R. Johnson u.a. (Hrsg.): The Great War in the Middle East

The Great War in the Middle East. A Clash of Empires

Johnson, Robert; Kitchen, James E.
Routledge Studies in First World War History
Abingdon 2019: Taylor & Francis
342 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nazan Maksudyan, Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität

This book is centered around the multiple campaigns waged by and against the Ottoman Empire, in the so-called ‘Middle Eastern theater’ situated in Anatolia, the Balkans, Egypt, and the Levant region. It provides a largely military and diplomatic history of the war in several regards – either from the perspective of the decision-makers in imperial headquarters or that of the soldiers in the front – together with giving some voice to home-front actors such as religious communities, artists, and the local population.

The fifteen chapters in the volume are equally divided into three subsections, entitled rather broadly as ‘strategy’, ‘experience’, and ‘context’. The five chapters in section 1 mainly deal with broader imperial issues by focusing on military strategy and foreign policy-making. Robert Johnson provides a comprehensive account of the British strategy in the Middle East during the First World War, focusing on the issues of allocation and use of raw materials and manpower during the war and the larger colonial goals of Britain. Sneha Reddy sheds light upon France’s military and political considerations in the Middle East during the war. Dimitrios Giannikopoulos explores the foreign policy dilemmas of Greece between staying neutral (to satisfy the country’s desperate need for peace) or entering the war for longer term interests, such as securing powerful allies and prospective security of the state. Peter Lieb outlines the political and military cooperation between Germany and the Ottoman Empire and provides a detailed account of the expedition in the Caucasus in 1918 as part of the ‘greater Middle East’. Sadia McEvoy delineates the main lines of British propaganda, stressing “the benefits of British imperialism” (p. 137) as opposed to the system of military domination, tyranny, and exploitation of the Young Turks.

Section 2 moves to the front experiences and narratives of combatants in the Middle East. The part opens with Chapter 6 by Kaushik Roy providing a military-strategic account of on the British-Indian ‘Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force’, together with touching upon the morale and discipline of the Indian troops. In the following Alev Karaduman analyzes the ego-documents produced by the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in Gallipoli in order to assess their reflections about Ottoman soldiers. Himmet Umunç provides an analysis of T.E. Lawrence’s controversial book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Paul Latawski offers a military account of the ‘integration of firepower’ into British artillery tactics on the basis of an analysis of the Third Battle of Gaza. The last chapter of the section by James E. Kitchen is the most original contribution in the section, situating the “Jewish Legion” that served in the the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) during the latter stages of the war within the new historiography of paramilitary organizations and the post-war violence.

As the editors of the volume note, the last section, “examines a series of wider contextual issues” (p. 18) that are not necessarily in dialogue with each other. The each authors deals with a particular ‘context’ within their individual fields of research. Mario M. Ruiz focuses on the creation of a ‘wartime state’ through martial law, that clamped down on political dissent and transformed all aspects of social life. John Slight discusses the range of reactions to the Ottoman declaration of ‘religious war’ proclaimed on 14 November 1914 among Muslims in multiple regions across the British Empire. Gizem Tongo’s chapter – the only contribution in the volume that relies on Ottoman sources and provides an Ottoman perspective – brings to light state control over artistic patronage as opposed to historiography that emphasizes? painters’ relative autonomy to experiment with the visual language of war. Justin Fantauzzo analyzes fictional writing on the war in the Middle East through three less-known works. The last chapter of the section by Roberto Mazza provides an analysis of the role of the Catholic church in Palestine, focusing on the tension between/ the problematique? ‘Latinisation’ vs. ‘Arabisation’.

Robert Johnson and James E. Kitchen pay respect to the relevance of the ‘global turn’ in the historiography of the First World War in their introduction and provide a detailed account of recent scholarship. The Centennial has led to several expansions within the field of research in the past decade, including the expansion of the geographical focus, as the present volume reveals. Furthermore, recent scholarship on the First World War often employs a transnational approach (instead of national/imperial frames); embraces a global social history perspective that goes beyond political and military history; and reconstructs the environmental history of the war, touching upon diseases and epidemics, shortages and famines, and animals. The individual chapters in The Great War in the Middle East, on the other hand, do not really embrace these transnational, environmental, and social history approaches. Almost all the focus on a single imperial actor – the British perspective is overwhelming with 9 chapters, while France, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire are dealt with in only one chapter each – and the preoccupation with domestic ‘decision-making’ renders the analysis self-enclosed.

It should be appreciated that the editors make specific references to the scholarship on the Armenian Genocide and admit that its complete absence in the volume is a weakness. The new research on the Armenian Genocide, as well as on the First World War, increasingly advocates the necessity of situating the genocide within the historiography of the war, as well as part of European, if not global, history. The editors’ ‘justification’ of the subject’s exclusion, on the other hand, has denialist undertones that needs to be highlighted. They refer to a number of well-known denialist authors and bring in the official Turkish state position stressing an ‘Armenian revolt’ (p. 10). It is also quite problematic to define the Armenian Genocide as a “theater” or a “battlefront” (p. 21), that needs to be researched as part of “military operations on the Caucasus front”.

Johnson and Kitchen emphasize in their Introduction that it is “often erroneously assumed that the causes of all modern Middle Eastern conflicts lie in the First World War” (p. 4). They argue against this “teleological assumption”, claiming that while the First World War brought about significant changes in the region, territorial and otherwise, the political and economic instability reigning in the region for the past hundred years – as reflected in the last decades of wars, autocratic takeovers, and military coups – cannot simply be considered as an outcome of the war. Their position is diametrically opposed to Eugene Rogan’s argument, who stresses that the legacy of the post-war settlement, the partition, cynical manipulations, broken promises and ruthless violence of the European empires still characterize the region today.1 Despite great potential of this investigation on the significance of the war for long-term historical processes, the volume’s editors or contributor do not elaborate further on the subject.

1 Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: the Great War in the Middle East 1914-1920, London: Penguin Press, 2015.

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