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The Story of a Misunderstood War | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A horse drawn wagon transports poppy wreaths representing the 85 units of the British Expeditionary Force passes Buckingham Palace in London as it travels from Hyde Park Barracks to Wellington Barracks in London on August 10, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JUSTIN TALLIS

This year thousands of ceremonies across the globe will mark the centenary of the First World War, an occasion that has already inspired hundreds of new books and countless essays. While in military terms the Middle East was regarded as a sideshow in the Great War, one could argue that it is there that the conflict still continues with the greatest intensity.

[inset_left]The First World War in the Middle East
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Hurst Publishers, 320 pages
London, 2014[/inset_left]

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s fascinating book is one of the best military histories of the Middle-Eastern “sideshow.” It introduces the reader to the inside world of the military strategists and political leaders who ran the war effort and tried to shape its aftermath. In the process, the author also corrects some of the misconceptions that Westerners have about the how and why of the war in the Middle East and its geopolitical outcome.

Like other wars, the First World War has been the subject of numerous narratives, often contradictory. That is no surprise because, as the famous adage has it, the first casualty of war is the truth. It is also a fact of life that the victors always end up writing history, while the vanquished nurse their chagrin in silence.

the first world war book

Even before the guns had fallen silent, the First World War also inspired a number of myths, some of which continue to this day in a variety of contradictory versions. Some of those myths have for decades exercised significant influence on public opinion and policies in many countries, especially in the Middle East.

One myth was that of a new world of nation-states living in peace and harmony in the context of world governance. That myth was concocted by US President Woodrow Wilson, who turned the concept of “self-determination” into an almost absolute value of international life. Had his romantic vision been realized, the war would have ended with the emergence of more than 100 new nation-states.

However, that process was to take a further half a century that included countless other conflicts, not to mention a Second World War.

As the guns fell silent, Wilson boasted that “at last the world knows America as the savior of the world!” His promise was to help “nations” build a new life on the debris of shattered colonial empires. In the Middle East, many minorities started calling their newborn sons “Wilson” in tribute to the US leader and his promise of “statehood for all nations.”

However, Wilson soon fell victim to US domestic politics and was scripted out of events. The US did not even ratify the Versailles Treaty. It took Americans some time to realize that empires do not bow out of history so easily. This is how Edward Mandell House, a diplomat and political ally of Wilson, put it before leaving for Washington: “I am leaving Paris, after eight fateful months, with conflicting emotions. Looking at the [Versailles] conference in retrospect, there is much to approve and yet much to regret. It is easy to say what should have been done, but more difficult to have found a way of doing it . . . Empires cannot be shattered and new states raised upon their ruins, without disturbance. To create new boundaries is to create new troubles.”

Another myth directly concerning the Middle East is known under the label “Sykes-Picot.” In fact, in any discussion of Middle-Eastern affairs, in order to appear knowledgeable as well as chic, one must bring up “Sykes-Picot.” It refers to a draft agreement by Britain, France and Russia, to carve out the Ottoman Empire which, having sided with Germany and Austria, was to end up among the losers in the First World War. The text of the secret agreement was published by Leon Trotsky, Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the post-revolution government in Russia, and used as a prop in the new Bolshevik regime’s anti-Imperialist propaganda.

In reality, however, the Sykes-Picot agreement was not even formally ratified by any of the signatories, let alone implemented, as anti-West propagandists have claimed for the past century. Instead, the fate of the Middle East was decided during a stroll by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and his British counterpart David Lloyd George on the margins of the Versailles conference.

As a result, the way the Ottoman Empire’s Middle-Eastern possessions were eventually carved up turned out to be even worse than what the Sykes-Picot agreement had envisaged.

The new borders were to receive some form of legal expression in a set of treaties, including those of Sevres, Monteux and Lausanne, some of which did not reach the final stage of ratification by the parliaments concerned. For its part, Turkey, a new state emerging out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, signed a separate peace treaty with Bolshevik Russia in Brest-Litovsk.

Another myth that also concerns the Middle East is built around the so-called Balfour Declaration. The declaration consists of a brief note written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, on November 2, 1917. It runs: “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The text had not even been discussed let alone approved by the British Cabinet. It was later incorporated in the Treaty of Sevres signed with the Ottoman Empire.

However, contrary to common perceptions in the Middle East, the British never interpreted the declaration as a document committing them to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In fact, after the Second World War, when the idea of creating a Jewish state came up in a conference that included the Arab states, Britain and the United States, the British dismissed the Balfour Declaration as “of marginal importance.”

According to Bartley C. Crum, President Harry Truman’s envoy at the conference, the British believed that what was left of Mandatory Palestine should be declared an Arab state (part had already been used to set up the Emirate of Transjordan).

Crum writes that Harold Beeley, the Foreign Office man and Britain’s top Middle East expert, was “frankly and forthrightly pro-Arab.” Crum continues: “The Palestine issue, Beeley said, must be seen in the framework of strong Soviet expansionism . . . The United States would do well to join Britain in establishing a cordon sanitaire of Arab states. If Palestine were declared an Arab state, it would be a strong link in that chain.”

The result of London’s opposition to the creation of a Jewish state was the bitter guerrilla war that Jewish armed groups launched against British forces in Palestine.

Paradoxically, it was the US and the Soviet Union that supported the creation of a Jewish state against British designs.

Just as Sykes-Picot did not create Iraq and Syria, Israel was not created by the Balfour Declaration but by the United Nations.

Another myth, again concerning the Middle East, is built around the legend of T. E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he became known, according to which a British adventurer led a few hundred Arab fighters, defeated the Ottoman Empire and created “the new Middle East.”

From the early stages of the war, the British had toyed with the idea of inciting a Muslim revolt against the Ottomans and their German allies in the Middle East. In 1915, John Buchan, a diplomat and author, penned his novel Greenmantle in which a British nobleman working for the intelligence service masquerades as a holy man and leads an Islamic revolt against the Ottoman Caliph (The book was published in 1916).

At the time Greenmantle appeared, Britain, in terms of Muslim population, could be regarded as the world’s largest “Islamic” empire, because it ruled India, Egypt and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Germans, too, had their Islamic fantasies. They spread the rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm had converted to Islam, and distributed photos of his pre-war visit to Jerusalem where he took care to arrive on foot and without armed escort. The Germans also had their version of Lawrence in the shape of Colonel Gustav Wassmuss, an intelligence officer sent to Iran to organize anti-British guerrillas ordered to cut oil supplies to the Royal Navy.

The Germans also published their own version of Greenmantle under the title of The Red Dawn, a part memoir-part fantasy about an alliance between Germany and Muslims to destroy the British Empire, liberate India and set up a global Islamic caliphate.

Well, the myths survive in different versions because the reality that fostered them continues to affect the lives of so many people in so many parts of the world, most notably in the Middle East.