The Fall of the Ottomans

The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920

Eugene Rogan

Allen Lane, UK, 2015

My wife had come across this book some time ago, and had thought it to be the most worthwhile one on the topic. At the time, she was researching the fate of an ex-patriate British lady in the Ottoman Empire. Neither of us then knew anything about the author. In fact, Eugene Rogan is professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. His writing is lucid and very easy to follow.

The Ottoman Empire comprised immense ethnic diversity, including Arabs, Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, and a variety of religions, including Shia and Sunni Muslims, Jews and a variety of Christians. The Empire covered the modern Middle East and more. Professor Rogan has opined that if the Ottoman Empire had not been dragged into World War One, it could still exist today and we would have a stable Middle East.

Many people will automatically think of the Gallipoli disaster when they consider Ottoman Turkey in World War One. Professor Rogan’s great uncle and his best friend were both fatalities at Gully Ravine. The British and Commonwealth fatalities were 3,800 but on a visit there the author discovered a memorial to the Ottomans’ 14,000 fatalities, a figure which is often ignored by British sources.

Much of the philosophy of attacking Ottoman Turkey was to knock it out of the war. In fact, Turkey stayed in the war until the last few weeks. Not only was the resolve of the Ottomans grossly underestimated but Gallipoli provided Turkey with its first victory in decades. They had lost a war against the Greeks for Greek independence, against Italy for control of Libya, the two Balkan Wars, against Russia in the Caucasus, and had ceded control of Cyprus and Egypt to Britain and of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austro-Hungary, amongst other disasters. Gallipoli was when the tide turned, thanks to the incompetence of the Entente powers. It also was the foundation of Mustafa Kemal’s reputation as a leader.

Gallipoli was not the only theatre for the Ottomans. They fought the western Entente powers in Mesopotamia, Syria, Transjordan, Palestine, Sinai, Egypt, and the Hijaz, and the Russians in the Caucasus. These campaigns diverted hundreds of thousands of Entente troops from the western front and served to lengthen the Great War.

The major upheaval in Ottoman politics in the early 20th century was the Young Turks, a group of army officers, who rose in rebellion in 1908 against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II. The Young Turks were a popular “new broom” but their actions ultimately lead to their own deaths and that of millions of others.

The declaration of a holy war, a “jihad”, in November 1914 was envisaged by the Ottomans as a means of uniting their varied empire against the Entente powers. In religious terms, it was slightly odd in that it called for a war against some non-Muslims, ie France, Britain and Russia, but not against others, ie Germany and Austro-Hungary. The British and French saw the jihad declaration as being a ploy to unsettle their Muslim colonial subjects, but that seems to have been, at best, only a secondary objective of the Ottomans.

At the end of the war, the Young Turk leadership fled Istanbul at night to escape the anger of their own people on whom they had brought suffering, and now the indignity of an Allied occupation. The new Turkish regime sought to assuage the wrath of the Allies by convening tribunals to try the perpetrators of the Armenian massacres. Figures cited in the Ottoman parliament for the massacres ranged from 800,000 to 1.5 million. The tribunal process started in January and March 1919 with arrests of three hundred Turkish officials. The process petered out in August 1920. Eighteen officials were sentenced to death and three were actually executed. The proceedings of these trials has existed in the public domain in Ottoman Turkish since 1919, and, as the author states, make a mockery of attempts to deny the role of the Young Turks’ government in ordering and carrying this genocide. Several of the key figures then in exile were hunted down and killed by members of the Armenian Dashnak organisation. The only member of the ruling triumvirate to escape assassination was Enver who was killed in a battle near Dushanbe in the Tajik-Uzbek border region, leading a Muslim militia against Bolsheviks in August 1922. By 1926, ten of the eighteen condemned men were dead, with the others left looking over their shoulder for the rest of their days.

The “follow on” war where Mustafa Kemal routed foreign armies from Turkey and established the modern state is only dealt with in summary, as that event took place after 1920, the cut-off date for this book. Nonetheless, his seminal role in post-WWI Turkey is recognised.

The conclusion of the book reflects on the relative absence of commemoration of the centenary of WWI in the Middle East. Indeed, there is little perception today in the countries that were carved out of the Ottoman Empire that they and their citizens were involved in the conflict at all. There are, for example, few war memorials. Perhaps the real commemoration is the turmoil which many of those countries are in.

To quote Professor Rogan’s final words in the book:

“Yet as the war is remembered in the rest of the world, the part the Ottomans played in that conflict must be taken into account. For the Ottoman front, with its Asian battlefields and global soldiers, turned Europe’s Great War into the First World War. And 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”.

If you are interested in WWI in the Middle East, this book is a key to much of it.