The Fall of the Ottomans – Eugene Rogan
I owe you all an apology. A few months ago I vowed that I would not read another book about the First World War but then this tome came along which documents the war in the Middle East from 1914 to 1920.
In my defence whilst the savagery of the settlement documented in the Treaty of Versailles lit a simmering fuse which ignited German resentment and nationalism thus causing the second World War, many of the geo-political fault lines which are causing the world so much trouble in the Middle east owe their origin to the cavalier imperialism of the English and French in determining the shape of territories without much reference to the indigenous peoples. The most egregious example of that, the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement features heavily today in ISIS propaganda as something they are looking to eradicate. Indeed, their caliphate in Mesopotamia was in direct response to the agreement. Enough of my apologia!
By the start of the First World War the Ottoman Empire was already on its knees, having lost control (to disastrous effect) of the Balkans and a group of aggressive modernisers, the CUP or “Young Turks” staged a coup with the intentions of restoring the empire to its former glory. They sided with the Germans and Austrians and their early campaigns to recover lost territories in the Caucasus and to recapture Egypt ended in humiliating defeats resulting in large-scale and tragic loss of life. For Western strategists looking for success to counterbalance the grinding stalemate on the Western fronts, attacking the weakest member of the enemy had its attractions.
Uppermost in the thinking of the British was the fear of a jihad – one of the aims of the Young Turks was to foment uprisings amongst the Moslem communities of which one of the largest was in unpartitioned India – and an overpowering desire to secure the sea passages to India. Seen in this context an attack at the heart of the Ottoman empire – on the Dardanelles – made some kind of sense. But the need for cannon fodder on the Western front always meant that there were few spare resources for other theatres and losses elsewhere had a detrimental effect on the ability to persecute the campaigns in France and Belgium.
The tragic Gallipoli campaign has been recounted on numerous occasions but mainly from the Western/ANZAC perspective. Rogan switches the emphasis as much to the suffering of the Ottoman troops who, although ultimately victorious (after a fashion), retained control of their territory at enormous cost.
The Young Turks were paranoid and concerned about the presence of fifth columnists in their territory, none more so than the Armenians, some of whom had displayed support for the Russians. The forced migration of Armenian communities and the death marches rightly feature prominently in Rogan’s account.
The Young Turks’ aim at playing on the Western imperial powers’ fears of jihad eventually rebounded on them. The Arabs, who themselves were viewed as potential fifth columnists by the paranoid Turks, were persuaded by British promises which were lacking in actualite to revolt and this, together with the activities of one T E Lawrence, enabled successful campaigns to be launched in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
After the war the demise of the empire was quick. But the sultan was willing to cede too much territory to the victors, prompting his deposition, a civil war, the rise of Kamal Ataturk and the establishment of what is now modern-day Turkey.
Rogan’s account is comprehensive, well written but in a monotone. There are some fabulous characters and eccentrics in the story as well as truly horrendous human tragedies. Rogan’s brush paints them all the same. Still, if you want to understand the region you would do worse than starting here.