In his historical study The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East
(2015), Oxford University historian Eugene Rogan narrates the history of the Ottoman Empire from the late 19th century to the aftermath of World War I.
Rogan introduces his topic by arguing for its contemporary relevance. He suggests that the Ottoman front of World War I has been overlooked by scholars of the period, and as a result, its significance in contemporary Middle Eastern politics has been overlooked. Many of the most serious conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, in Rogan’s view, have their roots in the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
In the years leading to World War I, the Empire was already in decline. Sultan Abdulhamid II had come to the throne in 1876 promising to introduce parliamentary democracy. However, when his first elected government refused to support his declaration of jihad against Russia, he abandoned democracy in favor of direct rule. War with Russia followed, and in the aftermath, the British and French imperial powers deprived the Ottomans of vast swathes of territory.
This humiliation led to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which successfully fought to restore democracy in the Empire, forcing Abdulhamid’s resignation. In 1913, however, a second humiliation followed, when war with Italy over Libya resulted in another huge loss of territory.
When World War I broke out a year later, the Ottoman Empire occupied a unique strategic position as the world’s only major Muslim power. The Ottomans’ opponents in Britain, Russia, and France had cause for concern. The British Empire numbered more than 100 million Muslim inhabitants, while the French and Russian governments each ruled over 20 million Muslims. All sides believed that these Muslims might be persuaded to support the Ottoman cause, especially if the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V—as caliph—declared the war a jihad.
The Ottomans’ allies in Germany and Austria-Hungary encouraged the Sultan to do just that. The German Empire numbered few Muslim subjects and had little to lose. The Ottoman regime, however, was concerned about the loyalty of its Christian subjects, especially the Armenian minority in Anatolia, whose civil rights were restricted, and had been long been regarded with suspicion by the Muslim minority.
In any event, the Sultan’s declaration of jihad had little effect. To the surprise of all parties, it was Ottoman Muslims who switched sides, when British diplomats and generals skillfully persuaded the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula to back their cause. Meanwhile, the British also proved able to draw on Muslim Indian troops in their fight against the Ottomans in the Middle East.
However, the British campaign against the Ottomans was not as easily won as its commanders had hoped. Rogan argues that the bloody British campaign in Gallipoli, usually seen as a failure of Allied strategy, should instead be seen as an Ottoman victory.
Rogan examines the Allied assault on the Dardanelles and the landing at Gallipoli in detail. He finds sources who fought both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and judged the conditions at Gallipoli to be worse. The British imperial troops there—mostly from Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland—could take no leave from the front. In the heat, unburied bodies drew vast clouds of flies. Both sides suffered enormous casualties. Rogan argues that the British commanders drastically underestimated the skill and resolve of the Ottoman troops.
The appalling conditions and the incompetence of the British generals had knock-on consequences in the British colonies from which the troops were drawn. Rogan draws parallels between the Ottomans’ execution of Syrian rebels and the execution in Dublin, in the same month, of the Easter Rising rebels against British rule in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Committee of Union and Progress running the Ottoman war effort began the systematic murder of the Armenian population. Rogan is scrupulous is his use of the contentious terminology surrounding these killings. Although he uses the word genocide for the later phases of the killing, from 1915 onwards, Rogan distinguishes an early phase of non-genocidal “massacres.” He comes down firmly on one side of a particularly contentious question, affirming that Ottoman senior leaders issued unwritten orders for the mass killing of deported Armenians. He relies on the research of the Turkish historian Taner Akcam for this claim, applauding the “courageous efforts” of Turkish historians to research the genocide unsparingly.
He also repeats the less contentious details of the genocide. More than 1.5 million Armenians perished, many of them on a forced march from their homelands. At the same time, Rogan seeks to contextualize the genocide. Throughout late 1914 and early 1915, Armenian rebels accepted Russian help. Ottoman authorities feared that Armenians might support a British invasion.
Ultimately, the Ottomans were victorious at Gallipoli and the subsequent Siege of Kut. Rogan argues that this victory had profound, long-term consequences. With the Anatolian heartland safe, thousands of Ottoman troops could be sent into the Levant and North Africa. In turn, this forced the British to ramp up diplomacy with the Arabs, promising them independence in exchange for their support. Britain’s failure to honor this promise, Rogan argues, continues to shape Middle Eastern politics to this day, having fueled a long-term resentment of Western interference in Arab countries.
However, during the war, the strategy proved successful, and the British were able to leverage Arab support to capture the holy city of Jerusalem just before Christmas in 1917. The Ottomans’ war was effectively over.
Although the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire did not happen immediately when peace was agreed in 1918, Rogan argues that for such a proud military power, defeat was a final and unendurable humiliation. Within a year, the Turkish War of Independence had begun. When the Ottoman caliphate was finally abolished in 1924, no power or territory remained to it.