Tag Archives: Middle East

Both sides of the trenches

This blog post looks at the involvement of the Middle East, particularly Turkish troops who took part in the First World War and the devastating effect it had for both sides of the trenches. 

“Everyone is fascinated by the post-war partition of the Middle East – the Sykes-Picot borders that emerged,” he says. “In my book I look at how the process of partitioning the Middle East begins very early in the war: March 1915, and goes right through.”

‘The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East’ is the forthcoming book by Eugene Rogan, a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He argues that these boundaries were not part of an imposition of a greater plan, but simply demonstrated what was possible at that moment and what was happening on the battlefields.

“Every one of the plans, rather than reflecting any deliberate thought by the parties involved about Zionism or Arab nationalism, were agreements that reflected the exigencies of the war at that moment,” he explains. “None of them would have made any sense without the war context. The British, French and Russians would not have engaged in any of this diplomacy. The borders are the errors of war. Rather than creating a stable post-Ottoman Middle East, the borders created an imperial post-Ottoman Middle East, and we’re living with the consequences of that in the present day.”

Rogan’s work explores the experiences of soldiers and civilians from all sides of the war, drawing on personal accounts and newly-discovered and translated diaries as well as official records to give a holistic picture, and using sources from all over the world, from New Zealand to Australia to the archive at his own university.

Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)
Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)

“I bring in the Turkish and Arab sources to a story that we tend to know only through British sources,” he says. “I’ve been drawing on the diaries, the memoirs, the journals of Turks and Arabs, civilians and soldiers, from virtually all of the fronts: from the Caucuses to Gallipoli, the fighting in Syria, and balancing that with accounts from the British, French and Anzac soldiers. There’s frustratingly little primary material out there from Indian soldiers, but where I’ve got letters I use those to try and capture the Indian experience as well. We come away with the most balanced reading of what the war experience was from both sides of the trenches.”

Rogan was not, however, concerned with attempting to revise the established official histories of battles or tactics. “When it comes to the big battles and tactics, I don’t think there’s anything there that’s open to revision,” he explains. “We have to remember that anything like [the battles of] Gallipoli or Mesopotamia was the subject of so much investigation at the time because they were catastrophic for the British. The official histories were as a result very well informed on what went wrong; they don’t try and gloss over heroic atrocities in history and they explain some very embarrassing defeats for the British, some of which were also rather politically sensitive. What I was looking for were the accounts of what people went through.”

The idea for the book came from a personal experience of his own – visiting the war grave of his Scottish great-uncle, who was killed in 1915, along with scores of his schoolfriends, at Gallipoli.

“They suffered so much – the boys had been sent over the top after inadequate shellfire had not reduced the Turkish trenches and so they came straight into machine gun fire – they were just all mown down,” he reflects. “The sadness for the village after all these young men had died was more than my maternal great-grandmother could bear, and that’s when they moved to America. In a sense this was how my mum came to be, and me after her – we owe our lives to his death.”

Yet it was a chance encounter with a war memorial that made him realise just how necessary it was to publish an account of these battles from as many perspectives as possible.

“When we went to visit, we made a wrong turn, and stumbled upon a war memorial to the Turkish dead from the same engagement,” he recalls.  “As I read the plaque it explained that 10,000 Turks died there. It was probably three or four thousand more than the Scots who had died on the same day. The number of Turkish bereaved would have far exceeded the number of Scottish bereaved, but it was never part of my family story – we’d never heard about the Turks who were killed at the same time. It hammered home to me how limited my understanding of it had been. To come to grips with Gallipoli and all its horror, you need to view the conflict from both sides of the trenches.”

He also explores the schisms within the Ottoman Empire, particularly the massacre of the Armenian community, and the ways in which the Empire itself was beginning to disintegrate.

“At the heart of the book is the Ottoman war against its own people,” he says. “It begins with the history of tensions between the Ottomans and the Armenian community, it sets out how the deportations and massacres were organised and conducted, it draws on sources to give the view from the top down, and ends with the trials that the Ottomans conducted of those they charged with responsibility for the massacres, done to try and stave off a draconian peace settlement at Versailles.”

Dr Fred Anscombe of Birkbeck University, an expert on the Ottoman Empire, is looking forward greatly to the publication of the book. He says that Rogan’s approach to the research is unusual and particularly valuable in its breadth.

“It’s very good on the history of the Ottoman Empire and what happened afterwards,” he says. “He looks at a range of perspectives and interprets them; and he doesn’t approach the subject as an outsider. I just cannot think of anyone else who can do that or has done that with such a range of expertise.”

“It’s trying to give you all sides of the story so we don’t have a one-sided triumphalist view,” concludes Rogan. “Instead, we see the cost in human tragedy that lay behind a war that in so many ways was not the Middle East’s to fight.”

The Middle East and World War One

Nowhere in the world did the First World War have such profound or long-lasting effects than the Middle East. Carrie Dunn reports on an Early Career Fellowship that’s helping to shine a light on a crucial period of world history.

An AHRC-funded research project is the first study of the ideas behind the West’s attempt to replace the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and their consequences.

Dr James Renton of Edge Hill University is looking at the British Empire’s development of the concept of the ‘Middle East’, a system based on the principle of nationality – which also resulted in a plethora of violent ethnic, religious and nationalist conflicts.

He argues that the work is vital to understanding the problems across the region today.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in how the West has understood the Middle East, and the relationship between that understanding and imperialism and colonialism, and it was clear to me that there wasn’t a recognition that there was a massive change at the time of the First World War.”

The British hoped to mobilise support for the Allies and secure post-war control of strategically important areas in the region by claiming that they were fighting for a new era of national freedom. They embarked on a huge propaganda campaign to make that case. Renton’s project also examines how the idea of a new age of nationality and freedom succeeded in increasing nationalism among Arabs and Jews.

“I came to realise that this new vision was being presented for political reasons to mobilise the Middle Eastern world behind the war effort,” Renton says. He suggests that the British never expected the Middle East to be genuinely independent because of their racial stereotypes about the people living there – that they were somehow inferior and incapable of governing themselves.

Yet the promotion of national self-determination had the apparently unforeseen effect of mobilising widespread calls for immediate independence, and when that didn’t happen, there was widespread protest and violence.

'Map of the Middle East, 1918
‘Map of the Middle East, 1918’

“Political elites across the Middle Eastern world started to have new expectations of complete national freedom, and so although the British and their French allies stimulated a new vision of the future, it took on a life of its own,”

However, these roars of dissent did not succeed. Instead, the British and French Empires, with the approval of the international community in the newly-established League of Nations, imposed a new autocratic system that remained in place until the beginning of the 21st century.

Renton stresses the complexity of the interactions between the Middle East and the “outside world”. He points out that to attribute many of the current conflicts in the region solely to the impact of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the Arab Spring – as many media debates do – is far too simplistic.

“It’s a picture of complexity that goes back to the First World War,” he says, and he is keen that today’s policymakers understand that, adding: “I’m not talking about some trite effort to learn lessons from the past.

“It’s not about drawing parallels with then and now – it’s making the case that the war marked  the beginning of a system of political instability, with the interaction between this attempt at control and the unleashing of an expectation for national freedom. It’s a wider story that began in 1914 – and it hasn’t ended.”