“Untangling the fateful web” – The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan

This is my review of “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan

The details of the Eastern Front during World War One are less well-known than the bitter battles in the trenches of France and Belgium, but are clearly important for an understanding not only of the fall of the long-established Ottomans and the later stages of the British Empire, but also of the formation of new Middle Eastern states which are the scene of so much instability and strife today.

This is one of those books which combines the forensic detail and analysis of an academic text with the anecdote and drama of a historical novel. Yet since the names of so many places and main players are unfamiliar to most readers and hard to keep in mind, it would have benefitted from more maps to show place-names and lines of attack for specific conflicts, with a time-line to summarise key events, and a “glossary” of the key people involved.

As a general reader, I reached saturation point with the logistics of the various battles, progressing from the icy winters of the Caucasus, through the exposed coastlines of the Dardanelles to the deserts of Mesopotamia and the Sinai peninsula, but no doubt the long-suffering soldiers, mainly colonials in the case of the British side, felt very much the same. Patterns emerge in all this, such as the courage, resilience and loyalty of troops in general, and the tendency for both the Turks and the British to suffer defeats through trying to fight on too many, or over-extended fronts, with inadequate troops and resources.

It is fascinating realise that the Turks only formed the alliance with Germany which dragged them into a protracted war to protect themselves from Russian designs on their territories in the Caucasus mountains and the shipping lanes through to the Black Sea. The Turkish advantages of familiarity with the terrain in say, Gallipoli or east of the Red Sea, together with the strong incentive to retain control of Istanbul should have been increased by the fact that most of the local inhabitants in the areas of conflict were Muslims, as were the Indian troops who found themselves shipped to Arabia. However, tribal Arab leaders were often tempted to revolt by what proved to be the ambiguous, even duplicitous promises made by the British, as in the “Husayn-McMahon Correspondence”, rather less well-known than the fateful, at the time secret Sykes-Picot agreement which (to simplify) planned to share former Ottoman lands of present-day Syria and Iraq between France and Britain. Representing the infamous Lord Kitchener, McMahon pledged “support for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants”, but refused to discuss the crucial issue of boundaries, on the ground it would be premature during “the heat of war”.

The author makes frequent use of eye-witness accounts, for instance of an Armenian priest who survived against the odds to describe the horrors of a genocide due to prejudice brought to a head by the desire for revenge against suspected disloyalty in wartime, and ordered by high-ranking Turkish officials, some of whom were eventually sentenced to death for this crime.

As regards the lighter or more digestible anecdotes, we read how, after a chain of humiliating British defeats, the wily General Allenby ordered his men to construct life-size models of horses in wood and canvas, to mislead German pilots who were pioneering the use of aerial reconnaissance. When an Indian deserter “spilled the beans” about Allenby’s plan to breach Ottoman lines on the Mediterranean in a final crucial battle to gain Palestine, he was dismissed by the Germans (who were directing proceedings in the area) as a suspect source of deliberate misinformation. Anzac (Australian and New Zealand ) cavalrymen who had loyally endued hardships and defeats through the poor planning of their leaders and serious ongoing communication problems, defied the rules as regard leaving their precious horses for the local livestock markets or butchers, preferring to shoot the animals themselves before travelling home.

In the aftermath, the desire of the majority of Palestinian Arabs to be ruled as part of Faysal’s Arab kingdom, free from Zionist programmes of immigration, was ignored. Stripped of its former colonies, Turkey lost its Ottoman sultanate not at the insistence of its foreign victors, but through the uprising of the charismatic leader who became Ataturk (“father of the Turks”) who raised the revolt against the partition of Anatolia.

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