Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Ottoman Endgame
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander


The Ottoman Endgame: 
War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East,
1908 – 1923
by Sean McMeekin
Penguin Press, 2015


November 1914: Proclamation of Holy War Read in Constantinople

I came to The Ottoman Endgame in my quest to explore the global reach of WWI — i.e., everything beyond the Western Front. Sean McMeekin's latest book is perfect for this purpose, as it describes the conflict from the Ottoman empire's perspective. The results are impressive: an exciting, well-told, and illuminating narrative history.

This focus requires a somewhat broader perspective than a 1914–1918 battlefield account. McMeekin reaches back to 1900–1914 (indeed, begins in the late 1800s) in order to set up the "sick man of Europe" problematic, and to introduce the crucial Balkan Wars. He also continues the tale beyond 11/11/1918 as he views the Turkish story as bound up with the Russian Civil War, and, of course, carried on through the Turko-Greek War (1919–1922) and Kemal Atatürk's founding of today's Turkish state. There's also a strong if understated pointer to our time, as the book's last line reminds us — "Outside Turkey's borders, the War of the Ottoman Succession [see below] rages on, with no end in sight." (495)

And what a tale unfolds! Students of the First World War are familiar with the fact that it brought down so many empires; McMeekin gives us a front-row seat for the spectacular crash. We see intrigue, betrayal, ambition, disaster, epic struggle, and many, many battles. Not only is the Ottoman Empire destroyed and replaced with a constellation of states still unsettled (to put it mildly) today, but also the Russian Empire collapses into revolution and civil war, Israel's founding starts to move, and the whole, more familiar drama of the Western Front transpires.

A crucial argument in the book is to consider the Ottoman story as not a sideshow, in T E Lawrence's terms, but as "central to both the outbreak of European war in 1914 and the peace settlement that truly ended it." A second claim is that the Ottomans fought better, smarter, and harder than their enemies and much of posterity have given them credit for. Those are ultimately very persuasive arguments, especially given the close connections between the Ottomans and Russia ("Russia, always the prime [external] mover in Ottoman affairs", 286), for the former point.


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Ottoman Endgame offers some intriguing perspectives on the first World War. It suggests reviewing the Middle Eastern theater (plus the Macedonian and Russian) as a War of the Ottoman Succession (xx, 483). There's the possibility of WWI breaking out in 1912, as the great powers maneuvered around the First Balkan War, which makes for a fascinating counterfactual. McMeekin, no fan of T E Lawrence, nevertheless picks up Lawrence's call for the British to land in the Ottoman realm, not at Gallipoli, but at Alexandretta (173ff), arguing that such a campaign might have been far more effective for the Entente than the disaster (or, from the Ottoman perspective, glorious victory) of Gallipoli. Speaking of Gallipoli, the book raises the possibility that a Russian attack on Constantinople (which had been promised) during the Entente's bloody campaign might have collapsed the Ottomans as early as 1915 (216ff). Speaking of Lawrence of Arabia, McMeekin falls squarely into the skeptic's camp. Ottoman Endgame portrays Lawrence as a bungling tactician, "an ineffective liaison officer" (416), a bag man for British imperial cash (according to "a Bedouin sheikh...'He was the man with the gold,'" 361), a maker of myths about himself. Two days after the fall of Damascus, to which his only contribution was to be chauffeured into town afterwards in a Rolls-Royce sedan (the Blue Mist), Lawrence asked [General] Allenby for permission to return to England, where he returned to begin composing his own legend (404n). McMeekin lets us revisit and understand familiar events in new contexts. The Allied attempt on Gallipoli makes more sense considered alongside the other Ottoman battles at the same time, in Suez, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus. The Young Turks and their maneuvers are more rational in their domestic setting. Sykes-Picot (or Sazonov-Sykes-Picot) appears more ramshackle that I recall, as well as more centered on Russian aspirations. British prime minister Lloyd George comes off as a dangerous fumbler. The Armenian genocide occurs in the midst of several military campaigns, rather than on its own. Ottoman Endgame also draws attention to under-appreciated or simply forgotten aspects of WWI, such as the Battle of Dilman (1915), which helped the Russians drive deeply into the eastern empire (227), and Wilhelm Souchon's brilliant escapades with the SMS Goeben. I was impressed that a second great battle took place in 1915 on the world historic site of Manzikert, almost a thousand years after the first one.

Turkish Troops En Route to the Suez Canal 1914

The first Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal doesn't get nearly enough attention; I completely missed that there was a second one, in 1916; McMeekin wants us to consider the latter as "the decisive turning point in the British-Ottoman war" (343). McMeekin also would like us to consider the scarcely ever mentioned Macedonian Front as "the real catalyst of defeat for the Central Powers "(394), which I'm not fully convinced by, but enjoy thinking through.

I'd forgotten that the Versailles process raised the idea of putting the United States in charge of big swathes of former Ottoman territory (420ff). The epic, intercontinental carve-up of the Russian Empire by the Germans and Ottomans, often neglected in favor of the epic 1918 Western Front battles, was very well presented. I was also pleased to see the author make the case once more for the vital importance and skills of Russia's one-time foreign minister Sergei Sazonov (example: 185-6) (this was a key point of McMeekin's previous book on WWI and Russia).

I was disappointed at some omissions and topics underplayed. The entry and rapid exit of Romania into the war was very significant in 1916 and had huge implications for the Balkans, but it barely receives a mention (ex: 326). More important, Austria-Hungary is barely mentioned (cf 370), which is strange, given its huge role in the Balkans, not to mention in kicking off war in 1914. On the Ottoman side I hoped to learn more about culture and society, such as public opinion, attitudes toward the war, etc., but this is more of a diplomatic and military history.

The Ottoman Endgame is well grounded in archival work, especially on the Turkish side.

One all too rare virtue, though, made me love this book the more — its maps. Oh, what a delight to read a history liberally speckled with maps! Each one is placed precisely where it is most germane. Every one is easy to read. Nearly every single geographical detail in the text is clearly apparent on the relevant map. Publishers and authors, please learn from this book's example!

Overall, I strongly recommend The Ottoman Endgame for every WWI reader, as well as for anyone curious about the modern Middle East, and for anyone interested in fine historical nonfiction.

Bryan Alexander

This review first appeared on Goodreads on 30 March 2016. Bryan Alexander also blogs on Future Trends in Technology and Education at http://bryanalexander.org/

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting companion to "Fall of the Ottomans" which also came out last year (told from both Ottoman and British perspectives at times). That was a really good book as well and likewise helped me draw some connections between the Mid East and the wider conflict as well.

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  2. A solid and fascinating review--thank you! You've made it abundantly clear that I must get this book and read it, if only as a counterbalance to my personal predilection for Western Front studies.

    A note on the first comment: "Fall of the Ottomans" was reviewed on this blog on February 16 of this year. David B.

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    1. I know it was...I reviewed it. :-)

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  3. Mehmed VI, the last Ottoman ruler, the last Sultan, died in exile and was buried in a truly sad little grave in Damascus - take a look at this photo to see what comes of great empires: http://www.fotothing.com/photos/397/3974172758bdd5d4739b54e91f2cdbf0_d69.jpg

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