Book review: The Ottoman Endgame

Had the Ottoman empire survived World War I and come to dominate western powers we would be living in a very different, far less tolerant world, suggests Andrew Melsom.

War, Revolution and the Making of Modern Middle East, 1908 – 1923

Sean McMeekin

Penguin Books €44.99, ebook €19.99

WHAT have the Ottomans ever done for us? The thing about the Ottoman Empire is that it was big: very, very big.

At the time of Suleiman the Magnificent who reigned from 1520-1566, the territory reached up as far as Budapest in the north, took in the western side of the Adriatic and ranged across to Baku on the Caspian Sea. 

The southern border, if you can call it that, stretched along most of the length of north Africa, included Egypt, dribbled down both sides of the Red Sea and then curved up and around the Gulf to include Iraq and Kuwait.

Incidentally, we should all change our identity to add the words ‘The Magnificent’ to our first names. It will have a warming effect when they admire it, writ large, on your debit card at the SuperValu check out desk.

Turkey’s old satellite empire is a part of the world where there has been trouble for most of time, and if we look at where all the worst excesses of terrorism emanate, it remains true to this day.

The Balkan Wars were complicated and involved Turkey, Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Serbia through the early 20th century.

By the time of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenburg, who were shot by a miscreant Serb in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the region was a simmering tinderbox.

In our history lessons we may have found it difficult to cope with the idea that the greatest conflict the world has ever known was triggered by a single assassin’s bullet. 

But The Ottoman Endgame, authored by an academic who has written extensively about the end of the Ottomans and who has also chronicled the events that led up to the First World War in a previous book July 1914 — Countdown to War, now takes us meticulously, shell-case by shell-case, wire by wire, dreadnought by dreadnought through the straits of the Dardanelles and Bosporus and into the complexities of politics, indecision and conflict through to when the last Sultan, Mehmed VI, left the country marking the end of the Ottomans in 1922.

This is a work of scholarship and not for enthusiasts of ‘history lite’.

We may glibly think that most parts of the world at the turn of the 20th century were going to be divvied up by the French and the British, as these were the two empires in contention at the time.

In fact the Claud Rains character, Mr Dryden, in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia spelled out the traditional story.

“Mark Sykes was a British civil servant. Monsieur Picot was a French civil servant. Mr Sykes and Monsieur Picot met and they agreed that, after the war, France and England would share the Ottoman Empire, including Arabia.” 

These are the men who it is said negotiated Ottoman partition between Britain and France.

The Sykes-Picot agreement is apocryphal, but at the time it ignored Germany’s ambition and the speed at which it needed to acquire roaming rights in the Mediterranean so soon after the assassination.

It also ignored the subsequent deals that needed to be struck between the Germans and the Turks, and then the Russians and the Turks. 

In the lead-up to the Dardanelles incident the Germans were forced to come to an agreement with the largest empire in the world that was not British. Contracts and alliances were written and rewritten.

The Russians wanted constant access to an ice-free port and the option to expand. The Germans wanted to have an eastern power on its side; exclusivity and safe passage through the straits — and somewhere to hide from the British Navy. The British were frustrated as war had not yet been declared. 

So Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty was not empowered to sink two German dreadnaughts, the SMS Goeben and the light cruiser, SMS Breslau that were zig-zagging their way through the Mediterranean and heading for the straits, unsure whether they would be sunk by HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable between sporadic stops at coal ships.

It infuriated Churchill that they got away, and that the Goeben then changed its name to Yaruz Sultan Selim, flew the Ottoman flag — and kept its German crew. This whole palaver finished the careers of at least two British admirals. 

The Dardanelles incident showed British vulnerability, and was a major diversion while war was being readied in the west. It also reminded the British that the Turks are warriors. (During the Anglo Turkish War in 1807, the British Navy was cannonaded by Turkish guns). 

It was assumed that a second front on the east could be created by the British and its Anzac/French allies on the Gallipoli peninsula that could effectively squash the Germans in the middle. 

It was also assumed at the time that the Greeks and the Russians — ‘the two dogs that did not bark’ — would join in with the conflict.

In the chapter on Gallipoli there is a catalogue of slaughter that brought soldiers ashore with no shelter and no shade, so that by the end of the first series of battles on May 8, 1915, the Allies had lost 20,000 men and the Turks 15,000, with the Turks and their German friends enjoying the high ground.

The destruction of the Allies was made grimly effective by the order given to the Turks to wait until the enemy were only 40m away. 

What had been produced in this eastern theatre was, in effect, a recreation of the template on the French, Flanders front; soldiers entrenched, exhausted, diseased, dying and unable to progress. Gallipoli was Turkey’s greatest victory and the humiliation and loss brought down Churchill and the Asquith government.

One of the great tasks of the First World War was to help the Arab nations in their quest to recover territory from the Ottomans. McMeekin covers the role of TE Lawrence, the British soldier, archaeologist and diplomat who gathered a rebel army of 500 mostly Howeitat warriors, taking Aqaba and defeating the Turks while they slept. 

Historians argue about the actual importance of this episode, captured again in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but it seemed to be a glorious advertisement for the potential of Arab and British collaboration in the Middle East, leading up to the fall of Baghdad in June 1917.

The Treaty of Sèvres on August 10, 1920, was the eventual agreement that ended the Ottoman Empire for good and dispensed with the last Sultan. 

There will be old men of Turkey who will remember the maps of their empire as sorrowfully as the British once admired the vast territories of the globe, coloured-in with pink, still populating maps on classroom walls as late as the 1960s. Like the Ottomans, much of the British Empire was lost through battle and, like the British; the Turks don’t know what to make of the new EU.

What this book reminds us is there is a land not too far away, where some of us choose to go on bucket and spade holidays, whose neighbours include Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Bulgaria and Greece. It is the place where citizens of western countries transition in both and spirit, before conspiring to kill us with exploding underwear.

If the Ottomans had got their act together in times of yore, and if they had advanced beyond Vienna and Paris and up to the western beaches of Europe, we could be living in a Muslim state with Christianity operating in secret. It’s unlikely that a totalitarian Ottoman empire would have been very tolerant.


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