Category Archives: Middle East

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.

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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.

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

5 NOVEMBER, 1914: Regional Redesign, Part 1

As mentioned in what I can’t help calling my last post, Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war a hundred years ago today.  During the four years of hard fighting that followed, this particular conflict was regarded as a ‘sideshow’ in Britain, seen by many as an unwarranted distraction from the war in Europe.  Popular British history has been treating it the same way ever since.

Big mistake.

British heritage and remembrance don’t completely ignore the Anglo-Turkish war, but they are only really interested in the Gallipoli campaign and Lawrence of Arabia.  Gallipoli was a bona fide military disaster, a classic example of lions being led by donkeys, a horror story for the troops that made much of the fighting in France look tame, and an exercise that did little or nothing to shorten the wider war.  For all its well-used dramatic potential, the campaign’s greatest importance lies elsewhere, in its enormous effects on national self-consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, whose men did much of the fighting, and in its galvanising effects on the career of Kemal Ataturk, the overwhelmingly dominant figure in modern Turkish history.

Meanwhile Lawrence provides an amazing story, and the Arab Revolt he helped lead played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, but the tale is usually referenced with little regard for context.  By context I mean the British Empire’s conquest, often slow and painful, of pretty much the entire Middle East.

On what we usually call the First World War’s Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, British imperial armies fought their way north from Egypt towards Turkey, and northeast from Basra, up the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates to Baghdad.  In the process and in the aftermath, they provoked and then controlled a comprehensive geopolitical redesign of the region to suit British and French strategic requirements, effectively creating the Middle East we know today.

You’d think, given how much trouble it’s been causing ever since, that this uncontroversial truth would be well known to all of us, but I keep surprising literate, generally well-informed people with the news.  On current form I can’t see the heritage re-run having much to say about it, so I will.

Fighting on the Palestinian Front didn’t get going until 1915, and I’ll get to it in detail then, but a British attack on Mesopotamia was primed and ready to go by the time war with Ottoman Turkey broke out.  With naval units already patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates), and five thousand troops from India waiting to go ashore, the operation was intended to be a limited affair.  Its sole stated aim was to protect vital oil supplies from Abadan, on the Persian bank, by seizing the Ottoman port of Basra on the opposite bank.

General Barrett, in command of the Indian Army force and under direct orders from the British Indian government, had been instructed to take Basra as a form of ‘forward defence’, in other words as a preventive strike against a likely base for future Turkish aggression.  This concept, arguably mirrored in US foreign policy since 1945, turned out to be a recipe for deeper entanglement, while London’s willingness to leave the theatre under Indian government control for eighteen months, using only limited Indian Army resources, turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Basra was taken without much trouble on 23 November, and forward defence prompted an advance upriver to take Qurna, at the junction of the two rivers, in early December.  These easy victories, along with the defeat of a counterattack by Ottoman regulars and Arab tribesmen the following April, blew forward defence out of the water as far as new commander General Nixon and the Raj government were concerned.  By mid-July Nixon had pushed on another hundred or so kilometres up both rivers to take a couple of lightly-defended Turkish bases, at which point he decided that Baghdad, 400 kilometres further on, was a feasible target.  Assured by Nixon that his force was equipped for the job, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge backed the idea, and though the London government wouldn’t provide Nixon with non-Indian resources, it closed its eyes and let the offensive go ahead in early September 1915.

Nixon’s force, led in the field by General Townshend, was anything but equipped for the job.  It lacked sufficient artillery, modern weapons, medicines and modern transport, while the absence of railways or usable roads in the hinterland left it completely dependent on supplies sent by boat from Basra, a port far too small and primitive for the amount of traffic required.  Hampered by a chronic shortage of boats and by failure to reform a chaotic logistic system, repeatedly ordered forward by a blindly optimistic Nixon (who spent most of his time in Basra), advancing Indian Army troops faced regular Turkish forces, the guerilla warfare of local ‘Marsh Arabs’, searing heat, floods, disease and mirage as their supply lines lengthened.  Ghastly failure beckoned.

Townshend’s force met no serious resistance until late November, but by then it was desperately short of everything.  Arms, ammunition, mules, engineering equipment and medicines were all running out, and manpower was dwindling in a warzone where casualties could only be treated by sending them back to Basra in a boat, so that most wounds were a death sentence.  When Turkish forces made a determined stand at Ctesiphon, just forty kilometres from Baghdad, Townshend could only retreat to the fortress of Kut, where survivors were soon surrounded and besieged by four divisions of Turkish regulars.

The siege of Kut, which ended with Townshend’s surrender the following April, was a resounding propaganda success for the Ottoman Empire that forced London to get properly involved in the Mesopotamian campaign.  By the end of the summer break in operations (nobody fought in temperatures above fifty Celsius) British Army officers were in charge of some 150,000 men in the theatre, modern equipment was arriving , Basra was being rebuilt and sweeping reforms were transforming the supply system.  The opening phase of the war in what is now Iraq had ended.  The British were no longer blundering into conquest as a form of forward defence gone mad.  They had a plan.  It was a big, ambitious plan, and it’s a story for another day.