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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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Though the Ottoman forces were mobilized for war in November 1914, they were grossly unprepared for the great power conflict they were entering. Germany was demanding that the Ottomans conduct offensives against the Russians in the Caucasus region to take pressure off from the Russian invasion of East Prussia and against British Egypt to threaten the Suez Canal. But most of the Ottoman forces were concentrated in European Thrace and along the Asian coast of the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. Only three of the twelve Ottoman army corps were mobilized along in the Caucasus frontier with Russia, and just two corps in Syria and Palestine to face the British in Egypt; a skeleton Ottoman garrison force remained in Mesopotamia with no real defense plan.

The Ottomans' war opened with some Russian probes in Anatolia. More important, the British, with French assistance, secured total command of the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Ottoman naval power was negligible outside the Black Sea, and the British had no difficulty in shelling Turkish positions in the Dardanelles and in sinking an aging Turkish cruiser at anchor. The most important opening operations in the Middle Eastern theater of the war were conducted by a British-led Indian expeditionary force out of Bahrain up the Shatt al-Arab delta against the southern Mesopotamian port of Basra, which fell on November 23, 1914. The Anglo-Indian force advanced up the Tigris to take Qurna on December 9.

The Ottoman regime, Ulrichsen maintains, considered itself in an "existential clash with Orthodox Russia." This was not an unwarranted fear, since, as Johnson argues, Russia wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire. Under German pressure to engage the Russians, Ottoman forces in December 1914 launched a misguided offensive in the Caucasus. Enver Pasha, who took command of the Ottoman Third Army, believed the Caucasus was ripe for the taking since the Russians would be preoccupied with operations in Eastern Europe. But the Ottoman forces were ill-prepared for the terrible winter conditions in the high mountain passes: heavy snow and below-zero temperatures. Enver hoped to copy Hindenberg's victory at Tannenberg by encircling Russian forces at Sarikamis. But his plan depended on a degree of mobility impossible to attain in the harsh weather. After some initial success, the Ottoman force was thoroughly defeated, suffering horrific casualties both from battle and from the elements. Less than one-fifth of the troops that Enver led into battle returned safely to their base in Erzurum. Enver blamed his catastrophic defeat on the disloyalty of the local Armenian population, which straddled both sides of the Ottoman-Russian border. Armenians living on the Russian side did indeed support the Russian forces and harassed the Ottomans as they retreated from Sarikamis. Long-standing suspicions of the empire's Christian minorities were about to take on "a virulently aggressive form."

At the same time as Enver's disastrous winter campaign in the Caucasus was concluding, the Ottomans launched an offensive in the Sinai, expecting that Egypt's Muslims would rise up against the British who had recently declared Egypt a protectorate. They didn't. In January 1915, Djemal Pasha, who was now in command of the Fourth Army based in Syria, and Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, a German artillery officer and member of Liman's military mission, led a sizable Ottoman force out of Palestine across the Sinai in an attempt to block the strategically vital Suez Canal. Overcoming formidable logistical obstacles, small numbers of Ottoman troops actually managed to cross the canal on pontoons on February 3 to briefly establish a couple of minor bridgeheads on its western side. But they were repulsed by Indian troops, and Kress was forced to retreat to Palestine. (A complementary attack in November 1914 by 5,000 pro-Ottoman irregular Sanusi forces out of Libya made some inroads against British forces in western Egypt. They were halted in December and then gradually pushed back into Libya in a series of engagements in 1915 and early 1916.) While the Suez campaign was an Ottoman defeat, it was certainly not as catastrophic as Sarikamis.

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