The Ottoman Endgame

This one I also read as research for my post on Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star. I wanted to learn more about the Ottoman Empire in World War One, and, having been very impressed with McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War, this seemed a logical choice.

Review: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923, Sean McMeekin, 2015.

McMeekin has argued elsewhere that World War One could rightly be thought of as the War of the Ottoman Succession, a war that lasted from 1909 to 1923. You could even argue, as McMeekin does in his concluding chapter on the pros and cons of Ottoman administration and what happened when it ended, that that war is still going on in the Middle East.

Of all the nations that inherited the remains of the Ottoman Empire, it was Turkey, in the heartland of the empire, that has had the most stable borders since 1923.

Edward Gibbon famously noted that we shouldn’t wonder that the Roman Empire fell but that it lasted as long as it did. The same could be said of the Ottoman Empire. Some have put the date the irresistible rot set in as far back as 1529 when the empire failed to take Vienna. The famous remark about the empire being a “sick man” was uttered by Tsar Alexander Nicholas I to a British ambassador in 1853.

But, the sick man’s greatest defense was, paradoxically, the number of his enemies. They wanted Ottoman lands and to deny them to other great powers. The two most important of those powers were Russia and England.

McMeekin’s 593-page history (with additional notes, bibliography, photos, and several very useful maps) shows how that theme played out again and again from the Turco-Russian War of 1877-1878 to Italy’s invasion of Tripoli in 1911 (a forgotten war that saw the first use of many military technologies) to Soviet Russia arming the Ottoman Empire against a Greek invasion in 1921, an invasion supported by Britain.

This history covers both combat on the battlefield (one source is, surprisingly, a Venezuelan mercenary with the Ottomans) and political intrigues. McMeekin covers the grand sweep of things with the occasional illuminating detail about personalities and small incidents. He also covers relevant events outside the empire like the intrigues of the British cabinet and Russian revolutionaries. And, of course, the turmoil of Ottoman politics – the coups, countercoups, and counter-counter coups between 1908 and 1909 – are covered. 

McMeekin mentions several seldom-discussed events.

How the events of November and December 1912, specifically Serbia absorbing Albania, almost lead to the Great War nearly two years earlier.

On the question of the Armenian Genocide, goes into some of the controversies of whether it was genocide and also the motives and procedures of the war crime trails the Ottoman government held. McMeekin opts for a number between 650,000 and 700,000 for Armenian deportees dying. The number of a million Armenian dead seems unrealistic.

McMeekin goes into details as to why the Armenian National Committee’s proposal for British forces and the Armenian Legion to land in Alexandretta in July 1915 was rejected even though it was a sound strategy and would have used half the troops sent to reinforce failure at Gallipoli the next month.

Before the end of World War One, allies Germany and the Ottomans were shooting at each other because of increasing resentment of the German infidels by the Muslim population and because of the desire of both to procure the oil fields around Baku.

McMeekin particularly takes apart the myth of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence’s major skill was self-promotion and bureaucratic in-fighting. His missions rarely achieved their objective. He lied spectacularly about Arab contributions in fighting the Ottomans, especially in the claims he made about Feisal and his Arabs taking Damascus. They, in fact, showed up two days after the British had already taken the city. But the British government was happy to go along with the story to cut France out of lands in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula granted to them in the famous Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916.

A major theme of McMeekin’s is, in fact, refuting the idea that the treaty created the modern Middle East. The agreements in Sykes-Picot didn’t even survive World War One. It was the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 that established the political contours of the modern Middle East.

The British cut the French out of negotiating an armistice with the Ottomans. The skillful British negotiators completely dominated the amateurish Ottoman delegates. The armistice of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918. It amounted to a dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire which was to become a mere “rump state” in Anatolia.

But Mustafa Kemal was already taking steps to resist and had military supplies moved before he was recalled to Istanbul in November 1918.

In the negotiations at Versailles, there was support among victors and vanquished for American mandates over an Armenian homeland as well as Syria and Palestine. Wide support, that is, except among the American public and congress which, thankfully, wanted nothing to do with it.

In June 1919, the National Pact was formed by Kemal and others. It called for an army to resist the occupation by French and Greek forces, to stop demobilization of the Ottoman Army, and proclaimed that parts of the Empire with Turkish majorities were “indivisible”.  The Arabs, though, could go their own way.

The Sevres Treaty coming out of Versailles in May 1920 enraged the Ottomans. Back were the “Capitulations” to foreign governments which they had finally gotten rid of during the war. They granted foreign powers control over Ottoman tax collecting and expenditures. Kemal responded by forming a new Grand National Assembly with Extraordinary Powers. On April 13, 1920, now celebrated in Turkey as National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, the capital was moved to Ankara. On March 16, 1921, Soviet Russia and “Kemalist Turkey” signed a treaty which agreed land that Turkey had taken back from the Russian Empire would remain Turkish.

The Turks lost every battle against the invading Greeks – until the last one, the historic Battle of Sakarya which occurred between August 23, 1921 and September 12, 1921. McMeekin calls it the “last real battle of the First World War”. 

The thoroughly demoralized Greeks – now also dogged by European hostility regarding the many atrocities they had committed – retreated to the coast. There the great disaster of the burning of Smyrna occurred on September 15, 1922.

On November 1, 1922, the Ottoman Empire was done. The sultanate was abolished. (The caliphate would last until March 1924.)

The latter days of the Ottoman Empire are a remarkable story of constant impending disaster, diplomatic intrigue, sudden reversals of fortune, atrocities and bloodshed, and, ultimately, the story of Turkish resilience which carved, from seeming defeat, its own homeland.

Definitely recommended for all those with an interest in World War One or the Ottomans.

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