The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan
In this book, Eugene Rogan tells the story of the Great War in the Middle East – not from the side of the Great Powers, but from the side of the Ottomans.
He begins with the story of his great-uncle, Lance Corporal John McDonald. His great-uncle was born in a small Scottish village. Along with his friend, Charles Beveridge, McDonald enlisted with the 8th Scottish Rifles (the “Cameronians”) when war broke out.
They said farewell to friends and family on 17 May 1915, headed to the eastern Mediterranean. They arrived at the Greek island of Lemnos, the staging post for British and Allied forces, on 29 May – one month after the fighting on Gallipoli had broken out. By mid-June they sailed onward to the peninsula.
Passing some who had returned from the fighting, the fresh-faced recruits would shout out: “Are we downhearted? No!” In reply, “some Australian wag” shouted back, “Well you damned soon will be.”
On 14 June, the battalion was safely ashore, and four days later they were headed up Gully Ravine to the fighting. On 28 June, following two hours of bombardment from the sea, the 8th Scottish Rifles came out of their trenches and attacked. Within five minutes, they were wiped out. McDonald died in the camp hospital; the body of his friend Beveridge was never found, assumed to be in the unidentifiable conglomeration of remains buried in a mass grave only after the war.
The author, Rogan, went to Gallipoli in 2005 to see firsthand this place of infamy – and the site of his great-uncle’s death. He was accompanied by his mother and his son, the first family visitors in nine decades. While trying to find the Lancashire Landing Cemetery, they took a wrong turn and ended up at the Nuri Yamut Monument – a memorial to the Turkish war dead of the same battle in which his great-uncle died.
While my great-uncle’s unit suffered 1,400 casualties – half its total strength – and British losses overall reached 3,800, as many as 14,000 Ottomans fell dead and wounded at Gully Ravine….All the books I had read on the Cameronians treated the terrible waste of British life on the day my great-uncle died. None of the English sources had mentioned the thousands of Turkish war dead.
It was this Ottoman front that turned the European war into what we now call a World War. Certainly there were other battle lines outside of Europe, but none as devastating and devastated. As if to emphasize the “world” participants, the author offers:
Australians and New Zealanders, every ethnicity in South Asia, North Africans, Senegalese and Sudanese made common cause with French, English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish soldiers against the Turkish, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and Circassian combatants in the Ottoman army and their German and Austrian allies.
Battles were fought in the territory of the modern states of Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.
Of course, there was also an eastern front to the Ottoman war in which all of the same Ottoman combatants would fight against Russians and other minority populations of the Russian Empire. It seems this region has been facing Armageddon for over 100 years – with armies from all around the world fighting over a few square miles of desert.
For the Ottoman Turks, this war was existential. After reaching the peak of their power and territory in 1529, with Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the gates of Vienna, the Ottoman armies made their final push on Vienna in 1683 – with the empire spanning three continents.
Over the next two centuries, slowly and regularly, control over this territory was lost – Greece and the various Balkan provinces gained independence during the nineteenth century; Britain, France, and Russia controlled much of the rest. The Ottomans were faced with internal and external threats – no longer the end of empire, but now facing the end of Turkish rule.
Now it is 1908. We will pick up the story here next time.