The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922

In March, 2003 the US and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were implored not to proceed with what created arguably one of the greatest avoidable human disasters in recent history, resulting in a catastrophic loss of human life and the expenditure of eye watering amounts of treasure.

Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Greece’s nemesis, Turkey’s liberator and founder of a modern state. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

Saddam Hussein, we were assured was a toxic influence in the Middle East, poised to unleash upon his neighbours all manner of nerve gases and other noxious substances. With his departure a new era of peace, stability and western style democracy would follow that would leave the region transformed for the better.

Having been rightly demonised as a cruel dictator who was a threat to his neighbours and an evil presence in his own country, the mantra of regime change echoed through the corridors of power in Washington and London.

Other world leaders, particularly those in France and Germany nevertheless remained sceptical, and many more were openly hostile to the concept of removing the tyrant and creating a new, ‘free’ Iraq.  Tens of millions of ordinary people around the world took to the streets to oppose military action, and national capitals echoed to the cries of those fearful of the death and destruction that an invasion would produce.

Nevertheless, despite such opposition the operation proceeded, and in the days that followed the naysayers appeared to have been confounded as the Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of the coalition. Military victory was relatively swift, and for the Allies casualties unexpectedly light.

Despite Blair’s insistence that the removal of the Iraqi dictator had left the country a better place, the subsequent descent of the nation into anarchy and civil war needs no retelling here.

Marshal Foch, President Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando and Sonnino. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

The parallels with the events of a hundred years ago in Turkey slowly emerged as the tragic drama in Iraq developed. It was this aspect of the story which I felt warranted revisiting, albeit through the prism of current events.

Jihad – The Ottomans and the Allies focusses not on Iraq but Turkey, and charts the decline of a great empire which once straddled Europe, the Middle East and Africa and its transformation into a sovereign secular republic free from Western domination. In Iraq by contrast we experience an omni-shambles, where Western involvement has seen little but tragedy and chaos.

In 1919, the Greek Prime Minister Eletherios Venizelos, sponsored by his British counterpart Lloyd George had embarked upon an ill-advised expedition to establish hegemony over Anatolia and reduce Turkey to the status of a vassal state. Whilst the discredited Ottoman regime in Constantinople meekly acquiesced to the insults heaped one upon the other, an alternative government was established hundreds of miles away to resist these same humiliations.

The grand plan to carve up Turkey and the Middle East like a cake (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

Under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal, Nationalist Turkey rejected the imposition of an unequal treaty, the partition of its territory and perhaps most significant of all, successfully resisted the Greek invasion. Turkish honour was restored and peaceful coexistence between the new state and its erstwhile adversaries followed.

Furthermore, the involvement of Britain as essentially the only supporter of Greek designs in Anatolia had serious and long lasting ramifications in other key geopolitical spheres.

Lloyd George paid with his job for his stubborn support of the Greeks, and spent the rest of his life in the political wilderness. Britain’s rash assumption of military support from Canada and Australia saw those once amenable Dominions re-evaluate their political relationship with the Mother Country and for the first time assert what proved to be their own foreign policy doctrines.

By waging war against a Moslem state, and threatening the Caliphate, Britain stoked up nascent nationalism in its Indian empire, particularly amongst her Moslem population. Those who had been relatively docile subjects expressed their growing concerns with respect to the fate of the spiritual head of their religion, which the British failed to address properly, leave alone attempt to satisfy. India’s Hindus, led by Mahatma Gandhi seized upon this schism to unite with the Moslems to pursue the wider aim of Indian independence.

Mehmet VI, the last Ottoman Sultan, who ended his reign crouched in the back of a British army ambulance. (c. Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922, Amberley Publishing)

Britain’s participation in the Turkish imbroglio also fractured relations with France and Italy, damaging her ability to cooperate on wider global issues, challenges which had they been on more amicable terms, might have been ameliorated or avoided altogether. Among these most of all we may count Franco-British relations with Germany, and the imposition of a peace treaty at Versailles which sowed resentment and revanchist sentiments among the defeated foe, and helped to stoke the rise of Nazism.

Equally, Italian resentment over the Allied failure to make good on their promises to encourage her to join the Entente in 1915, may possibly have avoided the sequence of events which led to her decision to throw in her lot with Hitler. Two developments with far reaching consequences.

However, it is in the present parlous state of the Middle East that the legacy of British interference is now seen; disaster in Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria and many other parts of the region over the decades, where a little more tact and foresight would have been advisable.

These musings are of course largely speculation, and benefit from the 50/50 hindsight of historical analysis. Nevertheless, one thing which any comparison between the Middle East of the 1920s and that of the present day tells us is that Western interference rarely heralds the outcomes that had been hoped for, and invariably makes matters a whole lot worse.


Andrew Hyde's new book Jihad: The Ottomans and the Allies 1914–1922 is available for purchase now.