THE OTTOMAN ENDGAME: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908–1923
by Sean McMeekin
Allen Lane, 2015
Hardcover: 576 pages
Reviewed by Anthony Staunton
The Treaty of Versailles, signed by Germany and the Allies on June 28, 1919, was the first of a series of treaties the ended World War I. It was followed by the Treaty of Saint-Germain between Austria and the Allies on September 10, 1919, and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary and the Allies on June 4, 1920.
The Treaty of Sèvres, signed on August 10, 1920, marked the beginning of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, which was not concluded until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923. The newly formed Republic of Turkey renounced all non-Turkish territory and received international recognition as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire.
Nine months earlier, on November 1, 1922, the Turkish Parliament in Ankara had formally abolished the Sultanate, ending 623 years of Ottoman rule.
Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame examines in detail the last 15 years of the Ottoman Empire, for most of which time it was at war. The first two chapters the book cover the 33-year reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, from 1876, when he became the 34th sultan, until 1908, when he was disposed by the Young Turks. In 1876, the Ottoman Empire had stretched from Tunis in the west, to Bucharest in the north, to Kuwait in the east and Aden in the south.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been occupied and governed by Austria-Hungary since 1878, was still officially part of the Ottoman Empire until annexed by Austro-Hungary in October 1908. In the First Balkan War, from October 1912 to July 1913, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece drove the Ottoman Empire from Europe except for Çatalca in Eastern Thrace and the Gallipoli peninsula.
The six-week Second Balkan War, from June to August 1913, began when a dissatisfied Bulgaria attacked former allies Serbia and Greece. The Bulgarians were repulsed and both Romania and the Ottoman Empire intervened. Bulgaria then asked for an armistice in which it ceded portions of its First Balkan War gains to Serbia, Greece and Romania, as well as Edirne, adjacent to Çatalca, to the Ottomans.
Between September 1911 and October 1912, Italy seized what is now Libya from the Ottomans. The Ottoman navy, one-seventh the tonnage of the Italians, was cleared from the Aegean and the Mediterranean. When the Italians shelled the outer forts of the Dardanelles and threatened Constantinople, the Ottomans closed the Dardanelles to all ships, severely affecting Russia’s only warm water port, which carried half of Russia’s export trade.
Two officers seeking to make names for themselves in the war were Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, who became Minister of War of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, forming one-third of the triumvirate known as the “Three Pashas”; and Mustafa Kemal, who distinguished himself on Gallipoli and became the first President of the Republic of Turkey.
The Ottoman Empire haggled shamelessly for gold and arms before joining Germany and Austria-Hungary when it declared war on November 10, 1914. The Ottomans hoped to use the coat tails of Germany to win back provinces Russia had seized in the War of 1877–78 and to regain territory lost in the First Balkan War.
The Gallipoli campaign is covered in great detail using archival material from all the main players, which is typical for the whole work. Grand Duke Nicholas, Russian Commander-in-Chief, on December 30, 1914, told the British military attaché that the current successful Ottoman offensive into mountainous Transcaucasia was causing concern in Russia. As McMeekin says, the Russians’ “not-so-subtle” suggestion was a British and French diversion against the Ottomans.
Within three days, discussions in London between Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, and Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had turned the Dardanelles into a high-priority British operation. In the same three days the Ottoman offensive had been halted, and they had been forced to retreat. The Ottomans would suffer 30,000 dead, the majority frozen to death from the cold. However, it was too late for a rethink and the British forged ahead with planning the Dardanelles diversion.
McMeekin writes: “Had the Russians delivered the troops they had promised, the Ottoman war might have been over by spring 1915.”
On April 24, 1915, the day before the British landing at Gallipoli, Talaat Pasha, the third member of the Ottoman Triumvirate, ordered all Armenian political organisations operating within the Ottoman Empire to close and Armenians connected with these organisations to be arrested. Armenians were alleged to be cooperating with Russian forces. Many hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished from “starvation, thirst, disease, simple exhaustion, or at the hands of execution squads”. The uprooted Armenians were sent to a parched strip of Syrian desert where “the survival of the deportees was not … first priority”.
The Russians advanced into eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, where they were closer to General Townshend’s British-Indian Army besieged at Kut than British reinforcements in south Mesopotamia. Neither in Gallipoli nor in Mesopotamia did the Russians and the British manage to cooperate.
The Gallipoli campaign ended with a British withdrawal in January 1916 and Kut surrendered in April 1916. What is extraordinary is that, following these Ottoman victories, forces from Gallipoli moved to Austrian Galicia, near what is the modern Polish-Ukraine border, and forces in Mesopotamia invaded Persia.
As 1917 began, the Ottomans were running out of men, coal and food. Russia controlled the Black Sea and eastern Anatolia; but after the February 1917 revolution, the Russian fleet remained livid that Turkey had closed the Dardanelles in the Italian and Balkan wars –although in fact it was only closed during the Italian War. Planning for an amphibious landing against Constantinople did not end until the Bolshevik Revolution later that same year.
Lenin’s seizure of power in 1917 would take nearly five years to consolidate, but changes to foreign policy were immediate, with a call for a universal ceasefire on November 21. The Allied Powers quickly rejected this; but, for Germany, which facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia, it was the best news since 1914. For the Ottomans, the northern front with Russia was finally secure and Russian domination of the Black Sea ceased.
The immediate threat now to the Ottoman Empire was from the southern front where the Ottomans had achieved great success at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia in 1915 and 1916. The British command had been replaced and the armies reorganised.
On the fringe of the southern front came the Arab Revolt, which would have powerful political influence after the war. McMeekin comments that the genius of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was not his leadership in field operations but in his ability to read and master the British bureaucracy.
The British capture of Baghdad in March 1917 was an important milestone in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, since it restored British prestige at a time when the Allied cause was at a low in Russia and France and the British had failed in the first Battle of Gaza in Palestine.
Armistice negotiations began at Brest-Litovsk between Germany, Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire one side and Soviet Russia on the other on December 22, 1917, and continued into February, when the Russians were given 24 hours to sign a treaty or hostilities would resume. Trotsky, whose response had already been endorsed by the Central Committee, announced that Russia was leaving the war, but refused to sign any treaty.
The Germans could have continued their 1917 policy of doing nothing on the Eastern Front but resumed operations. Fifty German divisions and a million men remained there when the German Spring offensive was launched on March 21, 1918, designed to win the war on the Western Front before the arrival of U.S. forces tipped the balance decisively against Germany.
Following the Australian Lighthorse’s success at Beersheba in October 1917 and their capture of Jerusalem in December that year, the Palestine front was quiet for most of 1918 as both sides withdrew men and material to other theatres. The British reinforced the Western Front while the Ottomans sent all available reserves and reinforcements to the Caucasus.
The major British offensive in Palestine began on September 19, 1918, and in six weeks advanced to Aleppo, just south of the present Turkish-Syrian border. However, four days before the final Palestine offensive began, Allied forces on September 15 directed by French General Louis Franchet d’Esperey went on the offensive in Salonika and forced the Bulgarian Army into full retreat.
Bulgaria signed an armistice on September 29 and, while the French and Serbian forces continued north and liberated Serbia, Albania and Montenegro, the British Army headed east towards Constantinople.
The city was defended by only a small number of troops and, learning that Germany had petitioned the Allied Powers for an armistice, the Ottoman cabinet gave up. By the time the Ottomans had signed an armistice on October 30, 1918, the Ottoman Empire had disappeared.
Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, foreign powers were expelled from Anatolia and modern Turkey was recognised by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. When the U.S. Senate vetoed President Woodrow Wilson’s peace plans, Turkey, which would have been a U.S. mandate, remained the only territory in the Middle East other than Persia not to be controlled by a colonial power.
The Ottoman Endgame opens with an essay on the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which gets a lot of the blame for the arbitrary division of the Middle East. McMeekin shows that the original plan had included Russian claims to Constantinople and Kurdistan. The Sykes-Picot agreement was superseded by other arrangements such as the 1917 Balfour Declaration and of course the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
McMeekin’s command of the archives of the major parties will ensure that The Ottoman Endgame will be a major reference book on the subject for some time to come.