‘We were the only ones left alive’

An exciting new book looks at the suffering of the Middle East’s diverse people during the First World War.

A view of 4,500 prisoners captured by the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade during operations in Amman in September 1918. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A view of 4,500 prisoners captured by the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade during operations in Amman in September 1918.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ahmed al-Jundi’s father was an employee of an Ottoman court in northern Syria in 1916. Two years into the First World War the province was in upheaval. Famine gripped the people.
Then one day a summons came: He was to be “exiled” with his family to a small town in what is now Turkey. There was no choice. He packed his things into a cart and carriage and set off in the dead of winter.
His is one story out of thousands recounted in a new, excellently written account of the history of the First World War in the Middle East by Leila Tarazi Fawaz, the Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University.
In recent years there has been a mushrooming of interest in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the massive upheaval of the Great War. Part of this stems from a feeling that the study of the war was too Eurocentric in previous generations. But the real nostalgia for this period is that it provides a picture of a Middle East different from what we are used to.
Freed from the civil wars of today and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is something sepia-toned and intriguing about this region that still had a plethora of minorities in 1914.
The effect of the First World War in the Middle East was largely a culmination of events that began in the 19th century. “For decades before the war, the weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the growth of European influence in the Middle East accelerated the pace of change in daily life,” writes the author.
Jewish immigrants, enthused with Zionism, were arriving in Ottoman Palestine. The Christians in Lebanon were being exposed to French culture through institutions. European powers were extending their support to minorities, and local groups were experimenting with new notions of nationalism. The war ostensibly pitted the Ottoman Empire against Russia, Britain and France. But it was much more than that. Its result transformed the modern Middle East and gave rise to the current nation-states in the region.
Fawaz begins her narrative by looking at the cultural influences. She is versed in the local memoirs from the period as well as the high-level diplomatic correspondence from the various European governments.
But her story quickly turns to military matters. When the war broke out and Istanbul sided with the Germans, the British were keen to pry loose the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. But their forces were hundreds of miles from supplies and faced a long slog through extreme climates.
A British commander wrote of Iraq, “[Our march] is liable to be severely hindered – in the winter by rain and mud, in the spring by floods, in the summer by heat and sickness, in the autumn by exhaustion following upon the summer, at all times by the extreme difficulty of maintaining an army in a country which has neither communications nor local resources.”
These words were prescient. In 1915 Gen. Charles Townshend took a British division up the Tigris River toward Baghdad.
The British advance soon ran into logistical problems of supply and faced stiff Turkish defenses, including entrenched positions. Perhaps arrogance had made them think the Turks would melt away; but whatever the cause, Townshend eventually found his force disintegrating, and surrendered in April 1916. Thousands of men walked off into Turkish captivity.
The strength of Fawaz’s narrative lies in its ability to get the reader into the heart of this historic period and in pulling out the stories that usually do not find their way into history books, which often focus too much on politics and leaders.
In her fifth chapter she focuses on the “soldiering experience.” “More Ottoman troops perished from starvation and disease than from battle wounds in major confrontations,” the author notes.
Not to be forgotten among the stories of suffering and war is the account of the smugglers and artisans who made profit from it all.
Another story that is highlighted is the experience of the hundreds of thousands of Indians who participated in the conflict. Of particular interest here is the fact that the British were able to recruit subjects from many backgrounds, including many Muslims from India, who went off to soldier for the British Empire.
What Fawaz successfully shows us is that our understanding of the region today, colored by religious sectarianism and current borders, requires a corrective.
As we live through the centenary of the Great War in the Middle East, we live not only in its shadow but also can draw from it lessons for the future.