A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 7, 2014

World War I +100: A Preview of Coming Attractions

By this time it's probably clear that I plan to note major events in the opening days of the Great War in the Middle East as we come to their centennials (with some leeway for weekends, holidays, and when several things happened on different fronts). I also plan to look at the interests, war aims, strategic calculations, and strategic planning of the various sides.

Since I have several posts in preparation  but none ready just yet, I thought I'd leave you for the weekend with a preview of coming attractions.

I hope to keep it interesting. For Monday, I plan to discuss a forgotten little operation in November 1914 so obscure  that even I didn't know about it. One hint: it's in Yemen.

On the war plans front, everybody knows that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, came up with the strategic concept of the Gallipoli campaign, with far too well-known results. It's less remembered that his counterpart at the War Office, Lord Kitchener, championed a different concept: a landing of British forces at Alexandretta (İskenderun), to push inland and seize the Ottoman railroad connections, cutting the (still-incomplete) Baghdad railway as well as  cutting Ottoman communications with Damascus and the Holy Cities of the Hijaz. T.E. Lawrence became an early enthusiast for this idea, but nothing ever came of it. One of the great "What if?" questions is, could it have worked better than Gallipoli? (Let me amend that to "Could it have worked?," since Gallipoli didn't work at all.)

Be honest; if you're a Westerner or an Arab thinking about World War I in the Middle East, you think of fighting in an arid landscape. Maybe you think of films like Lawrence of Arabia or Gallipoli, or photos of the Mesopotamian campaign. You probably don't think of snow. The photo on the left is of Ottoman ski troops. Of all the fronts of the Turkish war effort, the long slog in the snows of the Caucasus may have been the worst. Turkish casualties, military and civilian, were high; the Russians suffered as well, and you know about the Armenian tragedy. Worse still, it began the day before the Russians declared war, and it continued even after Russia left the war with Germany after the Revolution, and after the Mudros Armistice as well. I'll deal with the opening moves of that campaign, the so-called Bergmann offensive, sometime next week.

So stay tuned.

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