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The Battle of Nablus and the End of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman army made its last stand of the Great War in Palestine in 1918. British General Allenby’s defeat of an Ottoman army at the battle of Nablus led to the surrender of the Ottoman state, but in marked contrast to the defeat of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the army did not collapse. In the other two Central Powers, the collapse of the state accompanied the defeat and collapse of the army. The Ottoman army, product of more than a century of reform, careful student of Prussian military doctrine, and unlikely survivor, was neither definitively defeated nor fully demobilized. Remnants of the Ottoman 7th army under the command of Mustafa Kemal Pasa, and the 4th army, under the command of Yasin al-Hashimi Pasa, retreated to a town near Aleppo with the intention of regrouping and re-engaging British forces. Al-Hashimi was wounded in combat and could not continue the march north. The armistice came before the battle resumed.

Ottoman statesmen, products of the both the military and civil state education systems, had entered the war four years earlier, hoping to reverse recent defeats in the Balkans and elsewhere.1 Few in Britain or France expected to encounter serious resistance from the Ottoman forces, and the public of each country took the Ottoman entry into the war as something of a joke. Newspapers and cartoons mocked the proverbial backwardness and disorganization of the “Sick Man of Europe.” The Ottoman state mobilized nearly three million men between 1914 and 1918. Contrary to the expectations of the French and British high command, the Ottoman military proved a formidable opponent, and the Entente powers suffered notable defeats in Iraq, Gallipoli, and elsewhere. The war led to the end of the Ottoman State, but the army and other state institutions survived.

Days after the Battle of Nablus, the British army and its allies of the Arab Revolt finally entered Damascus. The occupation of Greater Syria and the defeat of the Ottoman forces had required an eighteen-month march from Egypt. As the British occupied Damascus, Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal Pasa commanded the retreat from Damascus to Aleppo. By the beginning of November, the five most important Ottoman-Arab cities, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Aleppo were all occupied by British forces. The inhabitants of these cities, and many smaller towns and villages, did not fully understand what had occurred. Ottoman State employees and officials, like their German and Austrian counterparts, reeled from the shock of the defeat and occupation. The civic elite of the towns of Anatolia, Syria and Iraq stayed at their posts and attempted to adapt to the occupation administration. People like Musa Kazim al-Husayni in Jerusalem, worked to serve their regional population, and maintain relations with the military occupation authorities. Ottoman civil officials who hailed from Istanbul or from the Anatolian regions of the Ottoman State, typically left Greater Syria, Iraq, Hijaz, or Yemen, and returned by any means available to Anatolia. Shakib Arslan, who had served as a parliamentary deputy from the Hawran, south of Damascus, was in Berlin serving as an envoy for the Ottoman government. Local Ottoman politicians remained in their local posts, but politicians and intellectuals resident in the capital faced a range of unappealing and potentially life-threatening choices. The leading officers and politicians of the Unionist government fled abroad.

Serving Ottoman military officers faced a dilemma too, after the defeat at Nablus. Some 30 percent or so of the Ottoman military had been made up of conscripts from Arab regions. Arab units had served with distinction on all fronts, including Galipoli and Russia. Percentages of Arabs among Ottoman officers were only slightly lower than among common soldiers. Most Ottoman soldiers were not literate in any language, and most spoke the Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, Albanian, Circassian, Southern Slavic, or Greek dialect of their native region. It was natural that at the end of the war, or under conditions of demobilization, they would return to their regions of origin. Those who took part in the retreat from Syria, however, usually stayed with their units. Many on all fronts had already deserted and began the long walk back to distant villages and towns.

Officers were in quite a different situation. Since the military education system was intended to foster the emergence of a state elite, including Ottoman Turkish literacy, transnational Islamic cosmopolitanism, and identity with the Ottoman State, rather than any one region or area, officers had to choose. At least 15 percent of the officers who led the Turkish War of Independence, and ended up drawing pensions from the Turkish Republic, hailed from the Arab regions including greater Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen which were partitioned in 1918. Put another way, a majority of military academy graduates who listed their origins in Arab regions, eventually served in the army of the Turkish Republic. The minority who did not include: all who were killed in action, all who retired, and all who deserted or joined the Arab Revolt. Graduating classes between 1895 and 1913 had been large, typically 500 cadets, and many of these men had come from regions under British military occupation at the armistice at the end of October 1918.2 Such veteran officers typically gravitated toward either the Anatolian insurgency, or less frequently, the “independent” Arab government of Amir Faysal in Damascus. Some returned to their towns and villages and resumed life as civilians, but after a lifetime in uniform, spent away from native villages and neighborhoods, this option seems common only among the oldest officers, and alayli officers commissioned through the ranks, or those wartime recruits among Ottoman civilians. Ottoman-educated mektepli officers produced in the military schools and academy, whether Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Circassians, Bulgars, Bosniaks, or Albanians sought to continue their military service, their comradeship with brother officers, and their service to Islam and the independence of the former Ottoman lands.

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