World War I, Middle East

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World War I, Middle East

Despite the romance of associations with the Holy Land and iconic figures such as T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, 1888–1935) and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the Middle East was strategically insignificant with respect to the outcome of World War I (1914–1918). Viewed from a regional perspective, however, World War I was both a profound human tragedy and an exceedingly important formative episode. It brought the end of the Ottoman Empire and established successor states that are the foundation of the modern Middle East. The war also drew virtually the whole of the Middle East into the imperial embrace of Great Britain and France.

War came to the Middle East through Ottoman ambition as much as the imperialism of the great European powers. Prompted by imperial ambition, awareness of Russian designs on their territory, and the inability of France and Great Britain to provide effective guarantees for their security, a prowar, pro-German cabal within the Ottoman cabinet led by Enver Paşa (1881–1922) signed a secret alliance with imperial Germany on August 2, 1914. With aid and expertise from Germany, Enver and his supporters saw an opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on Russia and recover the territory and prestige lost during the preceding half century.

From the German perspective, the Ottoman alliance was intended to distract the Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia) from the European theater and promote rebellion among their Muslim subjects. It was also hoped that the Ottoman Empire might provide a base from which to threaten Britain's communications with India via the Suez Canal. Though well aware of these dangers, the French and British were unable to maintain their traditional support of the Ottoman Empire against Russia because they needed Russian support against Germany in Europe. In the event, the Ottoman Turks made good their alliance with Germany and brought the Middle East into the war on October 29, 1914, when their fleet, led by German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon (1864–1946), attacked Sevastopol, a Black Sea port on the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. Though the sultancaliph quickly proclaimed a jihad (a Muslim holy war) against the Entente powers, it had no significant impact on the course of the war in the Middle East or among the Muslim subjects of Britain, France, and Russia.

The British seized the initiative in the Middle East in late 1914. They declared a protectorate over Egypt and deployed Indian troops to secure Basra and Kurna, which provided a buffer for the strategically vital Abadan oil refinery at the head of the Persian Gulf. Before the end of 1914, however, Ottoman forces retook the initiative on two fronts. In the Caucasus, Enver Paşa led an ambitious but ultimately disastrous winter offensive against the Russians. His initial gains were offset by the decimation of his best troops in the fighting at Sarikamish and a retreat to Erzurum in northeastern Turkey. A Russian counteroffensive in early 1915 put the Ottoman forces in Anatolia and the Caucasus on the defensive until 1917. As Enver Paşa's offensive collapsed in January 1915, Jemal Paşa (1872–1922) led a daring but futile attack across the Sinai Desert against the Suez Canal.

Frustrated by the stalemate on the Western Front, the British soon turned to the Middle East in hopes of finding a way to break the deadlock from their rapidly growing base in Egypt. The initial result was the Dardanelles campaign, which ran from February through December 1915. A disaster for the French, British, and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces involved, it was a triumph for the Turks under General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855–1929) and the beginning of Mustafa Kemal's rise to notoriety.

The failure of the Dardanelles campaign preserved the Ottoman Empire. Yet in the long term its greatest significance lay in the arrangements it spawned among the Entente powers. As early as March 1915, when victory yet seemed a possibility, representatives of the Entente powers—Sergei Sasanov (1861–1927), Raymond Poincaré (1860–1934), and Edward Grey (1862–1933)—discussed the partition of the Ottoman Empire, though negotiations persisted through the conclusion of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916. This secret arrangement confirmed earlier Russian claims to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, and assigned areas of direct and indirect control to the French in Syria and Lebanon and the British in Mesopotamia and the port cities of Acre and Haifa in Palestine. It also provided for international administration of Palestine and a limited degree of independent Arab control over parts of Syria, Arabia, and Transjordan.

Despite the concessions secured by the French, they were unable to commit substantial land forces to the Middle East after the Dardanelles debacle. This left Britain and Russia to carry on the war with the Ottoman Empire. While the Russians remained locked in a largely static struggle with Ottoman forces in the Caucasus and Anatolia, the British focused their efforts on two fronts: Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine.

Having resisted Ottoman counterattacks against the buffer zone acquired in late 1914, the British commander in Mesopotamia, General John Nixon (1857–1921), advanced northward in June 1915. After initial successes that drew Amra and Kut under their control and threatened Baghdad, British forces suffered a major defeat at Ctesiphon (September 22-26). Nixon retreated to Kut, where his troops were surrounded and cut off in early December. Ottoman forces under Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz (1843–1916) thwarted efforts to relieve Kut and on April 29, 1916, the remnants of the British force surrendered.

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) under General Archibald Murray (1860–1945) had meanwhile gone on the offensive, beginning a slow push toward Palestine through the Sinai Desert, relying heavily on Egyptian transport and auxiliary labor corps. As of June 10, 1916, they were aided by a revolt against Ottoman authority led by Sharif Hussein (1853–1931) of Mecca. Though labeled an "Arab Revolt," this movement was in fact restricted to the tribes of the Hejaz and aimed primarily at preserving Hussein's power in the face of Ottoman attempts to reassert their authority over the province. This made Hussein and his followers natural allies of the British, who hoped to exploit existing anti-Ottoman sentiments among the Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

By the spring of 1916, Hussein and the British high commissioner of Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon (1862–1949), reached an agreement. In exchange for Arab assistance in the war against the Ottoman Empire, the British pledged their support for the foundation of independent Arab states in certain areas liberated from Ottoman control. Though certain vital particulars of this agreement were left deliberately vague, with the consent of both parties, its spirit is difficult to reconcile with that of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This contradiction presented significant difficulties in later stages of the war and during the postwar settlement.

In the meantime, the "Arab Revolt" distracted Ottoman attention and resources at the very moment when Murray was moving against Palestine. Arab tribesmen under Hussein's son Faisal (1883–1933) and his advisor T. E. Lawrence took the Red Sea port of Aqaba (July 5), after which they were reorganized as the Northern Arab Army and deployed alongside the EEF for the advance into Palestine. After a key victory at Romani (August 4-5, 1916), Murray was twice rebuffed in attempts to reduce the Ottoman stronghold of Gaza (February and April 1917). His replacement, General Edmund Allenby (1861–1936), spent the next several months building a significant numerical and logistical superiority over Ottoman forces, and in November (5-7) he triumphed at the Third Battle of Gaza. British and Allied forces entered Jerusalem on December 9, 1917.

Events followed much the same pattern in Mesopotamia. After the disaster at Kut, Nixon's replacement, General Frederick Maude (1864–1917), drew on the Indian Army to build a massive numerical superiority over the Ottoman forces. His offensive began in December 1916 and lasted through March 1917, during which time British forces retook Kut and occupied Baghdad. Ottoman plans for a counteroffensive were thwarted by the British advance into Palestine and the initiative remained with the British.

Some relief for the overburdened Ottoman forces came in late 1917 via the Russian Revolution. Despite continuing pressure from the British on the Mesopotamian and Syria-Palestine fronts, the Turks were able to mount an offensive against the Russians in the Caucasus and Anatolia, recovering the territory lost in early 1915. It also offered an opportunity to drive a wedge between Hussein and the British, when the Bolsheviks made public the secret treaties of the czarist government, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The British succeeded in allaying Hussein's concerns about their commitment to French control over Syria by downplaying Sykes-Picot and reiterating their promises of independent Arab successor states to the Ottoman Empire. Hussein had staked so much on the British connection that he had little choice but to accept their reassurances and carry on in hopes of realizing his own ambitions.

The Anglo-Arab connection survived the nearly contemporary shock of the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917) for similar reasons. Designed to play on American sympathies and on Zionist sensibilities within the international Jewish community, the declaration promised British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It therefore had the potential to alienate the Arab inhabitants of the region. Again a combination of British reassurances and Hussein's pragmatism succeeded in allaying the concerns of Britain's Arab allies, if only for a time.

From late 1917 through the fall of 1918 the fronts in Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine remained static. Events in Europe, specifically the massive German offensive launched in the spring of 1918, precluded the British from any forward move in the Middle East. Only when the situation in Europe had stabilized was Allenby able to begin his final offensive against northern Palestine and Syria. The Battle of Megiddo (September 19-21) broke the Ottoman forces in Palestine and opened Syria to the EEF. Damascus fell on October 1 and Faisal immediately established a nominally independent Arab administration there as per his understanding of British promises. By the final week of October, elements of the EEF had broken the last Ottoman resistance and reached Aleppo.

The collapse of Ottoman forces in Syria was paralleled by a similar collapse in Mesopotamia. Seeing an opportunity to bring all the rich oil fields in the region under their control, the British launched one final offensive in October 1918, which culminated in the capture of Mosul. Military defeat on both southern fronts, in addition to the imminent collapse of their German ally, forced the Turks to sign the Mudros Armistice on October 30, 1918, effectively ending World War I in the Middle East.

For the Ottoman Empire, the war was a catastrophe. Politically it meant the end of the Ottoman Empire. The territorial losses delineated in the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920) reduced the Ottoman state to an Anatolian rump. The humiliation of these losses, Entente occupation, and the human and economic costs of the war sparked the crisis that spurred Mustafa Kemal to abolish the sultanate in November 1922.

In economic and human terms, the war was equally disastrous. Public debt quadrupled under the pressures of total war. The army suffered some 1.45 million casualties, while famine and economic contraction spread suffering among the civilian population. In Syria alone some estimates put civilian deaths from disease and privation brought on by corruption, hoarding, locust infestation, and blockade as high as half a million.

The harsh measures taken by the Ottoman government to ensure internal stability only added to the suffering. In 1915 the specter of nationalist rebellion among the Ottoman Empire's Armenian subjects led to the episode of mass eviction, starvation, and murder known as the "Armenian genocide." Similarly unfounded fears that Syrian Arabs might use the war to launch a nationalist uprising inspired Jemal Paşa to inaugurate an era of violent repression that earned him the epithet "Blood Shedder."

For their part, the British had attained all of their Middle Eastern desiderata. At a cost of 145,000 casualties and substantial diversions from the Western Front, they had wrested Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia from the Ottoman Empire. The short route to India was secure, as was their access to the vast oil reserves of Mesopotamia. They were also in a position to ensure that these interests were enshrined in the postwar settlement.

The problem was negotiating a settlement that would also fulfill British promises to Hussein and his followers, implement the Balfour Declaration, and placate the French, who desired a rigid implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It proved impossible to do so. The British were unable to reconcile the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the promises to Hussein and his cohorts regarding Arab independence. And the overwhelming need to maintain a strong tie to the French for European purposes ensured that British prime minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945) chose French imperial over Arab national aspirations.

Anglo-French supremacy in the Middle East was formalized in the San Remo Conference of April 1920, and later confirmed by the League of Nations. Britain received "mandates" over Mesopotamia and Palestine, including Transjordan. France received "mandates" over Syria and Lebanon. Though envisioned as a temporary arrangement meant to provide for a gradual transition to independence under Western tutelage, mandate status amounted to colonial status and marks the formal incorporation of the Middle East into the orbit of the European empires.

Satisfactory to imperial powers, whose primary interests were recognition of their supremacy and access to oil, to Zionists, and even to members of the puppet regimes that quickly appeared in the region, such arrangements engendered profound resentment among the majority of Arab nationalists, who felt betrayed by their erstwhile allies. The destabilizing effects of frustrated Arab nationalism, European political and economic domination, and active support of Zionism must stand beside the end of Ottoman domination and the appearance of the successor states comprising the modern Middle East as the key legacies of World War I in the Middle East.

see also British Colonialism, Middle East; Empire, Russian and the Middle East; French Colonialism, Middle East; Germany and the Middle East.


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World War I, Middle East

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