Category Archives: Middle East

6 JULY, 1917: Image Bank Raided!

A best-selling memoir and a brilliant biopic can do wonders for a person’s place in posterity, and the stirring legend of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia to you – definitely owes something to the fictions perpetrated by both. This is generally accepted by modern historians, and has prompted an understandable tendency to play down both the influence Lawrence exerted on the Arab Revolt and the value of his military exploits.

Fair enough, and if all memoirs were treated with the same scepticism we’d be a happier human race, but revisionism (like revolution) has an innate tendency to overshoot.  It is true that Arab leaders deserve more credit for their successes than Lawrence himself gave them, and that other British figures at large in the Arab world played important roles in encouraging, fostering and arranging support for the Arab Revolt – but Lawrence was at least partly responsible for some pretty amazing stuff, and shouldn’t be downplayed out of sight.

I mention this because today marks the centenary of the Battle of Aqaba, an engagement that was raised to such improbable glory by memoir and movie that it can be (and sometimes is) dismissed as mythology.  To be sure, it wasn’t quite the heroic, crucial victory against massive odds portrayed by David Lean, and Lawrence wasn’t its sole or necessarily its major architect, but it was a very important moment in Arab Revolt’s development as a strategically significant movement, and Lawrence certainly played a resourceful part in making it happen.  Before I attempt a moderate, unbiased account of the thing, a little context wouldn’t go amiss.

When I was last there, the Arab Revolt was on the up.  From a position of embattled defence against numerically superior Ottoman forces, the Revolt’s principal army had successfully defended the port of Yenbo at the end of 1916, captured the small but important garrison town of Wejh in January and conducted an effective guerilla campaign against Ottoman supply lines to southern Arabia (24 January, 1917: Trains And Boats And Brains).

At this point the Revolt’s two main priorities were maintaining momentum and securing supplies from Britain.  Momentum and the high reputation that came with victories were vitally important recruitment tools in a land of war bands whose willingness to fight depended on essentially mediaeval principles of personal loyalty to particular warlords.  Military defeat, or even relative inactivity, was always likely to deprive the Revolt’s ‘Sherifian’ leaders of troops and sympathetic help from local populations.  Without the help of British weapons, British military advisors and Royal Navy units in the eastern Mediterranean, numbers of troops would hardly matter, because they would be fighting the relatively modern Turkish Army with nothing but swords, spears and the occasional musket.

The extent to which Lawrence was responsible for field commander Prince Feisal’s decision to make a surprise attack on Aqaba remains a matter of opinion, but he certainly played some part in planning a bold enterprise that addressed both priorities.  A little-used port at the junction of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia (and now part of Jordan), Aqaba offered a supply route to British bases in both Egypt and Palestine, and could be a base for future Arab Revolt operations in northern Arabia.  On the other hand it was well protected from attack by sea, and its desert overland approaches were generally regarded as impassable for attackers, so taking it would be a major boost for the Revolt’s all-important fighting reputation.

You’ll be wanting another map. Won’t you?

Lawrence was among the leaders of a war band that left Wejh on 9 May 1917, at the start of a thousand-kilometre trek to seek approval and assistance for the attack.  He helped secure the support of Auda abu Tayi, known (by the British) as the ‘Robin Hood of Arabia’ and the region’s most storied warrior, whose presence helped swell the group’s numbers by about 500 men, most of them mounted.  Lawrence also led a diversionary raid into southern Syria – blowing up a bridge in what is now the Lebanon by way of distracting 3,000 Turkish Army regulars stationed at Maan, east of Aqaba – and seems to have been responsible for the decision to attempt the attack on Aqaba by the overland route.

Auda led the party, by now some 5,000 strong, across the desert to Aqaba, and that was the hard part, not least because only about 1,000 Ottoman troops were stationed in or around Aqaba and most of their heavy weaponry was positioned against an attack from the sea.  An Arab assault on a fort outside the port on 2 July killed or took prisoner about two-thirds of the garrison, and Auda led a camel charge that overran the port’s sparsely populated inland defences on 6 July.  The 300 or so Turkish troops left in Aqaba surrendered without a fight next day.  The battle had apparently cost the attackers two casualties, a claim that can never be verified because all Arab manpower figures derive from some kind of guesswork, and the folklore brownie points that came with the victory added around 2,000 more troops to the Revolt’s cause.

Aqaba – more important than it looks.

Exhausted and hungry after its epic desert sortie, the Arab army was likely to evaporate if it wasn’t supplied in a hurry, and although Lawrence didn’t play much part in the actual fighting around Aqaba he did set off overland for British headquarters in Cairo immediately after the battle.  His effort was rewarded by a very positive reception from British c-in-c Allenby, and a rapid supply operation that kept the Arab army intact.  Allenby agreed to establish Aqaba as the centre for logistic support of the Revolt’s operations in northern Arabia, and Feisal moved his headquarters there in August.

Always worth a picture of a quality First World War general, and Allenby knew his stuff.

More importantly from an Arab (or at least a Sherifian) perspective, news of the victory, routinely exaggerated in the telling, boosted support on the ground for the Revolt’s spread into northern Arabia. From now on, a pan-Arabian post-War state seemed within reach to the Revolt’s leaders, as did the more immediate prospect of driving the Ottoman Empire out of the Arab world altogether by sweeping the Revolt into Syria and seizing the main hub of Constantinople’s power in the Middle East, Damascus.

Beyond the Technicolor legend and our national obsession with Lawrence, Aqaba was a watershed in the history of modern Arab independence, and should be celebrated as that… but it was also a fateful turning point in the relationship between modern Arab independence and the British Empire.

As well as supplying the Revolt, Aqaba would soon serve as the eastern base for British advances through Palestine and into Syria, and the British (as well as the French) were very interested in the post-War economic benefits of controlling Damascus.  British strategists were happy enough to make promises to Arab leaders about pan-Arabic independence – as they were happy to promise almost anything to any ally or potential ally during this war – but they had no intention of relinquishing their economic ambitions in the region.  They were confident that possession of Damascus would secure those ambitions at the post-War conference table, provided they could get to the city ahead of the Arab Revolt.

So capturing Aqaba didn’t just ignite the Revolt in northern Arabia and cement the alliance between its leadership and the British Empire; it turned the unequal allies into unequal rivals.  In the short-term, that set up a race to Damascus between Allenby and the Revolt, and once the War was over it inspired a post-War betrayal of the Sherifian cause that, while routine to the great white powers responsible, would have fateful consequences for the future of the world.  Important stuff, and for my money well worth a high-concept blockbuster – but I guess it’s short on domestic ‘human interest’ for the heritage market, and it’s way less audience friendly than Anthony Quinn on a camel.

24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

24 JANUARY, 1917: Trains and Boats and Brains

If they left it up to me, the Great War’s interesting moments would crop up once a week, no more or less – but you may have noticed it doesn’t work like that.  If I was doing this by date and looking at the end of the month, I’d probably have to talk about minor German attacks near Riga, aftermath actions further south in Polish Galicia and Romania, minor Western Front skirmishes or the developing British offensive in Mesopotamia, but none of that really cuts the mustard just now.

It’s tempting to edge forward a day and settle for the German naval bombardment of the Suffolk coast shortly before midnight on 25 January 1917, but there’s not a whole lot say about it.  Two nights after the new moon, German destroyers (and according to some reports a submarine) used the darkness to launch a drive-by shelling of Southwold and the nearby village of Wangford.  Some sixty shells were fired but most fell in fields or marshes, and although three buildings, including the local police station, were hit and damaged, nobody was hurt.  With carnage elsewhere at something of a premium, the incident made more of a propaganda splash than many of the similar raids that peppered the British east coast during the War years, decried as a dastardly attack on civilians by the British press, and lauded in Germany as a daring sortie against a ‘fortified place’.  Laughable yes, but a lot of propaganda was (and is), and not so far-fetched if you’ve ever attempted a frontal assault on the beach huts at Southwold.

Come friendly bombs…

Enough of this trivia, let’s get on to some derring-do, because on 24 January 1917 the legend of Lawrence of Arabia received its first kick start when the Arab Revolt captured the Red Sea port of Wejh.  This was a turning point in the Revolt’s fortunes, and therefore in the development of the modern Middle East, a process so warped by the First World War that I make no apology for returning so regularly to the scene of the crimes.

When I last left it alone, back in the autumn of 1916, the Arab Revolt had looked as if it was running out of steam (10 June, 1916: The Great Game).  Its four armies – a total of about 28,000 troops, many of them untrained, primitively armed youths or old men – were clustered within striking range of Ottoman-held Medina.  Ottoman forces had meanwhile reopened the railway further north and were being reinforced for an attack on the port of Yenbo, 230km southwest of Medina and defended by some 8,000 troops under the command of Prince Feisal, third son of the Revolt’s leader, Sherif Hussein Bin Ali.  Enter Thomas Edward Lawrence, an academically inclined junior British intelligence officer stationed in Cairo.

As part of a British liaison delegation sent to evaluate the Revolt’s progress, Lawrence arrived at Yenbo in October 1916, and took it upon himself to venture inland for meetings with Feisal, whose army was stationed some distance from the port.  The meetings went well, so well that Lawrence reappeared at Yenbo in early November as Feisal’s friend and official British advisor.  At this point, if you haven’t seen the movie, I should mention that Lawrence was one weird individual, and that nobody has ever been quite able to separate the facts of his military achievements from the myths created by Arab lore and his own, hugely successful memoir.  It can be said without risk of exaggeration that – for a man with no previous experience of or apparent inclination to field operations – he proved an energetic, daring, courageous, often inspiring and occasionally brilliant field commander.

Doesn’t look particularly heroic or weird, does he?

By mid-November, Feisal’s force had been provided with modern armament by the British, but Ottoman forces from Medina had outflanked Yenbo’s forward defences, leaving about 5,000 of Feisal’s troops holding a defensive line in front of the town.  Another flank manoeuvre scattered more than half of these in early December, and Feisal was forced to retreat into the town, but when all looked lost the Royal Navy came to the rescue.  A British monitor – essentially a big raft mounted with heavy artillery – and four smaller vessels took station just offshore, and trained their guns on a heavily search-lit area in front of Yenbo’s walls. The prospect of being pulverised was enough to persuade the attackers to withdraw, and a triumph proclaimed throughout the Arab world in typically heroic terms brought an upturn in recruitment to Feisal’s ranks.

Lawrence had played a lively part in the defence of Yenbo, credited with the rapid and effective reorganisation of its fortifications, and he seems to have been the moving force behind Feisal’s decision to spring a major tactical surprise in its aftermath.  So far, the Arab Revolt had been almost exclusively focused on Medina, the most important Islamic shrine after Mecca and the centre of Hussein Bin Ali’s authority, but on 3 January Feisal’s main force – now swollen to about 11,000 men, half of them mounted – began a march on the garrison town of Wejh, some 300km north of Yenbo.

This was a sophisticated operation, designed to demonstrate the breadth of the Arab Revolt’s appeal but again dependent on British support, as organised through Lawrence.  Feisal’s main army incorporated four distinct tribal groups, and was shadowed by a British troopship converted as a floating supply train.  Two more tribes were represented in a secondary force of a few hundred troops travelling by sea, escorted by four British gunships and a seaplane carrier, for an amphibious landing north of Wejh.  Feisal’s brother Ali meanwhile moved his forces up from positions southeast of Medina to keep the city’s Ottoman garrison occupied.

Given that Wejh held only 1,200 Turkish Army regulars, this was a pretty big sledgehammer for a very small nut.  The garrison at Wejh duly gave up the fight in a hurry, so that by the time Feisal’s force arrived on 24 January the town had already fallen to the amphibious operation, launched several hours earlier.

Not much of a battle and a very easy victory, but the capture of Wejh did wonders for Feisal and the Arab Revolt.  Feisal found his reputation as a warlord elevated to the kind of heights only societies with a tradition of dramatic oral networking can conceive, and maintained his headquarters at Wejh for the next six months.  He used the town as a base to spread the Revolt into northern Arabia with a series of raids against the Damascus railway, a guerrilla campaign that ran rings round Ottoman reserves sent from Medina and Damascus, won growing and faithful support from local populations, and transformed the Revolt from a regional uprising of uncertain importance into the acknowledged emblem of Arab independence.

I know that seems like a whole lot of impact for a few attacks on tracks, but railways really mattered in 1917, and they mattered even more in Arabia.  Without the Hejaz Railway running across hundreds of kilometres of desert, and with the sea lanes dominated by Allied warships, Ottoman troop movements and supply operations in Arabia became snail-like or impossible, leaving rebels free to target isolated and often poorly motivated garrisons.

The lifeline

For all their success in the Hejaz during the first half of 1917, Lawrence and Feisal were keenly aware that the Revolt risked stagnation if it lost momentum and that its hopes of northern expansion depended on British support.  Lawrence also recognised that British plans to invade Palestine threatened to downgrade the importance of the Revolt to the Allies, and that the lands north of Sinai stood little chance of securing independence unless Arab forces reached them before the British Army.  Still a restless and ambitious influence over Feisal, he planned to propel the Revolt forward with another surprise move in the summer.  It would come in the heat of July and it would be a doozer, so feel free to watch this space.

5 August, 1916: Backwards To The Future

A small battle ended a century ago today, around Romani, in Egypt, east of the Suez Canal.  Fought between British imperial forces occupying Egypt and an Ottoman detachment under the command of German colonel von Kressenstein, it ended as a small victory for the British and was subsequently claimed as a much larger success by propaganda on both sides.  Though not a particularly big story, then or now, the Battle of Romani marked the last time during the War that the Suez Canal came under direct military threat, and as such it was a significant turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.

The Suez Canal was hugely important in 1916, and had been since its completion in 1869. In an age when long-distance, intercontinental transport depended on the sea, it provided an enormous short-cut for economic and strategic communication between Europe, southern Asia and the Far East, which was otherwise obliged to undertake the long, arduous journey down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope.  Above all, in the geopolitical atmosphere of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Suez provided a fast way for the British Empire to stay in touch with its most important possession, the vastly profitable jewel in the crown, India.

All this is basic stuff, and was known to every schoolboy in Europe (let alone every military strategist) in the decades before 1914, as was the fact that any British involvement in a European war would be motivated by a desire to maintain or expand its global empire.  So it came as no surprise to anyone that the moment war broke out, and in spite of the fact that the only direct military threat to Suez – the Ottoman Empire – remained neutral, British control over Egypt was strengthened with defence of the Canal in mind.

A few months later, when the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the British responded by turning military occupation of Egypt into a formal protectorate (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab). Although the sudden, shocking escalation of manpower requirements in other theatres kept British military presence in Egypt well below the desired level, while troubles in Libya and the Sudan kept most of the few available troops away from Suez, the Canal faced little serious threat in 1915. Germany and Austria-Hungary faced similar pressure on manpower supplies, and had no secure land route for providing support to the Ottoman Empire, which anyway spent most of the year piling every possible resource into the defence of Gallipoli and made no serious effort to attack the Canal zone after the failure of a raid in February 1915.

By the middle of 1916 the situation had changed. The fall of Serbia had opened up a land route for German support to Constantinople and beyond, and by early 1916 the British were hurriedly strengthening their Suez defences in the belief that the Turks were massing an army of some 250,000 men in Palestine for an attack on the Canal.  That Palestine was in no way capable of supporting an army of that size, in terms of available food, water and facilities, seems to have been ignored by British planners, a measure both of the all-round geographical ignorance that still characterised imperial adventures a century ago, and of the pessimistic tendency to over-estimate German capabilities that had taken hold of Allied commanders by 1916.

Not to worry, the release of troops from Gallipoli meant new Egyptian c-in-c General Murray (previously chief of staff to Sir John French on the Western Front) was able to muster 14 divisions of troops when he took command in March 1916… except that most of them were quickly transferred on to France, so that by the summer his strength was down to four divisions, or about 50,000 men.  By way of counteracting this imagined numerical disadvantage, he had extended the British position into the northern, coastal part of the Sinai Peninsula, constructing roads and light railways to three new trench lines some 30km beyond the Canal’s east bank, thus blocking the most direct route of attack from Palestine.  In line with the standard doctrine of ‘forward defence’, Murray also sent detachments further up the coast towards Palestine, where they destroyed water stations, built their own roads and pipelines and fought off Turkish raids, before eventually establishing a base at Katia.

This seems a good place for a map, so here's a particularly useful one stolen from the web.
This seems a good place for a map, so here’s a particularly useful one stolen from the web.

In fact, Colonel Kressenstein’s ‘Desert Force’,  some 3,600 men in 1915, had grown to a force of about 16,000 Turkish Army and Arab fighters by the following spring.  His plan was to stop traffic through Suez by attacking and occupying its east bank, and by June 1916 his troops were drawn up along the Sinai-Palestine border, waiting for German reinforcements.  German machine-gun and anti-aircraft units, along with12 modern aircraft, had arrived by the end of June, and Kressenstein moved forward in early July, reaching the main British position in northern Sinai – some 18,000 men deployed either side of the town of Romani – by the middle of the month. There he paused, and for a couple of weeks the two armies faced each other, British field commanders bemused by the inactivity and considering an attack on the attackers, Kressenstein waiting for the last component of his German reinforcement package, heavy artillery.

The British were still wondering quite what to do next when, before dawn on 4 August, Kressenstein outwitted cavalry patrols to launch a surprise attack on lines south of Romani, taking part of the position before becoming bogged down.  British counterattacks, led by ANZAC forces, were gradually retaking the line on the morning of 5 August, when water shortages forced Kressenstein to withdraw towards El Arish, and attempts by mounted British units to cut off his retreat were thwarted by a sandstorm.  By the end of the day the Desert Force had suffered an estimated 4,000 casualties and lost the same number of prisoners, against 1,100 British losses.

Though a mere skirmish by Western Front standards, Romani signalled a fundamental shift in the military position around Egypt. While Kressenstein remained at El Arish through the autumn, the British at last recognised the relative weakness of any Ottoman threat to Suez and pursued their forward defence policy with increasing confidence.

Shortly after Romani, Murray received permission to make a steady, if cautious, advance along the northern Sinai coast.  By the end of the year he had forced Kressenstein back into Palestine and taken El Arish without a fight, and by early 1917 a supply route had been established all across the Sinai Peninsula, including 350km of new roads, 575km of railway and about 500km of water pipes from reservoirs in Egypt.  By the New Year, with Kressenstein based on Gaza and Murray able to call on about 75,000 men for operations on the Sinai frontier, the stage was set for an invasion of Palestine that would, along with the invasion of Iraq and involvement in the Arab Revolt, provide the foundation for British redesign of the post-War Middle East.

Otto von Kressenstein lost most of his battles, but still enjoyed a rep as a cunning desert fox. Face like that, who's going to argue?
Otto von Kressenstein lost most of his battles, but still enjoyed a rep as a cunning desert fox. Face like that, who’s going to argue?

On that basis alone – and like anything that adds, however slightly, to anyone’s understanding of why the modern Middle East ended up in such a mess – the Battle of Romani seems worth posterity’s attention, but the battle’s location and aftermath also say something about the nature of great power imperialism a century ago.  It’s fair enough to accuse the British Empire of greedy self-interest in its wartime treatment of the Middle East, but it’s too easy to see the invasions of Palestine and Iraq as parts of grand design aimed, depending on your point of view, at extending Britain’s control over the world or ensuring the long-term servitude of indigenous peoples.

Like almost every major actor in every great shift of every kind throughout human history, the British reversed into their invasion of Palestine.  Just as in Mesopotamia, their forces in Egypt were so desperately concerned with protecting perceived necessities (oil in Iraq; India through Suez) that they kept extending their defensive perimeters until they found themselves on the attack.  From then on their efforts, successful and otherwise, can be called opportunistic and greedy, but they were never part of a premeditated masterplan.

10 JUNE, 1916: The Great Game (Of Two Halves)

A hundred years ago today, the Ottoman garrison of Mecca surrendered the holy city to rebel forces led by Sherif Hussein Bin Ali, ruler of Islam’s second holy city, Medina. This was the first great, highly symbolic victory of what is generally known as the Arab Revolt, proclaimed a few days earlier and sponsored by British agents based in Egypt.

Orthodox western history describes the Revolt as an expression of both British geopolitical interests and of a nationalist, anti-Ottoman drive for independence by the Arab peoples of the northern Middle East.  History as seen from within the Middle East takes a more mixed view, with some modern commentators dismissing the Revolt as the self-interested work of the British and their collaborators. These are seen as a small minority of disgruntled Arab chieftains, educated in Western values, most notably nationalism, and greedy for the material and political fruits of Western-style national power.

I’m a white, middle-class Brit, so I mention the latter, relatively extreme theory without any kind of judgement, rather as a reminder that we all operate subjectively when history informs the politics of the present.  With that in mind, and apologies if my attempts at dispassion clash with your passions, here’s a quick overview of the Revolt’s opening months, beginning with the basics.

The Arab Revolt was an uprising by native peoples of western, central and northern parts of what was then loosely described as Arabia (stretching north as far as modern Syria) against the Ottoman Empire, which had governed the region since the late sixteenth century.  Ottoman rule was largely superficial by 1914. Most of a tribal population of some 6 million, roughly half of them nomadic, owed allegiance to local chieftains rather than Constantinople, and most of the chieftains were in no position to rebel.

To the north, Syrian overlord Nuri-es-Shalaan was too close to the Turkish heartlands to risk any provocative action, and to the south – east of Sinai – the Shammar Confederacy under Ali Rashid was dependent on its role as the Empire’s principle supplier of camels. Though hostile to Ottoman rule, the central Arabian Wahabi people (led by Ibn Sa’ud) were too isolated to make rebellion either practicable or necessary, and the same applied to tribes near the Red Sea coast in the southwest. In the far east of the Empire, also isolated from potential allies, natives of the floodplains around the Tigris and the Euphrates, known to the contemporary Europeans as Marsh Arabs, were basically hostile to anyone infringing on their territories and spent the War years as an elusive, often aggressive third party in the battle on the Mesopotamian Front.

The only overt pressure for Arab independence came from the relatively fertile Hejaz region, where Sherif Hussein BIn Ali controlled almost 1,000km of the central Arabian Red Sea coastal zone. The Hejaz extended as far north as the tip of Sinai, and was connected to the Ottoman heartlands by the Medina-Damascus railway. It also included the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, so that the Sherif (who claimed direct descent from the Prophet) was an important figure in the Islamic religious hierarchy, and a natural focus for secret independence societies founded in the wake of the Young Turk government’s pre-War attacks on Arab autonomy. Hussein established close contact with one of these – the important, Damascus-based Al Fatat group – through his third son, Feisal, in early 1915, and relations between the Hejaz and Constantinople became very tense after the government’s mass executions of Al Fatat membership in the spring.

The spellings might take some working out, but here's the Hejaz.
The spellings might take some working out, but here’s the Hejaz.

Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, had meanwhile been in touch with the British, informing then Egyptian c-in-c Kitchener of his father’s desire for independence in early 1914 and maintaining contacts through 1915. By early 1916, with the British chasing support while building up to an invasion of Palestine from Egypt, plans for an uprising had been laid and British rifles were being shipped to the Hejaz across the Red Sea. By May, the Ottoman government, aware of preparations, had initiated a blockade of the Hejaz coast and begun readying troops in Damascus for a move south – but played by the rules of what was still a phoney war by announcing that the troops were intended to reinforce German efforts in East Africa.

Feisal ended the phoney war by declaring rebellion on 5 June, and he was joined by some 30,000 untrained fighters for an opening attack on the Turkish garrison at Medina. It failed against the skilled defence of veteran Turkish commander Fakhri Din Pasha, but rebels did cut the railway north. Further south, another ‘Sherifian’ force under Hussein took Mecca on 10 June, after three days of street fighting had dislodged the 1,000-strong garrison, and a few days later a third force, supported by a Royal Navy seaplane carrier, took the surrender of 1,500 Turkish troops at the port of Jiddah. During the next month two more garrison ports – Ragebh and Yenbo – fell to the rebels, and from late September, when (Moslem-crewed) British artillery from Egypt joined Sherifians to take the town of At Taif, Medina was the last remaining Ottoman stronghold in the southern Hejaz.

So far, so good for Hussein, who styled himself Sultan of the Hejaz (later upgraded to King of the Hejaz) and placed his sons in command of an Arab Army’s four main bodies. Two large hosts, each of about 9,000 men, occupied areas to the south and southeast of Medina; further south, a mixed force of native Arabs and Egyptian Army regulars (up from the Sudan) mustered about 1,500 men; and Feisal commanded another 8,000 men in positions inland from Yenbo.

On the other hand, while Hussein appeared content to rest on his laurels, many of his troops were very young or very old, few were in any way trained, their numbers and positions were subject to random fluctuations, and they had very little artillery support. In October they were driven further south by attacks from the Medina garrison, and that reopened the railway north to Turkish reinforcements. When a British liaison group reached Jiddah later that month, it found the Revolt losing momentum and troops drifting away from the Arab Army.

Worried that repayment on their investment in the Hejaz – which amounted to minimal military support and a promise of full independence – had peaked, the British liaison group sent a junior officer inland to make contact with Feisal’s force. The officer concerned was Thomas Edward Lawrence, a scholarly, Welsh-born Arabist destined to make a difference.

The meeting of Lawrence and Feisal marks the beginning of a story – part military epic, part myth – that is enshrined in British heritage lore and movie history. It’s for another day, and so is most of the controversy around the Revolt as a whole.

At this point, confined to the southern Hejaz, the Sherifian uprising was a fairly typical example of the diplomacy practiced by major belligerents seeking wartime allies. The actions of the Sharif, motivated by ambition and ready to believe British promises of its fulfilment, hardly differ in principle from those of leaders elsewhere. The Ottoman Empire, Italy, Romania, Greece and a host of other states had already fallen for, or were in the process of falling for, what amounted to bribes from one side or another, and British promises to Hussein were no more or less dubious than those given to most of them. So for now the Revolt was just another case of need meeting greed, relatively insignificant to the majority of Arabs, to the course of the War and to the future of the region as a whole.

That would change. Lawrence would help create a new intimacy between Britain and the Revolt, help turn it into an altogether more powerful influence within the Arab world, and help guide it towards what can only be seen as a premeditated betrayal by its British sponsors. In other words, the Revolt was a cynical, greedy business, and was comprehensively stitched up by the British… but not necessarily at the same time.

9 MAY, 1916: Big Deal?

You’ve probably heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and if your life in any way involves the Middle East you’ll definitely have a handle on it.  Agreed a century ago today, and accepted in principle by the relevant Allied governments on 16 May 1916, it is notorious as documentary proof that Britain and France intended to carve up the Middle East between them after the First World War.

Actually called the Asia Minor Agreement, the document was the fruit of six months’ discussion and negotiation between Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat and politician, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat and lawyer.   These were relatively obscure civil servants, and it is a measure of what is generally seen these days as imperial arrogance on the part of Britain and France that they were given responsibility for drawing a new map of the Middle East, to be imposed if and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

The deal looks disgraceful now, but seemed logical enough, unexceptional even, to anyone operating by the imperial standards of the nineteenth century, and has an internal logic in the context of First World War realpolitik.  Victory was likely to see the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Triple Entente powers – Britain, France and Russia – all harboured longstanding ambitions when it came to partitioning the cadaver, as did their relatively new ally, Italy.  If an arrangement could be made while they were all friends, why risk the danger and inconvenience of post-War squabbling?

The Russians weren’t involved in Anglo-French discussions because the French and British had promised Constantinople to the Tsar in March 1915, in return for a free hand further south, and Russia was the only candidate for control of the Kurdish and Armenian territories to the northeast of the Ottoman Empire.  Italy was left to its own devices in Libya (Ottoman North Africa wasn’t covered by the Agreement), but was otherwise expected to do as it was told and took no part in the discussion process.

As drafted in 1916, and mapped out below in its original pomp, the Agreement gave France effective control over Syria, the Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia (the coastal area north of Syria). Britain was to take control of Mesopotamia as far north as Baghdad, along with effective economic dominance over Palestine and what was then called Transjordan. Italy’s designated ‘sphere of influence’ was Turkish Anatolia, Jerusalem was to be governed by an unspecified international authority, and those parts of Arabia not already taken were to remain independent, though under British or French supervision.  The latter can be seen as a nod to arrangements already made with Arab leaders, as outlined a few months back (26 December, 1915: Boxing Clever), or as an indication that neither Britain nor France saw much plunder in Arabia’s barren tribal deserts.

pix3_091614

Even in 1916, imperial partition of territories to which the only credible claim was greed were not good for the popular or international reputations of empires.  That was one good reason for keeping the carve-ups secret; another was the opportunity for double-dealing provided by secrecy.  Just as the Treaty of London between the Entente and Italy had been kept secret, hiding Italy’s greed and her new allies’ tendency to give things away twice, so the Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept under wraps, enabling the British in particular to make promises they had no intention of keeping to the leaders of the Arab Revolt.

Like the Treaty of London and other secret international deals, Sykes-Picot was exposed to the world by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia, planting an entirely justified mistrust of Anglo-French motives in the minds of Arab leaders that affected the latter stages of the fighting in the Middle East, soured relations at the Paris Peace Conference, made a liar of TE Lawrence (of whom more next year) and has never really gone away.  Exposure of the agreement also managed to outrage Zionists, coming as it did only three weeks after the Balfour Declaration (of which, again, more another day).

In November 1918, a year after Sykes-Picot went public, the British government dumped it.  The French had little choice about signing an Anglo-French Declaration that officially superseded the Agreement, promising to encourage and supervise the development of stable sovereign states in the region.  Though partly designed to improve the British Empire’s international image as the War ended, and to ease negotiations with Arab leaders, the Declaration was also seen in London as an opportunity to wriggle out of its commitment to accepting French supervision of the Syrian region (marked ‘A’ on the map).

Whatever the motives behind them, the Declaration’s fine words made no difference to anything in practice.  Though Russian territorial ambitions had disappeared with the Revolution, and Italy’s claims were overruled at the Paris Peace Conference, something very close to the simple, Eurocentric convenience of the Sykes-Picot map was established in the post-War Middle East.  Arab attempts to achieve full independence were met by a combination of military intervention and diplomatic finesse by the British and French, who imposed spheres of influence in the guise of ‘mandates’. Mandates were, in theory, territories being nurtured for full independence by their European guardians on the authority of the new League of Nations, but the planned fate of one British mandate, Palestine, was left conveniently vague.

I’m leaping ahead into areas that deserve a closer look, and they’ll get one, because this story’s going to run and run.  As for Sykes-Picot, of course it was a bad idea, and of course the Middle East is still suffering from the imposition of artificial borders – but no agreement or declaration by European belligerents in 1916 was more than a minor tactic in a Great Power game that presumed territorial and economic acquisition as the just rewards for a victorious warfare gambit.

The European powers were always intent on carving up the Middle East if they defeated Turkey, but neither Britain nor France saw Sykes-Picot as more than a standard opening gambit, a blueprint to be modified according to circumstance or opportunity.  So for all its well-earned notoriety, the Agreement was nothing special or substantial – and nothing like the defining moment an angry posterity likes to portray.

26 DECEMBER, 1915: Boxing Clever

One reason I bang on about the First World War, possibly the only good reason, is because it’s crammed full of world-changing stuff that gets buried by posterity. Some of the world-changing stuff – the torrential flow of money from Europe to the USA springs to mind – was treated with great seriousness by contemporaries but is largely ignored by a modern commemorative industry fixated on social history, at home and in the trenches. Other wartime developments with serious, long-term global implications were seen as small matters at the time, at least relative to the collision of Europe’s Great Powers, and have been left in the corner ever since. Today’s anniversary is a cracking example of the latter, because on Boxing Day 1915 the British Empire signed the Treaty of Darin with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud was the Arab head of the conservative, puritanical Wahabi sect, and tribal ruler of the isolated, central-Arabian Sultanate of Najd. Based in Riyadh and, like every Arab in the Middle East, loosely administered subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Wahabi regarded most of the other Islamic tribes in Arabia as heretics, particularly the Sharifians of the Hejaz region, but their mortal enemies were the Shammar (or Rashidi) of southeastern Syria.

The Wahabi and the Rashidi had been fighting for control of central Arabia for almost 80 years by 1914. The advantage had swung back to the Sa’udi side since 1902, when the 21 year-old Ibn Sa’ud had led a small Bedouin force to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidi, ending more than a decade of exile. One of modern history’s more wily fundamentalists, Ibn Sa’ud had spent the next decade or so securing and expanding his restored emirate, so that by the time the British and Ottoman Empires faced each other at war across the Middle East in late 1914 he had become one of several important Arab leaders worth cultivating by both sides oxycontin high.

From the British point of view, the treaty was a small but locally important piece of a diplomatic jigsaw being put together in the Middle East.  The jigsaw’s twin aims were to foster a revolt of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and to protect vitally important oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Its principal architect was Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s chief political agent in the region and a man whose pivotal role in the creation of the modern Middle East deserves a blog of its own.

Cox had been wooing Ibn Sa’ud (and any other Arab leaders deemed likely to oppose Ottoman rule) since before the Ottoman Empire had entered the War in late 1914. The Wahabi were not expected to play a major military role in any future Arab revolt, but the Sultanate of Najd occupied a geographical position – between the Ottoman heartlands to the north and coastal sheikhdoms to the south and east that were already British protectorates – that could not be left unsecured.

Cox had already attached his agent, Captain William Shakespear, to Ibn Sa’ud’s retinue by January 1915, when a fresh outbreak of hostilities between the Wahabi and the (Ottoman-sponsored) Rashidi culminated in the Battle of Jarrab, a tribal skirmish that ended in a definite but inconclusive victory for Ibn Sa’ud. Shakespear’s death during the battle raised Britain’s stock with Ibn Sa’ud, and Cox was able to arrange a truce between the Wahabi and the Rashidi, essentially an acceptance of Sa’ud’s ascendancy and the basis for the Boxing Day treaty signed on the island of Darin (also known as Tarout).

The treaty reflected Arabia’s tribal culture and smacked of 19th-century colonial diplomacy. In making the house of Sa’ud a protectorate of the British Empire, to be defended if attacked, it was required to define the Emirate’s geographical boundaries for the first time, in effect planting the concept of European statehood in the region (a charge that can be levelled at British diplomacy across the Middle East during and after the First World War). Cox also agreed to pay Sa’ud a monthly stipend of £5,000 and, importantly as it turned out, to provide regular deliveries of surplus arms, ammunition and other supplies from Britain’s expanding Middle East Command.

In return, Sa’ud declared for the Allies – not too hard given that the Rashidi were sponsored by the Ottoman Empire – and agreed not to attack Kuwait, Qatar or other existing British Protectorates on what was known as the Pirate Coast. On the other hand, he made no guarantees of military involvement against the Turks, and refused to rule out an attack on the Sharif of Mecca, who was emerging as Britain’s most important ally in the region (and who will have his day in the sun when we get to Lawrence of Arabia).  Bottom line, though the treaty satisfied basic British strategic needs in a wartime context, and was as such an understandable undertaking, Ibn Sa’ud secured a fabulously good deal with implications extending far into the future.

A map seems like a good idea at this point, so here it is, shamelessly nicked from the Internet and removable at the drop of a complaint.

 

Arabia_1914

 

What became known as the Arab Revolt would get going in 1916 and would, for better or worse, have an enormous impact on both the War and the future Middle East – but the Wahabi kept their powder dry and restricted active participation to a few raids against Turkish forces to the north.  Meanwhile Ibn Sa’ud stockpiled his British money and supplies, concentrated on securing new frontiers the British had legitimised, attacked the Rashidi whenever possible and played a long game.

By the end of the War, the Wahabi were established as the major power in central Arabia, and Sa’ud, always careful to cultivate the continued support of his British allies, was ready to embark on a campaign of expansion.  He attacked the Rashidi in 1920, and had all but wiped them out by the time he  secured British agreement to the annexation of much of Kuwait in 1922.  In 1927 a new alliance with Britain,  the Treaty of Jennah, recognised Sa’ud’s claim to the Sharif of Mecca’s Hejaz region, and he had completed its conquest by 1931.  The following year his expanded kingdom, renamed Saudi Arabia, was recognised by the League of Nations, and the rest may one day be quite an important chunk of history…

Beyond apologising for any poor choices among the crazy mess of spelling and naming variations that plague any Anglophone writer dealing with Middle Eastern history, I don’t think this post needs much explanation.  Just mention it the next time someone tells you the First World War changed nothing.

13 DECEMBER, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge

I know a lot of people would rather spend more centenary time with the suffering on the Western Front, but when it comes to the long-term impacts of the First World War I’m an unrepentant ‘Easterner’. Looked at from 2015 (rather than, say, 1925 or 1965), a lot of the War’s secondary fronts turned out to be harbingers of momentous, long-term economic and geopolitical change.  The War’s effects on, for instance, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa or the Far East strike me as more in need of modern attention and understanding than frontier squabbles between western European states – and the same applies in spades to the Middle East. That’s my excuse for marking the end, exactly a century ago, of the Affair of the Wadi Senab.

It wasn’t a big battle, hence its contemporary dismissal as an ‘Affair’, and like most military clashes between industrialised armed forces and tribespeople, it wasn’t especially distinguished.  On the other hand it was something of a turning point in the process that culminated in British conquest of, and responsibility for, the Middle East.  Here’s how.

A year ago, I posted about the centenary of the formal British protectorate over Egypt (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab).  No point in repeating myself at length, so check back or take it from me that Egypt was important to the British Empire, partly as a base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations but principally as the location of the Suez Canal.  As the primary conduit between Britain and the wealth of India, Suez was inevitably a target for Ottoman attacks during 1915, but they had been on a small scale and British colonial forces had seen them off without much trouble.  By late in the year the Canal hadn’t come under serious direct threat, but Egypt’s skeleton British occupation force, drained by the demands of other fronts, was facing a mounting problem from the Senussi movement in Libya.

Loyal to the descendants of 19th-century Islamic reformist Sheikh es Senussi, the Senussi were based Cyrenaica, the region of modern Libya centred on Benghazi, and had been trained as fighters by Turkish Army officers during the Italo-Ottoman war of 1910-11. From late 1914 their leader, Sidi Ahmad es Sherif, accepted German and Ottoman support for small-scale operations against British Egypt and French Sahara.  After Italy entered the war in mid-1915, lack of supervision by Italian colonial authorities freed Sidi Ahmad to attempt something more serious.

Led by Ottoman and German officers, seven battalions of Senussi warriors (an estimated 5,000 fighters) invaded across Egypt’s western frontier in late November 1915.  Supported by border tribes and equipped with machine guns and light artillery, they had forced the British to abandon lightly defended coastal positions at Sidi Barrani and Sollum by the first week of December, at which point the British decided to fight back.

A Western Frontier Force was cobbled together from a horse artillery company, three British territorial battalions, one of Sikhs, a few units of Australians back from Gallipoli and some armoured cars borrowed from the Royal Naval Air Service.  Based on the coast at Mersa Matruh, and led by Major-General Wallace, the WFF was charged with eliminating the Senussi, and elements of the force attacked about 300 Senussi fighters at Wadi Senab, some 300km west of Alexandria, on 11 December.

After inflicting a few dozen casualties and driving the Senussi from the wadi (which is a river bed valley that often, as at Senab, forms an oasis), the British were prevented from further advance next day by a well-coordinated counterattack.  The counterattack was scattered by Australian artillery, but the exhausted British column gave up its half-hearted pursuit on 13 December and returned to Mersa Matruh.

The Affair had cost the British 25 dead and 82 wounded, against an estimated 300 Senussi killed, but although it could be counted a victory it hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage on the invaders.  Bad weather prevented further operations by the WFF until Christmas Day, when it attacked Senussi units near the coast at the Wadi Majid, just west of Mersa Matruh, but the result was essentially the same.  The Senussi suffered a few hundred casualties and lost a little local prestige, but again escaped to regroup.

Reinforced, the Western Frontier Force would drive Sidi Ahmad and his army far to the west during 1916, but the relatively tiny Senussi force would remain a thorn in the side of British Middle Eastern operations into early 1918, eventually keeping some 35,000 British imperial troops and 60,000 Italian colonial personnel occupied in snuffing out guerilla raids from French Saharan territory.

While this long, obscure and largely forgotten campaign in the Western Desert was getting fully underway, early in 1916, the British were going on the front foot elsewhere in Egypt.  Expecting a fresh Ottoman attack on Suez, theatre c-in-c General Maxwell took further steps to ensure the Canal’s security.  Temporarily reinforced by divisions transferred from Gallipoli, Maxwell sent advanced troops beyond the Canal’s east bank, establishing trench lines 10km into Sinai, and made major improvements to supply lines between Cairo and the front.

This was ‘forward defence’, the same tactic that had drawn British Indian forces deep into the mire on the Mesopotamian Front.  For now, Maxwell and Murray (who took over as theatre c-in-c in March 1916) were prevented from major advances by a steady reduction of strength, as the Gallipoli divisions moved on to other fronts – but by May British forces had occupied Romani, 30km east of Suez, and by the end of the year they had established a forward base at El Arish, a hundred kilometres into Sinai and menacing Turkish positions in Palestine.

The thin end of the wedge was in.  With hopes – soon to be realised in spectacular fashion – of igniting an Arab revolt throughout the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern provinces, the British Empire was now poised to take a fateful step into what is generally known as the Palestinian Front.  The world is still trying and failing to deal with the consequences.

07 NOVEMBER, 1915: Russian Landings Menace Teheran

 

There’s no need to saddle this post with a clever title. A simple rendition of the headline does a perfectly good job of grabbing the modern reader’s attention. Back in early November 1915, on the other hand, the arrival of a Russian invasion force on what was then Persian soil caused relatively little international stir, not least because very little information about the place reached the west quickly, if at all. Partly for the same reason, and partly because it doesn’t fit easily into a sepia-tinted commemoration package, you could hardly say modern Iran’s involvement in the First World War is well known now. Well I’m no expert, but I’ve done a little research into the subject in my time, so just in case the modern history of Iran ever becomes relevant to the wider world, here’s a sketch.

Persia in 1915 formed an independent, but economically undeveloped and internally unstable buffer between two empires, Russia and British India. An Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 had arbitrarily divided the country into spheres of influence, giving Britain a free economic hand in the south and Russia the same in the north. While the British maintained prewar control over oil supplies from the southwest of the country through a network of financial and military support for local authorities, the Russians ensured order in the north by stationing thousands of troops in the region, and a central, neutral zone became an arena of intense competition between Russian, British and German agents.

The outbreak of war gave German elements in Persia a chance to undermine Anglo-Russian dominance by gaining the support of the 18 year-old Shah Ahmed Mirza and tribal leaders in the regions. British operations in southwest Persia in support of Mesopotamian Front forces – which included occupation of the port of Bushire in October 1914, and of the inland pumping station at Ahwaz the following spring – provided German ambassador Prince Heinrich of Reus with plenty of ammunition for a propaganda campaign that was backed by lavish spending on arms and pensions. By autumn 1915, British influence in the south was restricted to a few garrison enclaves, and Germany controlled 15 of the 17 Persian banks, and in early November, when the Swedish-officered Persian gendarmerie agreed to operate under German control, Persia seemed on the brink of an alliance with the Central Powers.

Enter the Russians, as always able to spare a few thousand men for a bit of imperial business. An expeditionary force from the Caucasus of 6,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, all under the command of a General Baratov, sailed across the Caspian Sea in a ramshackle armada of small ships and landed at the northern Persian port of Phalevi (then called Enzeli) on 7 November. According to contemporary Russian sources another 5,000 troops had already arrived, but this has never been confirmed and anyway makes no difference to the fact that no other force in the region could begin to match Baratov’s army as it began a slow westward advance.

The Shah, who had been careful to remain on good personal terms with all sides, promptly cooled relations with the Germans. He declined a German offer of protection, and remained in the capital while the chief German agent, Wassmuss, coordinated small actions by the gendarmerie and other irregulars intended to delay the Russian advance.

General Baratov didn’t need much encouragement to delay. Although he soon pushed Wassmuss and his forces west to the Mesopotamia border, his vastly superior force was held there until the following March, when he crossed the frontier to reach Karind, some 200km from Baghdad. His next advance, in June 1916, was halted by Ottoman forces and driven back into Persia, but by then the British South Persia Rifles had begun restoring order in the south of the country and any danger of an alliance with Germany had evaporated.

The South Persia Rifles was a force of native troops raised by the British with the Shah’s permission and organised along the lines of the British Indian Army. By the end of 1916, SPR commander Sir Percy Sykes could call on almost 4,000 troops in five brigades, including 450 cavalry, and had quelled most opposition in the British sphere. With the Russians in passive control of the north, Persia remained relatively stable until late 1917, when fallout from October Revolution ushered in a fresh period of unrest in the country, of which more another day.

I mention this small part of a small campaign as another reminder of how much of the modern Middle East was shaped by the actions and ambitions of the Great Powers during the First World War.  Lest we forget…

11 JANUARY, 1915: A Small Great War

What with the January blues, the occasional misery that comes with supporting Tottenham and a cold that kept me out of the best Sunday league game this season, Poppycock hasn’t got the units to get overly creative with one of the First World War’s duller weeks. Instead, and as a change from stressing the War’s essential modernity, let’s give a passing mention to the action known as the Battle of Muscat, which reached its climax on 11 January 1915. A sideshow within a sideshow, fought for the security of a tiny Persian Gulf state, it was a very small battle and a reminder that, outside Europe, a whole lot of warfare was taking place in nineteenth-century conditions.

The port of Muscat is now the capital of Oman and the main city of the governate of Muscat, a coastal enclave that behaved like a separate state in the years before the War. Its ruler since 1913, Sultan Taimur, presided over a mediaeval system of government and was the fourth successive Sultan of Muscat to prosper as a client of the British. Control over Muscat was strategically important to the British Empire, first and foremost as a vital source of oil for British machines, but also as the centre of a trade in small arms that linked India with East Africa and had once put rifles in the hands of many a rebel against British rule. So the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on Muscat, a British political agent was positioned close to the Sultan, a small garrison of British Indian Army troops protected the port, and plenty of money was provided to pay the Sultan’s expenses.

Speaks for itself…

Even before the outbreak of war in Europe, Muscat’s wealth had provoked angry resentment in Imam Salin bin Rashid al Kharusi, ruler of poverty-stricken Oman, theoretical overlord of Muscat and, when it suited him, loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire. By late 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers, a jihad against the British issued from Constantinople, and German financial assistance had persuaded the Imam to mount an attack.

The key to defending Muscat from inland attack was the fort at Bait Al Falaj, which lay about a mile from the coast and guarded the river and valley leading to the port. The Sultan’s small tribal army was stationed there, along with a detachment of Indian Army regulars. After this combined force repelled a preliminary attack in October 1914, six companies of infantry and two machine guns were sent from India as reinforcements, most of them Sikh troops, so that British strength in Muscat was up to 1,000 men by the time the Imam made his bid for conquest in January.

During 10 January, in a scene straight out of a Fifties colonial movie, large (if indeterminate) numbers of Omani warriors gathered a mile or so from the fort. Variously armed with swords and rifles, protected by shields made of East African hippopotamus hide and working up a noisy collective fervour for jihad, they attacked at two the following morning, charging the fort’s outposts and seizing a piquet to its northwest side.  British and sultanate forces launched a counterattack at dawn, and by noon they had systematically driven the Omanis back into the hinterland.

British Indian troops would go on fighting their mini-campaign in defence of Muscat throughout the War, but the victory at Bait Al Falaj kept things quiet for a time. The loss of some 300 dead, against a handful of casualties among the defenders, forced the Imam to rethink his tactics and weaponry options on twentieth century lines before contributing further to the ongoing Ottoman campaign, sponsored by Berlin, to disrupt British interests in the Middle East.

What should have been called the Battle of Bait Al Falaj was renamed the Battle of Muscat so the British public – far more informed about the world’s physical geography than modern audiences – would know roughly where it had taken place.  Even in 1915 it was seen as a relatively quaint example of the colonial upheaval triggered all over the world by Europe’s Great War, and as a suitably old-fashioned affair. On the other hand it was also a product of Britain’s, and in particular the Royal Navy’s, determination to secure oil supplies, and the modern world has been living with that particular strategic novelty ever since.