Perspectives

Herfried Münkler: THE FALL OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE: MESOPOTAMIA, PALESTINE AND THE ARABIAN PENINSULA IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The unjustly forgotten war

In Germany, remembrance of the First World War is focused on the fronts in Belgium and northern France, where grim trench warfare and matériel battles waged for four years. By contrast, memories of the war in the Balkans and against Russia have faded and the war arenas in the Middle East and Asia Minor play lesser roles, although German soldiers also fought and died there. It is different among Australians and New Zealanders, who then were a fixed part of the British Empire: their remembrance of the Great War in Europe is mainly of the Gallipoli peninsula at the entrance to the Dardanelles, where Europe and Asia are separated by a narrow strait of water and where, in the spring of 1915, the British attempted a crushing strike against the Ottoman Empire, the ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. But both the landing on Gallipoli and the penetration of war ships through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to the Black Sea failed. Australians and New Zealanders suffered heavy losses, and this experience, combined with its carefully preserved remembrance, led to the rise of their national self-awareness: English settlers became Australians and New Zealanders.

It was somewhat different for the soldiers of the Indian Army of the British Empire who landed at Shatt al-Arab in order to advance to Baghdad over the Euphrates and Tigris via Basra and thereby rob the Turks and their allies of access to the crude oil being extracted there. In Mesopotamia at least, the First World War was also a war over oil. The soldiers recruited by the British troops in what is today Pakistan and in India were em-ployed in the interests of a power that was increasingly foreign to them, and this aware-ness became a source of anti-imperialism. Where remembrance of the war became politically relevant to the soldiers employed here, it became the foundation of a national awareness that impelled them to leave the British Empire. Many European portrayals of the Great War treat these war arenas as inconsequential, practically ignoring these effects of war on the soldiers employed in the Middle East. However, the consequences of the war in the region itself, which characterize its political order to this day, are even more crucial. After the war ended, the British and French, who defined their spheres of influence in the region in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, were not able to create a stable, developmentally capable order. The great multinational and multi-religious empire of the Ottomans came asunder and was replaced by dynasties that could rarely unite popular loyalty and that would be toppled by military coups or transitioned into party dictatorships. As the collapse of Iraq and Syria show, even the European model of the national state was not viable. The political instability and economic stagnation of the Middle East are legacies of the First World War that have lasted well into the 21st century.

The Turkish decision to side with Germany

Indubitably, Ottoman order in the region was also neither stable nor especially developmentally capable. Since the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire, which had advanced to the gates of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries, was considered Europe’s “sick man on the Bosporus,” and the industrial revolution further widened its distance from the Europeans in economic performance. But there were always political, social and economic modernization efforts at the centre of power, in the consequences of which the Ottoman Empire advanced to become a geo-strategically appealing partner for the European superpowers. By contrast, its relationship to Tsarist Russia, which had for centuries battled against Turkish predominance in the Black Sea region, ranged from competitive to antagonistic.

Since the British and French had strong self-interests in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, at the beginning of the 20th century Istanbul increasingly approached the German Empire. Germany was very interested in economic and military cooperation; it dispatched military advisors to supervise the reform of the Turkish army and devised plans for greater infrastructural and thus economic integration of the empire’s huge territories through the construction of railways. At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, railway connections were the preferred means for developing regions economically, and this economic stimulation was intended to lead to the consolidation of these regions. Railways were the arteries meant to lend new life to the sclerotic Ottoman Empire. At the same time they were the logistical prerequisite for defending this empire against its rivals. It is therefore not surprising that in this region the First World War was waged primarily in the proximity and for the control (or destruction) of these railways. Those who had a capable railway at their backs were at the advantage, and those who destroyed a railway serving their opponents’ logistics in its most vulnerable points (bridges and tunnels) inflicted a heavy blow. The revolt of some tribes against Ottoman rule made legendary by Lawrence of Arabia was militarily effective because it was waged as guerrilla warfare against the Hejaz Railway, thus hitting the Turks’ central supply line in this region.

The Turks chose the Germans as the main actors in the railways’ construction, a choice fostered in part by the fact that the Germans were not a colonial power in the region and had not yet shown any strong geo-strategic interests there. The Deutsche Bank, as one of the project’s major financers, stipulated the rights to oil production in a wide swathe along the Baghdad Railway, but this was more financial than political exertion of influence. Conflicts with the British due to possible further railway construction from Baghdad to Basra were smoothed out. All the same, the Ottoman Empire did not want to entirely tie themselves to the Germans and had ordered (and paid for) two battleships in England for their naval armaments, with which it aimed to alter the balance of power in the Aegean and in the Black Sea. But, with reference to the obligations to render assistance that Istanbul had agreed upon with the Central Powers, the British did not deliver the two large battleships in the summer of 1914, but instead integrated them into their own fleet. When the German Mediterranean squadron, consisting of the armored cruisers Goeben and Breslau, thereupon entered the straits, flew the Ottoman flag and there-by replaced the missing battleships from England, this strengthened Turkish ties with the German Empire, and on 29 October 1914 Sultan Mehmet V declared war on Russia and France. This broadened the war to include the territory between the Black Sea and the Caucasus, the Suez Canal and Mesopotamia. With the exception of the restricted combat operations in the German colonies and merely intermittently successful German privateering, this is what first made the European war a World War.

The Ottoman conduct of warfare

The Ottoman Empire waged war on three fronts: in the Caucasus against the Russians, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea between the Suez Canal and the Dardanelles against the British and the French and also against the British, embodied by the British Indian Army, in Mesopotamia. The diffuse front on the Arabian Peninsula did not arise until later with the revolt of some tribes, and their strategic significance for the course of the war is usually overestimated due to Thomas E. Lawrence’s romantic stylization of the battles. Rather, the battles in Palestine, in particular the Battles of Gaza, which were comparable to the trench warfare and matériel battles on the western front, were decisive for the war. Here, the British, who finally broke through near Gaza, were able to supply larger forces using railway connections and by sea and to advance with these troops via Jerusalem all the way to Damascus, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire. Anything comparable was impossible in Mesopotamia due to the lack of logistics for supplying large forces.

All in all, the Ottoman Empire’s troops fought far more effectively than were expected following the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 and the First Balkan War of 1912. The role played in this by the strategic guidance and the tactical instructions of German officers is disputed in the relevant literature. Doubtless, the generals Otto Liman von Sanders and Colmar von der Goltz played pivotal roles; they promoted confidence among Turkish soldiers and officers that they were on a par with their European foes. The Turks proved this in Gallipoli and by Kut al-Amara, where Ottoman troops gained victories that no one would have thought them capable of before.

Nonetheless, the war did not go as planned for the Ottoman Empire at first. The attempted late autumn advance in the Caucasus became a military disaster with the onset of winter, and the Turkish Third Army employed there lost almost 100,000 men within a few weeks. The advance to the Suez Canal, meant to cut off the British Empire’s main artery and, after crossing the canal, to reconquer the former Ottoman provinces of Egypt and Libya, also failed. This advance, made using relatively weak forces due to the poor supply situation, would only have had a chance if it had surprised the British and met them unprepared. However, a French reconnaissance aircraft had discovered the march-ing columns advancing through Sinai, thus the British were prepared for the attack. A second advance undertaken with stronger forces was not made because in 1915 Turkey needed its forces for the defense of the Gallipoli peninsula and because efficient rail-ways – non-existent in Sinai – were required to advance the front to the Suez Canal. Therefore, the front halted off Gaza for a long time.

The paralyzed front in Palestine

Palestine thus became the backline of the southward front; it was here that supply and reserve units were stationed, airfields for reconnaissance aircraft and tactical aircraft established, ammunition depots set up and backup positions prepared in case of a British breakthrough. Besides the Gallipoli peninsula and the southern Caucasus, the front in Palestine became the most important war theatre for the Ottoman Empire. Tens of thousands of soldiers perished here. The Great General Staff of the Germans, which coordinated the warfare of the Quadruple Alliance made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, was aware of the significance of the Palestine front and therefore ordered their own units to march towards the Middle East to serve as “corset stays” for the Turkish front near Gaza. These units were a Hessian and an eastern Prussian infantry regiment as well as two Austrian mountain artillery batteries. They formed the German Asian Corps consisting of about 5,000 soldiers.

The successful defense of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli

Most of the fighting of the war in the Middle East, however, did not occur at first in Palestine, but on the straits between Europe and Asia Minor, by the Dardanelles and on the Gallipoli peninsula, as well as in Mesopotamia along the lower courses of the Euphrates and Tigris. The battle for the straits was of great significance in the entente’s strategic plans, while their advance from Shatt al-Arab towards Baghdad was meant more to tie up the Turkish troops in order to keep them away from other war arenas. Since late 1914 Winston Churchill, British First Lord of the Admiralty, had sought the place on, as he called it, the “soft underbelly of the Central Powers,” where he would deal a blow that would quickly end the war. For Churchill this was not only an alternative to continued major offensives with heavy losses in northern France and Belgium, but would also create effective sea connections to their Russian allies and open another front against the Central Powers. It was (and is) typical for the strategy of a naval power to seek to decide the war not at its opponent’s strongest, but its weakest point, and it did so owing to its continued unlimited naval supremacy and its ability to launch amphibious invasions at the assumed weak points of the opposition.

Churchill had identified this weak point at the straits, and the plan of the British and French was to have a strong group of war ships enter the Dardanelles and advance to the Black Sea. The heavy Turkish shore battery would be disabled by the naval artillery, and army units would land on the Gallipoli peninsula to support this. But the warships entering the Dardanelles were soon delayed by mines, and the light naval units sent in to clear the sea mines were attacked by the Turkish shore batteries. The invading infantry did not have the expected success either; their attack got mired down near the coast in Turkish defensive fire, and in spite of repeated attempts they were unable to break through the Turkish defense. In the meantime, German submarines had been brought in for which the entente warships laying at the entry of the Dardanelles were “easy targets.” After sinking some large ships, they were withdrawn and in autumn of 1915 the sea invasion by the British, Australians and New Zealanders was also abandoned. The defense of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli peninsula overseen by German General Liman von Sanders became the greatest military success of the Ottoman Empire in the World War.

The British defeat on the Tigris

The Sixth Ottoman Army’s triumph in Mesopotamia was strategically certainly no less valuable, but symbolically just as significant. They beat back a British army corps in November 1915 that had advanced along the Tigris to the south of Baghdad and surrounded the units of General Clark Townshend by Kut al-Amara. Townshend was confident his positions would be supplied via the Tigris and hoped for outside relief. But in their attempt to relieve the trapped soldiers, the British suffered heavy losses, and on 29 April 1916 Townshend and his men were forced to surrender. The Kut al-Amara defeat revealed the vulnerability of the British global empire, a vulnerability on which General von der Goltz, the planner of this victory, had banked. A few days before the British surrender, he died of a spotted fever epidemic.

German hopes for an Islamic anti-imperialism

Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz was a rather atypical phenomenon for the German military. In some ways he was more like an intellectual than a Prussian officer. He was well familiar with the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, where he had stayed for a lengthy time earlier as a military advisor. Unlike most German general staff officers who adhered to offensive approaches, he preferred the military offense for Germany but aimed to link it to political defenses. He was quite convinced that the epoch of world dominion by the “white man,” the Europeans, was coming to an end and the 20th century would belong to the “coloured man.” Von der Goltz wanted to accelerate the imminent end of British and French colonial empires and take advantage of this for Germany’s self-assertion in the war. To this end, he banked on dispersed anti-imperialism, which he aimed to promote through the proclamation of Muslim Holy War.

Von der Goltz was not the only one who saw a great deal of promise in a coalition of the German Empire with Islam, whereby he did not differentiate between Turks and Arabs. The Orientalist, archaeologist and diplomat Max von Oppenheim and the political scientist and publicist Ernst Jäckh also adhered to such ideas and sought to make the Germans out as the protecting power of Islam and to mobilize Muslims worldwide against the British and French. In retrospect one can say that this was a modern revolutionary concept, which, however, did not take into sufficient account that it could also be directed nationalistically against the Ottoman Empire. This is where the British took their starting point when they induced some tribes on the Arabian Peninsula to revolt against Ottoman rule and unleashed a guerrilla war, which considerably battered Turkish rule in the coastal strips on the Red Sea. Islamic anti-imperialism, which von der Goltz and the others banked on, yielded only marginal effects by contrast. In retrospect, we can say that von der Goltz was a few decades ahead of the times.

The Middle East as a minor theatre of war?

Admittedly, the fact that the Great General Staff did not really believe in the German Islamic-based diversion strategy and provided only meager resources and forces to them – starting with Bavarian Lieutenant Oskar Niedermayer’s expedition from Baghdad to Kabul to incite the Afghan tribes to attack British India and ending with the lack of support for agents who attempted to instigate anti-British revolts in Islamic Africa – may also have contributed to its failure. The German general staff focused on the western and eastern fronts and viewed the Middle East as a comparatively insignificant war theatre.

A very different view was touted by the decidedly pro-German Swedish constitutional law expert Rudolf Kjellén, according to whom the Middle East was the geopolitical centre of the war where, in his opinion, the three decisive stakeholders in the war clashed and battled for their positions in future global dominance: Russia, which would have been the winner in the great game for rule over Asia through control of this region; Great Britain, which was geo-strategically dependent on the Middle East to safeguard the eye of the needle of its global empire, the Suez Canal, and its crown jewel, rule over India; and ultimately Germany, which had the chance here to transform from a great European power to world power without having to first wrest naval supremacy from the British. These were, however, the speculations of an intellectual that had little to do with the reality of the war’s course.

Deciding the war in Palestine

The war in the Middle East was decided in Palestine after the British managed to break through the front by Gaza. Although the Ottoman troops, with German and Austrian help, were repeatedly able to establish new front lines and hold them for a time, these were merely delaying stages of a retreat that was no longer stoppable. In mid-September 1918, the Turkish front in Palestine collapsed under a new British offensive; on 30 October Ottoman command signed a cease-fire agreement that ended the war in the Middle East. This was synonymous with the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Translated by Faith Ann Gibson

Herfried Münkler is professor of political theory and history of ideas at Berlin’s Humboldt-University. His 2002 book Die neuen Kriege (The New Wars, 2005) and his 2008 Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (The Myth of the Germans) are considered standard reference works and have received many awards. His most recent, 900-page book, Der große Krieg: Die Welt 1914–1918 (The Great War: The World, 1914–1918), published by Rowohlt, is the first overview of the First World War written by a German academic in years. Like his Australian colleague Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Münkler denies that the German Kaiserreich was solely responsible for the war and argues that German historians for too long have seen the First World War as merely a prologue to the Second. Both Clark’s account of the beginning of the war and Herfried Münkler’s more comprehensive overview made it to the bestseller lists this year.

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