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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Republic as sole independent Ottoman successor state

Ottoman politicians had considered Great Power imperialism the gravest danger to their state in the years before the world war. The war, the defeat, and the accompanying disasters cut millions adrift from the certainties and hopes that had ordered life. Lives, plans, and careers were cut short and altered in ways unforeseen and unwanted. In Berlin, news of the fall of Damascus sent Shakib Arslan rushing to return to Istanbul. He boarded a train and traveled east until he reached the Ukrainian port of Nikolaev on the Black Sea coast. While waiting for a ship, he met some Ottoman Arabs fleeing the capital, from whom he learned that Istanbul was under British occupation and that he, as a member of the wartime government, would likely face prison or worse. Arslan joined his comrades in an arduous return journey to Berlin and to what would become permanent exile.1

Yasin al-Hashimi was in hiding, seriously wounded, in Damascus. Years earlier, Amir Faysal himself had tried to convince al-Hashimi to join the nascent Arab Revolt. But Yasin al-Hashimi refused this and later appeals, and never wavered in his belief that Britain would not be a friend to the Ottomans or the Arabs. By the end of the war, he had spent twenty-five years as an Ottoman officer and cadet. He was a 34-year-old major general in command of an army corps in Palestine, and among the highest-ranking and most distinguished young staff commanders in the Ottoman army.2 Al-Hashimi escaped the British capture of Darca, near today’s Syrian Jordanian border at the end of September 1918, and led a retreat north. He was wounded in combat on the 100-kilometer retreat to Damascus, and, unable to continue, took refuge at the house of the al-Naciama family near Damascus’ Suq al-Hamidiyya.

Yasin al-Hashimi’s wounds forced him to remain behind while Kemal retreated north toward Aleppo. Former comrades among Faysal’s forces got wind of his presence in the city. Nuri al-Sacid, cAli al-Jawdat, and Jamil al-Midfaci were junior Ottoman officers from Iraq who had been captured by British forces and had joined Faysal’s Revolt after their internment in prisoner-of-war camps in Egypt. When they learned Yasin al-Hashimi was wounded and hiding in Damascus, they searched until they found him and beseeched him to join the new government of Amir Faysal.

Yasin al-Hashimi had no wish to abandon his responsibilities as an Ottoman staff officer. In October of 1918, though, there seemed to be no Ottoman state left to serve, and left behind on the retreat to Anatolia he had few options. Having found al-Hashimi, his old comrades and adversaries still had difficulty persuading him to join them.3

Al-Hashimi sought assurances that their entreaties were not part of a British plot to gain his surrender. Eventually they convinced him, and Faysal immediately named al-Hashimi military chief of staff above the handful of ex-Ottoman officers who had joined his revolt. The improvement in his prospects did not last long and by the end of the following year, General Allenby ordered him jailed in Palestine. Uncounted thousands of other Ottoman State employees faced similar peril, uncertainty, and desperate circumstances in 1918 and 1919.

World War I is remembered for senseless carnage in Europe over now-obscure European power struggles. But the war engulfed the globe, and affected millions of soldiers and civilians, only a minority of whom were full citizens of France, Britain, or Germany. Tens of millions of conscript soldiers from the Ottoman lands, the far-flung Russian and Hapsburg empires, and British and French colonial empires fought and suffered in the cataclysm. Many returned home embittered to find the justice and prosperity they had been promised did not come to pass. The memory of the war became a touchstone for disillusionment and lost innocence in Europe. In Turkey and postcolonial countries from North Africa to Burma, less complicated, and more plainly heroic independence struggles supplanted the popular memory of the Great War.

Europeans and North Americans remember the battlefields of France and Flanders. But France and Belgium were not the only battlegrounds, and their prominence in memory comes from the European monopoly on the story and meaning of the war. Also forgotten is much of the underlying struggle for global domination between Britain, Germany, France, and Russia. Seen from a less common perspective, the war sprang from British anxiety over the German Ottoman alliance, and access to India, Egypt, and the newly exploited oil resources surrounding the Persian Gulf. It was a reactionary struggle between the British world-dominating present, and the feared German world- dominating future. British war planners laid out a secret invasion plan for southern Mesopotamia and Abadan, the refinery town at the head of the Persian Gulf, in late summer 1914, months before the Ottoman Empire had entered the war. The Ottoman State officially entered the war on October 29, 1914, by which time the British force had already landed and was ready to begin the offensive. One week later, on the day of the British declaration of war, the British Army Indian Expeditionary Force launched the Mesopotamia campaign on the Ottoman province of Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf. It took two-and-a-half years to finally capture Baghdad. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign followed the Mesopotamia campaign a few months later. Colonial soldiers from India and Australia in the hundreds of thousands fought in these

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campaigns.

For Ottoman citizens, summer 1914 was a continuation of war, beginning when Italy invaded Ottoman Libya in 1911, sparking a scramble among smaller European powers for Ottoman territory. World War I emerged from this contest and should be considered a part of it. The first Balkan War began in 1912. As the Balkan League alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro formed and attacked the Ottoman provinces in Europe in 1912, the Great Powers stood officially aloof. Behind the scenes, however, tensions and ambitions leading to the 1914 outbreak had already emerged. Russia supported the Balkan League’s moves against the Ottoman state. Austro-Hungary discouraged the war, fearing disorder on the border and its recently annexed province of Bosnia- Herzegovina, with its cosmopolitan former Ottoman provincial capital of Sarajevo. France encouraged Serbian truculence, and Britain claimed officially to oppose the war while encouraging Greek and Bulgarian expansion against both the Ottomans and Russia. Germany, sensitive to Ottoman lack of preparedness, opposed the war and urged its Ottoman ally to assume a defensive line near Adrianople (Edirne).5

The Ottoman army was swept from the Balkans and in the wake of its retreat came another flood of Muslim refugees to Istanbul. In mid 1913, the Balkan League alliance fell apart when Bulgaria attacked its former allies Serbia and Greece, and the Ottoman army counterattacked and recaptured some Balkan territory. In London, the cabinet of Liberal Party Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was already preoccupied with what Balkan conflict, Ottoman retrenchment, and German involvement would mean for the security of British oil fields in Persia, and the eventual partition of “Asiatic Turkey.”6

By 1914 the Ottoman East had been the object of British, French, and Russian imperialist expansion for more than a century. The rising industrial and military power of Germany frightened French, and especially British, politicians. If Britain could lose its export markets to competition from Germany, eventually it could lose the empire itself. Before and during the war, a consensus emerged among British policy-makers: the aim of the war would be the retention and protection of the empire, and the empire could only be protected by expelling the Germans, and thus the Ottomans, from proximity to the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf. Suez and the Gulf were the lifelines to India and to the new British-controlled oil fields of Persia, and the corridor between the Mediterranean and the Gulf would have to be under British control.7 Customary disdain for the

Ottoman State became especially bitter on the part of British generals and politicians after the defeats of 1915. The Russian exit from the war against Germany in 1917 made the prospect of German control of the Balkans a terrifying possibility also. The war in the East was a disaster for the allies until the very end.

For France the extension of empire to the Eastern Mediterranean was less a matter of protection than historical destiny: the fulfillment of the civilizing mission (mission civilisatrice) to bring Francophone enlightenment and civilization to the less developed peoples of the world, and strike a blow for the supremacy of French power, prestige, and culture. French colonialists were particularly concerned to be the “Protector of the Oriental Christians” and a potent popular historical narrative combining mythic Frankish Crusaders, Catholic missionaries, the rightwing cadres of the colonial army, and provincial textile magnates from Lyon and elsewhere, evolved to advocate a French Mediterranean empire. French merchants and industrialists had a long association with silk and cotton producers on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Syria and Cilicia, and coveted petroleum resources also. But the Great War had nearly destroyed France and expansion of empire could only take place in uneasy partnership with the wartime ally and longtime rival, Great Britain.

To protect the empire, Britain had to control the Middle East, and defeat the Ottoman Empire. Despite a century of propaganda centered on the decay, decadence, and “rot” at the heart of the Ottoman realms, the Ottoman state had not collapsed, and had to be defeated; a process that arguably was incomplete in October 1918, and proved to be far more challenging than anyone expected. British politicians and generals underestimated both the strength of the Ottoman military and the vitality and legitimacy of the state itself. That its demise had been so long anticipated, made the staggering cost of its defeat all the more bitter. British forces everywhere proclaimed their intention to liberate newly occupied peoples from tyranny and the “Turkish yoke.” Few indeed had desired such liberation. (See Figure 2.1.)

 
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