The Great War and the Middle East, by Rob Johnson. Oxford University Press, 2016. 512 pages. $34.95, hardcover.
In Defence of Britain's Middle Eastern Empire: A Life of Sir Gilbert Clayton, by Timothy J. Paris. Sussex Academic Press, 2016. 536 pages. $55.00, paperback.
The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East, by Roger Hardy. Hurst, 2016. 280 pages. $27.95, hardcover.
The Man Who Created the Middle East: A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, by Christopher Simon Sykes. William Collins, 2016. 384 pages. £25.00, hardcover. Harper Collins (UK), November 2017.
There has been a raft of excellent scholarship on World War I in the Middle East in recent years, although the four excellent books under review here clearly demonstrate, each in its own way, that there remains a great deal of scope for original scholarship on the subject. Other recent, notable histories include The First World War in the Middle East, by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (2014); A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, by Leila Fawaz (2014); The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, by Eugene Rogan (2016); and The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, by Sean McMeekin (2016).
During the course of the Great War, a majority of military planners dismissed the war in the Middle East as little more than a sideshow, a dangerous distraction from the "real" war taking place in the trenches of continental Europe. Just a few short miles from the trenches, across the English Channel, London-based military planners were struggling to deal with modern warfare, waged on an industrial scale.
In 1916, when new volunteers ceased coming forward in numbers sufficient to replace those killed and wounded, conscription of unmarried men between the ages of 18 to 41 was introduced in Britain. It wasn't long before it was extended to married men and the upper age limit increased to 50 (or 56, should it be needed).
Because the largest battles, and thus the highest casualties, were taking place in Western Europe, the military planners were loath to lose a single able-bodied man from the trenches, and the goal of defeating Germany, to parts of the world seen as being of secondary importance. For the Middle East, this meant the deployment of large numbers of imperial troops, including soldiers from the British-run Indian Army, as well as Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Reflecting the numbers of troops fighting and dying in France, T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, seemed to pour scorn on his campaigning efforts when he described the Arab Revolt as "a sideshow of a sideshow." While this may have been true in simple arithmetical calculations, the outcome of the war in the Middle East would prove critical to the war in general. Also worthy of note is the fact that, after France, the Middle East saw more casualties than any other theatre in the war.
The Arab Revolt was launched by Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca, in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, in June 1916 and effectively came to an end in October 1918 with the capture of Damascus by Arab and, later the same day, Australian forces.
There is little question that the Arab Revolt was launched by Hussein of Mecca both as an act of self-preservation and in the hope of personal aggrandizement after the war's conclusion, and not because of any deep-rooted support for the British and Allied agenda. Hussein had recently discovered an Ottoman plot to have him removed from the hereditary post of sharif and emir (prince) of Mecca. This was not the first time the Ottoman sultan in his imperial capital of Constantinople had drawn up plans to replace the independent-minded Hussein with a more passive client in the Hijaz.
Fearing for his position, possibly his life, and any chance of continuing prestige for his family and their descendants, Hussein threw in his lot with the British and agreed to launch an uprising against his Ottoman masters. The negotiations that brought Hussein to his momentous decision agreed in principle to the postwar creation of an independent Arab kingdom with Hussein as its king. Although Hussein laid out his demands for the geographical extent of this new kingdom, as recorded in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, a final agreement was not reached before the start of the Arab Revolt.
In part due to the sense of urgency in gaining Hussein's support, and, more important, for fear of upsetting their French allies, the British high commissioner in Egypt, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry McMahon, did his best to agree to Hussein's demands, while also doing his best to agree to none of them. McMahon's October 25, 1915, response to a letter from Hussein is a master class in noncommittal diplomatic writing. The following extract includes the key — or from Hussein's viewpoint perhaps, fatal — passage of qualification:
With the above modification and without prejudice to our existing treaties concluded with Arab Chiefs, we accept these limits and boundaries, and in regard to the territories therein in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to interests of her ally France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurance and make the following reply to your letter: Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca.
All and nothing.
Which diplomatic sleight of hand brings us to The Great War and the Middle East, by Rob Johnson, a book that fills an important and, until now, glaring gap in histories of World War I. Over the years, we have been treated to any number of general histories of the Great War, including diplomatic histories (although in this last category there remain some important gaps in the existing scholarship that ought to be filled). Johnson's novel approach in the Great War and the Middle East has been to produce a strategic history.
With a detailed examination of the strategic and operational progress of the war, Johnson unequivocally shows that, rather than a sideshow, the Middle East was, in fact, the fulcrum on which the global war balanced. London was indeed Britain's imperial capital, but rather than diminishing the importance of more distant locales, this fact put the empire at the very heart of the conflict, even while military planners were stuck in the trenches. Currently the director of the Changing Character of War (CCW) research program at the University of Oxford, Johnson clearly knows what he is writing about. As a former British Army officer, he also demonstrates an ability to write about strategy and other military matters in an adroit and engaging fashion.
The Man Who Created the Middle East: A Story of Empire, Conflict and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is written by a grandson of Sir Mark Sykes, whose name is seen by many Arabs and non-Arabs alike as a byword for imperial perfidy. Perhaps in part stung by widespread antipathy towards a late family member, Christopher Simon Sykes sets out not just to offer a new biography of his grandfather, but also to some extent try to clear his name. In writing a really good biography there's no question that Simon Sykes has succeeded admirably; in rehabilitating the name of his late grandfather, even partially, one feels that the court of public opinion remains set against such a reversal, at least for now.
This year marks 100 years since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was written, and to many who live in or are concerned with the Middle East it continues to rankle. Two years earlier, in 1915, Sykes briefed Britain's prime minister, Dennis Asquith, as to what he thought would be the best possible postwar division of the region — best possible here meaning the plan that would least annoy their French allies. In a room at Number 10 Downing Street, Sykes explained his idea for Asquith in the breeziest of terms: "I should like to draw a line from the 'E' in Acre to the last 'K' in Kirkuk."
At a stroke, this proposal would divide different tribal, ethnic and religious groups and destroy existing local political realities on the ground. The arrogance and entitlement displayed by the imperial powers goes a long way to explaining the continuing ill will towards the names Sykes and Picot. In the interests of the factual accuracy of the historical record, one should note that the Sykes-Picot Agreement (not a treaty) was never in fact implemented, its terms being superseded by events and subsequent treaty agreements, notably San Remo (1920).
Having his name indelibly linked to an agreement that is still brought up as one of several reasons for continuing instability and unrest in the modern Middle East is certainly not how Sir Mark Sykes would want to be remembered. In fact, he understood what a controversial agreement he and his French counterpart had negotiated and would rather not have had his name associated with what is officially called the Asia Minor Agreement.
Had the Sykes-Picot Agreement not developed the notoriety it has, we might not remember the name Sykes at all. As it is, in the modern Middle East he is seen as a meddler who opened the door to much of the region's contemporary instability. Without wishing to deny his role at the time, one is obliged to point out that it was postwar conferences, including San Remo (1920) and Cairo (1921), that did more harm than good in terms of settling the region's political trajectory. In this regard, too, the title might lead readers to heap more opprobrium on the subject than the author intends.
To move from the spotlight to the shadows, Sir Gilbert Clayton is far from a household name. As Britain's head of military and civil intelligence in Egypt during the First World War, this is a degree of anonymity that would have suited him well. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence wrote,
Clayton made the perfect leader for such a band of wild men as we were. He was calm, detached, clear-sighted, of unconscious courage in assuming responsibility. … It was not easy to descry his influence. He was like water or permeating oil, creeping silently and insistently through everything.
Even so, it is astonishing that In Defence of Britain's Middle Eastern Empire: A Life of Sir Gilbert Clayton is the first full-length biography of this dedicated servant of British imperial interests in the Middle East. A tireless character, Clayton was the personification of the view that, if you want something done, you should ask a busy person.
As Paris points out,
Although very few were probably aware of the full extent of Clayton's responsibilities, by the spring of 1916, the list was impressive. In addition to his work as director of military intelligence, he was still acting as Sudan agent, and was responsible for the Arab Bureau and for the administration of martial law throughout Egypt. He directed Anglo-Egyptian relations with the Sanusi [in North Africa] and … was instrumental in devising and effectuating policy with the Arabs of Syria and the Hijaz. He also acted as liaison between the High Commissioner and the British commanders in the Middle East … and between [the British General] Wingate and the Egyptian sultan, Hussein Kamil.
It is hardly surprising that he spent 14 hours a day in his office, where he was "'bombarded' by letters, petitions and interviews with persons of every stripe, from the native agent spying in the Cairo suqs to the French minster, complaining of British intentions regarding Syria."
Anyone remotely interested in the Middle East during this period will already be familiar with Sir Gilbert Clayton's name, but this book does an excellent job of providing readers with a carefully researched work, full of detailed analysis as befits a study in intelligence work. The author successfully establishes the setting, the Middle East and imperial history, before going on to provide an absolutely first-rate biography of a centrally important figure in that story. Destined to be consulted by generations of researchers, Paris writes with a passion for his subject that makes this story shine on every page.
The fourth title in this quartet of new books about World War I in the Middle East takes up the story in 1917 and continues long after the war's end. The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East, by Roger Hardy, is a concise and fast-moving account of the region. It succeeds not only in telling the stories of imperial goings on ––both the more familiar and unjustly neglected stitching these tales together, as well as explaining just how the resultant fallout continues to inform contemporary political realities in the region. From Palestine to Persia and from Algeria to Aden, Hardy brings together a large number of distinct and unique histories, tied together willingly or otherwise by an imperial thread that in most cases, to a greater or lesser extent, continues to shape and inform both state and individual identities across the region.
Hardy was, for more than 20 years, a highly regarded Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service, and he brings both his breadth of experience of the region and his journalistic background to bear on what is a great read. The connections between the First World War in the Middle East and the brief, postwar imperial moment enjoyed by Britain and France in the region, amply demonstrated in this work, show us once again that the shadow of history should not be ignored or forgotten.