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

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East
reviewed by Courtland Jindra

The Fall of the Ottomans:
The Great War in the Middle East
by Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, 2015

One of my favorite movies is the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia. Obviously, like most movies based on an historical event or person, things have been altered to tell the story in a truncated and/or dramatic fashion. That said, I have always had an interest in the war in the Middle East, especially since it is so often obliquely referred to in news broadcasts about the region today. I tried to read a book on that theater of war about a year ago and found it impossibly dense. In fact I could not finish it. So, when another one was suggested to me, I was excited to give it a shot.

Turkish Machine Gunners at Gaza: They Fought on Many Fronts

In The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan really succeeds in giving a readable overview of the conflict from both a Turkish and Allied perspective. The book begins with a chapter detailing the stormy decade leading up to the war for the Ottoman Empire. What most interested me about this section was the early pogroms against Armenians after the various Balkan wars, ominously foreshadowing the later genocide against the minority population. Rogan then delves into the reasons why the Young Turks decided to hitch their wagon to Germany and the book jumps into the war.

We get the various strategies of both the Entente and Central Powers as the narrative continues. One can tell the author has a ton of respect for this country that was depleted of money, material, and men by previous wars, widely disparaged by the British as easy pickings, but that nonetheless held on until the war's final days. The Turks had to deal with the Russians, the British Empire, and an insurrection from Arabs (not to mention various other countries that were involved on a lesser basis) ,and still were able to inflict devastating defeats on the Allies. Enver Pasha is treated even-handedly. I'd actually never seen much that was not extremely critical of his managing of the military, but even the disaster at Sarikamis is explained in terms where you can understand his reasoning. Gallipoli is obviously delved into at length as is the siege of Kut. Rogan also digs into the Armenian genocide. This was probably the highlight of the book as Rogan both sympathetically explains the Turks' fear of the Armenian Christians and sharply criticizes the wholesale slaughter (he also has little patience for those who downplay the genocide today).

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The British get a lot of commentary, especially about their various double dealing. Most of it is more explanatory and not accusatory, as Rogan seeks to understand what went on and not play judge, jury, and executioner. This passage provides the kind of context I am referring to:

The fact that the British and French were dividing amongst themselves lands that Sharif Husayn was claiming for the future Arab kingdom has led many historians to denounce the Sykes-Picot Agreement as an outrageous example of imperial perfidy...Yet for Britain and France, whose past imperial rivalries had nearly led them to war, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was an essential exercise...(p. 285)

The Zionist movement is discussed at length, as is the Arab abhorrence to the promise of a Jewish homeland. General Allenby's plans and his mostly efficient execution of them is admired. Expectedly, T.E. Lawrence and Prince Faysel's revolt get quite a bit of ink. In fact I would say Faysel and Mustafa Kemal probably are the most sympathetic characters in the book.

As The Fall of the Ottomans winds to a close and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire is under way, one knows how many of today's issues in the Mid-East lead in some fashion back to this. It leaves one appropriately unsatisfied. My only real issue is the lack of (or insufficient) maps, which unfortunately is a problem with many books about the Great War. Though there are six included (some being more detailed than others), many towns discussed are not included, and I had to try and piece together where I was.

Nevertheless, if you have an interest in this theater of the Great War, you could definitely do worse than this volume. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Courtland Jindra


  1. This is a theatre of the war that is often given short shrift. Your review nicely shows how this should not be so, and you have certainly encouraged me to read this book. Thank you!

  2. Enjoyed your review immensely. There are so many layers to the Great War and you said it right, the Turkish front seems to only concern itself with Galipolli. There was so much more as you so well noted in your review. Cheers