The last Great War

100 years ago this month, the European powers went to war. A new book provides a fresh look at how it transformed the Middle East.

Australians wearing World War I fatigues ride horses during a reenactment marking the anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Australians wearing World War I fatigues ride horses during a reenactment marking the anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1915 the British viceroy of India, Charles Hardinge, sent a telegram to London noting the prospects for a successful military campaign in Iraq.
“The capture of Baghdad would create an immense impression in the Middle East, especially in Persia, Afghanistan and on our frontier.”
The expedition, in the spring of 1916, foundered at a little-known town called Kut, 100 miles from Baghdad, and resulted in the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers to the Ottoman army. As they were marched to captivity, a Russian expeditionary force in Persia (now Iran) sat poised to intervene, but choose not to help her ostensible British allies.
These episodes and many others are revealed in Rice University lecturer Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s new book, The First World War in the Middle East. From many perspectives, the war was of great importance because it set in motion the realignment of the region, which is still being played out today.
The breakup of Iraq, for instance, appears to be a direct result of colonial meddling after the war in which Iraq was cobbled together under a British mandate. Ulrichsen is cognizant of this historical shadow, noting in his introduction that “two of the states that emerged from the legacy of the first large-scale modern Western military intervention in the region lie in ruins.”
The book is part military history, part examination of the politics, economics and outcome of the momentous events of 1914- 1918. It is written in a professional historian’s style; those looking for colorful flourishes, descriptions of the agony soldiers felt in battle or the joie de vivre of Lawrence of Arabia will be disappointed. That being said, there is much to learn in this relatively short but information-packed volume.
The author begins with a detailed explanation of the problems militaries faced in the region during the war. He contrasts the “mass industrialized warfare” with the fact that this region had terrible infrastructure.
Logistics for army units were stretched to the breaking point.
For instance, when Turkish military leader Enver Pasha launched his Third Army invasion of the Caucasus in December 1914, he thought a winter campaign would catch the Russians by surprise. Why a Turkish general, leading an army of conscripts used to the warmth of the Mediterranean, thought the Russians would succumb in the cold is completely unfathomable, and Enver got what he deserved. His army was trapped on a plateau averaging 2,000 meters above sea level in the freezing cold around the town of Sarikamis, and his army was virtually destroyed.
Similarly, the British at Kut and Gallipoli struggled to gain a foothold against the Ottomans. Though the Ottoman army, bolstered by German advisers, was corrupt and inadequate, the superior British infantry were stymied. In the desert wastes of Sinai the Ottomans, led by Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, a German, sent 25,000 across the peninsula to raid the Suez Canal. They actually launched inflatable pontoons, something that presaged the Egyptian crossing of 1973 against Israel, but failed to gain much of a foothold on the Egyptian side.
The British, having failed in Iraq and in Gallipoli, realized a long desert campaign to dislodge the Ottomans was their only hope.
The author notes the immensity of the task before them. “By December 1916, the British military authorities were responsible for maintaining a force of 200,000 combatants and non-combatants along the border with Palestine.” Some 1.2 million gallons of water was needed each day – not just for the men, but also the horses and camels.
Gen. Sir Archibald Murray led the British invasion of Palestine in early 1917; the campaign is best-remembered for the fact that he ordered the use of tanks and poison gas to take Gaza in March and April. Despite these new-fangled weapons, the Turkish trenches remained impregnable and he was relieved of command.
The rest of the Palestine campaign is well-known, including the famous charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba, which turned the tide and sent the Turks reeling back towards Jerusalem, then Megiddo and finally Damascus.
Ulrichsen’s book examines the military campaigns in Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Thessaloniki and the Caucasus in separate chapters. Those unfamiliar with the dates will find it slightly difficult to keep track of the fact that it is not organized chronologically.
His final chapters examine the postwar period and the decision to create a mandate for a Jewish state; a nationalist revolt in Egypt; and a tribal rebellion in Iraq.
Readers cannot fail to notice the many similarities with today: the breakdown of societies, such as that of Libya and Syria; the tribal revolts combined with religious fervor and nationalism. All of it seems to be playing itself out again, even the poison gas issue in Syria.
But the author is not heavy on the politics or the blame game, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether it was colonialism that played a major part in the region’s problems today, or the instability created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of various local Arab elites.