The Ottoman empire: the last great casualty of the first world war

According to Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans, the collapse of the millennium-old empire triggered most of the problems that plague the Middle East today

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914–1920 Eugene Rogan

Allen Lane, pp.485, £25, ISBN: 9781846144387

In a possibly apocryphal story, Henry Kissinger, while visiting Beijing in 1972 as Nixon’s national security adviser, asked Zhou Enlai, China’s premier on the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. ‘It’s too soon to tell,’ was Zhou’s answer.

Zhou was not simply being enigmatic. His answer had a great deal to do with the enormous consequences that flow from cataclysmic events such as revolutions and wars, which influence the course of peoples and nations in ways that cannot be easily foreordained or traced. The Great War led to the dissolution of three European empires — Russian, Austrian and German — from which emerged unimaginable consequences for the future of Europe and indeed the world.

A fourth empire, that of the Ottomans, also suffered the same fate; but it was on the periphery of Europe and its fall did not merit the same attention as the other doomed European empires. However, the fall of the Ottoman empire mattered a great deal to the peoples of the Middle East, and it can be rightly said, in the manner of Zhou Enlai, that only now are we witnessing the true enormity of the aftershocks of its dissolution. This is the great virtue of Eugene Rogan’s masterly history of the Ottoman empire in its final years. The vast hole that the dissolution of the empire left was only partly and inadequately filled by the successor states that came into being in its wake. The monumental crisis of state sovereignty and even legitimacy that is being played out now in the Middle East can be linked directly to the circumstances which put an end to the Ottoman empire.

Rogan meticulously details the unfolding drama that began in the failure of the empire’s own political spring, the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908. Instead of heralding the onset of a liberal state, it delivered the empire to the increasingly authoritarian clique of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) which dominated the political life of the shrinking empire. Huge territories were lost in the mostly Christian Balkans in the disastrous Balkan wars of 1912–1913. Tripolitania came under Italian control at the same time, leaving the empire reduced to a Turkish and Arab core in Anatolia proper and the Arab lands of the Middle East.

A new lease of life beckoned, following an internal stabilisation of sorts backed by powerful economic growth. But the empire’s rulers, fearful of further encroachments on its territory and suspicious of the still significant and mostly Christian minorities in their midst, chose to ally themselves with the Central Powers.

In November 1914 the Ottoman empire entered the war against the Allies. The triumvirate that ruled the empire — Enver, Talat and Cemal — mobilised the by-now overwhelmingly Muslim population in a call to global jihad. Campaigns were launched against the Russians in the Caucasus and the British, ensconced since 1881 in Egypt and along the Suez canal. The campaign against the Russians ended in an epic defeat for Ottoman arms at the battle of Sarikamis in the winter of 1914. Of the 100,000 sent into battle, scarcely 18,000 survived. The Suez campaign also ended in defeat, but with nowhere near the casualties of the Caucasus front.

The Ottoman empire was now on the defensive. In November 1914 an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force landed in Basra, launching the British campaign to occupy Mesopotamia,while the Egyptian Expeditionary Force prepared to attack Palestine. Meanwhile, the British began the process of assiduously courting Sharif Hussein, the hereditary ruler of Mecca, to break with the Ottoman empire. They beguiled him with unclear promises of a united Arab nation, under his family’s rule, to emerge out of the wreckage of the empire.

Until 1917, the Ottoman empire was able to ward off the myriad threats that it confronted. A landing by a large Allied force in early 1915 in the Dardanelles, perilously close to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, was halted and then defeated at Gallipoli. The Allies withdrew in humiliation, handing the Ottomans a triumphal victory. In Mesopotamia, the advance of the Anglo-Indian expeditionary force towards Baghdad was checked, and the retreating army was besieged in Kut. In April 1916, the starved remnants of the expeditionary force surrendered to the Ottomans. The rising of Sharif Hussein in the Hijaz, in June 1916, under the field command of his son Faisal, was contained, with the important city of Medina still in Ottoman hands.

However, within the empire the situation was made more ominous by the triumvirate’s fears of the enemy within. The nascent Arab nationalist movement, based mainly in Damascus, was dealt a fearsome blow by the iron-fisted rule of Cemal Pasha, with dozens of its leading luminaries hanged for treason. But a far more disastrous fate awaited the millions of hapless Armenians of the empire, suspected of collaborating with the invading Russians in the dismemberment of the empire. Here Rogan is at his best as a critical historian of the first rank. While not discounting the exigencies of war, he clearly assigns responsibility for the massacre of Armenians to the written and spoken orders of the CUP. In a premeditated plan, nearly 1.5 million Armenians met their grisly end — through murder, starvation, disease and forced marches through the desert — in the 20th century’s first genocide.

However, by 1917, the tide had begun to turn against the Ottomans. The British regrouped in Mesopotamia and under the able General Maude occupied Baghdad in March. In Palestine, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under General Allenby broke out of the Sinai into Palestine proper. The Ottomans scored a victory in Gaza but it was not enough to prevent the roll back of their forces in Syria. Not even Russia’s withdrawal from the war as a result of the 1917 October revolution could help the Ottomans to concentrate more forces in Syria or Mesopotamia.

Allenby’s army, supported by the forces of Faisal’s Northern Army on its right flank, decisively defeated the Ottoman Seventh Army in the battle of Megiddo in September 1918. Jerusalem had already been lost in December 1917, and in October 1918 Arab and Allied forces occupied Damascus. Syria had fallen. On 31 October 1918, hostilities came to an end. The Ottoman empire accepted the terms of the onerous armistice of Mudros. The empire effectively ceased to exist at that moment. Istanbul was occupied in November 1918 and the empire was divided into subordinate mandated states — in effect a type of colonialism — for the Arabs of the empire. It opened the way for the establishment of the ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine, as envisaged by the
Balfour Declaration of 1917.

A shrivelled Turkey was also sought by the Allies, but this was heroically resisted by the rump of the Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal. They successfully fought wars against the Armenians in the Caucasus, the French in Cilicia and the Greeks in western Anatolia. In the treaty of Lausanne of 1923, the Allies recognised the independence of Turkey within its present-day frontiers. So ended the millennium-old empire, to be replaced by nation states whose very legitimacies are now being questioned; and by the still unresolved issues of loyalties, identities, religions and sects.

Eugene Rogan has written a meticulously researched, panoramic and engrossing history. The book is essential reading for understanding the evolution of the modern Middle East and the root causes of nearly all the conflicts that now plague the area. The Fall of the Ottomans is an altogether splendid work of historical writing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Ali A. Allawi was Iraq’s minister of finance in 2005–6, and author of The Occupation of Iraq, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization and Faisal I of Iraq.

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Show comments
  • AndyB

    Very useful review. As someone who has studied the C20th Spanish and Greek civil wars – as well as contemporary terrorism and civil wars through that context – this looks like an excellent contribution to the historiography. Reader – I bought the book.

  • Joe Parmaker

    A shallow review of a shallow book.

    • Joe Parmaker

      On the Armenians, it is curious that Rogan brushes quickly over the work of Justin McCarthy, the best demographer of the late Ottoman Empire, mentioning it only in passing. Rogan gives a number of estimated Armenian dead which is higher than the likely total number of Armenians in Turkey–about half of whom survived though alas in exile. Try reading McCarthy’s “Death and Exile” to discover another side of late Ottoman history.

  • ajcb

    The Kissinger-Zhou Enlai story I thought was by now generally accepted as a misunderstanding: Zhou thought he was asked for his view on the 1968 French student riots, whose ramifications, in 1972, were by anyone’s reckoning too early to call. Of course it makes a better story as Kissinger mis-understood it referencing the 1789 revolution, that the Chinese are indeed playing the long game.

    • right1_left1

      I never did understand what the French students wanted.
      Does anyone know ?
      Did they get it ?

      • ajcb

        It was a tantrum. (Dressed up in philosophies and left-wing/anti-establishment blah-di-blah-blah.)

        A post-WWII demographic teenaged bulge emerged in Germany as a “what-did-you-do-in-the-war-Daddy?” protest; in the US as a civil rights/anti-Vietnam war protest; in the UK as an anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam war, pro-rock music protest; in Czechoslovakia as an anti-USSR protest; in Italy as an anti-capitalist protest, etc, etc.. In each country was the same common denominator: they were teenaged, there were lots of them, and teenagers, by definition, complain — which leads to the conclusion that collective teenage moaning was the main point (rather than the specifics of their complaint in each case, valid as they may be).

        • amylola92

          that’s incredibly reductive. and wrong.

          • ajcb

            (If the 92 in your name is your birth year, you have no idea.)

          • amylola92

            nope. my birth year is 53. I do have an idea.

          • ajcb

            I stand by my comment and so obviously do not think it’s wrong, as you reductively put it.

          • amylola92

            To say the Czech protests are teenagers “moaning” about the USSR is not only reductive but insulting. Was Vaclev Havel a teenager? Or Bohumil Hrabal? And it was “anti-establishment blah blah blah” to protest the USSR? I am appalled that you would, yes, reduce that conflict to teenage moaning.

          • right1_left1

            Perhaps you could explain what the French students DID want. Maybe they were precursors of the UAF (Unite Against Fascism) I do remember they rushed thru’ the streets of Paris smashing things up.

            I saw a small UAF counter demo last Saturday 2nd May. They were chanting
            Fascists off OUR streets
            and either
            Police scum protect fascists
            Police fascists protect scum
            I forget which

            I assume they wanted the police to move on so they could attack the fascists.
            I didn’t feel confident enough to ask.
            i did throw them a nasty look but they didn’t notice.

            re the ‘off our streets’ chant.
            From the look of them not many had paid any tax at all.
            Violates their anarchist principles I expect.

  • MikeF

    There wasn’t really a ‘German Empire’ at the beginning of the First World War that could be dissolved at the end of it. Sure the German state called itself an empire and its ruler an emperor but in reality it was pretty much a unitary German nation state and continued to exist in much the same form after the Versailles Treaty.

    • ajcb

      (And four African colonies taken over from earlier colonisers: Togoland, Kamerun, German East Africa and German Southwest Africa.)

    • albert pike

      “There wasn’t really a ‘German Empire’ at the beginning of the First World War that could be dissolved at the end”

      Whether it was an Empire or not, German land was broken up and German people were ethnically cleansed from those lands. About 8 million died as a result.

  • right1_left1

    The really ginormous elephant present in the room is never mentioned.
    What is he saying ?

    I speak fluent elephant and it is this:
    (assuming post is not censured someone will no doubt make a joke at my expense hehehehehe )
    Listen Kuffir, had not Zionist interests declared UDI the region would be far more stable than it is today..

    I agree that Constantinople did not become Istanbul peacefully but neither did Israel float forth on a sea of tranquility.

    • albert pike

      It is quite possible that Britain went into WWI just to break up the Ottoman Empire in order to gain control of Palestine for the zionist project.

  • mdj

    ‘the 20th century’s first genocide…’;
    as Hitler might have put it, ‘Who now remembers the Herero?’