The End of the Ottomans
Review: The Fall of the Ottomans, by Eugene Rogan, Allen Lane, £25
In Portrait of a Turkish Family, Irfan Orga recalled how, as a child in 1914, he eavesdropped on a family argument after war broke out in Europe and his father proposed they sell their home and business. “Nonsense!” his grandma snapped back, “Why should a war in Europe make any difference in our lives?”
As the Oxford historian Eugene Rogan recounts in this clear and authoritative book, others were less sure. A Lebanese cleric noted in August 1914 how the people in his village feared “the outbreak of a murderous war that would devour the cultivated lands and the dry earth.” Sadly they were right. Orga’s grandmother would lose two sons: one of them was Orga’s father, who died en route to the Dardanelles.
As the centenary of Gallipoli approaches, here comes a new history of the war in the Middle East. Whereas most previous works have focused on the Allied side of individual campaigns, Rogan offers us the Ottoman perspective, describing a failing empire beset by secessionists encouraged by circling foreign powers. As with his superb history of the Arabs, what distinguishes this book is its ambitious scope and its use of Turkish and Arabic sources that will be new to most British readers. I learned a huge amount.
Central to Rogan’s story is the Young Turks’ leader, Enver Pasha, an over-confident chancer who once removed a prime minister at gunpoint and “contemplated marching through Afghanistan to India”. If only Rogan had described other characters in this story as vividly.
Enver had wanted to stand back and let the Great Powers destroy one another. But his attempt to do so via secret deals with both Germany and – I never knew this – Russia backfired when two German warships he had purchased went off and bombarded the Russian port of Sevastopol.
Thus, the Ottomans were dragged into a war that would destroy them. Egged on by the Germans, the sultan, in his role as caliph, declared a jihad against their common enemy. The Germans hoped the call would turn millions of Muslims into a liability for the British and French empires in which they lived.
From then on “Much of the Allied war effort in the Middle East was driven by what proved to be an unwarranted fear of jihad,” says Rogan. The fear underlay the Dardanelles plan. “Win the ridge and we should win the Narrows,” wrote an Anzac officer. “Open the Narrows to the Navy and Constantinople was ours.”
The British underestimated both the geography and their opponents, whom Russia had just hammered in the Caucasus. “The country is much more difficult than I imagined,” admitted Kitchener, when finally he saw the battlefield himself. “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die,” barked Mustapha Kemal. His tenacious soldiers obeyed, in appalling numbers. The Gallipoli casualty figures show that “Little Mehmet” was twice as likely to die once wounded as his Tommy counterpart.
Far from bringing the war to an early close, Gallipoli prolonged and complicated it. The victory led Bulgaria to join the central powers, establishing a direct link between Istanbul and Berlin. The Turks embarked on a massacre of their Armenian subjects, who had rebelled simultaneously.
The British tried to put off any emboldened jihadis by throwing themselves at Baghdad. It ended in the humiliating surrender at Kut. In an example of how Rogan knits together different fronts, he argues that the surrender was forced on the British by a Turkish general trying to salvage Ottoman prestige after another cataclysmic Caucasus defeat.
It was not until late 1916 that British fortunes improved, after the outbreak of the Arab revolt in Mecca. In 1917 the Turks, ground down by disease, famine, pyrrhic victories and still more terrible defeats, lost Baghdad then Jerusalem. Meanwhile more enterprising tactics – including the extensive use of deception – helped secure British victories in Palestine that had eluded the plodding planners of Gallipoli.
The irony was that, while the fighting in the Middle East had no impact on the final outcome of the war, the outcome of the war had profound consequences for the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire was carved up by its vengeful European rivals, along lines devised secretly in the war, creating the states, and enmities, that we recognise today.First published in BBC History Magazine, April 2015.
© James Barr 2016