Over the last few years, as the centenary of World War I approached and began, I’ve been reading a number of books on World War I. When I saw Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, I was immediately interested in it. With the exception of the Gallipoli Campaign, the war against the Ottomans is part of World War I that doesn’t get a lot of attention. After reading Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, I’ve been looking for more books that covered the Middle Eastern theater of World War and this book looked to fit the bill. Rogan treats this part of World War I not as a sideshow or afterthought, but as an important part of the war.
“It is time to restore the Ottoman front to its rightful place in the history of the of both the Great War and the modern Middle East. For, more than any other event, the Ottoman entry into the war turned Europe’s conflict into a world war.”
This is not a short book, as it has multiple campaigns and a lot of geography to cover. Despite the length, it captured my attention and kept me interested in because he not only tells the story from the usual British, French, and German perspectives but from the Ottoman perspective as well. To be honest, the Ottoman, Armenian, and Arab perspectives are what dominate the book. Rogan explains the Ottoman front by explaining what led up to the Ottoman entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers, what happened during the war, and what happened during peace process after the war, showing how what happened in World War I helped shape the Middle East we know today.
“If the Ottomans turned Europe’s conflict into a world war, it is equally true the Great War transformed the modern Middle East.”
There is a lot to like about this book. Rogan doesn’t just tell what happened; he truly gets into the why by getting right down to the individual level. Examples are the stories of a Turkish medic and an Armenian priest when the story of the Armenian genocide is told. Rogan pulls no punches, not only does he not gloss over what happened to the Armenians, he is forthright about poor decision making on both sides of the conflict in both military and foreign policy arenas. Jihad takes a prominent role, explaining how the Central Powers sought to exploit it, Muslims didn’t flock to the call, and how the Triple Entente overly feared it. He covers each part of the Ottoman war, the Caucasus, the Dardanelles, the Sinai and Palestine, and the Persian Gulf and explains how successes and failures in one area affected another.
This is definitely a book worth reading if you’re interested in World War I or the Middle East. It seems well researched and comprehensive and it offers a balanced look at the what happened during and after the war. The only complaint I have is that it lacked maps; only 6 maps for a military history book of this length is simply not enough. It’s hard to comprehend movements without them, particularly when dealing with geography not everyone may be familiar with (I fully admit that my knowledge of the Caucasus isn’t what it should be). If there had been more maps, properly placed I would have gladly given The Fall of the Ottomans five stars, but even at four stars I consider this a must read book for anyone studying the history of World War I and/or the Middle East.