(Lisa Kaaki) - The end of the World War I marked the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of new countries
. Lebanon and Syria were both created by France in the 1920s. These arbitrary boundaries, which opened a new chapter in the region, have been at the center of conflicts ever since. The Civil War that began in Lebanon in 1975 and lasted 15 years caused the deaths of 120,000 people.
Syria has also been devastated by a bloody war in which Europe was conspicuous by its absence. At a time when many Arab countries are divided by political and sectarian passions, a lot of discussion focuses on the Great War’s partition plans. In a timely and meticulously researched book, Eugene Rogan sheds light on the neglected Middle-Eastern theater of World War I.
“The Fall of the Ottomans – The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920” fills a void. Very little is known about the Turkish and Arab experiences of the Great War and its centenary also attracted little attention in the Middle East. Yet battles were fought in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. It was these battlefields stretching from Turkey to Iran, across the Arab provinces, and across North Africa that dragged the Middle East into the war and ultimately redesigned the map of the entire region.
When the Ottoman Empire called for a Holy War on Nov. 14, 1914, it was already described as crumbling. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottomans began losing wars to the Russian Empire of Catherine the Great and to the Habsburg emperors. By the early 19th century, the Ottomans lost Greece, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, which became independent and Bosnia, Herzegovina and Bulgaria became autonomous. Then between 1878 and 1882, Britain took over Cyprus and Egypt, Russia annexed three provinces in the Ottoman Caucasus in 1878 and finally, France occupied Tunisia in 1881.
As the news of the war reached the rest of the world, the Ottomans were hoping that Arabs and Turks within the empire would respond favorably to the Sultan’s call for a holy war. In 1914, the greatest number of Muslims lived under colonial rule: 100 million under British rule, 20 Million in French colonies and another 20 million within the Russian Empire. It now remained to be seen if the Sultan’s call for Jihad against Britain, France and Russia would affect Muslim loyalties toward the Entente.
Rogan has used Turkish and Arabic sources that tell the story through Ottoman eyes. In a diary, that belonged to a Muslim cleric from the southern Lebanese village of Nabatiyye, one can read how the people reacted on Aug. 3, 1914. These few lines captures admirably the shock and consternation felt across the Ottoman Empire:
“The people were deeply troubled and agitated by the news (of general mobilization). They gathered in small groups in public spaces, astonished and bewildered, as if confronting the Day of Judgment. Some wanted to flee but where would they go? Others wanted to escape, but there was no way out. Then we heard that war had broken out between Germany and Austria on one side, and the Allies on the other side. This only increased the fear and alarm of the outbreak of a murderous war that would devour the cultivated lands and the dry earth.”
According to the author, the diaries and memoirs of Turkish soldiers and low-ranking officers are the most original contribution that the book offers to Western readers.
In an interview he gave to the Hurriyet Daily News, Rogan said that:
“What is really striking is how common the experiences of that horrible conflict was to all sides. It shouldn’t surprise us, but they all experienced the industrial warfare of the Great War in very similar ways. They suffered the same discomforts, and unhealthy conditions in the trenches, they suffered equally from what we would call shellshock, or traumatic stress disorders that are associated with relentless warfare … The Britons assumed they would be fighting on the Western Front, while the Ottomans had never anticipated making war against Great Britain. So they had no predisposition to hate each other. When the trenches got close to each other … they would exchange greetings or jokes … they would even throw things to each other out of kindness – a Turk would throw a pack of cigarettes or a Tommy would throw a pot of jam. One Turkish diarist comments on how nobody ever took the opportunity to mix dirt in with the jam, and nobody followed up a pack of cigarettes with a hand grenade. They threw gifts to each other’s lines in genuine acts of comradery. Such examples leap out as extraordinary human exchanges in the monstrous machine of war.”
One of the most interesting chapters deals with the Arab revolt and particularly the role played by Sharif Husayn, who was emir of Makkah. The British and the Turks were both searching for an alliance with Sharif Husayn. When the latter learned of the Young Turks’ plan to murder him, he turned toward Britain. But the very lands that Sharif Husayn was negotiating with the British were also at the center of secret discussions between France and Britain. On June 10, 1916, the Hashemites led by Sharif Husayn entered the war against the Turks. A few months later, with the help of his sons — Ali, Abdullah, Faysal and Zayd — had won over Makkah, Taif, as well as Jeddah, Rabigh and Yanbu. Then in the beginning of December, the military situation tilted toward the Ottoman forces. They had won several battles. Capt. T.E. Lawrence believed that Hashemite forces were about to lose but on Dec. 11, 1916, the Ottoman army that reached the outskirts of Yanbu was in a very bad shape. Although they were in a position to chase the Arab forces, they could not deal with the Royal Navy. “So, they turned back. And that night, I believe, the Turks had lost their war.”
A year later, on the Dec. 9, 1917, 401 years of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem had come to an end. The Ottomans had also lost control over three cities: Makkah, Baghdad and Jerusalem. The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the Ottoman sultanate on Nov. 1, 1922.
The Hashemite claims to Greater Syria collided with French demands and they surrendered Madinah in December 1925. Sharif Husayn had every reason to feel bitter. He had been betrayed by secret negotiations that took place all along.
“These outlandish agreements, which were only conceivable in wartime, were concluded solely to advance Britain and France’s imperial expansion. 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,” concludes Eugene Rogan.
This masterful account of World War I opens up a window to vital chapters in the history of the Great War. The extensive Turkish and Arabic sources, used mostly for the first time, bring events alive and contribute to highlight the little known viewpoint of the Ottoman Empire. Magnificent, captivating and easy to read, “The Fall of the Ottomans” is in a league of its own.