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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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Hamilton decided to make six simultaneous landings in April on the southern tip and western shores of the peninsula in an effort to confuse the Ottomans and disperse their defenses. The main beach landing at Cape Hellas was a debacle, with the Ottoman troops pouring murderous fire on the lead British and Irish troops. Up the west coast of Gallipoli at so-called Anzac Cove, Australian and New Zealand troops managed to establish a beachhead and advance inland, but they failed to secure the high ground after Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk, the "father of the Turkish nation") led a spirited counterattack and regained the momentum for the Ottoman forces. With Allied troops contained and bogged down at five separate beachheads, a long stalemate of trench warfare ensued. A number of engagements occurred throughout the summer of 1915, but while costly in terms of casualties on both sides, none altered the military situation significantly. Snipers, heat, dust, lice, mosquitoes, "loathsome" green flies, dysentery, diarrhea, and overpowering stench of death created terrible conditions on the peninsula for both sides

Logistical supply became a nightmare for Hamilton. Meanwhile the Royal Navy's pre-dreadnoughts suffered a number of losses, one to a Turkish torpedo boat in mid-May, and in late May two more of the older battleships were sunk by a small U-boat squadron that arrived after having sortied from Germany. Three months later, a U-boat sank a troop transport en route from Egypt, with the loss of nearly a thousand men. The disappointing Allied performance cost Churchill his position as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Britain's two most modern warships were withdrawn from the Gallipoli campaign to the relative safety of their North Sea bases.

Reinforced by three additional divisions, Hamilton hoped to break the stalemate by launching a major offensive at Sulva Bay in August. This force was supposed to link up with divisions advancing from Anzac Cove to the south at Sari Ridge that bisected the peninsula north to south. That never happened. The Sulva Bay operation was botched from the outset. And although the troops from Anzac Cove met with initial success, Kemal's forces eventually pushed them back. Australian and New Zealander troops suffered extraordinarily heavy casualties, as dramatized by the movie Gallipoli (starring a young Mel Gibson). The Gallipoli campaign dragged on four months longer, but as Ulrichsen notes, the failure to breakout of the beachheads in August "signaled the end of any lingering hopes of operational or strategic success."

The failure of the Allies to secure the Dardanelles influenced the situation in the Balkans. In September 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in large part because Gallipoli and the stunning Russian defeat in Galicia convinced them that the Central Powers would win the war. By the end of October, Bulgaria had joined with German and Austro-Hungarian forces to crush Serbia and knock it out of the war. Bulgaria's entry into the war also affected the Allied position in Gallipoli. Fearing Bulgaria, Greece requested 150,000 Allied troops to protect them from the Central Powers. These came from the Allied garrison on Gallipoli.

After much internal debate, the Allies evacuated their Sulva Bay and Anzac Cove positions in December, and left Gallipoli entirely on January 8, 1916. The evacuations were conducted smartly without loss of life and, according to Ulrichsen, probably rank as the most noteworthy successes of the campaign that claimed approximately 230,000 Allied casualties and up to 300,000 on the Ottoman side of the ledger. McMeekin, who skillfully employs the "Sick Man" trope throughout his volume, notes that "[t]he Ottoman Sick Man, it seemed, had won yet another stay of execution."

There is no denying that the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for the Allies and, despite the horrific casualties, a great confidence builder for the Ottomans. It is common for military historians to criticize the campaign roundly as being strategically muddled, over-ambitious, and operationally bankrupt. Johnson, however, makes a good case that, strategically speaking, the campaign made sense. He reminds us that it was the Russians who appealed for military assistance in January 1915. And given their commitment to the Western Front, the manpower resources of the British and French were stretched. Consequently, any military operation to relieve the Russians would be a naval/amphibious affair and would need to have "disproportionate strategic effect" in terms of outcomes versus manpower/resources committed. A successful Dardanelles campaign was about the only operation that could have achieved the desired strategic value. This is not to minimize the manifest operational failures of the campaign. But it is to argue that the benefit of hindsight blurs the fact that the Dardanelles campaign offered a "much needed alternative to the developing stalemate on the Western Front." Johnson concludes that "perhaps … the strategic failure of 1915 was not that the [Dardanelles/ Gallipoli] campaign went ahead, but that the Allies didn't realize the sheer importance of it, and, consequently, that it was never properly resourced."

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