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 4, 2020

Shadow of the Sultan's Realm: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East

by Daniel Allen Butler
Potomac Books, 2011
Michael Kihntopf, Reviewer

1915 Magazine Cover Celebrating the Central Powers' Early Successes

The end of the Great War brought about the ouster of nearly 20 royal families from thrones that had existed for over 500 years. The most renowned were the Romanovs of Russia, the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, and the Osmans of Ottoman Turkey. The latter's final history is often relegated to dim corridors of university libraries. Author Daniel Allen Butler, however, brings to light the experience of the Ottoman Empire in its last years in a brief but mesmerizing look through an uncomplicated format and style that is a joy to read. It is a fitting compliment to Edward J. Erickson's Ordered to Die (2000).

Butler is an author of some literary fame, having written books about the Titanic and the Battle of Jutland. In this work he forwent the usual academic format of footnotes and end notes to bring the reader an almost story-like explanation for the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The author admits from the beginning that the book is not a military history endeavor, yet the history of the sultanate's demise must still be told through the battles that the Turks endured during World War I. Butler very accurately shows how the Three Pashas—Enver, Talaat, and Ahmed Djemal—plunged the empire into World War I for the sake of throwing off the financial and diplomatic restrictions that the United Kingdom and France had imposed upon Turkey to repay unfair loans. However, in declaring war on the Entente, the Three Pashas unwittingly became more involved than they had expected or could handle.

Without a political or military goal, the Three Pashas went from one disaster to the next with an army already gutted by a war in Libya with the Italians in 1911 and two Balkan Wars from 1912 to 1913. The defeats in the Caucasus and on the Suez Canal in 1914 and 1915 depleted what little resources were available and utterly destroyed the army's morale. The victories at Gallipoli and Kut had given them hope, but the Turkish economy and army were unable to fend off the unrelenting, better-equipped British drive from Egypt and through Mesopotamia in 1917 and 1918.
Yet the real hardship came as Turkey's allies capitulated. Whereas Germany and Austria were left to sort out their own differences both internally and externally, the Turkish Empire faced dismemberment at the hands of the United Kingdom and France. Not only were non-Turkish areas reorganized, renamed, and placed under English or French mandates, the homeland of the Anatolian Plains was also subdivided between Italy, Greece, Kurds, and Armenians. The once illustrious capital of Constantinople was subjected to international rule. Butler does not stop at this juncture, however. He very accurately presents how Mustafa Kemal, taking advantage of British and French war weariness and Russia's Vladimir Lenin's desire to punish those nations for their support of reactionary forces in the Civil War, brought together Turkish nationalists to fight off occupation and create a strong and respected republic.

Shadow of the Sultan's Realm is an excellent overview of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War. He precisely describes not only the major battles but also the Armenian massacres and the influence of T. E. Lawrence. The work would be an excellent post-graduate textbook, although most academics will pass it up since it doesn't have detailed footnotes or end notes to support the descriptions of political actions. This lack of academic format nevertheless makes it worthwhile; it is not something that will induce sleep as so many scholarly endeavors do. It is a thriller of intrigue, deceit, and retribution, with a happy ending.

Michael Kihntopf


  1. Thank you for the engaging review, Michael. It sounds fine.

  2. Your last two sentences alone encourage me to get this book! Thanks so much, Michael.

  3. I too will get this book, but I would have preferred to have had the footnotes and have sources named. If you don't know the sources you don't know how much credibility to give anything. It is no longer that hard to put that information in and at its best at the bottom of the page so you can tell in a glance what you have. Footnotes don't have anything to do with the readability of a book.