The long read: Forget Lawrence of Arabia, here’s the real history of the Middle East and World War 1

Justin Marozzi speaks to Eugene Rogan whose acclaimed new study of the First World War in the Middle East takes for its vantage point the Ottoman front line.

Turkish troops on parade at Gallipoli during World War I, circa 1915. Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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On November 11, 1914, Sheikh Al ­Islam Ürgüplü Hayri Bey, the supreme religious authority in the Ottoman Empire, posed a dramatic question in the Fatih Sultan Mehmed Mosque, one of the most venerable monuments on the Istanbul skyline. The question, and the emphatic one-word answer it generated, would affect the lives of millions of Muslims, as well as their adversaries, across the Middle East over the next four years.

“Question: When it occurs that ­enemies attack the Islamic world, when it has been established that they seize and pillage Islamic countries and capture Muslim persons and when his Majesty the Padishah of Islam [the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V] thereupon orders the jihad in the form of a general mobilisation, has jihad then … become incumbent on all Muslims and has it become an individual duty for all Muslims in all parts of the world, be they young or old, on foot or mounted, to hasten to partake in the jihad with their goods and money?

“Answer: Yes.”

Traditionally, historians have downplayed the significance of the ensuing German-orchestrated jihad against the Allies, to the extent that it has been branded irrelevant to the wider war effort. ­Certainly it did not have the devastating effect wished for by its architects and, on this purely military level, it can be contrasted with the more immediately effective British-sponsored uprising of the Arabs against the Ottomans, their co-religionists and long-standing colonial overlords.

Yet this explanation, says Professor Eugene Rogan, the author of a new landmark study – The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920 – fails to take into account the effect the jihad had on the Entente Powers or Allies.

“I think it failed to provoke a global Islamic uprising, but the way it played on British and French war planners was very significant, right through to the fall of Jerusalem in November 1917. The British were preoccupied that defeats at the hands of the Ottomans might ­provoke uprisings by colonial Muslims in India and Egypt – and it really shaped a lot of their wartime planning. So to say the jihad was irrelevant needs revising.”

The uniquely western perspective of fighting on the Ottoman Front, long a neglected and underrated theatre of the First World War with the exception of the numerous works about Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, has been equally in need of revision. Just as for many Europeans, particularly the British and French, the Great War is popularly known almost exclusively as a Western Front affair, so with the war in the Middle East, European and especially British historians have tended to see the conflict through a British lens. Thus we have those hoary staples of “Churchill’s debacle” at Gallipoli; “Townshend’s surrender” at Al Kut, the most ignominious in British military history; “Maude’s entry” into Baghdad in March 1917, ending 383 years of Ottoman rule; “Allenby’s conquest” of Jerusalem in November that year. And, of course, that most enigmatic and quintessentially British figure, with a liberal sprinkling of Hollywood stardust, “Lawrence of Arabia”, long lionised by Brits as the leader of the Arab Revolt. Arabs, it hardly needs explaining, have consistently and vigorously contested this view, including most recently the distinguished Iraqi historian Ali Allawi in his 2014 biography Faisal I of Iraq.

This Eurocentric approach to the war in the Middle East tends to be parochial to the point of one-sided, a narrow perspective which Rogan is keen to widen. While David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace (1989) reflected the classic view from British archives, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s The First World War in the Middle East (2014) offered a broader canvas. With Rogan, Gallipoli, Kut and Gaza now rightly become hard-won, resounding Ottoman victories rather than heroic British defeats. Far from proving the key to a swift end to war through a lightning defeat of the “Weak Man of Europe”, as the Allies had anticipated, the Ottoman Front only succeeded in lengthening – and vastly broadening – the greater conflict, claiming millions of soldiers from the Entente and Central Alliances.

What is especially welcome in this study is the long overdue focus on the experiences of Turkish and Arab soldiers and civilians during the war, culled from a series of recently published diaries and memoirs. During the past 10 years, perhaps 30 Ottoman soldiers’ diaries have been published in Turkey, counterparts to visceral British works such as P W Long’s Other Ranks of Kut (1938). These are alternately harrowing, heart-rending, sometimes amusing, but always intensely human documents. Rogan says they were “the most exciting part of writing the book. They allow us for the first time to approach the common soldier’s experience of fighting, and what’s so exciting are the parallels between what they write and what western soldiers write – we’ve never had it from both sides of the trenches before.”

Thus we hear the voices of ordinary men such as Corporal Ali Riza Eti, a Turkish medic called up for military service to fight the Russians at Köprüköy, the first Ottoman battle of the First World War in November 1914. Eti transcribed the terrifying symphony of bullets as civ civ civ. “As it was my first day [of fighting], I was very afraid of dying,” he noted in his diary. “With each civ I broke out in a sweat from my teeth to my toenails.”

French and Ottoman soldiers’ diaries bear common witness to the terror of hearing the enemy digging under their lines. “The Turks wrote a lot of poetry too, much of it very bad, like that of the soldiers they were fighting,” says Rogan. “The experience was so big it seemed to defy prose so they resorted to poetry to do justice to it.”

Rogan charts how the emerging Arab movement pressing for rights for Arab subjects within the Ottoman Empire came under ever more severe Young Turk repression in the lead-up to the Great War. Tens of thousands were exiled for their political views and dozens were hanged in Beirut and Damascus in 1916. Increased Ottoman suppression, combined with the hardship of the war years, fuelled increasingly separatist views among the Arabs.

Though sensitive to the general sophistication of Ottoman rule, Rogan does not pull his punches on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The chapter detailing “the annihilation of the Armenians”, with systematic massacres of males who were 12 years and over, often within sight or hearing of their womenfolk, sounds an eloquent riposte to long-standing Turkish denial of these “crimes against humanity”.

T E Lawrence famously considered the Arab Revolt “a sideshow of a sideshow”. By contrast, Rogan demonstrates that the Ottoman Front writ large was unquestionably an international affair that transformed Europe’s Great War into the First World War.

Here the British made common cause with South Asians, North Africans and New Zealanders, Australians, Senegalese, Sudanese and the French to fight a polyglot Ottoman army containing Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Circassians. The Ottoman Front was “a veritable tower of Babel, an unprecedented conflict between international armies”.

Much of the turmoil currently convulsing the Middle East can find its echoes on the region’s battlefields a century ago. “What we forget was that the war was fought in many areas of the Middle East,” Rogan says. “There was fighting that affected people’s daily lives in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, across the Hijaz, in Iran and in Turkey. The number of people touched by the war counted in the millions.”

Death came through disease, spread by the movement of huge armies, through famine and through direct conflict.

Another argument that comes in for intense re-examination concerns British wartime partition plans, which are typically considered “deeply duplicitous” in promising the same land to multiple parties. It is only by studying the series of different diplomatic agreements within their immediate military context, Rogan convincingly argues, that it becomes clear that diplomacy consistently was playing second fiddle to the overriding objective of winning an increasingly murderous war.

Thus the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, in which France and Britain promised Russia the prizes of Istanbul and the Dardanelles, reflected Allied confidence in a swift capture of the Ottoman capital. The protracted Hussein–McMahon Correspondence with the Hashemites in 1915-16 was engendered by Britain’s need for an Arab ally to counter the rabble-raising Ottoman jihad. Then came the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to carve up the Ottoman Middle East, struck in anticipation of an imminent Ottoman collapse that then proved stubbornly elusive. The ominous and conflicting Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a belated effort to recalibrate Sykes-Picot and secure British rule for Palestine. In Rogan’s words: “Britain was not thinking about drawing up borders in the Middle East so much as defeating the ­Germans.”

With the war won, and the ailing Ottoman Empire on its deathbed, the Great Powers turned avaricious eyes on the post-war prize of the Middle East. To the victors the spoils. In the last years of Sunni Muslim Ottoman rule, from the Young Turks revolution of 1908, the mixed populations of the Middle East had been represented in Istanbul on equal terms. The traditional dhimmi status for Jews and Christians had been abolished. Now Muslim rule gave way to European imperialism. The new masters were determined to snuff out the aspirations for Arab independence they had ignited only a couple of years earlier.

For Rogan, the conflict has left a distinctly baleful legacy in the region. “I think the Middle East has suffered more from the enduring consequences of World War I than practically any other part of the world,” he says.

Although the British and French successfully created what proved to be a remarkably resilient state system in which borders survived virtually intact for a century, they also left a legacy of unresolved national issues, which have continued to destabilise the region. Stable on one level, the long-lasting borders have engendered multiple conflicts on the other, notably with Palestine and the Kurds.

In fact, the legacy of the Great War in the Middle East extends far beyond Israel, the Palestinians and the Kurds. Lebanon emerged with the seeds of sectarian conflict planted within its own borders, vulnerable to ambitions from a Syria that was never reconciled to its loss.

Perhaps nowhere, though, has been as bloodied and scarred by its modern history as Iraq, conceived by the British as a union between the three related but separate Ottoman vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. After a brief period of hope under a fledgling monarchy that lasted from 1921 to 1958, Iraqis have not been able to break the ensuing vicious cycle of revolutions, coups, wars and dictatorship. They are now engulfed by a sectarian conflict that traces its origins back more than 1,200 years before the Great War, to the Battle of Karbala in AD680, the crystallisation of the Sunni-Shia division.

Last year, Europe embarked on a four-year commemoration of the First World War. In the Middle East the centenary has been met largely with silence rather than celebrations of victories or commemoration of losses. There are other, more immediate conflicts to concentrate on. “It’s the forgotten war because it’s seen as someone else’s war even though it was fought on their soil and it was their men fighting and dying,” says Rogan. The people of the region had not chosen to get involved in this war. “World War One was the misfortune that led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European imperialism and it’s remembered as a period of tremendous suffering.”

This is a formidable narrative history, written with great verve and empathy. Through its meticulous scholarship and its deft weaving together of the social, economic, diplomatic and ­military history of this neglected front, The Fall of the Ottomans provides an engrossing picture of a deadly conflict that proved catastrophic for the peoples of the region.

Surveying the state of the Middle East a century after the conflict, Rogan argues the basic peacetime challenge of generating jobs and economic growth for a young and rapidly expanding population has been frustrated by numerous, currently overwhelming setbacks.

“What prevents the region from addressing those legitimate challenges are layers and layers of political problems and regional conflicts that seem to drive the prospects of a free and prosperous region deeper and deeper into the future,” he says. “With the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya – and with political volatility in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria – I think everyone is rational to be pessimistic about the prospects for the region. None of these problems have a short-term solution.”

Eugene Rogan will attend the Emirates Literature Festival in ­Dubai on March 4. He will take part in a panel discussion '100 Years On: Continuing Reverberations in the Arab World' as well as speak about his own work. For more information, visit

Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.