- Neil Faulkener
In the early 20th Century the Ottoman empire was in decline. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia, Bulgaria declared itself independent and Crete became Greek. In 1911 the Italians invaded Libya and by early 1913 they had also lost the First Balkan War, with Albania and Macedonia being seized by a coalition of Greeks, Bulgars, Montenegrins and Serbs. This led directly to the military coup that established the triumvirate of the Young Turks who, after a bit of chicanery, turned to Germany for military assistance.
The strategic position of the Empire in 1913-14 was not wonderful. To the north Russia had designs upon the Caucasus. The British were determined to maintain access to the Suez Canal, coaling stations on the Arabian coast to keep the fleet at sea and, with the emergence of the oil fired super Dreadnoughts, access to the oil of the Persian Gulf. The French had long held designs upon the Levant and Syria. Germany was really the only European power whom they could trust – and of course to Germany the opportunity to threaten Britain’s most direct route to India was attractive. So also was the prospect of starting a Jihad – and the Ottoman Empire, as custodian of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem had the potential to deliver that.
As a military ally it was also potentially powerful; the Anatolian infantryman was tough, resourceful and resilient. Unfortunately, the administration of the Empire was corrupt and in a state of chaos and permanent near collapse, which drove some of the German staff to distraction. The empire was held together by a railway – which at one point ran from Berlin to Basra – and this enabled the movement of troops and materiel relatively quickly from one front to another.
In late 1914 Britain declared Egypt a protectorate and the Turks attacked the Russians in the Caucuses, achieving nothing and losing an army in the process. At the same time Lt TE Lawrence arrived as part of the intelligence mission in Cairo. In February 1915 the Ottomans crossed Sinai and launched an attack on the Suez Canal. Although this was defeated it was a rude awakening. The Gallipoli disaster provided further indication that the Ottomans were capable and competent on the battlefield. Following the evacuation, stung by the acerbic question of whether the Army in Egypt was there to defend the canal, or whether the canal existed to defend the Army, the British and Anzacs started to push across Sinai, initially to establish a defence that actually protected the canal.
Advancing armies always suffer the problem of outpacing their logistic tail. This is exacerbated in desert warfare by the need to provide water for men, horses and camels. The advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was therefore as much a feat of civil engineering as military action, with a railway and water pipeline being built. The defender’s advantage of occupying oasis and wells means that any attacking force has a very finite time to either win or abandon the assault. Poor staff work and inadequate command demonstrated this, twice, at Gaza. The repeated failures led to the appointment of Allenby in place of Murray in 1917.
By this time Lawrence had started working with the Arabs in Hijaz. The Arab Revolt had started of its own accord, but the nature of Arab, particularly Bedouin, society was that of a feudal loyalty to tribe and terrain far stronger than any concept of an Arabian nationality. However, Lawrence was able to persuade Feisal of the possibility of an Arabia and Syria free of the Ottoman yoke and under Arab control. This, combined with military support, weaponry and hard cash led to the Arabs attacking the railway lines and associated military outposts. These attacks provided success, vengeance and plunder for the Arabs while providing the Ottomans with an intractable problem. A long railway is vulnerable throughout its length and has to be defended in its entirety. A small raiding force, if able to move freely through the terrain of neighbouring tribes, can strike at will and yet evade contact. The railway drained Ottoman manpower and, when damaged, prevented the deployment of a mobile force. The tempo and effectiveness of Arab operations increased with success, leading to the astonishing capture of Aqaba in July 1917. This enabled the Arabian Army to extend its operations north to Syria, threatening the rear of Ottoman forces in Palestine as well as isolating those further east.
By this time Allenby was ready, and he struck at Gaza and captured it in November and then pursuing the Ottomans to Jerusalem and beyond. By now Lawrence was becoming aware of the various British and French schemes for the post-war Middle East, none of which included Arab rule. The strain on him was appalling and is well captured by the author. As the war ended none of the fault lines which exist in the region were solved. “In consequence the region has been, and remains today, riven by sectarianism, violence, intractable conflict and untold human suffering.”
The author is a research fellow at Bristol and was a director of the Great Arab Revolt Project in Jordan, which spent 6 years excavating the line of the Hijaz railway, verifying the accuracy of Lawrence’s memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He knows his stuff and writes clearly and engagingly. The pre-release edition that I was sent had no maps, but at no time was I disorientated. I hope the cartography matches the quality of the text, which manages to encompass the strategic without losing sight of the experience of the individual soldier. The accounts of actions are gripping – particularly Allenby’s pursuit from Gaza which repeatedly demonstrated the power of (horse-mounted) cavalry to dislodge infantry once a breakthrough has been achieved. So too are the horrors of bombing and the stress of lonely command.
This book should be read by anyone with an interest in or opinion on soldiering, strategy of the Middle East. It is a masterpiece.