The Great War and the Middle East

The Great War and the Middle East

A Strategic Study

Rob Johnson

Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, 400 pages

Book Review published on: June 23, 2017

On 13 November 1918 the British battleship HMS Agamemnon steamed through the Dardanelles and anchored off the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. The moment was hugely symbolic. The Great War was over and the Agamemnon and the squadron it led represented Britain’s triumph over the Ottoman Empire. The battleship also served as a reminder of the trials the British had overcome in winning their war in the Middle East. Three years earlier, the Agamemnon had served in the ill-fated Gallipoli operation, which, like the contemporaneous Siege of Kut, had ended in embarrassing failure. Yet, in the wake of these twin debacles, the British recovered, redoubled their efforts, and eventually triumphed against the Ottomans. If, as historian Rob Johnson argues, the First World War was an imperial war, then the British Empire was a clear victor.

It was a hard-fought victory. Johnson’s book The Great War and the Middle East approaches it by offering a strategic overview of the critically important but often overlooked war between the Ottoman Empire and the allies. In doing so, the author argues this struggle during war was far from being a sideshow (as it is often seen in other histories of World War I). The British, in particular, saw the war in the Middle East as crucial to preserving their empire. For Russia, the Ottomans entry into the war meant a choke hold on any aid that came from the Western allies. For France, the anticipated collapse of the Turkish-led Empire meant a chance to establish a French presence in the eastern Mediterranean. And for the Ottomans, of course, the war was an existential conflict.

Johnson provides a clear and readable account of a very complex series of campaigns. His goal is to offer a study which “illustrates the interactions of decision-making with the prevailing concepts, context, and changing conditions.” In particular, he demonstrates that strategic designs, like tactical planning, rarely survive first contact with the enemy or events. He opens with a useful account of the nature of grand strategy and the rival interests each major power brought to the conflict. He follows that with a description of battles, engagements, and diplomatic maneuvers that range from the German efforts to incite anti-British jihad in Afghanistan, to the trench warfare in the Sinai, to T. E. Lawrence’s famous raids on the Hejaz Railway, and to the frozen battlefronts of the Caucasus. Johnson’s coverage of the various sub-theaters vary; he descends to the battalion level when describing actions such as the attempted relief of Kut in 1915 or the breakthrough at Gaza two years later. In other cases, such as the Battle of Sarikamish, where the English-language sources are limited, the account is more broad brush. Throughout, Johnson relates the course of the war in the Middle East to the more well-known fighting on the Western Front. The author does an especially good job of showing the legacy of the war that includes numerous follow-on wars.

In exploring a theater overshadowed by events on Western Front, the author does the historiography of the Great War real service. Among the many books that mark the centennial of the First World War, this is one with enduring value and is highly recommended.

Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas