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The Great War and the Middle East
The Great War and the Middle East
Rob Johnson
Oxford University Press, 2016
400 pp., $34.95

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The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East
Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, 2015
512 pp., $32.00

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The First World War in the Middle East
The First World War in the Middle East
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Hurst, 2014
320 pp., $35.00

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Donald A. Yerxa


The Middle Eastern Face of World War I

Not a sideshow.

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"For a terminally ill patient," McMeekin quips, "the Sick Man of Europe took a long time to die." In fact, its overall military performance in World War I was much better than many expected given the Ottomans' dismal military performance over the previous decades. The so-called "Young Turk" revolt of 1908 (and consolidated in 1913) played a major role in the rejuvenation of the Ottoman military. The triumvirate of Ismail Enver Pasha (minister of war), Ahmed Djemal Pasha (minister of marine), and Mehmed Talât Pasha (minister of the interior), formed a de facto dictatorship that governed the Ottoman Empire throughout the war. According to Rogan, "pasha" was the highest rank in Ottoman civil and military service. The triumvirate, he notes, was more powerful than the sultan or the grand vizier (prime minister). Together they spearheaded a steady transformation of the empire on Turkic terms as well as restructured and modernized the Ottoman military. And in 1913 a German military mission led by General Otto Liman von Sanders arrived to assist Enver in bringing the Turkish army up to the standards of modern warfare.

Ottoman and German interests converged after the Balkan Wars primarily because of a mutual fear of Russia, especially after the enactment in 1913 of Russia's "Great Program" of military expansion, followed the next year with a call for a major expansion of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Russia seemed intent on forging a military force that by 1917 could not only challenge German might in central Europe but also seize Constantinople and secure the Ottoman Straits. As a result, the German-Ottoman relationship, already friendly since the late 19th century, became more cordial in 1913-14. The triumvirate named Liman inspector general of the entire Ottoman army in January 1914, a move that gave the German officer command of the strategic Bosporus defenses and overall supervision of the restructuring and training of the Ottoman military. In addition to these improvements to its military forces, the Ottoman navy had placed orders with British shipyards for two powerful dreadnoughts. These would tip the balance of naval power in the Black Sea decidedly in favor of the Ottomans. The first of these battleships, the Sultan Osman I, was to be delivered in August 1914, the second, the Reshadieh, shortly thereafter.

Regional tensions in the Balkans triggered a cascade of events that led to a major two-front conflict in the summer of 1914. The Ottomans, however, did not immediately enter the war. It seemed that the Ottoman Empire would join Germany and Austria-Hungary in August as a result of extraordinary naval developments. At Russia's urging, Winston Churchill in his capacity of First Lord of the Admiralty ordered English naval crews to "requisition" the Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh still at anchor in British ports on July 31. This illegal act denied the Ottoman navy the much-needed edge it required to defend the Black Sea approaches to Constantinople and the Straits. But the loss of these two warships was in part compensated in an unexpected manner. Pursued by a powerful Anglo-French Mediterranean squadron, the German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau were given permission to enter Ottoman territorial waters on August 10. In a clear breach of neutrality laws, the two warships were "purchased," renamed, and transferred to the Ottoman navy. Although a token detachment of Turkish sailors boarded the ships, the German officers retained command, exchanging their Imperial Navy caps for fezes.

Despite these developments, the Ottoman regime delayed entering the war while it played a series of diplomatic games to extract sizable quantities of weapons and money from Germany. Wilhelm Souchon, the commander of the Goeben now commissioned as an Ottoman vice admiral, forced the issue in late October when he led the Ottoman navy on "exercises" in the Black Sea, the result of which was the sinking of a Russian gunboat, minelayer, and a dozen or so grain transports as well as the shelling of a number of Russian ports. Russia declared war on November 2, the Ottomans responding in kind on November 10.

Four days later, Ottoman sultan Mehmed V declared an Islamic holy war against the Entente powers. By virtue of the fact that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were in Ottoman hands, the sultan held the religious office of caliph, which theoretically made him the leader of the global Muslim community. The call to jihad was something that the German Kaiser had hoped would create major problems for the Entente. The British especially worried about its impact in India (one-third of the Indian Army was Muslim) and Egypt. Ironically, as Rogan notes, the Allies were more responsive to the call for jihad than the Muslim target audience. Their war effort in the Middle East, he argues, was driven by what in retrospect was an "unwarranted fear of jihad." Britain and France worried that any significant Ottoman military success or Allied failure might provoke "the dreaded Islamic uprising." Muslims, however, remained largely unresponsive to the sultan's appeal.

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