For the historian of the first world war, the Ottoman theater is a blur of movement compared to the attrition of the western front. Its leading commanders might race off to contest Baku and entirely miss the significance of events in the Balkans, while the diffuse nature of operations tended to encourage initiative, not group-think. The war of the Ottoman succession, as Sean McMeekin calls it, was furthermore of real consequence, breaking up an empire that had stifled community hatreds, and whose absence the millions who have fled sectarian conflict in our age may rue.
McMeekin is an old-fashioned researcher who draws his conclusions on the basis of the documentary record. In the case of a conflict between Ottoman Turkey and Germany on one side, and Russia, Britain and France on the other, and involving Arabs, Armenians and Greeks, this necessitates linguistic talent and historical nous of a high order. McMeekin is at home in the archives of all major parties to the conflict and his accounts of some of the more contested episodes carry a ring of finality. The Ottoman Endgame is a marvelous exposition of the historian’s art that will frighten everyone else off the subject for years.
For the Ottomans, the “great war” of western historiography was part of a much longer period of conflict and revolution, and arguably not even its climax. The process started with the collapse of the Ottomans’ Balkan empire – encouraged by Russia, moderated by Britain – and it brought to power the militaristic regime of the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP. When Turkey entered the European war on 10 November 1914, Ottoman innocence was long gone, the army fully mobilised, the people benumbed by loss and refugees and the empire hanging in the balance. And yet, for the CUP and its triumvirate of leading pashas, Enver, Talat and Djemal, the moment was as fraught with opportunity as it was with danger. On the opportunity side of the ledger was the prospect of riding Germany’s coat tails to victory, overturning the Balkan reverses and winning back provinces in the east from the old enemy, Russia. Enver, the CUP’s diminutive generalissimo, even spoke of appealing to Muslim sentiment and marching all the way to India.
For the Russians, the game was about winning Constantinople (or Tsargrad, as they presumptuously called it) and with it unimpeded access to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus; it was with “complete serenity”, Tsar Nicholas II informed his subjects, that Russia took on “this ancient oppressor of the Christian faith and of all Slavic nations”.
The mass slaughter that followed showed that the generals of the eastern theatre were no less inured to casualties than their counterparts in the west. Enver’s offensive into mountainous Transcaucasia in December 1914 was a failed gamble that left as many as 30,000 Turkish dead, the majority frozen on the passes (Enver had forbidden greatcoats). The fiasco of Churchill and Kitchener’s Gallipoli campaign the following year ended up mimicking the stalemate in France it was designed to terminate; the “butcher’s bill”, in McMeekin’s crisp phrase, was well over half a million casualties with no strategic advantage to either side (though the Turks, who had repulsed the allied invasion, at least felt like victors).
Describing these and other events, notably the surrender of General Townshend’s Indian Army force in April 1916 after a nasty siege at Kut, in Iraq (Britain’s costliest defeat since Yorktown in terms of men captured), McMeekin dips into the archives on all sides and often pulls out something new. He reveals, for instance, the depth of Russian reluctance to intervene to help their ostensible British allies when the latter were pinioned at Gallipoli and Kut – in the case of Gallipoli with a material effect on the war. “Had the Russians delivered the troops they had promised”, he writes, “the Ottoman war might have been over by spring 1915.”
Even with that bit of luck, the Ottomans were ground down over the next couple of years. By the beginning of 1917 Russia was mistress of eastern Anatolia and the Black Sea, while TE Lawrence had lit the fuse of Arab revolt in the Hejaz. The Turks had themselves denuded Anatolia of much of its productive population by slaughtering and deporting the Armenians (considered to be Russian sympathisers). Still, Enver pursued his heroic fantasies – an invasion of Persia; an expeditionary force to Austrian Galicia (that straddled the modern Polish-Ukraine border) – while the empire ran out of men, coal and food. “We have lost seven provinces,” he exclaimed to a German ally, “hecatombs of our people have been sacrificed, and our economy has been utterly ruined.” The pasha was as much to blame as anyone for Turkey’s exposed position. In early 1917, Russia’s foreign minister recommended an immediate amphibious assault on Tsargrad.
But revolution intervened, the tsar himself fell – in what McMeekin describes as the greatest deathbed miracle of them all – and later that year Lenin renounced Constantinople in a blaze of revolutionary zeal. At the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk, where the Bolshevik delegation was augmented by a randomly selected “representative of the peasantry”, Trotsky famously announced Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the war. The imperial forces demobilized, streaming out of Anatolia, scuttling the fleet, and leaving much of Transcaucasia for whomever (Armenians; Turks; revolutionary committees of various stripes) got there first.
Enver could not resist making a lunge for the oilfields of Baku. His German allies, insatiably carving up the tsarist empire, matched him stride for stride. The city eventually fell to Enver on 15 September 1918, but then came news that the allies had punched northwards through Bulgaria and that Damascus had been taken by the British and their Arab irregulars, killing off Turkey’s Middle Eastern empire. (Iraq had fallen the previous year). Talat Pasha responded laconically. “Boku yedik,” he said. (We’re finished, or literally: “We’ve eaten shit”.) The war was over.
Nowadays the Sykes-Picot agreement, 1916. gets the blame for the arbitrary and unsustainable division of the Middle East
Now that the Turks’ empire had gone, their fight for national survival began. That, too, is a thrilling story, concluding with the birth of modern Turkey through the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had made his name at Gallipoli and now expelled the powers that had gathered to press their claims on Anatolia. President Woodrow Wilson had agreed that Turkey would become a US mandate (favored by the Turks), but the Senate rejected the plan and the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination was forgotten as Turkey became the only territory in the Middle East (along with Persia) to escape colonization or semi-colonization.
Nowadays the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (revealed by Trotsky to the Manchester Guardian) gets the blame for the arbitrary and unsustainable division of the Middle East. This isn’t quite accurate, as McMeekin points out; the original plan had included tsarist claims to Turkey and Kurdistan, and in any case Sykes-Picot was superseded by other, more consequential arrangements, among them the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which promised the Jews a national home.
McMeekin’s story is far from edifying as to the motives of men in war. The Ottomans haggled shamelessly for gold and arms before committing themselves to the German cause, while the Arab revolt, far from the romantic national self-discovery of Lawrence’s depiction, was founded on a liberal distribution of gold sovereigns. The charnel house of Gallipoli might have been avoided through an allied landing on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, but that would have upset France’s postwar plans for a Syrian colony and was vetoed.
After the war, Britain was unable to resist assuming a Middle Eastern over-lordship that, as Churchill anticipated, was utterly beyond its capabilities. While there was valor, immense valor, what the eastern theater was really about was greed.
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