Review: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 by Sean McMeekin (2016) Assessment 8 out of 10

A re-writing, from a different perspective, of the History of the First World War.

McMeekin describes the Great War as “the War of Ottoman Succession”, running not from 1914 to 1918 but for Turkey, at least, from 1911 to 1922.

Throughout campaigns and atrocities are viewed in the context of diplomacy, politics and what was happening on other fronts.

After defeat in 1911-13 in wars with Italy and with four Balkan republics, Turkey joined the Central Powers having negotiated significant monetary and military aid from Germany. This contributed to Turkish successes in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli in 1915 and at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916, all disasters for British prestige.

Russian forces in 1917, which in 1916 had triumphed against Turkey in the Caucasus, led by generals and admirals who were to head up the Whites in the Russian Civil War, were less subject to revolution and mutiny than those on other fronts.

In 1918 Enver Pasha pushed on into Transcaucasia with the aim of creating a union of Turkish peoples, denuding forces in Mesopotamia and Palestine and European Turkey, allowing breaks-through by the British and the French, which culminated in the Turkish Armistice.

In the Middle East British arms defeated the Ottomans. The Arab Revolt had limited impact. However, as publicized by TE Lawrence (of Arabia), it was made to appear as self-determination, along lines promoted by US President Wilson.

Throughout McMeekin is opinionated. Why didn’t the British attack in Cilicia, the little defended hinge of the Ottoman Empire rather than heavily fortified Dardanelles-Gallipoli? In starting the Dardanelles-Gallipoli campaign, Britain had sought to relieve pressure on Russia. Russia failed to reciprocate such assistance, either in the later stages of the fighting in Gallipoli or in relieving the starving Anglo-Indian force holed up at Kut.

The Sykes-Picot carve-up of the Middle East between Britain and France was nothing of the sort. It was the remnants of a carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, driven by the Russians in 1916, after they were victorious against Turkey in the Caucasus. In this carve-up France was promised as much as it was to create a buffer between the former players in the “Great Game”, Britain and Russia.

On successive occasions victors fell out, allowing the defeated to form new alliances: in the Second Balkan War Bulgaria was attacked by her erstwhile allies, who had fought with her against Turkey in the First Balkan War, the result was that Bulgaria, like Turkey, joined the Central Powers in the Great War; in 1917/18 after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with revolutionary Russia, Turkey and Germany fell out, both seeking the oil from Azerbaijan; after the Armistice with Turkey the British continued their advance to the oil fields of Mosul contrary to an understanding with France.

The same pattern was repeated in the Treaty of Sèvres, signed by the last Sultan. It allocated chunks of the Ottoman corpse to Britain, France, Italy and Greece, the last two having contributed little to Turkish defeat. The treaty was not accepted by Turkish nationalists led by Ataturk, who retreated into the interior and supplied by Revolutionary Russia. Lloyd George, the British PM, urged Greek intervention. The Greeks advanced deep into Anatolia, burning villages in Muslim majority areas along the way. Extending its lines of supply, the Greek army was defeated by Ataturk, who separately came to agreement with France and Italy, whilst Lloyd George was unable to persuade the British dominions, or his own cabinet, to continue support for Greece.

This sealed Lloyd George’s fate as PM. It resulted in the debacle of Greek withdrawal from Anatolia. The last Sultan was deposed and the caliphate abolished. The Treaty of Sèvres was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne. It set an ominous precedent in providing forcible population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, including expelling Pontic Greeks who had been settled on the Black Sea for 3,000 years.

Interesting and difficult to put down. I look forward to reading more from Sean McMeekin

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