The First World War in the Middle East: 1911-1923. A Brief Report to the Globalising and Localising Great War Project

A conference was held at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Pembroke College of the University of Oxford between 20 and 22 April 2016, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt and a critical stage in the First World War. It was wonderful to be able to bring together a great diversity of scholars from several nationalities and disciplinary specialisms, including cultural history, literature, Russianists, Arabists, and military history. If we needed any reminder that the First World War was a global war, then the range of papers and the cohering theme of the Middle East in the context of the conflict underscored it admirably. Resonances with the present also appeared throughout the conference. At a time when commentators talk of an era of perpetual war, especially with regard to the Middle East, our group of scholars set out to explore the period 1911-1923 and in doing so challenge and test the assertion that the conflicts of the present are the inherited legacies of the First World War.

In his short report, Revolt in the Desert, T.E. Lawrence wrote that war consisted of three elements: the hecastic or algebraic; the bionomic, and the diathetic. The algebra of war referred to the idea of numbers and mass; the physical aspects of waging war. The bionomic element was the biological needs of armies and a reference to the resources of war. The diathetic was the psychological aspects of war such as morale and the willingness to endure. Hitherto, too much military history was concerned with the algebra alone, and the papers of the conference represented a much wider field and therefore a response to all three elements of war. 

The centenary of the Arab Revolt has been an occasion to reflect on the problematic responses to the Ottoman Empire and the Turkification policies it had pursued. While a majority of the Arab peoples continued to support the Ottomans during the war, a significant minority regarded the conflict as an opportunity to defy and ultimately reject Ottoman-Turkish rule. The Hashemites of the Hejaz claimed the leadership role of the revolt, but Ibn Saud took a more ambiguous position: he regarded contesting the Hashemite claims to the whole of Arabia, and defeating his rival Ibn Rashid, as higher priorities than fighting the Ottomans. Idrisis, many northern Yemenis, the Trucial sheikhs and the Kuwaitis aligned with Britain, but Shias in southern Mesopotamia did not. Syrian nationalists opposed the Ottomans but were subjected to repression and surveillance that rendered resistance impossible. These themes of Arab allegiances were a strong aspect of the conference and we are particularly grateful to Eugene Rogan for an outstanding concluding presentation on this subject.

For the British, the Middle East was not a priority, but it was important from an imperial perspective. The Suez Canal was a strategic artery for the British Empire and became an important staging post and training centre for the imperial forces. Protecting Suez meant control of Sinai and the logistics potential of southern Palestine. The Government of India regarded Mesopotamia and Persia as part of the outwards for the defence of India, and it was keen to control them both. In 1915, the Dardanelles were regarded as a vital route to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the means to ensure the economic survival of Russia. The setbacks at Gallipoli raised serious concerns about the prestige of the British Empire and the loyalty of colonial subjects. Only in certain quarters, after military defeats, was the disparaging epithet ‘sideshows’ coined for the Middle East. During the war, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, had tried to prevent the government from becoming distracted by the Middle East, in the hope that the German Army in France and Flanders would be regarded as the crucial focus of effort. Several papers tackled the question of British involvement in the Middle East and the positions of their partners and subjects, especially the Indians and Egyptians, and their Arab fighters. There were papers on military transformation, specific operations, training and morale.

We were pleased to include perspectives from the periphery of the region, including the Russian involvement, the battleground of Persia, and the Senussi revolt of Libya. There were analyses of religious beliefs, identity, culture and literature, of specific iconic sites such as Jerusalem, and conceptual ideas, including crusading. Adrian Gregory gave a superb paper on this latter question and entertained us all with some dreadful horticultural poetry. On a more serious theme, we were treated to Turkish and Ottoman perspectives, including artists who produced work reminiscent of Goya. It was striking that the current Turkish government revisionism towards the role and importance of Ataturk creates such strong emotions amongst secularist Turks today. 

The war in the Middle East certainly left an indelible mark on the region, but the peace making that followed has too often been blamed for all the conflicts that followed. Such a simplistic causal attribution does little credit to history, but, worse, it denies the agency of the people of the region entirely. If there were civil wars, international conflicts and protracted struggles, most were not the direct result of the machinations of Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Francois Picot. Indeed, the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement, so often the centre of blame, was in fact defunct before the war had ended. The various stages of peace making, set in the context of Allied and American agendas, were summed up wonderfully by our own Margaret Macmillan. Moreover, we included papers on the immediate post-war period, and James Kitchen, who gained his doctorate at Oxford a few years ago on the Palestine Campaign, gave a splendid presentation on the 1919 unrest in Egypt. 

There was enthusiasm for a conference volume, and Routledge have already shown interest. 

We also thought it would be appropriate to consider another conference in 2018, embracing the other theatres of war and some areas which we had neglected, including much more on the French involvement in the Middle East. 

Finally, advanced notification of two publications this year: