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Reviewed by Eamonn Gearon, Cofounder and managing director of The Siwa Group; adjunct professor, Johns Hopkins (SAIS); senior fellow, Middle East Policy Council, Washington, D.C.
Saqi Books, 2014. 496 pages. £25.00, hardcover / Hurst Books, 2014. 320 pages. $35.00, hardcover
It has been said that whenever a new book is published, one ought to read an old one. Such a policy on the part of a reviewer might strike some as foolhardy, but there are merits in reminding oneself of certain important, even foundational, texts in a given area of study. Before writing about the two titles under consideration here, this reviewer reread the work of T.E. Lawrence, the man who so impressed him as a boy.
Today, the life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia are rightly subjected to a much greater degree of circumspection and scrutiny than used to be the case. Many of the Boy's Own-style heroics at the heart of the Lawrentian myth are viewed by critics as wholly fabricated and, in many cases, by scholars as regrettably unverifiable, but as Churchill once countered when asked how he could be sure that history would view him favorably, "because I will write the history."
It is unequivocally the case that the Seven Pillars of Wisdom has had a greater impact on the imagination of Westerners with regards to the Arab Revolt, and for some the entire First World War in the Middle East, than any other single volume. Thanks to Lawrence's prose — and David Lean's cinematic direction — we are forced to at least acknowledge the legend. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, thousands of copies of his magnum opus have been bought, if not read, by those keen to understand the Middle East in the early twenty-first century.
It is a good idea to revisit Seven Pillars of Wisdom and, because it offers great insight into Lawrence's early, medieval romantic bent, his undergraduate thesis, published posthumously as Crusader Castles. As befits great books, there are no finer editions than those published by the Folio Society. There's no doubt that the Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a great work, but of what? History? "Up to a point, Lord Copper." Literature? Certainly. Fiction? In parts. Whatever it is and whatever Lawrence intended it to be, for many Westerners it remains — for good or ill — a seminal text about the First World War in the Middle East.
Read and reread it by all means, but for anyone searching for a more considered, less personal view of a war that started exactly a century ago, one might be better served by turning to either or both of the volumes here under consideration. Rutledge and Ulrichsen set out with different goals and very different approaches, and both are successful, each in his own way.
Often neglected or overlooked as unimportant — Lawrence himself once described the Arab Revolt itself as "a sideshow of a sideshow" — the various Middle East military campaigns of this four-year period saw the deaths of close to one million combatants: 420,000-plus Ottoman forces, both Turks and Arabs; roughly 260,000 British Imperial forces; about the same number of Russian dead; and 50,000 or so French fatalities, before the Armistice of November 1918. And then there were the civilian dead, uncounted at the time. As Ulrichsen points out, recent research suggests that in the decade between 1912-1922, which also covers the Balkan Wars and the Turkish war of Independence, the population of Turkey fell by 20 percent, "compared to the less than 1 percent decrease of the population of France, where most of the war's most iconic Western Front battles ... actually took place."
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen's The First World War in the Middle East presents readers with a single-volume, multidisciplinary history of the war across the entire region, and it does so brilliantly, filling an otherwise glaring gap in the subject's literature. The book is arranged in three parts: Prelude; Military Operations; and Politics and Diplomacy. Part One considers the political economy of the four empires present or with interests in the region at the outbreak of the war: Ottoman, Russian, British and French.
Part One also contains a fascinating and insightful chapter that considers the challenges to military campaigning in the Middle East at that time, and which remain relevant even in the greatly altered reality of the region today. This is an especially important chapter, tackling as it does "some of the contextual parameters," including the region's climate and ecology, logistical and administrative considerations, local resources and the war at sea, as well as the role of India, and its British rulers, who were so often at odds with the views of the government of Great Britain in London.
Part Two deals with the campaigns themselves, and again comes up trumps for dealing with each theatre evenly. The four chapters here deal respectively with the Caucasus Campaigns, Gallipoli and Salonika, Egypt and Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The author does an excellent job of dealing with the military campaigning in this pivotal, central section of the book. This reviewer found the chapter on the Caucasus campaigns especially interesting and informative, the battles that took place between the Ottomans and Russians too often being relegated to footnotes by some Western authors. The Caucasus campaigns are also interesting, involving as they did the two Empires that would not survive the Great War.
Part Three deals with the diplomatic struggles that took place in the Middle East during the war, and the fight for political control of the region in the postwar period, notably between 1919-1923. Anyone expecting another detailed explication of the Arab Revolt will be disappointed, as Ulrichsen only deals with this guerrilla campaign in passing, rolling it into his explication of the Balfour Declaration, which was to prove altogether a more important, and controversial, moment in time.
Ulrichsen's The First World War in the Middle East is the most comprehensive, and insightful, single-volume history of the war in the Middle East available today. Important for bringing together the various national strands and local interests that were competing for attention in the region at that time, a close reading of this book will provide readers with some very rich food for thought with regards to the contemporary Middle East, and the role not only of outside powers in its affairs, but also of the very clear limits of even the greatest powers to affect change in ways that are predictable or sought after.
As mentioned above, and again thanks to Lawrence, the entire First World War in the Middle East is seen by many solely through the lens of the Arab Revolt, a fascinating and not unimportant confrontation in the desert, but one that was nowhere near as materially destructive or ultimately important as the Mesopotamia campaign. It is this campaign that is the focus of Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt, 1914-1921 a well-written narrative history of just one of that bloody war's bloodiest campaigns in the region and, in the case of the 1920 revolt against the British occupation, that Empire's largest military action of the inter-war period.
As Rutledge puts it, "unlike Lawrence's 'Arab Revolt', the insurrection of 1920 was no affair of sporadic guerrilla fighting. It was a war: one in which a huge peasant army led by Shi'i clerics, Baghdad notables, disaffected sheikhs and former Ottoman army officers and NCOs surrounded and besieged British garrisons with sandbagged entrenchments and bombarded them with captured artillery; where British columns and armoured trains were ambushed and destroyed; where well-armed British gunboats were burned or captured; a war in which the insurgents established their own system of government and administration in the 'liberated zones' centred on the two 'holy' cities of Najaf and Karbela'...." Does any of this sound faintly familiar? "[A] war which, at one stage Britain came very close to losing and which was only won with the help of a massive infusion of Indian troops and, especially towards the end of the campaign, the widespread use of aircraft."
Enemy on the Euphrates tells two important stories well, namely the conflict in what would become Iraq during the course of the First World War, and the continuing, postwar conflict and uprising that took place against the backdrop of British occupation. Bringing the two stories together here retrieves them both from a degree of obscurity, consigned to the wings as they too often have been by Western historians, incidents occurring in the midst of a more important, European conflict.
Here, instead, Rutledge sees them for what they were, important moments in the history of the modern Middle East — a history that does not begin or end, nor should it be defined or understood, solely in terms of how it impacted the European powers. The end of the Great War did not mark the end of the conflict in Iraq, as is made abundantly clear in Enemy on the Euphrates. The European Armistice marked little more than a hiatus in the battle for control over the political future of Mesopotamia-Iraq.
With Britain, and France, nearly bankrupt as a result of the First World War, Whitehall had little interest in the often-costly business of expanding the Empire. But being the de facto government in Mesopotamia meant Britain realised it had to do something to maintain order: the fact that the decisions and alliances Whitehall would eventually support were almost certainly the wrong ones set the country up to fail as it went forward.
Books dealing with military history often fall down due to a limited understanding, or feel, for armies as organisations. These distinctive entities hold a unique place that is concurrently within and somehow without society at large. Apart from a solid understanding of the peculiar entity that is a national army, Rutledge also does an excellent job of conveying the logistical difficulties confronting any military leadership, let alone one operating thousands of miles from home and in physically challenging and hostile enemy territory.
Rutledge's 400-page narrative is an easy and enjoyable read. Clearly written with story telling in mind, the author drives the narrative forward. At times perhaps relying too heavily on "probably" and "possibly" and "we'll never know for sure" to fill in gaps in the narrative, the author's voice is occasionally too present, especially compared to the more objective, academic tone adopted by Ulrichsen, which is also true of Rutledge's earlier works. This observation is not a flat out criticism, more an observation: while the different writing styles will likely appeal to readers with differing tastes in authorial voice, both are deserving of a wide readership.
Rutledge's book opens with the following quotation from Eugene Rogan's The Arabs: A History: "Whereas most Westerners have no knowledge of the 1920 uprising, generations of Iraqi schoolchildren have grown up learning how nationalist heroes stood up against foreign armies and imperialism in towns like Falluja, Baquba and Najaf – the Iraqi equivalents of Lexington and Concord." Rogan's own history of the First World War in the Middle East is scheduled for publication in 2015, and there are sure to be other titles that will be worth reading in the next few years. For now, with their very different goals and approaches, Enemy on the Euphrates and The First World War in the Middle East are both worth reading.