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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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Before shifting the focus to Mesopotamia, we must turn our attention to the other side of Asia Minor, where, citing McMeekin, "the death agonies of the empire were calling forth a new kind of horror." While Gallipoli drew much attention, events on the Caucasus were unfolding that led to the catastrophic deportation, massacre, and ethnic cleaning of Armenians. As Rogan notes, Russian and Ottoman religious politics in the Caucasus had been somewhat symmetrical in that the tsarist government hoped to foment a Christian uprising against the Turks, while the Ottomans tried to provoke jihad among Muslims in the Caucasus against Russia. In the spring of 1915, as the Ottoman forces in Gallipoli braced for an Allied invasion, Armenians rebelled in the city of Van after months of escalating ethno-religious tension and violence and as Russian forces approached. The triumvirate regime, threatened in the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus, viewed this (along with suspected activities among Armenians in Cilicia) as a treasonous, full-scale rebellion behind the lines of Ottoman troops, and they reacted violently.

Prominent Armenians were rounded up in Constantinople and elsewhere, and a number of decrees were issued that called for the removal of Armenians from frontier areas and repopulation of those areas with Muslims. Deportations and relocations became more systematic, and by July 1915 "a large-scale campaign of violent ethnic cleansing was under way." With no provisions made for their welfare, the dispossessed were given as their "destination" desert settlements in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians died en route as a result of bloody massacres conducted by armed gangs recruited by the government and the attrition of death marches across the desert. Bodies littered roadways and rail lines. The actual number of deaths is still debated, but estimates range from around 700,000 to one million. Rogan notes the "bitter irony" that the "extermination of Armenian communities … did nothing to protect the Caucasus from Russian invasion" in 1916.

While the Gallipoli campaign was underway, British policy makers based in India decided to that there was an opportunity to move up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and seize Baghdad. General Charles Townshend, something of a legend in the Indian army, was selected to lead an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force in the Mesopotamian campaign, which began at the end of May 1915. For four months the expeditionary force pushed gradually up the Tigris to the town of Kut, about 112 miles south of Baghdad, which Townsend took after heavy fighting in October. Everything about this campaign, Johnson observes, was improvisational, as would become tragically apparent. Despite Townshend's concerns about dangerously long lines of communication and inadequate riverine transport, planners in Delhi and London, anxious to offset the bad news from Gallipoli with a "glittering success," decided to press on toward Baghdad. It was a mistake. In late November, Turkish troops halted Townshend's advance at Ctesiphon and forced it to retreat back to Kut, where he hunkered down until a relief force could arrive. British and Indian reinforcements gathered in Basra throughout the winter and early spring of 1916, but there were inadequate port, docking, storage, and transport facilities to accommodate the influx of men and materiel. The result was chaos.

Moreover, Ottoman forces were bolstered by the addition of two veteran divisions freed up by the end of the Gallipoli campaign. Three attempts between January and April 1916 failed to break through the Ottoman siege of Kut. And on April 29, 1916, Townshend surrendered his starving garrison in what at the time was seen as "one of the greatest military humiliations ever suffered by the British army." To the embarrassment of Gallipoli was now added the shock of Kut. It should be noted that thousands of sick and weak British and Indian soldiers perished en route to or in captivity. Though these were not equivalent atrocities, to the horror of the Armenian genocide we can also add the despicable treatment of the prisoners of Kut.

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