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 it 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.

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Turks and Armenians

Researching my post for Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star, I wanted to know, though it’s not germane to that novel, when the Ottomans decided on the Armenian Genocide.

I asked an academic acquaintance who specializes in genocide studies for some suggested reading, and he pointed me to McCarthy’s work.

Review: Turks and Armeninans: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire, Justin McCarthy, 2015.

So when did the Ottoman Empire decide to commit genocide against its Armenian citizens?

McCarthy’s convincing answer is that it didn’t. There was no genocide:

The actual history is one of repeated Armenian rebellion, culminating in the great rebellion of World War I. As far back as 1887 the Hunchak Party Program had declared, ‘The most appropriate time to realize the revolution will be when Turkey is at war.’ The actual history demonstrates that this is exactly what happened. The history of World War I shows rebellion, reaction to rebellion, forced migration of both Muslims and Armenians, and mutual massacre. It is a history of a war in which the requirements of life were denied to all, a war in which most those who died succumbed to starvation and disease. Neither side was completely innocent, neither side completely guilty. In no way, however, can the mayhem be called one-sided. It was not genocide, it was war.

McCarthy, a demographer, addresses the various historiographic problems of talking about Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman census figures weren’t broken down by ethnic groups but by religious affiliations.

Another problem, addressed in a separate appendix, is the very inaccurate impression Europeans and Americans had of Turks. Most of their information about the Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire came from missionaries. Even when they spoke Turkish, they were, understandably, more interested in their co-religionists among the Kurds and Armenians than Muslims. They got a distinctly one-sided view of life in the Ottoman Empire. Their reports of atrocities committed against the Armenians were sometimes so fantastic as to be demographically impossible or, sometimes, completely unsourced.

Diplomatic reports contradicted many of these claims, but they rarely became public. This was because, particularly in Britain, some powerful politicians were extreme partisans for the Armenians. Armenian Committees in Britain and America, where many of the Armenian diaspora settled before World War One, had their own agendas to pursue. This distorted picture was worsened, of course, by British propaganda during the war.

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Dance of the Furies

A few years back, I saw a recording of Michael Neiberg’s presentation on this book at the National World War One Museum. I picked up a copy and read it a few months ago as research for my post on Robert W. Chambers’ The Dark Star.

Review: Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War 1, Michael S. Neiberg, 2011.

When Gavrilo Princip stepped up to the car of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and fired his Browning pistol twice, one bullet for the Archduke and one for his wife, he gave Europeans what they had long wanted: a war to settle old grudges and to further the interests of their countries. The war had long been predicted, desired, and was greeted with enthusiasm. They all wanted it.

Or so one of the myths of World War One would have it.

Neiberg’s compelling and highly readable history is a convincing refutation of that idea. By looking at the journals, articles, letters, and diaries of Europeans – including some who found themselves in countries their home nations were at war with – and diplomats and journalists from neutral nations, he details how Europeans went from barely noticing any “crisis” in June 1914 to reluctant but resolute supporters of the war by December 1914.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t that upset about the assassination. There was no cessation of regular activities to mourn the Archduke. French, Italian, and Russians newspapers barely noted the story. The British papers were sympathetic to the Archduke since he and his wife had visited England the year before. But, really, what could you expect from Serb “anarchists”?

It was a beautiful summer, and Europe was at peace. Bestselling books had argued for years that a European war was unthinkable because of international trade and the sheer volume of material that would be consumed in a modern war. And there had been war scares before back in 1905 and 1911. The diplomats had always worked things out. It may take months, and there would be ups and downs. Maybe the Austro-Hungarian Empire would take its gripes against Serbia to a third-party arbitrator. It’s not like it was going to punish a whole country because of a small group of terrorists.

Europeans were not internationalists. They had loyalties to nations and empires, but it was not an aggressive nationalism that yearned for war. Kaiser Wilhelm, astoundingly, was regarded in the Europe of 1914 as a major force for peace. Czar Nicholas had a similar reputation. The British Royal Navy visited the German High Fleet in Kiel that July, and politicians took vacations and went to the spa.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Dark Star

One of the many ongoing series at this blog is World War One in Fantastic Fiction, and it’s time we got back to it, this time with scholarly accoutrements.

I came across a mention to this novel in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia’s World War One entry.

Review: The Dark Star, Robert W. Chambers, 1916.

First serialized starting in the October 1916 issue of Cosmopolitan, this novel puts most of its fantastic content at the beginning in a prelude of dark prophecy and occult matters.

After a poem featuring two of the novel’s characters and a bit of prophecy, we get a section, “Children of the Star”, which, in narration sweeping into the recent past and around the world, introduces us to the novel’s characters.

We hear about the Dark Star Erlik and how it is a “a bloody horoscope” cast over the births of millions. The Dark Star makes a a 200,000 year orbit, and it’s come around to effect Earth again. (Chambers’ 1920 novel The Slayer of Souls also features the followers of Erlik according to the editorial notes in Delphi Classics’ Chambers collection.)

Those millions include Princess Mitschenka, painter James Neeland, daughter of missionaries, Ruhannah Carew (known as Rue), singer Minna Minetta aka German spy Ilse Dumont, and Minna’s husband Eddie Brandes.  

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Disputed Earth

When I saw this book mentioned on Twitter, I knew I had to read a book combining two of my interests: World War One and geology.

Review: Disputed Earth: Geology and Trench Warfare on the Western Front 1914-1918, Peter Doyle, 2017.

The discipline of military geology was founded in 1913 by a military fortification engineer, Hauptmann Walter Kranz. The German Army would go on to employ about 250 military geologists throughout the German Army. While the British Army came to realize the discipline’s value, it employed only five full time military geologists by the end of the war.

The 440 miles of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland ran through five geologic zones.  From west to east, they were a belt of coastal dunes, the Polder Plain (some of it recovered from the sea) of mixed sand and clay, a high clay plain, sand ridges, the Coal Belt of French Flanders, and the chalk uplands of Artois and Picardy (which often reminded British soldiers of southern England because it was an extension of the same geology). These strata were further modified by erosion from the last ice age and the Marqueffles Fault. The relationship of clay strata –impermeable, to various degrees, to water– to chalk and sandy strata in any given area was a major concern of military geologists.

In trench warfare, local geology determined how deep a bunker should be dug and how it should be sheltered from various types of artillery given the geological materials at hand, what type of shoring would be needed to keep a trench intact, and how a trench would be drained at a particular location in order to prevent illness, especially trench foot?

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Planning Armageddon

Given our times, I decided to pull this one off the shelf and put its review at the top of the queue. It’s an account of another time a great power attempted, by “economic derangement”, to win a war.

It didn’t go well either.

Review: Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare in the First World War, Nicholas A. Lambert, 2012.

In one of the great failed predictions of all time, Norman Angell said, in his 1910 bestselling book The Great Illusion, that war between great powers was unthinkable. It would result in, to quote Lambert, “economic Armageddon – a kind of economic mutually assured destruction”.

Ivan Bloch made a more successful prediction in his 1899 work Is War Now Impossible?:

The future of war is not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.

The British government, particularly the Royal Navy, didn’t dispute these ideas. It embraced them. Given its dominance in international shipping, central position in a world network of submarine cables, and that London was the world’s financial capitol, maybe England could cut out an enemy nation from international trade and win a war before it, too, economically bled out.

After the 1898 Fashoda Crisis drove up maritime insurance rates for British ships, the Royal Navy reluctantly realized that attacking and defending trade would have to become part of its strategy. A study was commissioned. A six-week month project stretched into years, but, by 1902, the Royal Navy had a dim view, obscured by the lack of good statistics, of the outlines of the problem.

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The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

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The Suicide Battalion

This one I read solely because Gilbert Stuart MacDonald served in the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan). He’s my closest personal link to World War One combat. And not a very close one at that. If I understand genealogical terminology, he’s my fifth cousin three times removed.

Review: The Suicide Battalion, James L. McWilliams & R. James Steel, 1978.

As the authors point out at the very beginning, the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan) was not the only battalion to be designated the “Suicide Battalion” in the Great War. Its losses in the war were heavy. Of the 5,374 men who served in the unit during the war, 1,433 died and 3,484 were wounded. Only 457 were unscathed. But there are units on both sides of the war that could claim similar statistics.

This is a very personal book for the authors. McWilliams is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, home of the unit. Steel’s grandfather served in the unit.

The book is from Hurtig Publishers, founded by Mel Hurtig because he thought Canadians should have some Canadian history books in their bookstores instead of just American history books.

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Myths & Legends of the First World War

Review: Myths & Legends of the First World War, James Hayward, 2002, 2010.

I would have thought the marketing department would have went with the title The Cult of the Clitoris and Other Myths and Legends of the First World War. Perhaps too long?

In a very concise, readable book with all the academic appurtenances of footnotes, bibliography, index and even some photos, Hayward looks at the fake news and rumors that circulated during the war and the false judgements afterwards.

Understandably, like a lot of British histography on the Great War, it focuses solely on the Western Front.

“Spy Mania” looks at the many reports of German spies and saboteurs during August 1914. They were poisoning water supplies and destroying rail bridges. Concrete tennis courts and pools and building foundations were waiting for secret German artillery installations. German spies kept homing pigeons, forbidden them by the Aliens Restriction Order. They signaled offshore German submarines. Winston Churchill even got into the act into hunting down the later. While staying in the Loch Ewe anchorage on the HMS Iron Duke, he thought a searchlight on the roof of a nearby mansion was signaling enemy submarines. Soon a party of Admirals and Commodores found themselves going ashore in an armed party to investigate. Lest we be smug about this in the 21st century, I will direct people to the many contemporary reports of non-existent terrorist actions in Washington, D.C. on Sept 11th.

Or, at least, those were the stories going around. Carl Lody’s execution on Nov. 6, 1914 pretty much ended German spying in Britain. But every German butcher, hairdresser, waiters, watchmaker, prostitute, and governess was under suspicion. Accusations of being German spies and sympathizers were made against several prominent members of the government or their spouses including Lord Haldane, Baden-Powell, and Margot Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife.

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The Wandering Soul

I told you I wasn’t done with William Hope Hodgson.

With this post, I think I can claim to have blogged more about William Hope Hodgson than anybody else in the English-speaking world. Whether any of it was useful you will have to judge. But, as Joe the Georgian said, “Quantity has a quality all its own”.

Review: The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Rare Life: A Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works, ed. Jane Frank, 2005.

Since I spent about $50 for this book, something I rarely do unless it’s a reference work, I guess I can now be considered a hardcore Hodgson fan. Considering that was the list price for this book when it was published by Tartarus Press and I got it new, I got a good deal – and there must not be that many hardcore Hodgson fans.

So, what did I get for my money?

131 of the book’s 365 pages is Hodgson fiction, specifically for a collection entitled Coasts of Adventure which was never published in his lifetime. In 2005, that might have been significant (frankly, I didn’t do my blogger diligence and check how many were anthologized before showing up here). But, now, you can get every one of these stories in Night Shade Books’s five volume The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson.

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