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The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in…

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015)

by Eugene Rogan

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This is one of those history books that shouldn't be missed by anyone interested in understanding the Middle East today. My knowledge of WW1 was very limited when I opened the Introduction--some stories I had been able to pry out of my American grandfather who served in Europe 1917-1918 and told me of how they scavenged for insects and worms when they ran out of food in the fields of France, Lawrence of Arabia's [b:Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph|57936|Seven Pillars of Wisdom A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)|T.E. Lawrence|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1393786656s/57936.jpg|56441] read in college, and a few concluding chapters in histories of the Middle East. But an insufficient background didn't hinder me in any way from being totally caught up in the spell-binding story author Rogan tells.

Other reviewers have covered the basic storyline so let me explain why this book is so outstanding: Rogan has not only made the history and key players easy to remember and follow, but through inserting short synopses and summaries along the way, ensures that no reader is left behind. Virtually every chapter opens, and ends, with a brief (2-3 paragraphs) summary that catches one up to date with what has happened, and reviews (most importantly) why it happened. It is as if his intent is that no one should read this book without really understanding what happened, what went right, what failed, and why. You read a difficult chapter and just when your mind begins to stray - a little summary appears explaining in a few sentences why the events just described happened, why they were important, and what they portend for the future. It is as if he needs us to understand.

Rogan narrates not only battle plans and statistics as recorded in official war records but also opens the pages of diaries and letters sent home from the front from its many combatants. No major story goes untold -- the Armenian massacres, the rise of Ataturk, the Ottoman triumph at Gallipoli, the Arab revolt, the enigmatic character of T. E. Lawrence, the horrors of the battlefield, the negotiations, the betrayals.

Early reviewers described this book as "thrilling, superb and colourful." I couldn't agree more. If you want to understand why the world is as it is today, find yourself a historical map of the Middle East and read this book.

( )
  pbjwelch | Jul 25, 2017 |
When ISIS swarmed into northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the hashtag they were using on their social media posts was #SykesPicotOver. Using a First World War diplomatic agreement to get traction on your terrorism – now that's some legacy. Of all the books I've read on 1914-18 since I started this centennial reading project, this is by far the one that had the most unexpected and startling things to teach me about how the conflict's repercussions can be seen in today's world: here in the Middle East, in former Ottoman territory, the famously execrable diplomatic skills of 1910s Europe are still, and in very direct ways, playing out their grisly consequences.

Perhaps this took me by surprise because, before picking this book up, I had mainly associated the war in Ottoman territory with the Gallipoli campaign – and even there, my knowledge was sketchy (lots of Anzacs, Churchill's fault, Atatürk involved somewhere?). Rogan is very good on Gallipoli, giving eye-watering details of the clouds of flies that swarmed over the dead bodies in no-man's-land before landing on the men's food – not to mention the incredible callousness of the attacks that Entente forces were compelled to make on Turkish positions. This was symbolised especially by the assault on the Nek, where,

[a]fter watching the first wave of 150 men mowed down by Turkish gunfire within yards of their trenches, Australian officers blindly followed orders and sent two further waves over the top to near certain death. At least 435 of the 450 men who attempted to storm the Nek fell dead or wounded, without inflicting a single Turkish casualty.

Rogan mixes strategic descriptions of troop movements with worm's-eye views from diaries and letters to great effect here, and throughout the book. Some of the anecdotes are extraordinary. I was reduced to a sobbing wreck by the experiences of Private Robert Eardley, of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who intervened to protect a wounded Turkish soldier from being killed at the hands of an Englishman. Protesting that the Turk was injured and defenceless, Eardley convinced his comrade to back off, and then gave the Ottoman soldier some water, and a cigarette, and improvised a bandage for his head-wound.

A few days later, the Turks counterattacked and retook the trench. Eardley was bayonetted in the process, and left half-conscious in a ditch. He came to as the Turkish soldiers were preparing to bury him. Just as they were about to finish him off, a Turkish infantryman with a bandage around his head leapt out in front of the rifles and protected him with his own body – the same man Eardley had looked after a couple of days before. After some back-and-forth between the Turks, Eardley was told by the enemy sergeant that he would not be harmed: ‘You would have died only for this soldier—you gave him water, you gave him smoke…you very good Englishman’, as Eardley recorded in his diary:

“I shook hands with this Turk (and would give all I possessed to see this man again). As our hands clasped I could see he understood for he lifted his eyes and called ‘Allah’ and then kissed me (I can feel this kiss even now on my cheek as if it was branded there or was part of my blood).”

While there is much excellent material on Gallipoli, it's when Rogan turns to Mesopotamia and the Middle East that he becomes truly enlightening, at least for someone with my level of ignorance about how this part of the war went down. The British takeover of Basra, and slow advance down the Tigris to Baghdad, amidst an atmosphere of competing religious and denominational tensions, was revelatory to me. Both the Entente and the Central Powers were obsessed with the potential of Islamic solidarity, and this was what made the Ottoman Empire such a key player in the minds of European policy-makers: the Germans hoped that Turkish presence in the war would mobilise the world's Muslims in their support, while the British and French, who counted thousands of colonial Muslims among their armies, were extremely nervous about any prospect of jihad. Even to the point of trying to fudge onomastics: ‘the British systematically referred to [the Iraqi city] Salman Pak by its classical Sassanid name, Ctesiphon’, in order to blur the Islamic significance of the site to all their Muslim Indian soldiers.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that this Islampolitik (as the Germans call it) was a feature only of misguided Western European thinking. The Turks, too, had ‘a firm belief in the Ottoman Empire's power to deploy Islam against its enemies at home and abroad’. In their case, it came down to convincing the Arabs that they, the Ottomans, represented the true leaders of Islam – a difficult job when it came to the Shiite Iraqis, who did not see eye to eye with the Sunni Turks.

It is in this context that the Arab uprising, observed and partly fomented by TE Lawrence, takes on its full importance. Indeed having finished this book, I now can't help feeling that it was one of the most essential sequences of the whole war, not just in its immediate effects but in its dispiriting political after-effects. The British desperately wooed Sharif Hussein of Mecca to their side, knowing that his authority would do a lot to counter any jihadism from the Ottomans; eventually, with the help of various Arab tribes of the Hijaz, they got him to declare himself King of the Arabs and move militarily against the Ottomans, with decisive effect.

But in the process the British had promised Hussein a whole lot of territory to which, once the war was won, they were no longer inclined to commit. The vast kingdom promised to the Sharif slowly, and shamefully, dissolved under efforts to carve up the Middle East between British (Sykes) and French (Picot) interests. Meanwhile Hussein, unprotected and with dwindling resources, was eventually taken over by a rival tribe – the Saudis. This has had its own dramatic consequences for the region.

History of hindsight is a dangerous thing, and Rogan is careful not to be too censorious about the diplomatic manoeuvres that brought this state of affairs about – manoeuvres that were, as he points out, a matter of wartime expedience, a fact that's often forgotten. Nevertheless it should be instructive to see quite how disastrously these decisions have backfired. As Rogan mildly says,

Had the European powers been concerned with establishing a stable Middle East, one can't help but think they would have gone about drafting the boundaries in a very different way.

Well, quite. And that's before you even get on to the creation of the state of Israel, another world-historical event on which much light is shed by an Ottoman-oriented narrative. I should also mention – if only because it's a huge part of this book which I haven't referred to yet – that Rogan's history puts the Armenian genocide front and centre in the story of the Ottoman war. The whole thing feels, to me, like a completely new and vital window on the period, demonstrating in the clearest way how necessary it is to understand this context in order to understand the modern Middle East. Plus, it's full of all those lovely contemporary aristocratic names like

Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein

which, as my wife pointed out, seems only a couple of steps away from Boaty McBoatface. Recommended for all history buffs, Middle East watchers, and anyone following ISIS's retweets. ( )
  Widsith | May 16, 2017 |
Fascinating account of the Ottoman involvement in WWI and how events of 100 years ago shape events today. ( )
  TDWolsey | Dec 8, 2016 |
In this book, Eugene Rogan presents a balanced assessment of World War I in the Middle East -- a subject I knew little about. After reading this book, I believe this aspect of the War seems to have the most lingering effects even today. For example, the Germans tried to use the Ottoman Sultan, who was also the spiritual head of all Muslims to incite a jihad. While unsuccessful in this case, the idea of jihad haunts the world today. The multiple, often conflicting, promises by Britain (and to a lesser extent, France) on the disposition of Ottoman lands led to feelings of betrayal that still plague the region. And, I think Mr. Rogan was right when he said the Ottomans "ultimately fell more as a result of the terms of peace than of the magnitude of their defeat."

Mr. Rogan personalized this book at the beginning with talk of his family's history at Galipoli, and continued to use examples of individual stories throughout the text, This made the book accessible, but I found it hard to read at times because there wasn't a strong enough narrative to hold the many facts together. And, it was a depressing read: the waste of human and animal life, atrocities against the Armenians (and others), the behaviour of major players -- and all without a lasting solution to peace in the region. ( )
  LynnB | Apr 5, 2016 |
The Great War, or World War I, took place not only in the two well-known main theaters of France (the Western Front) and in Russia (the Eastern Front), but also in several lesser known theaters such as Northern Italy, Serbia, Greece, and sub-Saharan Africa. Among the outer theaters, the war in the Middle East, directed against the Ottoman Empire, was the most significant in terms of strategy and in its lingering effects even today. Eugene Rogan, a professor of history at Oxford, has written a thorough overview of that conflict in The Fall of the Ottomans.

The war by the Entente Powers (England, France, and Russia) against the Ottoman Empire took place primarily on four fronts: (1) in eastern Anatolia, against the Russians; (2) on the Gallipoli peninsula, against the British Empire and, to a lesser degree, France; (3) in Mesopotamia [modern Iraq] against the British; and (4) in the Arabian Desert and Palestine, against the British and their quirky and only occasionally dependable allies, the Arabs.

The Ottomans were soundly beaten by the Russians in eastern Anatolia, and lost substantial territory to them. However, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist government in 1917, they voluntarily returned all the conquered land to the Ottomans!

The Ottomans handed the British a crushing defeat on the Gallipoli Peninsula after an enormous loss of life under execrable conditions for both sides. The battle was over control of the Dardanelles, the narrow strait in northwestern Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The hero of the monumental battle was the Turk, Mustafa Kemal, who later became “Ataturk,” the father of modern Turkey. Interestingly, Rogan attributes the British decision to attempt to “force the straits” more to Lord Kitchener than to Churchill, who took most of the blame.

The Ottomans also trounced the British invasion of Mesopotamia at first, surrounding and capturing the entire British force at Kut al-Amara. However, the British launched a second invasion up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which succeeded in capturing Bagdad, although efforts to rescue the first invasion force were unavailing.

The final defeat of the Ottomans was effected by the British invasion from Egypt, through the Sinai, and then up through Palestine and Syria. The British were aided by the Hashemite tribe of Arabs from Mecca, who conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula (but not Medina). The British conducted a war of movement, and the Ottomans were never able to establish a defensive line. The destruction of the Ottoman army in Syria forced them out of the war. The fall of Aleppo, the final battle of the war, took place on 26 October 1918, just a few days before Germany signed the Armistice on the Western Front.

Rogan is excellent at relating this complicated story, working in the political considerations that affected the battleground decisions. For instance, the stalemate on the Western Front was what induced Kitchener and Churchill to sponsor the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, and the disaster at Gallipoli caused the British to stray too far from their base of supply in Mesopotamia, resulting in the loss of several divisions at Kut.

Rogan also emphasizes the role religion played in many aspects of the war. Because the Ottoman Sultan was also the caliph - not only the head of government of the Empire, but also the spiritual head of all Muslims, his German allies urged him to call for jihad, for all Muslims to go to war in support of the caliph against the infidel British, French, and Russians. The British were terrified that their Muslim subjects in India would answer the call. The French also were concerned because of their colonies in North Africa. In the event, there were relatively few desertions to the Ottoman side. Fortunately for the British, the Hashemite rulers of central Arabia (the Hijaz) feared the Turks and were inveigled into an alliance with the British. As rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Hashemites seemed to count as much or more to Muslim Arabs than the Turkish Sultan, and the jihad never materialized.

Religion also played a major part in the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians, a group of Christian subjects who had little loyalty to their Turkish overlords. Much has been written about the “Armenian Genocide,” and Rogan comes down squarely on the side of those who say the Turks systematically attempted to exterminate that ethnicity by executing the young men and rounding up the women, children, and elderly and marching them to the Syrian desert with scanty supplies and little or no protection from Arab and Kurdish marauders. Even deniers of the genocide acknowledge that between 600,000 and 850,000 Armenians perished because of war time activities. Armenian historians put the number closer to between 1 million and 1.5 million. In addition, the Ottoman regime accused Assyrian Christians of collaboration with the Entente Powers, and 250,000 out of a total population 620,000 were killed during the war.

Arab and Kurdish marauders were a significant force in the rural areas of the Ottoman Empire. They preyed not only on the Armenians, but on stragglers from all the armies, whether Ottoman, Indian, or European. They were so dangerous and unruly that when an Ottoman garrison in Palestine surrendered to the British, the British allowed the garrison to keep their arms during their march to internment for protection against the local tribesmen.

During the course of the war, the British entered into several agreements with various parties (e.g., the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration) concerning the disposition of Ottoman lands at the conclusion of hostilities. The Russians were promised eastern Anatolia and Constantinople; the French were promised what is now Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon; the Hashemites were promised “all the Arab lands”; and the world’s Jews were promised “a homeland…in Palestine.” Obviously, not all these promises could be kept. The results of these overlapping promises and betrayals are still being felt today.

The Ottomans fared very badly at the Paris Peace Conference. Rogan asserts that “the Ottomans ultimately fell more as a result of the terms of the peace than of the magnitude of their defeat.” Virtually the entire empire was divided up and distributed to the victorious Entente Powers and even a few scraps were given to the Italians and Greeks, who “piled on” at the end once it was clear who would win.

In May 1919, Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, was ordered to supervise the demobilization of the Ottoman troops in central Anatolia. He chose to disobey those orders, and mounted a resistance movement, the Turkish National Movement, centered on the city of Ankara. Rogan writes:

"By 1922, after an intense war on three fronts—against the Armenians in the Caucasus, the French in Cilicia, and the Greeks in western Anatolia—the Kemalists achieved total victory over the foreign armies in Turkey."

The boundaries of the modern Turkish state (basically, Anatolia plus a littoral in Europe near Istanbul) were now set. The Turkish Grand National Assembly then voted to abolish the Ottoman Sultanate and establish a (sort of) democracy. Kemal became known as “Ataturk,” which translates as “father of the Turks.”

The Turks were not able to reclaim the European or Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of the modern states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Arabia were set at the Paris Peace Conference. The disasters attendant to that process are nicely set forth in David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. The Hashemites were granted control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, but they lost it in a war with Ibn-Saud, who founded modern Saudi Arabia.

Many Americans have a modest understanding of the war against the Ottomans, arising from such excellent motion pictures as "Lawrence of Arabia," "Gallipoli," and "The Light Horsemen," which are fairly accurate although superficial. I would thoroughly recommend reading Rogan’s book before seeing or re-seeing any of those films in order to put the events portrayed into a broader context.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Feb 18, 2016 |
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This book is dedicated to Isabelle Tui  Woods Rogan
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Lance Corporal John McDonald died at Gallipoli on 28 June 1915.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 046502307X, Hardcover)

In The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan weaves a captivating account of the First World War in the Middle East. Supplied by Germany with guns and military advisors, the Ottoman Empire entered the war with gusto, taking on the Russians in the Caucasus and the French and British in North Africa and South Asia. Caught off guard by the Ottomans’ innovative tactics and surprisingly effective forces, the Entente armies rapidly lost ground.

As Rogan shows, it was only by exploiting divisions within the Arab world that the Entente powers were able to break the Ottomans and turn the tide of the war. The ensuing treaties laid the groundwork for the modern Middle East: the Ottomans’ Arab holdings were distributed among the French and British victors, whose control over Palestine and Northern Iraq would have disastrous and lasting consequences.

A sweeping narrative of battles and political intrigue from Gallipoli to Damascus, The Fall of the Ottomans shows how a European conflict became a global conflagration.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:35 -0400)

Evaluates the impact of World War I on the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East as a whole, explaining the region's less-understood but essential contributions to the war and the establishment of present-day conflicts.

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