Eugene Rogan's The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East; 1914-1920 is a brilliant book that combines the academic rigor one expects from a serious work of history and a fluid writing style that makes it an enjoyable read. Like his earlier work, The Arabs: A History (2011), the ultimate success of this volume comes from the fact that Rogan places the Ottoman Turks and other natives of the region at the heart of the narrative. Many titles dealing with this important period of Middle Eastern history fail to do so. Reducing the locals' role to little more than bystanders in their own story is often the result of relying solely on English-language resources. Here, Rogan's use of both Ottoman Turkish and Arabic archives and secondary sources does much to make this book stand out from the crowd.
The centenary of the Great War was always going to throw up any number of titles on that devastating conflict. That war continues to hold a particular fascination, especially in Western Europe, where much of the grimmest slaughter took place. This interest would appear to be undimmed in spite of the fact that the last of the roughly 65 million participants have died in the past three or four years. Just a generation later, World War II's roughly 60 million fatalities eclipsed those of 1914-18: approximately 10 million combatants and 7 million civilians. Yet there is much about this earlier conflict that captures the imagination of historians and readers alike. No doubt the madness of men being made to walk slowly, through mud, towards enemy machine-gun fire helps one focus on the insanity of trench warfare as implemented on the Western Front.
The fact that on the Western Front one has access to more eyewitness accounts — not to mention poems — written in English also plays a part. When British and American readers turn their attention to World War I in the Middle East, the ill-planned Gallipoli campaign and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia loom so large as to hide much of the background and details of that theater of operations. However, focusing on Allied decision makers and soldiers, whether the thousands of British, Australians, New Zealanders and others who fought at Gallipoli or on T.E. Lawrence, is not only misguided; it distorts the reality of the Great War in the Middle East to such an extent as to make these accounts largely invalid as serious works of history. Here, one sees the Middle East as so much more than "a sideshow," as Allied planners viewed it at the start of the war.
The Fall of the Ottomans offers a comprehensive history of one of the most tumultuous and least understood fronts of the Great War. It was important not only in terms of the conduct of World War I; it also laid the foundations for the modern states and enduring conflicts of today's Middle East. Through private diaries and official papers, one is exposed to the voices of both Ottoman and non-Turkish Arab forces in the service of the sultan, as well as members of various nascent Arab nationalist groups, civilians and government employees who knew when to keep quiet. By drawing heavily on a wealth of local accounts, as well as those of British and French officials involved in the war in the Middle East, The Fall of the Ottomans is perfectly situated to offer more than just military history. It also gives readers the best single-volume account of the region's social and diplomatic history at this time.
It was the Ottoman entry into the Great War in November 1914 that really turned a war between European empires into a world war. The Ottoman Front extended across three continents, where soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, India, North Africa and Europe fought pitched battles over the full four years of the war. The war led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of nation states across the Middle East, all of which felt the impact of the Great War even before their creation. Conscription, willing or otherwise, into the ranks of the Ottoman army resulted in massive social upheaval across the region, added to which were the ravages of famine and disease, not to mention the bloodshed of the war itself. Beyond Gallipoli, Ottoman forces were engaged as far afield as Iraq and Iran, Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and other parts of North Africa, as well as the whole of the Levant, covering the as-yet-uncreated state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
The Fall of the Ottomans opens with a pitch-perfect account and analysis of the 1908 Young Turk (constitutional) Revolution, which weakened the standing of "the Sick Man of Europe" in the eyes of its fellow European rivals. From this dramatic start to the postwar dénouement of flawed peace, Rogan's narrative is both precise and unhurried, while at the same time capturing the urgency and drama of events on the ground. The Allied powers believed the Ottoman Empire was already a spent power, so it made sense to knock it out of the war as swiftly as possible, leaving more troops available for the real action on the Western Front.
Alas for those patronizing planners who lacked genuine insight and intelligence into the disposition of Ottoman forces, the twin disasters of Gallipoli and the surrender at Kut al-Amara led to a re-evaluation of their initial misguided analysis. A declining power the Ottomans may have been, but their development of a modern, European-style army, which began under Muhammad Ali shortly after Napoleon's 1798 invasion and conquest of Egypt, was not in vain. Instead of providing a quick solution to the war on their Eastern front, campaigning against Ottoman forces actually occupied millions of troops from both the Allied and Central coalitions and arguably extended the duration of the Great War.
Had it not been for the embarrassment and bloodshed of Gallipoli and Kut al-Amara, there is a good chance that the planners in Whitehall and Cairo might not have offered their — limited — support for the Arab Revolt of Sherif Hussein of Mecca when it was eventually initiated in June 1916. The declaration of a jihad by the Ottoman sultan certainly worried Britain and its Allies. The fact that Indian Muslims in particular failed to answer the call is neither here nor there. The threat of a widespread uprising in British India, not to mention French North Africa, was enough to tax the military planners and their political advisers. Small though their contribution may have been, this is the point at which the Cairo-based Arab Bureau, a unit of British Military Intelligence, came into its own.
For a legend-free account of the undeniably important work of T.E. Lawrence and his colleagues in the Arab Bureau, there's no better choice than The Fall of the Ottomans, which places them all in context and devotes an appropriate, not inordinate, number of pages to the otherwise haunting Lawrentian specter.