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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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After their relatively easy victories in the Shatt-al-Arab and Suez, British war planners concluded that the Ottoman Empire was, in Rogan's words, "the weak link in the Central Alliance and the easiest belligerent to knock out of the war." In the early stages of the fighting in the Caucasus Russia insisted that the British make a diversionary strike to force the Ottomans to redeploy troops away from the Caucasus. The Dardanelles, the narrow strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara and gateway to the capital of Constantinople, seemed to be the most appropriate target. Wresting the Dardanelles from the Ottomans would bring many strategic benefits, not the least of which would be the likelihood of knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war. In addition to removing pressure from the Caucasus front and capturing the Ottoman capital, securing the Dardanelles would open the lines of communication between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean enabling the Entente allies to deploy troops and supplies through the Black Sea to coordinate attacks against Germany and Austria, as well as enabling Russian grain shipments to pass through the Straits to the West.

Allied war planners, however, did not take into account the substantial improvements made to the defenses of the Straits under the guidance of German Admiral Guido von Usedom. In addition to setting up a formidable array of fixed and mobile shore batteries and multiple lines of mines, Usedom drilled Turkish shore gunners to the point where they had become highly accurate. None of this mattered for British war planners, especially not Churchill and war minister Horatio Kitchener, who believed that the Turks "were soft." (McMeekin makes the case, not purely on the basis of hindsight, that the British would have been much better served to strike at the pivot of the Ottoman Empire's Asian defenses along the so-called "Syrian coast" of Alexandretta and Cilicia. Success there would have cut the empire in two and likely prompted the Ottomans to sue for peace, though it would have undoubtedly upset the French, who had postwar designs on that region of the eastern Mediterranean.)

The Dardanelles campaign opened on February 19, 1915 with a naval bombardment. Indeed, the initial plans called for a purely naval operation to take the Dardanelles, and the British and French assembled a naval force of one modern battleship, one battlecruiser, sixteen pre-dreadnoughts, twenty destroyers, and thirty-five mine-sweepers. A ground force, including a composite Australian-New Zealand division, was hastily assembled to complement the naval operation. After three weeks, however, it was evident that the bombardments and mine-sweeping were ineffective. The British naval commander, Admiral Sackville Carden, was reluctant to commit the more powerful warships to close-in shore bombardment until he was assured that the danger from mines was removed. Patience was never one of Churchill's virtues, and he sacked Carden, replacing him with the more pliant Vice Admiral John de Robeck. Overall command of the campaign was given to General Ian Hamilton. On March 18, a major Anglo-French force made their attack after receiving assurances that the mines had been cleared. They weren't. And the results were shocking: three battleships sunk and another three heavily damaged.

The Dardanelles disaster had two important results. It convinced the Allies that a large ground force needed to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula to take the Ottoman fortifications and enable the naval flotilla to proceed up to the Sea of Marmara and Constantinople. It would take four weeks to assemble a force of approximately 75,000 men to undertake amphibious landings. This was time that the Turks, who Rogan asserts were convinced that Gallipoli was the new epicenter of the "struggle for the survival of their empire," used well to strengthen and reinforce their positions on the peninsula. The failed Dardanelles operation along with increased activity in the Black Sea by the Goeben and other Ottoman warships convinced the Russians to suspend any serious effort to attack the northern straits of the Bosporus. Other than a few minor naval actions in the Black Sea, the Russians did very little to assist the Allies. Although Liman had to respect the possibility of a Russian attack from the Black Sea, the absence of a Russian threat eventually freed up substantial Turkish forces for the fight on Gallipoli.

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