by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.
Elsewhere, conscription was draconian, with people forced also to contribute cash and goods to the war effort. (In Damascus, a Singer sewing machine was accepted as currency.) The Ottoman Turks did not trust the Ottoman Arabs. Also not trusted, especially by the Young Turks, were the Ottoman Armenians, who, suspected of siding with Russia in the belief that they might fare better under a Christian empire than an Islamic one, were persecuted.
Here I have to acknowledge a particular interest as I once spent a few days pedalling along the Euphrates to Deir ez Zour, in Syria, and visited the church erected in memory of the thousands of Armenians who perished in the forced march along that same route. The church has now been desecrated and is in the hands of Isis.
Perhaps the best example of cultural/religious differences in this war of civilisations occurs in Rogan’s account of another major Ottoman victory: the siege of Kut. This prosperous town, situated on a bend of the river Tigris, lay 100 miles south of Baghdad, in present day Iraq. Occupied by the British, it was attacked relentlessly by the Ottomans in a siege that lasted four months.
By the end of January 1916, the British troops were living on half rations. Hindu soldiers refused to eat meat while their Muslim comrades refused to eat horse meat. “With fewer calories in their daily diet, Indian soldiers suffered the effects of exposure to the cold and damp, took ill, and died in greater numbers than the carnivorous British soldiers.”
A message from the besiegers proposed the British should surrender and while this was rejected, the British commander Charles Townsend, sent word to London that if he were not relieved by April 17th, he would be forced to surrender. In reply, Kitchener arranged an aerial drop of 2.500 pounds of food which amounted to little more than five ounces per head. Twelve days later, Townsend surrendered. The siege had lasted 146 days and cost the lives of 13,000 of his men including 6,988 Indian soldiers. The Ottomans declared the day of surrender, April 29, a day of national celebration.
Like a salesman displaying his fearful wares, Rogan sets out the intricate details of a war fought on so many fronts (the Ottomans had more than 7,500 miles of borders and coastlines to protect) and with the theatre of war roaming over Europe, Africa and Asia, events inevitably interconnected. In May 1916, seven Syrians were hanged for treason in Marjeh Square in Damascus while in Dublin, that same week, James Connolly, also found guilty of treason, was the last to face the firing squad, in Kilmainham Gaol.
But though Rogan documents the military successes of the Ottomans, the fact remains that, in 1920, they were in a worse position than they had been at the beginning of the war. By the terms of various treaties, Arab lands were to be partitioned, Armenians and Kurds were to be given their own territories, the Bosporous passed out of the control of the Ottomans and, as Rogan writes, “the Ottoman Empire was effectively reduced to those parts of central Anatolia that nobody else wanted”. And so it was left to Kemal Atatürk, the hero of Gallipoli, to pick up the pieces, fragments of which are still with us. As Rogan writes in his closing pages: “In the Middle East more than in any other part of the world, the legacies of the Great War continue to be felt down to the present day.”
Mary Russell’s most recent book is My Home is Your Home: A Journey Round Syria