Category Archives: Ottoman Empire

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.

22 MAY, 1916: The Blind Bully

It’s not my business here to provide a narrative of the First World War.  I’m more interested in shining a small light into the many nooks and crannies largely ignored by one-track posterity, and in joining up some of the forgotten threads that link that world with ours.  That’s why, with the great powers of 1916 in the midst of vast military enterprises all over Europe, I’m heading for a small but geopolitically formed campaign in the Sudan, or to be more precise in the remote (and these days infamous) western province of Darfur.

A century ago today, an Anglo-Egyptian force met and defeated the fighters of Ali Dinar, Sultan of Darfur, at Beringia, near the regional capital of El Fahser.  Before I get into details of the battle itself – which was an old-school colonial affair defined by a huge technological gap between the two sides – it’s worth taking a look at why, at a time when manpower shortages for ambitious offensives elsewhere were a major issue, the British saw fit to send some 2,000 well-equipped and supported troops to the back of beyond.

One basic reason is that, from start to finish, Great Britain viewed the First World War in a global, imperial context.  The Empire’s first act on the outbreak of war had been to send naval units to protect imperial oil supplies coming out of Mesopotamia, and by 1916 it had time and again proved willing to commit resources to securing or expanding its overseas possessions.

This was partly a product of attitude, in that a century of largely unchallenged global supremacy had left British ruling elites accustomed to imperial success and inclined to assume that it would remain the index of geopolitical power in the post-War world – but it was also a matter of circumstance.  Britain had more resources available than any other European empire; its prosperity was more dependent on overseas trade; and it wasn’t required to focus every effort on defeating a homeland invasion, or threat of invasion.  In contrast, wartime France and Belgium regarded empire primarily as a source of manpower against the invader on the Western Front, Germany had never seen overseas possessions as more than bargaining chips in a European power struggle, the Netherlands and Portugal were strictly minor military powers, and Italy’s imperial pretensions were little more than optimistic fantasies.  Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were meanwhile concerned only with the preservation or expansion of their centralised land empires.

The second, more specific reason is lodged in the history of the region, giving me an excuse to provide some distant background to its modern troubles, and to give one granite-minded icon of militarism through the ages his first mention of the War to date.

If you’ve ever stayed awake through much of the movie, you may know that Charlton Heston (aka General Charles Gordon) met his death at the hands of Sudanese rebels, led by an Islamic sect, in January 1885, shortly before a belated British relief attempt reached his besieged headquarters at Khartoum.  Gordon’s ill-fated expedition from Egypt had marked a reversal of the British government’s previous decision to abandon the Sudan as worthless. The change had been forced by popular and press outrage at the perceived loss of prestige involved, and Gordon’s death sealed the renewed commitment.

The commander of the relief force, future war minister General Kitchener, began a process of destroying rebel enclaves in the Sudan that was complete by the end of the century, leaving the British in theoretical control of a vast, wild and endemically lawless nation.  It was also a largely Moslem nation, making its people particularly amenable to Turkish agitation once Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire.

Policing the Sudan was the primary wartime responsibility of the Egyptian Army – a force that was (like Egypt) nominally independent but was trained and led by British officers, and equipped with obsolete British weapons.   The task kept some 14,000 Egyptian, Sudanese and Arab troops occupied throughout the War, along with a battalion of British Army infantry (and attached artillery) based at Khartoum.  Helped by a relative boom in the Sudanese economy – moribund and chaotic in 1914, but boosted by the supply needs of British forces in Egypt and East Africa – they generally restricted insurgent activity to isolated incidents.  Before 1916, the noisiest of these had been the arrest of Ottoman emissary Elmaz Bey for inciting uprising among Egyptian troops at Port Sudan in 1915, but the prospect of a concerted Islamic rebellion in the Darfur region posed a more serious threat.

Dafur – the land of the Fur people – covered some 400,000 square kilometres of western Sudan, bordered by French Chad to the west and Libya to the north.

The Sudan, 1885–1916
Northwest Africa, 1885–1916

The leader of the region’s Tama tribe, Ali Dinar, had accepted British rule at the turn of the century and been appointed British agent for Darfur, but had since run his unloved province as an increasingly autonomous fiefdom, treating the British authorities in much the same way other Ottoman outposts in North Africa treated the regime in Constantinople.

The arrangement suited both sides until war between the empires brought British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt and the Sudan in 1914 (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab), ending their nominal status as Ottoman provinces.  This, along with grievances about French incursions from Chad and British quarantine regulations applied to livestock, prompted Ali Dinar to seek Turkish support against the infidel.

In touch with Turkish officers aiding the Senussi uprising in Libya (13, December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), Ali Dinar apparently accepted their assurances that Darfur would become an autonomous Islamic state after an Ottoman victory, and definitely accepted a shipment of 250 rifles from the Senussi.  Aware of the latter, the British Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, opted to nip rebellion in the bud by sending a punitive expedition from Khartoum to Darfur .

The Western Frontier Force (WFF) assembled by Wingate was powerful enough for the job.  Some 2,000 infantry supported by six light artillery pieces, a dozen machine guns, eleven motorised trucks and an RFC contingent of four BE2 biplanes, marched against perhaps 3,000 poorly armed and trained Fur regulars, backed by about 2,000 tribal spear-carriers and 800 cavalry.  Defeating Ali Dinar was not expected to be problem… but getting to him was another matter.

The Sudan’s western railhead at El Obeid was almost 700km from Khartoum, and reaching the regional capital of El Fasher meant travelling another 650km across dry, inhospitable country, with survival dependent on the efficient seizure of precious water holes. The WFF marched northwest from El Obeid on 16 March 1916, moving from water hole to water hole, using aircraft to scare away Fur fighters posted for their defence.  The advance eventually reached the approaches to the capital on 21 May, and the following morning, shadowed by Ali Dinar’s mounted forces, it came up against defenders entrenched beyond the village of Beringia, some 20km short of El Fasher.

What followed was, aircraft aside, straight out of the nineteenth-century imperial playbook.  The WFF’s infantry moved forward in a square, in the style of the Napoleonic Wars, and when an unauthorised advance by a British Camel Corps company (that’s cavalry on camels, obviously) occupied a ridge overlooking the village, Ali Dinar’s 4,000 fighters abandoned their trenches and launched an attack.  Though unquestionably brave, this was not a smart move, and during a 40-minute exercise in slaughter the Fur were cut down without getting close to the British square, leaving 261 dead and 95 seriously wounded on the battlefield and removing many more casualties when they fled.

That afternoon the British moved up and entrenched outside El Fasher, where they were attacked at three in the morning by about 700 Fur cavalry and 300 infantry, but starshell (flares) illuminated the battlefield for machine-gunners and the attackers were driven off in less than fifteen minutes.

Ali Dinar had abandoned the capital and withdrawn to the southwest by the time the British entered El Fasher next morning, and on 29 May he sent word to WFF commander Lt.-Col. Kelly that he intended to surrender and renounce his sultanate.  At that point operations by both sides were brought to a halt by the rainy season, and by the time it was over, in October, Ali Dinar had shown no sign of actually surrendering, forcing Kelly to send a detachment in pursuit.

A small British force eventually attacked and defeated the last coherent Fur force in early November, and on 6 November Ali Dinar was tracked to his hideaway and killed, effectively ending the campaign.  The result was formalised on 1 January 1917, when the autonomous province of Darfur was absorbed into the Sudan and placed under direct British administration.

Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.
Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.

The British weren’t primarily responsible for Ali Dinar’s rebellion.  It was a product of the self-interested ambition typical among regional warlords within the crumbling Ottoman Empire, fuelled by the genuine (and religiously inspired) support of his followers and ignited by false Turkish promises of post-War independence.  Nor could the British know that, a century after they crushed the Fur people’s clumsy bid for self-governance, the independent status of Darfur would still be a running sore poisonous with slaughter and deprivation.

On the other hand, particularly given the tendency of British heritage industries to portray the Empire as an adventure seen through British eyes, the casual manner in which Britain ran roughshod over the Sudan in general, and Darfur in particular, is a breathtaking reminder of the self-centred thinking behind the ‘civilising mission’ of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European empires.

Britain didn’t want to control the Sudan and had no use for it.  It was only there because a nationalist press and public behaved like fans of flat-track bullies, forcing Gordon’s expedition and everything that followed, including 1916’s pointless suppression of nascent national awareness in Darfur.  Needless to say, the campaign aroused no controversy at the time, but these days its long-term effects are painfully obvious, and peddlers of heritage are letting down history by ignoring it.

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.

28 MARCH, 1916: Infested Waters

A few weeks back, while chatting about a Russian offensive on the Caucasian Front (16 February, 1916: The Walrus in Winter), I mentioned operations along the Black Sea coast.  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t been giving the Black Sea the attention it deserved, given that it was a war zone from the autumn of 1914 until after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 – so I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back there, and here it is.

On 28 March 1916, Russian torpedo boats in the Black Sea destroyed a Turkish munitions depot and ten merchant ships (most of them sailing craft).  Though this was a bumper haul and received some publicity in the Allied press, it had no great significance for either the Black Sea or the War in general, but it does sum up the first 18 months of the campaign quite nicely.  I’ll try and do the same.

I’ll start with why the Black Sea was a war zone, and a map (stolen, and used before) makes it fairly obvious.

Ottoman-Empires-rail-system-1914-1024x890The Russian and Ottoman Empires had been competing for decades to control the Caucasus region, and Russia’s ultimate territorial fantasy had long been to break into the Mediterranean by seizing the Dardanelles Straits, so the Black Sea was a natural area of contest and both sides had plans for a naval campaign before 1914.

They were modest plans. The Turkish Navy had been undergoing rapid expansion, but was still desperately short of modern warships and could barely cover its commitments in the Mediterranean, while the bigger, more modern Russian Navy was primarily concerned with defending St. Petersburg from German warships in the Baltic. Both sides therefore envisaged an essentially defensive campaign in the secondary theatre of the Black Sea, focused on disrupting the other’s supply routes, and the Russians expected – with some justification – to dominate proceedings.

Russian prospects looked even better when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British government decided to hold on to the two modern dreadnoughts it was building for Turkey – but a few days later the Turkish Navy suddenly acquired two modern German warships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  They weren’t as big, powerful or deterrent as dreadnoughts, but once renamed (as the Yaviz Sultan Selim and the Midilli) and deployed in the Black Sea they were the fastest ships in the theatre, and only Russia’s five slow, pre-dreadnought battleships could match the Goeben‘s firepower.

The captain of the Goeben, Wilhelm Souchon, was nominally under Turkish command but – like ‘military advisers’ as we know them today – was actually working for Berlin and committed to pursuing German strategic interests.  In control of what was, for now, the region’s ultimate deterrent, its big guns an obvious threat to Constantinople, he enjoyed considerable autonomy and exerted an understandably powerful influence on Ottoman naval policy.  Once Turkey was committed to joining the Central Powers, at the end of October 1914, Souchon’s priority was distraction of Russian forces from other fronts, and he secured navy minister Djemal Pasha’s agreement to announce Turkey’s belligerent status by leading a surprise raid on the Russian naval bases at Odessa and Sevastopol.

The attack failed to do any lasting damage to ships or facilities, but it did convince the Russians to deploy their old battleships as a defensive unit.  During the next few months they operated only as a group and, apart from an inconclusive, 14-minute skirmish in November, the threat of their combined guns was enough to keep Goeben at bay.   Major warships on the both sides undertook occasional sorties as coastal raiders or escorts, but avoided each other, and the campaign quickly developed a pattern similar to that emerging in the Baltic.  Largely fought by small craft, it centred on disruption of enemy supply lines with minefields, backed by nuisance attacks on enemy coastal installations or harbours.

With more ships, better ships and better crews (their training much improved since a lousy performance against Japan in 1904–05), the Russians held the advantage from the start.  They had already laid more than 4,000 mines in the Black Sea by Boxing Day 1914, when the Goeben hit two of them and suffered serious damage.  The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a shipyard big enough to handle the Goeben, so repairs took months rather than weeks.  Although able to limp out for brief escort missions in February and March, by way of keeping the Russian fleet cautious, the battlecruiser was not fully operational until May 1915, and by then nothing an increasingly frustrated Souchon could do was going to shake Russian dominance.

Most Russian minelaying and commerce raiding – by destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats – was concentrated on the port of Zonguldak, some 200km east of the Bosphorus and the sole entry point for vital Turkish coal imports.  By the middle of the year the Turks had lost dozens of colliers, and before its end coal supplies had been effectively throttled, creating fuel shortages all across an Ottoman war effort heavily distracted by the demands on land and sea of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Russian strength was steadily reinforced by new destroyers and submarines, and Russian raids on the Turkish coast were a regular occurrence throughout 1915, the Turkish Navy lost a cruiser during its only coastal raid of the year, in April, and lost the Breslau for seven months after it hit a mine off Constantinople in July.   The first of Russia’s new dreadnoughts, the Imperatrica Maria, reached the Black Sea at about the same time, and in theory its arrival cemented Russian dominance of the theatre – but in practice it made little difference at first.

Like its counterparts all over the world, the Russian Navy didn’t like taking risks with dreadnoughts, or for that matter with any other big, expensive ships.   Although Berlin ignored most of Souchon’s incessant calls for reinforcements in the Black Sea, two German U-boats had been sent there in the early summer, and the threat was enough to prompt a Russian ban on all offensive operations by major units from June.   With more U-boats expected (six had arrived by March 1916) the ban stayed in force until October, and when Russian offensive patrols resumed they took few risks.

The arrival of the second Russian dreadnought, Imperatrica Ekaterina II, in December didn’t immediately change anything.  With the blockade of Turkish coal supplies running smoothly, and the Ottoman Navy less and less of an offensive threat,  the campaign was still dominated by the ‘mosquito’ warfare of smaller craft into early 1916 – but by March the Russian Black Sea fleet was in the process of finding a new role.  On 4 March, Russian fleet units supported troop landings on the Black Sea coast at Atna, and in April they would perform the same task on a larger scale as General Yudenich took the major port city of Trabzon.

In a theatre complicated by Bulgaria’s alliance with Central Powers in late 1915 and Romania’s in mid-1916, the minelaying and raiding of commerce war would  continue and intensify, but from now on the Russian fleet would also perform an important army support role, transporting and landing thousands of troops during the next two years.  The turkey shoot enjoyed by Russian torpedo boats in late March was just a small propaganda event at the time, but with hindsight it was the firework display that marked the end of the campaign’s first phase.

I’ll finish with a tease of a ‘what if’.  In May 1915, just before fear of U-boats triggered a burst of caution, the Russian high command toyed with sending the Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus to support the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles. The idea was soon dropped (as unlikely to make much difference to the disaster brewing on Gallipoli), but if imagining where we’d be with a different history floats your boat, have fun picturing the twentieth century with Russian warships all over the Mediterranean.

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…

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.

8 APRIL, 1915: Wars Within War

In a world riddled with national, ethnic and religious divisions, big wars can serve as a convenient cover story for smaller ones. That was as true in 1915 as it is in 2015. A few months into what we call the First World War (and off the top of my head), the merry-go-round of the Balkan Wars was still spinning, Japan was still pursuing its war of conquest with China and the Boers of South Africa were still fighting the British Empire. Meanwhile the diplomatic desperation of warring European powers was stoking warlike rivalries all across the globe – from Greek territorial disputes with Turkey to the naval arms race among South American republics – and the distractions of their masters were encouraging ethnic, national or religious have-nots to rise for their causes within empires great and small.

For one particular set of rebellious have-nots, the Armenians of the Caucasian region in northeastern Turkey, 8 April 1915 marked the beginning of a terrible end. On that day, the Ottoman Army and government began enforced deportations of Armenians from the Caucasus, officially inaugurating a series of measures that have been variously and controversially described as genocide or simple resettlement, but are generally known in Western Europe as the Armenian Massacres.

According to neutral estimates, between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were living in Ottoman Turkey at the start of the War, and another million or so were living across the frontier with Russia. Unlike their traditional enemies, the Kurds, and other large ethnic minorities inside the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had no recognised homeland, but the majority were scattered near the Russian border. The Russian Empire had been encouraging a surge in Armenian nationalism since the turn of the century, arming and supplying a number of minor revolts before 1914, and trouble erupted in the region after the Ottoman government refused demands for an Armenian national congress in October 1914.

Most moderate Armenian leaders fled to Bulgaria at this point, but the more extreme nationalists crossed the frontier and formed a rebel division using Russian equipment. This force invaded in December, and killed an estimated 120,000 non-Armenians in an extended rampage around the northeastern Caucasus while Ottoman forces were busy preparing and carrying out their own offensive into Russia. As the campaigning season of 1915 got underway on the Caucasian Front, armed Armenian rebels were still at large in the frontier zones and the Ottoman government in Constantinople, with some justification, regarded the region’s Armenians in general as solidly pro-Russian. The deportations that began on April 8 were intended to clear the battlefront of hostile elements.

Armenians in the Russian Army, fighting the mutual enemy.

Whether or not the government intended this as the beginning of an attempt at genocide – a matter of searing controversy to this day, and not something I’m fit to judge – that’s essentially what happened. By June all non-Muslim civilians were required by law to take up ‘duties’ near the Empire’s battlefronts, but this was doublespeak for relocation to areas under firm military supervision, and exemptions effectively restricted the order to Orthodox and Protestant Armenians in the Caucasus. Deportations continued until late 1916, and deportees were often appallingly treated. Many were given only hours to prepare for long journeys without transport or protection to resettlement regions that were usually infertile or poorly supplied. Thousands of Armenians died of starvation or exposure, thousands more were killed by hostile (usually Kurdish) tribesmen, and there is no doubt that at least some Ottoman officials colluded in the slaughter in search of a ‘final solution’ to the Armenian question.

At least some Ottoman soldiers were quite happy to pose with their victims.

This particular small and nasty war swiftly became part of the wider War as news of the deportations was released through Armenian contacts with the Western press, especially strong in the USA. Entente propaganda went on to claim that the ‘massacres’ had killed a million Armenians, while the Ottoman regime blamed supply and transport shortages for 300,000 deaths. Modern estimates put the figure at around 600,000, but are essentially a matter of educated guesswork. The same is true of the numbers killed in subsequent ethnic warfare around a fluctuating Caucasian Front, which resumed in 1917 and continued into 1918, and of the thousands more who died trying to return to their homes after an exhausted Ottoman regime and a new Armenian Republic signed the Treaty of Batum on 24 May 1918.

The Massacres were big news in the States, and still are.

The Armenian Massacres, or whatever you want to call them, are hardly forgotten history, ongoing controversy about numbers and motives has seen to that.  But if you’re inclined to dismiss the catastrophe as a footnote to the First World War, it’s probably worth remembering that overall Armenian casualties in this nasty war within a war were on a very similar scale to those suffered by the entire British Empire.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.

map_1914

From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.