Last week I wrote on how it was the 100th anniversary of the death of my Great Grandfather in Iraq in WW1. In fact just last night I found a bookmark from my Great Grandmother who must have had it made long ago to remember her husband.
So much of the history of The Great War concentrates on the battles of Europe that it is easy to forget that it is called a World War for a reason; its participants were scattered widely and its theatre of campaigns took place around the globe. One of the sometimes forgotten areas of conflict was in the Middle-East; it not only gave us one of the great iconic figures of the war but also had repercussions which are with us to the present day.
Traditionally the Middle-East had long been the playground of the Ottoman Empire, based out of Istanbul and the Safavids from Iran. Eventually the Turks generally came out on top )though Iran remains one of the few nations of the time to never have been conquered or colonised) and their empire stretched from the gates of Vienna to Egypt and Arabia. However, it was only a matter of time before technology and innovation allowed first the Portuguese and then the French to get footholds in the region before Great Britain took over areas of the Persian Gulf and Egypt.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, the Young Turks tried to reform their great old empire but it was too little, too late and by WW1, the Ottomans were well on their way out. The Middle-East campaigns are important for several reasons including the ideas of Nationalism which were giving Arabs hopes for independence and because Britain was anxious both not to lose control of the Suez Canal and its links with India. More immediately Great Britain wanted to inflict as great a territorial loss over the Ottomans as quickly as possible following the Turks joining the Axis powers at the start of the war.
The British were also concerned that the Axis powers would gain access to oil, particularly in southern Iran and they were assisted in their actions against the Ottomans by Russia who had been gradually conquering Ottomans lands in the preceding centuries or so (in places like Crimea which actually have only been Russian for a small part of history) and had the goal of destroying the Ottomans and claiming Istanbul as its own. The Ottomans made the initial mistake of sending 90,000 men to Romania in support of its allies which greatly reduced its ability to defend its Islamic heartlands whilst Russia drew on the support of 20,000 Armenians ready to revolt for their freedom and Britain had a deployment of Indian troops in neighbouring Iran.
The war started with the Ottomans heavily reliant on German equipment, training and in some cases officers. They joined with Germany with bombing the Russian port of Odessa. In November 1914, the Russian crossed the border with aims of capturing the key eastern Ottoman city of Dogubeyzit whilst a few weeks later the British captured the Iraqi second city of Basra from Turkish forces.
January 1915 saw the British make inroads into Iraq despite efforts by Ottoman naval forces which were seen off by the Royal Navy and then Ottoman attempts to capture the Suez Canal also failed. Pleased with the progress made so far Sir John Nixon ordered British forces to take a more aggressive posture and advance into Iraq with the possible aim of capturing Iraq. The Ottomans were in disarray with changes in command and ineffectual attacks by Arab allies until in the end a German General was brought in to take command of the defence of Baghdad. Even more worryingly the Allied landings at Gallipoli brought the war within a few miles of Istanbul itself.
Throughout 1915, British including Indian forces made good progress through Iraq and as they did so, they gained the support of local Arab tribes who were keen to support the winning side though whether the British supported their massacres of hospitalised Ottoman troop at Amarah is doubtful. At the Battle of Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad, the British and Ottomans fought a five day battle to a standstill with the result that both sides retreated. However, the Ottoman commander noticing his enemy were retreating turned around and instead gave chase until the British fortified their position at Ku-Al-Amara. The Ottomans laid siege as well as sending further forces downstream to cut off any attempts at re-enforcing and the British.
In hindsight, the British should have continued back to Basra where they could be easily re-supplied but as it happened three attempts were made to break the siege and all failed with heavy casualties on both sides. The British expeditionary force was under siege from 7th December 1915 and under new leadership the Ottoman force gave the option of starving or surrendering with only very limited supplies dropped by air. The conditions in the British camp were appalling, many men died of dysentery, typhoid and cholera. Britain entered into secret negotiations to pay huge amounts of money to let the force go free under the promise Britain would freeze its war with the Ottomans but the request was turned down. When a final attempt to break the siege by river steamer failed, on 29th April 1916 the British command surrendered and over 13,000 men were taken prisoner and marched off to internment in Syria.
Realising their huge setback was due to a lack of logistical infrastructure, the British spent the next year improving their situation until when Ottoman forces were overly concerned by possible Russian movements in the north, the British finally entered Baghdad on 11th March 1917 after devastating the Ottoman defending armies. By the end of the war, over 350,000 British and often largely Indian forces had fought in the area with 92,000 deaths.
Meanwhile in Arabia in 1916, the Arabs revolted from their Ottoman overlords under the auspices of Prince Feisal and under advisement of a small group of British officers. By far the most well-known of these is T.E. Lawrence, better known to many as Lawrence of Arabia and his fame is such that he was the one Allied soldier who not only rivalled but surpassed the glory of the Red Baron. Thomas Edward Lawrence was born on 16th August 1889. Born illegitimate did not stop Lawrence in these times of high moral values and he still managed to enter Oxford University and graduate with First Class honours, taking up an interest in archaeology and working in the Middle-East even before WW1. This gave him valuable experience of travelling through the Ottoman provinces.
When war arrived the Ottomans had only a tenuous grip on Arabia and used its train network which connected the important cities of Mecca and Medina with Amman, Jerusalem and Damascus. Devised by the British Arab Bureau and enacted by Lawrence, they drew up a plan on the basis that they knew the Ottomans would stop at nothing to preserve their control and so diverting resources from other areas of the war. In October 1916 Lawrence was sent to the Hejaz in Arabia and worked with Prince Feisal amongst others to create an irregular force composed of individual Arab tribes that all sought freedom from the Turks. The fact that Prince Feisal was the son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca was a useful recruitment inducement and this resulting army used the natural ability of the Arab tribes to travel across the desert, attacking isolated Ottoman positions and blowing up train lines, destroying Ottoman communication and transportation networks before disappearing quickly and quietly into the desert where they would be next to impossible to follow. It was a policy that we would know today as Asymmetric Warfare.
The tactics that Lawrence oversaw was successful not just militarily in seizing objectives and disrupting communications but also compelling the Ottomans to expend much additional manpower that ideally would have been much more effectively used against regular British forces. Fresh from initial success and more significant military support from the Royal Navy and British Army, Lawrence succeeded in forming an alliance with Auda Abu Tay who until then had been an Ottoman ally and the newly enlarged force took the strategic Ottoman positions at ‘Aqaba.
The Ottomans made a second effort to capture the Suez Canal and when they failed, the British chased them back towards Palestine until they were held up by the fort at Gaza. With the arrival of General Allenby and large re-enforcements, the British at last captured Gaza and just before Christmas entered Jerusalem which was not only a huge morale boost but obviously along with various political documents, paved the way for the later creation of the state of Israel.
After a delay caused by a renewed German offensive in Europe, the British were able to make a concerted attack on the Ottoman forces and defeated them both in set piece battles and hit and run attacks by Lawrence and his forces. Lawrence became both a British hero but also a hero to the Arab world. He received numerous promotions and won the Distinguished Service order in the British Army whilst he was given a status equal to the sons of the Sherif of Mecca in Arabia. This high status and the simple love the Arab people had for Lawrence meant that the huge £15,000 bounty the Ottomans placed on him went without any takers.
With General Allenby moving up the Mediterranean coast, Lawrence’s forces moved north and Damascus were captured in the autumn of 1918. The Ottoman Empire was forced to enter peace talks leaving it with just a rump of territory which was only as big as it was due to the early Russian withdrawal from the war and a resulting separate treaty which saw the Russians hand back some of their conquests.
Lawrence of Arabia achieved world-wide fame thanks in part to his relation with the American journalist Lowell Thomas who reported in depth on the Middle-East campaign. After failing to keep the Arab lands free from French and British protection, Lawrence fell back into his naturally reclusive state, which is part of the reason he loved the desert so much due to the anonymity it gave him. After advising the British government in the post-war conferences and surviving a plane crash in Egypt that killed others, he returned to England as a Colonel but soon joined the RAF under an assumed name and a lowly rank serving in the U.K. and India and also for a time in the Royal Tank Corps. Sadly he died aged just 46 when involved in a motorcycle accident close to his Dorset home and was buried nearby at a funeral attended by such names as Sir Winston Churchill. His death was such a shock that it went some way towards the development of motorcycle helmets.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement had one of the longest standing impacts on the world by partitioning the Middle-East up into British and French zones and creating artificial states albeit sometimes based upon historical or ethnic divisions. For those wanting to understand the problems in Iraq, Syria or the Israel-Palestinian problem then it all goes back to the agreement that Lawrence fought so hard to avoid enacting.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like to check out my First World War books including Lest We Forget, published by Endeavour Press.
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