How the Ottomans Ruined the 20th Century

World War I was only a global conflict when the Ottoman Empire joined the fray. Those consequences—from genocide to new borders—are still felt today.

SeM/UIG via Getty Images

After reading the fascinating initial chapter of Eugene Rogan’s new history of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, I was struck with a recurring thought: The wonder is not so much that this sprawling 600-year-old Muslim empire fell victim to the convulsions of world conflict in 1918, but that it somehow managed to survive at all as a world power up to the war’s opening salvos. Founded by Central Asian Muslim tribes in 1299, at its height in the late 17th century the empire spanned three continents, taking in the Balkans in southern Europe, Arab lands from Mesopotamia to Morocco, and much of Asia Minor. Since the beginning of the 18th century Istanbul found itself almost continually at war with Europe’s imperial powers. Invariably, it came out on the losing end. Egypt and most of North Africa were lost to Britain and France by 1882, while Russia gobbled up one province of eastern Anatolia after another.

Nor were the predations of the Great Powers the only serious problem. The Ottomans were mired in internal conflicts between the dominant Turks and the many other peoples who paid allegiance to the Sultan in Istanbul, including Serbs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs. These groups had begun to absorb Western ideas of nationalism and self-determination—ideas that sparked numerous rebellions and crackdowns on suspected subversives within the Empire. The most notorious of the latter would ultimately fester into the 1915-1916 deportation-mass murder campaign against the Christian Armenians from their Anatolian homelands. As many as a million defenseless Armenians lost their lives.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Turks would fight in World War I at all. Many leading political figures in Istanbul favored neutrality as the surest road to bringing about long-overdue administrative and economic modernization with the aid of investments from all the European powers. In the end, however, the triumvirate of pashas who ruled the Empire came to believe an alliance with an ascendant Germany, in which Berlin would pay for much of the war effort and military training, would be the surest path to re-conquest of lost provinces, the shoring up its faltering influence in the Middle East, and internal modernization. It was the Ottoman entrance into the war on the side of the Central Powers that transformed a European war into a truly global conflict.

For their part, the Germans gained the use of a large Ottoman army that could take the pressure off their inevitable battle against Russia in the East by launching a campaign in the Caucasus. More important, Germany hoped to exploit the Ottoman sultan’s role as caliph over the entire world community of Muslims. Of course, the British, Russian, and French empires contained millions of Muslims. The Germans wanted the Caliph to declare a jihad against their adversaries, hoping to bring about mass uprisings that would cripple the war efforts of the Triple Entente, and the Caliph was happy to oblige.

The initial Ottoman campaigns did not go well. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, hoped to duplicate the Germans’ masterful envelopment at Tannenberg against the Russians, prompting the destruction of an entire Russian army. Geography, poor weather, and inadequate logistics, however, led to a crushing Ottoman defeat and the loss of 80,000 troops. Several divisions of Armenian Christians fought on the Russian side in the campaign, and in the wake of the loss, the large Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire found themselves victims of the 20th century’s first genocide. Rogan unpacks the complicated tragedy of the Armenian persecution deftly and sensitively, concluding that “the bitter irony is that the annihilation of the Armenians and other Christian communities in no way improved the security of the Ottoman Empire,” though that was its primary object.

Next, the Ottoman 4th Army attacked the British defending the Suez Canal across the Sinai Desert, but the thrust was detected by aerial scouts and repulsed handily. The first two Ottoman campaigns, observes Rogan, “revealed Ottoman commanders to be unrealistic in their expectations and the average Ottoman soldier to be incredibly tenacious and disciplined even under the most extreme conditions.”

These early Allied victories lulled the Allies into a “false complacency about the limits of Ottoman effectiveness.” Prompted by a Russian plea to mount a diversionary campaign, Britain and France decided in spring 1915 to go for a knockout punch. They launched an ambitious amphibious attack through the heavily mined Dardanelles straits on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Such an attack would threaten Istanbul itself—if successful. Now it was the ordinary Allied soldiers’ turn, particularly the Australians and New Zealanders, to suffer at the hands of their commanders’ incompetence.

For eight months, the agony in the trenches at Gallipoli continued, with little substantial Allied progress. Here Colonel Mustafa Kemal—later called Ataturk, leader of Turkey in its successful war of independence of 1919-1923—first distinguished himself, as did the entire Ottoman army in their heroic defense of the Peninsula. Suffice it to say that in the years between the two world wars, the Gallipoli campaign was held up as proof by leading military strategists that the amphibious assault against a well-defended beach would never again succeed. The U.S. Marines, however, weren’t buying the message. They conducted an extensive study of Gallipoli, determining that the British and French had made a complete hash of the operation, and that, with proper training, specialized doctrine and equipment, heavily fortified beaches could indeed be taken. (In this they were correct, as World War II proved.)

Impending defeat at Gallipoli prompted London to order a British-Indian army to march on Baghdad to rekindle support for the war at home, and assuage suspected Muslim restiveness within their Empire. Once again, the tough Turks managed to repulse the British drive, capturing 13,000 Indians and Britons at the Siege of Kut.

After Kut, the war generally went quite badly for the Ottomans. A crucial factor in their misfortunes was Istanbul’s failure to win over the Arab tribes, loosely united under Sharif Husayn of Mecca, the great-great grandfather of Jordan’s current head of state, King Abdullah II, to fight for the Empire rather than against it. The Turks were badly outmaneuvered on the diplomatic front by the British, who concluded an alliance with Husayn in March 1916 in which false promises of postwar independence for the Arabs played no small role. The Arab Revolt was born. For the rest of the war, Husayn and his trusted adviser, T.E. Lawrence, effectively tied down Ottoman forces with guerrilla operations against (already thin) supply lines in Palestine, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Sultan’s call to jihad utterly failed to strike a chord among the Muslims within the Allied empires, mainly because their clerics saw cynical German aspirations behind the call. In addition, as scholar Bernard Lewis has written, “The moral significance of an Arab army fighting the Turks, and still more, of the ruler of the holy places [Sharif Husayn] denouncing the Ottoman Sultan and his so-called jihad, was immense, and was of particular value to the British and incidentally to the French empires in maintaining their authority over their Muslim subjects.”

In fall 1917, a bold and very smart British general, Edmund Allenby, assumed command in the Middle East. He broke the main Ottoman defensive line in Palestine, centered on Gaza. The Turks retreated, surrendering Jerusalem without a shot. By this point, as Rogan points out, the Ottomans’ ambitions “had been narrowed from victory to survival.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Setbacks on the Western front forestalled Allied operations in the Middle East until fall 1918. The Turks, badly in need of reinforcements and resupply that would never come, grimly held on. In a three-day operation in September around Megiddo in Palestine, Allenby used his cavalry to sweep around Ottoman forces, capturing tens of thousands before going on to completing his conquest of demoralized Ottoman forces in Syria.

With the final defeat of the Ottomans and Germany in 1918, European imperialism replaced Turkish rule throughout the Middle East. After four centuries united in a multinational empire under Ottoman Muslim rule, the Arabs found themselves divided into new states under the control of Britain and France. The 200-year retreat of Islamic power before the West had run its course. New boundaries were established to suit the expansionist designs of the conquerors, and, as Rogan points out in his excellent Conclusion:

The borders of the post-war settlement have proven remarkably resilient—as have the conflicts the post-war boundaries have engendered. The Kurdish people, divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, have been embroiled in conflict with each of their host governments over the past century in pursuit of their cultural and political rights. Lebanon, created by France in 1920 as a Christian state, succumbed to a string of civil wars as its political institutions failed to keep pace with its demographic shifts and Muslims came to outnumber Christians. Syria, unreconciled to the creation of Lebanon from what many Syrian nationalists believed to be an integral part of their country, sent in its military to occupy Lebanon in 1976—and remained in occupation of that country for nearly thirty years. Despite its natural and human resources, Iraq has never known enduring peace and stability within its post-war boundaries, experiencing a coup and conflict with Britain in World War II, revolution in 1958, war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, and a seemingly unending cycle of war since Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait and the 2003 American invasion… to topple Hussein.

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East is a remarkably lucid and accessible work of history, involving a large cast of contradictory and complex characters. Rogan, who teaches the history of the modern Middle East at Oxford, seems equally at home explaining the parameters of Ottoman grand strategy and the tensions of the British-Arab alliance as he is at conjuring up the unique challenges of maneuver warfare in the Sinai and Palestine, or the brutal stalemate in the Gallipoli trenches. Telling quotations from diplomats, field commanders, and ordinary soldiers of all the combatants lend the narrative a powerful sense of immediacy.

Rogan wrote the book in part to challenge the conventional view that the Turkish campaigns against Britain and France in the Middle East and against the Russians in the Caucuses were strictly sideshows to the main events on the Western and Eastern fronts, and to convey to English speakers a flavor of the Muslim experiences of an event that did more than any other to give birth to the modern Middle East. Rogan certainly succeeds in demonstrating that “the sick man of Europe” proved to be a far more important player in the Great War than its opponents believed possible, in ways they never imagined.