The fall of the Ottomans

The fall of the Ottomans

William Armstrong -
The fall of the Ottomans ‘The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920’ by Eugene Rogan (Allen Lane, 512 pages, £25)

The centenary of the First World War has attracted relatively little attention in the Middle East. With the region engulfed by turmoil, commemorating the Great War has not been high on the list of priorities. Nevertheless, echoes from 100 years ago still resonate amid the contemporary upheavals. The war’s effect in the Middle East was total, leading to the fall of the multinational Ottoman Empire and the collapse of an order that had defined much of the region for centuries. As Oxford historian Eugene Rogan writes in this sweeping new history, “in the Middle East, more than any other part of the world, the legacies of the Great War continue to be felt down to the present day.”

HDN The war in the East also had a direct effect on the European theater. The Ottoman Front, with its Asian battlefields and global soldiers, turned Europe’s Great War into a World War. It also considerably lengthened the conflict, confounding most Entente war planners who dismissed the fighting on the Ottoman Front as a sideshow. Having thought the crumbling Ottoman Empire would be the easiest belligerent to knock out of the war, the Entente powers found that their adversaries were actually doughty fighters who embroiled them in major campaigns, diverting hundreds of thousands of men and strategic materiel. Those campaigns ranged from the freezing mountains of the Caucasus to the arid expanse of the Sinai, from the Dardanelles Strait to Mesopotamia. Rogan’s book covers them all but manages to remain nuanced.

The Ottomans’ decision to enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in November 1914 was by no means a foregone conclusion. Ottoman decision makers hoped to avoid the dismantlement of their empire and perhaps even regain territory lost before the war. They prevaricated for months as they calculated how best to pursue these aims. Recognizing that the war was a European imperialist conflict, the Ottomans strived to pursue their interests outside until they could delay no longer. They explored alliance options with Britain, France and even the Russian archenemy, which had long coveted Istanbul, before throwing their lot in with the Kaiser.

As Rogan writes, “The Ottoman Empire was born of war, its frontiers drawn through centuries of conquest and conflict. However, only in November 1914 ... did [it] face the threat of war on all [its] frontiers at once.” Confronted by a life and death struggle and the gravest combination of challenges in their history, the Ottomans “threw everything they had into securing victory.” Rogan uses a diverse panorama of sources to tell this grand tale, including Turkish and Arab voices little known in the West. The book knits together high imperial diplomacy and geopolitical strategizing with vivid diary entries from civilians and the lowest-ranked soldiers, giving it an almost Tolstoyan sweep. The accounts of ordinary participants are often eloquent and insightful, illuminating the relentless horror and destruction of the various battlefields.

And there was plenty of horror. Though less well known than the battles on the Western Front, the fighting in the East was often even grimmer. The Allied attempt to force the Dardanelles and seize Istanbul, and the subsequent ground invasion of Gallipoli, descended into attritional trench warfare worse than that in Europe. Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha’s ill-fated push to advance the empire’s lines into the Russian controlled Caucasus in 1914-15 was as reckless as any bungling Allied commander’s scheme on the Western Front. That catastrophe was followed by the spread of contagious diseases that wiped out as many as 150,000 soldiers and civilians in Eastern Anatolia. Both factors compounded the dire Ottoman position and were crucial psychological precursors of the Armenian massacres that began a few months later, which most serious historians today view as genocide. Rogan’s account of the Armenians’ fate - two million displaced en masse, most of whom were indiscriminately massacred - is sensitive and judicious, detailing the desperate position of the Ottoman Empire and the ambiguous loyalties of many Armenians, while in no way exonerating the perpetrators.

Rogan is particularly interesting on Sultan Mehmed V’s “made in Germany” call for jihad in November 1914. The Germans hoped the declaration would stir an Islamic uprising in the British and French colonies in India and North Africa, while also dividing the hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers serving under the French and the British. Although the caliph’s jihad call was largely a flop, it did affect the calculations of both sides throughout the war, with France and Britain terrified of its potential potency. In Rogan’s words, “The propaganda war both for and against the Ottoman jihad was being fought by European Orientalists - British, French, and German.” In many ways, the Europeans proved more responsive to the call to jihad than had Muslims anywhere.

Far more potent was the British encouragement of Arab rebels against the Ottoman Empire. Plenty of Arabs were already agitating against Constantinople, but Britain gave them a critical push and helped coordinate attacks against Ottoman positions throughout Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. The British alliance with the Hashemite revolt continued despite revelations of British double-dealing, and it ultimately forced the Ottomans out of the region at the end of the war. European imperialism replaced Ottoman Turkish rule, and the British found it much easier to disappoint the Arabs than anger the French as they juggled interests. Rogan tells the tale in all its unvarnished detail, including the 1917 Balfour Declaration’s contradictory promise to honor the rights of both Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. Such promises were made out of short-term wartime calculations, but ended up having grave long-term ramifications.

The victorious Allies’ post-war impositions attempted the complete dismemberment of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Even harsher than those inflicted on the Germans at Versailles, the conditions were forced onto a powerless sultan and central government in Constantinople. However, led by Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, the Turks were already planting the seeds of a resistance struggle in Anatolia that would eventually lead to the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Elsewhere, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire led to the formal partition of most of the Middle East into colonial mandates. For better or worse, the order of nation states that emerged remained essentially stable for almost 100 years. Whether or not one believes that the Middle East’s present day problems can all be traced back to the rupture of the Great War, there is no doubt that the conflict shaped much of the region for the next century. Rogan’s book is a terrific account of how that happened.