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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

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.

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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