THE LONG READ: FORGET LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, HERE'S THE REAL HISTORY OF THE MIDDLE EAST AND WORLD WAR 1

The National, UAE
Feb 26 2015

Justin Marozzi
February 26, 2015

On November 11, 1914, Sheikh Al テつ*Islam Urguplu Hayri Bey, the supreme
religious authority in the Ottoman Empire, posed a dramatic question in
the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Mosque, one of the most venerable monuments on
the Istanbul skyline. The question, and the emphatic one-word answer
it generated, would affect the lives of millions of Muslims, as well
as their adversaries, across the Middle East over the next four years.

"Question: When it occurs that テつ*enemies attack the Islamic world, when
it has been established that they seize and pillage Islamic countries
and capture Muslim persons and when his Majesty the Padishah of Islam
[the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V] thereupon orders the jihad in the form
of a general mobilisation, has jihad then ... become incumbent on
all Muslims and has it become an individual duty for all Muslims in
all parts of the world, be they young or old, on foot or mounted,
to hasten to partake in the jihad with their goods and money?

"Answer: Yes."

Traditionally, historians have downplayed the significance of the
ensuing German-orchestrated jihad against the Allies, to the extent
that it has been branded irrelevant to the wider war effort.

テつ*Certainly it did not have the devastating effect wished for by its
architects and, on this purely military level, it can be contrasted
with the more immediately effective British-sponsored uprising of the
Arabs against the Ottomans, their co-religionists and long-standing
colonial overlords.

Yet this explanation, says Professor Eugene Rogan, the author of a
new landmark study - The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the
Middle East, 1914-1920 - fails to take into account the effect the
jihad had on the Entente Powers or Allies.

"I think it failed to provoke a global Islamic uprising, but the way
it played on British and French war planners was very significant,
right through to the fall of Jerusalem in November 1917. The British
were preoccupied that defeats at the hands of the Ottomans might
テつ*provoke uprisings by colonial Muslims in India and Egypt - and it
really shaped a lot of their wartime planning. So to say the jihad
was irrelevant needs revising."

The uniquely western perspective of fighting on the Ottoman Front,
long a neglected and underrated theatre of the First World War with the
exception of the numerous works about Lawrence and the Arab Revolt,
has been equally in need of revision. Just as for many Europeans,
particularly the British and French, the Great War is popularly known
almost exclusively as a Western Front affair, so with the war in the
Middle East, European and especially British historians have tended
to see the conflict through a British lens. Thus we have those hoary
staples of "Churchill's debacle" at Gallipoli; "Townshend's surrender"
at Al Kut, the most ignominious in British military history; "Maude's
entry" into Baghdad in March 1917, ending 383 years of Ottoman rule;
"Allenby's conquest" of Jerusalem in November that year. And, of
course, that most enigmatic and quintessentially British figure, with
a liberal sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, "Lawrence of Arabia",
long lionised by Brits as the leader of the Arab Revolt. Arabs, it
hardly needs explaining, have consistently and vigorously contested
this view, including most recently the distinguished Iraqi historian
Ali Allawi in his 2014 biography Faisal I of Iraq.

This Eurocentric approach to the war in the Middle East tends to be
parochial to the point of one-sided, a narrow perspective which Rogan
is keen to widen. While David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace
(1989) reflected the classic view from British archives, Kristian
Coates Ulrichsen's The First World War in the Middle East (2014)
offered a broader canvas. With Rogan, Gallipoli, Kut and Gaza now
rightly become hard-won, resounding Ottoman victories rather than
heroic British defeats. Far from proving the key to a swift end to war
through a lightning defeat of the "Weak Man of Europe", as the Allies
had anticipated, the Ottoman Front only succeeded in lengthening -
and vastly broadening - the greater conflict, claiming millions of
soldiers from the Entente and Central Alliances.

What is especially welcome in this study is the long overdue focus on
the experiences of Turkish and Arab soldiers and civilians during the
war, culled from a series of recently published diaries and memoirs.

During the past 10 years, perhaps 30 Ottoman soldiers' diaries have
been published in Turkey, counterparts to visceral British works such
as Pテ「[email protected]~IW Long's Other Ranks of Kut (1938). These are alternately
harrowing, heart-rending, sometimes amusing, but always intensely
human documents. Rogan says they were "the most exciting part of
writing the book. They allow us for the first time to approach the
common soldier's experience of fighting, and what's so exciting are
the parallels between what they write and what western soldiers write -
we've never had it from both sides of the trenches before."

Thus we hear the voices of ordinary men such as Corporal Ali Riza Eti,
a Turkish medic called up for military service to fight the Russians
at Kテδカprukテδカy, the first Ottoman battle of the First World War in
November 1914. Eti transcribed the terrifying symphony of bullets
as civ civ civ. "As it was my first day [of fighting], I was very
afraid of dying," he noted in his diary. "With each civ I broke out
in a sweat from my teeth to my toenails."

French and Ottoman soldiers' diaries bear common witness to the terror
of hearing the enemy digging under their lines. "The Turks wrote a lot
of poetry too, much of it very bad, like that of the soldiers they
were fighting," says Rogan. "The experience was so big it seemed to
defy prose so they resorted to poetry to do justice to it."

Rogan charts how the emerging Arab movement pressing for rights
for Arab subjects within the Ottoman Empire came under ever more
severe Young Turk repression in the lead-up to the Great War. Tens
of thousands were exiled for their political views and dozens were
hanged in Beirut and Damascus in 1916. Increased Ottoman suppression,
combined with the hardship of the war years, fuelled increasingly
separatist views among the Arabs.

Though sensitive to the general sophistication of Ottoman rule,
Rogan does not pull his punches on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The
chapter detailing "the annihilation of the Armenians", with systematic
massacres of males who were 12 years and over, often within sight or
hearing of their womenfolk, sounds an eloquent riposte to long-standing
Turkish denial of these "crimes against humanity".

Tテ「[email protected]~IE Lawrence famously considered the Arab Revolt "a sideshow of
a sideshow". By contrast, Rogan demonstrates that the Ottoman Front
writ large was unquestionably an international affair that transformed
Europe's Great War into the First World War.

Here the British made common cause with South Asians, North Africans
and New Zealanders, Australians, Senegalese, Sudanese and the French
to fight a polyglot Ottoman army containing Turks, Arabs, Kurds,
Armenians and Circassians. The Ottoman Front was "a veritable tower
of Babel, an unprecedented conflict between international armies".

Much of the turmoil currently convulsing the Middle East can find its
echoes on the region's battlefields a century ago. "What we forget was
that the war was fought in many areas of the Middle East," Rogan says.

"There was fighting that affected people's daily lives in Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, across the Hijaz, in Iran
and in Turkey. The number of people touched by the war counted in
the millions."

Death came through disease, spread by the movement of huge armies,
through famine and through direct conflict.

Another argument that comes in for intense re-examination concerns
British wartime partition plans, which are typically considered
"deeply duplicitous" in promising the same land to multiple parties.

It is only by studying the series of different diplomatic agreements
within their immediate military context, Rogan convincingly argues,
that it becomes clear that diplomacy consistently was playing
second fiddle to the overriding objective of winning an increasingly
murderous war.

Thus the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, in which France and
Britain promised Russia the prizes of Istanbul and the Dardanelles,
reflected Allied confidence in a swift capture of the Ottoman
capital. The protracted Hussein-McMahon Correspondence with the
Hashemites in 1915-16 was engendered by Britain's need for an Arab
ally to counter the rabble-raising Ottoman jihad. Then came the
Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to carve up the Ottoman
Middle East, struck in anticipation of an imminent Ottoman collapse
that then proved stubbornly elusive. The ominous and conflicting
Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a belated effort to recalibrate
Sykes-Picot and secure British rule for Palestine. In Rogan's words:
"Britain was not thinking about drawing up borders in the Middle East
so much as defeating the テつ*Germans."

With the war won, and the ailing Ottoman Empire on its deathbed,
the Great Powers turned avaricious eyes on the post-war prize of the
Middle East. To the victors the spoils. In the last years of Sunni
Muslim Ottoman rule, from the Young Turks revolution of 1908, the
mixed populations of the Middle East had been represented in Istanbul
on equal terms. The traditional dhimmi status for Jews and Christians
had been abolished. Now Muslim rule gave way to European imperialism.

The new masters were determined to snuff out the aspirations for Arab
independence they had ignited only a couple of years earlier.

For Rogan, the conflict has left a distinctly baleful legacy in the
region. "I think the Middle East has suffered more from the enduring
consequences of World War I than practically any other part of the
world," he says.

Although the British and French successfully created what proved
to be a remarkably resilient state system in which borders survived
virtually intact for a century, they also left a legacy of unresolved
national issues, which have continued to destabilise the region.

Stable on one level, the long-lasting borders have engendered multiple
conflicts on the other, notably with Palestine and the Kurds.

In fact, the legacy of the Great War in the Middle East extends far
beyond Israel, the Palestinians and the Kurds. Lebanon emerged with the
seeds of sectarian conflict planted within its own borders, vulnerable
to ambitions from a Syria that was never reconciled to its loss.

Perhaps nowhere, though, has been as bloodied and scarred by its
modern history as Iraq, conceived by the British as a union between
the three related but separate Ottoman vilayets or provinces of
Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. After a brief period of hope under a
fledgling monarchy that lasted from 1921 to 1958, Iraqis have not
been able to break the ensuing vicious cycle of revolutions, coups,
wars and dictatorship. They are now engulfed by a sectarian conflict
that traces its origins back more than 1,200 years before the Great
War, to the Battle of Karbala in AD680, the crystallisation of the
Sunni-Shia division.

Last year, Europe embarked on a four-year commemoration of the First
World War. In the Middle East the centenary has been met largely
with silence rather than celebrations of victories or commemoration
of losses. There are other, more immediate conflicts to concentrate on.

"It's the forgotten war because it's seen as someone else's war even
though it was fought on their soil and it was their men fighting and
dying," says Rogan. The people of the region had not chosen to get
involved in this war. "World War One was the misfortune that led to
the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European imperialism
and it's remembered as a period of tremendous suffering."

This is a formidable narrative history, written with great verve
and empathy. Through its meticulous scholarship and its deft weaving
together of the social, economic, diplomatic and テつ*military history of
this neglected front, The Fall of the Ottomans provides an engrossing
picture of a deadly conflict that proved catastrophic for the peoples
of the region.

Surveying the state of the Middle East a century after the conflict,
Rogan argues the basic peacetime challenge of generating jobs and
economic growth for a young and rapidly expanding population has been
frustrated by numerous, currently overwhelming setbacks.

"What prevents the region from addressing those legitimate challenges
are layers and layers of political problems and regional conflicts
that seem to drive the prospects of a free and prosperous region
deeper and deeper into the future," he says. "With the conflicts in
Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya - and with political volatility in Egypt,
Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria - I think everyone is rational
to be pessimistic about the prospects for the region. None of these
problems have a short-term solution."

テ「[email protected]ツ「 Eugene Rogan will attend the Emirates Literature Festival in
テつ*Dubai on March 4. He will take part in a panel discussion '100 Years
On: Continuing Reverberations in the Arab World' as well as speak about
his own work. For more information, visit www.emirateslitfest.com.

Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/the-review/the-long-read-forget-lawrence-of-arabia-heres-the-real-history-of-the-middle-east-and-world-war-1