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Book Review: The Fall of the Ottomans

By (March 4, 2015) No Comment

The Fall of the Ottomans:fall of the ottomans uscover
The Great War in the Middle East
by Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, 2015

One of the strongest implications running through Eugene Rogan’s fiercely readable new book The Fall of the Ottomans, one of the notes that keeps recurring, is how intimately the history of the First World War touches on the part of the war least known to the general reader. Even readers with only a cursory knowledge of the so-called Great War will nevertheless have heard of the disaster of Gallipoli, and even people who know nothing at all about the war will recognize the name of Lawrence of Arabia – and yet, the thing linking those and other key events of the conflict is the Ottoman Empire, which tends to get relegated to secondary status in most popular histories.

Rogan, author of 2009’s rapturously-reviewed The Arabs: A History, corrects this imbalance in his new book, drawing on a wide array of sources, many of them Arabic and previously underutilized, in order to “restore the Ottoman front to its rightful place in the history of both the Great War and the modern Middle East.” As Rogan intriguingly points out, the entrance of the Ottoman Empire into the war transformed a European brushfire into a truly world-wide conflict – a conflict in which the Allied powers consistently misread their opponent:

Most Entente war planners dismissed the fighting in the Ottoman Empire as a sideshow to the main theatres of the war on the western and eastern fronts. Influential Britons like Horatio Herbert Kitchener and Winston Churchill only lobbied to take the war to the Turks in the mistaken belief this would provide the Allies with a quick victory against the Central Powers that would hasten the end of the war. Having underestimated their opponents, the Allies found themselves embroiled in major campaigns – in the Caucasus, the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, and Palestine – that diverted hundreds of thousands of troops from the western front and served to lengthen the Great War.

In a series of fast-moving and very skillfully-written chapters, Rogan describes in great detail the politics and personalities of the Ottoman side of WWI, from the remorseless head of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Edmund Allenby, to the valiant fighter Amir Faysal to, of course, T. E. Lawrence who, after the unexpected capture of Aqaba by Arab forces on 6 July 1917, “was transformed into the celebrated Lawrence of Arabia.” (“However much the top brass frowned at his appearance,” Rogan writes, “his news of an Arab victory in Aqaba made him an overnight hero”).

Likewise, the best manner of narrative historians, Rogan also gives his readers plenty of ordinary rank-and-file individuals, rendered (through the aid of a veritable mountain of letters and diaries) immediately human in ways few previous books have managed:

The trenches were at some points so close that the two sides could hear each other speak. Living at such close quarters had a humanizing effect on the men, and in periods of calm they would throw treats across to the enemy trenches. A Turkish soldier remembered throwing cigarettes, raisins, hazel-nuts, and almonds into the Anzac lines. The invaders reciprocated with cans of fruit and jam by way of thanks. [Gallipoli veteran] Emin Col found it remarkable that no one ever mixed dirt with the gifts of followed a treat with a hand grenade. The exchanges were made with genuine goodwill.

Naturally, the many separate lines of Rogan’s story converge on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where Continental treachery and greed created what Rogan and many others (at the time and since) have characterized as a brutal turning point in the history of the Middle East and the world. This is the narrative high point of a theme Rogan touches on throughout his book, the tendency of the West – both friend and foe – to mischaracterize the Middle East for its own purposes. This tendency, he notes, sometimes led to seemingly contradictory results:

Much of the Allied war effort in the Middle East was driven by what proved to be an unwarranted fear of jihad. While colonial Muslims remained largely unresponsive to the Ottoman sultan-caliph’s appeal, the European imperial powers continued to assume that any major Turkish success or Allied setback might provoke the dreaded Islamic uprising in their colonies in India and North Africa. Ironically, this left the Allies more responsive to the caliph’s call than his Muslim target audience.

Last year’s centennial observations of the outbreak of the First World War opened the floodgates for histories on every aspect of the conflict that in so many ways gave birth to the modern world. Nowhere did that violent term-setting happen more dramatically – or with longer consequences for the present day – than in the Middle East, where modern nations are still fighting wars they received as legacies from statesmen and tribal leaders long since gone. Among the best of these books was Professor Leila Tarazi Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts, and readers who’ve been looking for something equally thought-provoking can now turn to The Fall of the Ottomans.