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The Fall of the Ottomans: Dramatic but Narrow

Updated on April 29, 2020

The Ottomans were much more than a piece of furniture, but rather one of the world's longest lived and most powerful nations - enduring a stunning 6 centuries, and sprawling over 3 continents at their height. But as might be guessed from the fact that they can be dated as enduring 6 centuries, the Ottoman Empire did come to an end, as a result of the cataclysmic conflict of the Great War - The First World War. The Ottoman participation in this global conflict and the Ottoman defeat is the subject of Eugene Rogan's book The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920, which seeks to correct the rather one-sided and narrow Western view that we have by looking again at the Ottomans and the history of their final struggle and defeat. It offers a powerful and dramatic narrative of the collapse of the Ottomans, but is also handicapped by its narrow-minded focus on military matters.

The Ottoman Empire of 1914 was something of a far cry of its previous size, but still commanded a respectably large amount of territory.
The Ottoman Empire of 1914 was something of a far cry of its previous size, but still commanded a respectably large amount of territory.

The opening of the book is a poignant preface about the author's great grandparent's sons who died at Gallipoli in the British Army - and the forgotten tens, hundreds of thousands, of Ottomans who died too, in the blood soaked sand and waves of the land. It continues on to emphasize the need to elevate the Middle East higher in the Great War's perspective, and its continuing importance to the Middle East.

A number of maps - decent, with rail lines and reasonable scales - follows. After this the first chapter is about the years leading up to the Great War, with the Young Turk Revolution, the Balkan and Italo-Turkish wars, growing Arab nationalism, and violence against the Armenians.

Following this a chapter is devoted to the year of peace between the end of the Balkan Wars and the outbreak of WW1 - a period of cautious economic optimism, but also a budding naval arms race between the Ottomans and Greeks, tensions with the Russians over the Armenians, and then the growing ties with Germany and their support for the Ottomans which ultimately, alongside Ottoman internal political maneuvers in their search for an ally and territorial guarantees, brought them into the war against the Russians.

This they expected to be a brief war, calling Muslims from across the world to jihad, and the Ottomans were willing to accept long-term financial ruin in exchange for economic pillaging in huge taxes internally to pay for the war effort. Their enemies, the French and British, also mobilized massive numbers of colonial subjects for war, including many Muslims - which the Central Powers hoped to subvert to their side.

With the beginning of war in chapter 4, the Ottomans faced severe military threats across the entire empire - enemy naval raids on their long Mediterranean coastlines, attacks on positions in Arabia, Russian attacks in Armenia, and British subversion in the Gulf: the opening few months of the war did not go well for them, as they were pushed back on all fronts.

Ottoman troops in the snow during their catastrophic failed offensive of the Battle of Sarikamis.
Ottoman troops in the snow during their catastrophic failed offensive of the Battle of Sarikamis.

Going to the offensive, as related in chapter 5, resulted in even greater catastrophe, as a surprise Ottoman winter offensive in the Caucasus, daring, bold, and tremendously risky, came close to success - and then failed, with the Ottoman troops strung out in the freezing cold and picked off by the Russians, suffering tremendous casualties. Violence against the Armenians increased constantly as well. Other Ottoman offensives failed in Southern Iraq and the Suez Canal, leading the Allies to underestimate the capability of the Ottoman military, and to begin planning for an invasion of Istanbul itself.

Gallipoli, or the Dardenelles campaign comes next, as the highpoint of the Ottoman war effort - surviving a full on assault from the French and British who tried an amphibious assault into prepared Turkish defenses after a naval campaign failed, and didn't succeed in managing to seize control in a coup de main. For both sides the casualties were tremendous, and conditions horrendous, equivalent to those on the Western Front. The Ottoman Empire was saved from decapitation, as both sides were stalemated.

Armenians being marched to their deaths in the desert:
Armenians being marched to their deaths in the desert:

This would have grim consequences for the Armenians, as related in chapter 7, who suffered a horrendous genocide at the hands of the Ottomans, stemming from increasing Ottoman mistrust and hatred following their defeats against the Russians. The Ottomans would proceed to engage in mass slaughter of the Armenians by forced death marches of entire communities into the desert, aided by local gendarmes and the population's assistance.

The end of the Dardanelles campaign continues the Gallipoli campaign, which became more and more pitched and saw increasing amounts of resources being thrown in by all sides. Massive attacks and heavy artillery were used, while the seas around the peninsula were the subject of deadly raids by u-boats, and attempts to break out by the British or to outflank the Turks from the sea failed, leading ultimately to an Allied evacuation at the end of 1915 and Turkish victory - their greatest of the war.

For both the war continued on in Mesopotamia, where British troops continued to advance, seizing control of the entire province of Basra. With defeat in front of Istanbul, the British government hoped to take Baghdad as a consolation prize, and the British army in the region attacked - and was checked in front of Baghdad, retreating back to Kut under Ottoman attack.

Emaciated British prisoners after the fall of Kut
Emaciated British prisoners after the fall of Kut

Kut would be a lengthy siege as chapter 10 points out, one which saw repeated relief attempts, and which was punctured by the Russian capture of Erzerum in the Caucasus, a decisive victory which would stand in dramatic contrast to the ultimate British capitulation at Kut in April 1916, after food had run out and relief efforts failed, with the entire British army destroyed and its troops sent off into imprisonment - for many of its rank and file, thoroughly brutal, although officers and especially muslims received better treatment, and some would even join the Ottoman cause. Simultaneous British efforts to patch up their periphery in dealing with hostile tribes in Egypt succeeded, but the war situation could only be described as depressing.

It would begin to look up however, with the Arab Revolt, famously aided by Lawrence of Arabia, as the British allied with the Sharif of Mecca Sharif Husayn, began. Heavy handed Ottoman policies and declining economic statuses in the Arab provinces led to increasing resentment to the Ottoman government, and the alliance between Husayn and the British would hold - despite an Ottoman counter-attack nearly knocking it out of the war.

The Arab Revolt would forever transform politics in the Middle East.
The Arab Revolt would forever transform politics in the Middle East.

This would set the stage, as Chapter 12 lays out, for a successful Allied advance. British and Ottoman forces fought in the Sinai as the British sought to expand their logistics network to support operations against the Ottomans and the Ottomans to drive to the Suez Canal to disable it, with both sides trading defeats and victories but the British ultimately reclaiming the Sinai. Reinforcements and Russian pressure led to the British to capture Baghdad in 1917. Multiple efforts to advance in Palestine failed at first, but the successes of the Arab Revolt and additional British reinforcements and supplies led to the ultimate capture of Gaza after two previous failed attempts, and the capture of Jerusalem at the end of 1917 - which also enabled the British to court the Zionist movement to gain control of Palestine.

A reprieve for the Ottomans however, was the collapse of Russia as it spun into civil war and signed an armistice with the Central Powers, and also revealed the Anglo-French-Russian plans to partition the Middle East after the war. However, although the Ottomans made important gains against the Russians in the Caucasus, reaching the major oil producing center at Baku, and managed several defeats of the Arab rebels, they ultimately lost to massive advancing British forces in Palestine advancing relentlessly up the coast: ultimately the Ottomans would be forced to surrender in an armistice at the end of 1918.

The conclusion to the book is about the Ottoman reaction to the armistice, the Armenian assassination of the Young Turks who had been responsible for the policies of the Armenian genocide, and the continuing importance of the Great War and its consequences to the Middle East and the world in a war which nobody expected to be long and which the British expected to be a quick victory, and yet which would shape history for forever thereafter.

The Fall of the Ottomans makes for a good general history of the Ottoman participation in the Great War. It provides for a view which integrates the terrible suffering of the Armenians, military operations, political maneuvering and some of the pre-war diplomatic engagement, in a way which humanizes the combatants involved with constant looks at how operations were on the ground. But at the same time it neglects key parts of the story: diplomatically it is scanty, particularly once war breaks out, its picture of the Ottoman army is lacking in detail, its depiction of the homefront during the war, production, and social events beyond the genocide of the Armenians and relations to the Arabs lacking almost utterly.

Some broader things do receive decent coverage, such as the Ottoman call to jihad and its effects - or more precisely, the lack of effects. Perhaps the reason why this was put into spotlight is due to the contemporary concerns over Islamic religious fanaticism and extremism - thus the observation that the attempt to rally the Islamic world as a whole for jihad fell flat is comforting and an easy piece of tolerant wisdom to bestow upon the reader. The book treats the subject with a good mixture of the hopes and plans of the jihad, how it was considered by the Allied military and political planners with the decisions they undertook to respond, and what the ultimately effect was. It could however, have dealt more with Russia and its own Muslim population in Central Asia.

The writing style of the book includes plenty of quotes, personal observations from historical figures, and texts from the era, which combined with the author's writing style produce a volume which flows easily and brings the war to life - it is not a dry and boring book, and it is one which is easily understood and which has a real human touch to it. The book can lack in very precise military detail at time, but this makes it more understandable, readable, and comprehensible for the average reader. Furthermore it has a pleasant collection of photos which are relevant, good quality, and support the book well, and its maps are reasonable.

For those interested in a general history of the end of the Ottomans this will probably suffice for military matters and some elements of its political battle. But for those who want more, other, more specialized volumes will be required. The book sets itself the task of humanizing the war and showing it from the other side, of the dreadful butchery and carnage that the Ottomans themselves endured. In this, it accomplishes its job well, changing a mysterious and ill known empire and struggle into something that is very tangible, real, and

4 stars for The Fall of the Ottomans


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