Anzac Day, 101 years on …

101 years on from the first landings at Gallipoli, Australian troops are still at war over the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Hardly anyone is fully aware of the history, which is one of the reasons we keep on repeating it. So, while we remember those who answered our country’s call, and particularly those who never returned, we should take the time to understand why they were there, and the futility of the wars in which we have engaged in the Middle East.

The struggle over the declining Ottoman Empire began well before the Great War itself, and was the proximate cause of the War (Sarejevo, where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated was a former part of the Ottoman Empire, taken by Austria Hungary in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908). For much of this time, Britain was allied with Turkey, trying to check the expansion of the Czarist Russian Empire. But, as it happened, when the Great War broke out, Britain and France were part of the Triple Entente with Russia, and the Turkish government decided that its best hope for survival lay with Germany. So, Australia was at war with Turkey.

The object of the Gallipoli campaign was to force a passage through the Dardanelles, allowing the Western allies to provide aid to Russia and, if possible, knock Turkey out of the war. The ultimate war aim, formalized in the Sykes-Picot agreement was to partition the Middle East between Britain and France, with Britain getting what is now Iraq and France getting Syria and Lebanon*.

British control over Iraq continued until the mid-1950s, when the US moved in with the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO, one of the network of Cold War alliances modelled on NATO. But Iraq pulled out, and partially the Anglo-American oil holdings, setting the stage for two decades of conflict as the Americans sought to maintain the Middle Eastern sphere of influence they had inherited from Britain.

That culminated in Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power in 1979, and his decision to launch a war with Iran, in which he received extensive support from the US. The rest is recent enough history not to need repeating. The present chaos is the outcome of a century of Western involvement, colliding with the many and varied aspirations of people in the region.

Perhaps one day, Australian armed forces will leave the Middle East, and return home for good. That would be the best possible way to celebrate Anzac Day. In the meantime, Lest We Forget.

* A variety of contradictory promises were also made to the Russians (seeking more territory), the Arabs (seeking independence) and the Zionists (seeking a Jewish homeland). But, with minor variations, it was the Sykes-Picot deal that was implemented in practice.

13 thoughts on “Anzac Day, 101 years on …

  1. I agree with taking that long view of history. Deep seated problems have long chains of antecedents. “The present chaos is the outcome of a century of Western involvement, colliding with the many and varied aspirations of people in the region.” Perhaps we can even data modern Western interference in the Middle East from Bonaparte’s French Campaign into Egypt and Syria (1798–1801).

    In earlier centuries, the Ottoman Empire itself had been operating as all empires do.

    “The inability of the Ottomans to capture Vienna in 1529 turned the tide against almost a century of conquest throughout eastern and central Europe. The Ottoman Empire had previously annexed Central Hungary and established a vassal state in Transylvania in the wake of the Battle of Mohács. According to Toynbee, “The failure of the first [siege of Vienna] brought to a standstill the tide of Ottoman conquest which had been flooding up the Danube Valley for a century past.”” – Wikipedia.

    Then a bit later,

    “The Battle of Lepanto was a naval engagement taking place on 7 October 1571 in which a fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states arranged by Pope Pius V, led by Spanish admiral Don Juan of Austria and mostly financed by Spain, decisively defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire on the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth, off western Greece.” – Wikipedia.

    Then looking at matters from a further angle (the Russian perspective);

    “The Russo-Turkish wars (or Ottoman-Russian Wars) were a series of wars fought between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 20th centuries. It was one of the longest series of military conflicts in European history.” – Wikipedia.

    Very simplistically, this history, up to and including the Napoleonic wars, can be seen as empires jockeying for power and position. After that… well to keep this post short, I will jump over the 19th and 20th centuries. J.Q. has given a snapshot of the 20th C and most of us remember that history from poor quality school textbooks, self-serving nationalist histories and many inaccurate depictions in British and US cinema.

    The situation today is that the M.E. is becoming strategically irrelevant. As J.Q. has pointed out in other posts, the world has to transition away from oil so the remaining M.E. oil assumes less and less importance. The M.E. is not a gateway to anywhere excepting perhaps the Suez canal. There is no need to prevent (for example) Russian or Iranian expansion into the M.E. There is no reason to expect they could “conquer” the M.E. when the US could not even hold half a country. What is there that is of value to be conquered and held? We can only expect the M.E. and North Africa to become more inhospitable with global warming.

    The best course would be complete military disengagement from the M.E. This does not mean trade, aid or diplomatic disengagement.

  2. I could have better worded this sentence in my above post. “What is there that is of value to be conquered and held?”

    Instead I should have written;

    “What is there of value in the M.E. that is not already being fully utilised (if not efficiently utilised) by the region’s own population?”

    There is nothing that conquering armies can cost-effectively extract. Since the world became heavily populated or even overpopulated, the calculations of conquest have changed. Military conquest only pays for itself if conquered lands are rich, underpopulated or underutilised in some way by the standards of the conquerors. We can see this is no longer the case in any of the populated continents or regions. Even on callous rational grounds, conquest or occupation no longer make any sense in this phase of history. It’s about time we realised this.

  3. I think that both WWs could be set aside as untouchable – the mythologising is complete.

    What is worrying is that subsequent wars will also be airbrushed into fantasyland – the Falklands skirmish was deeply destructive to many without any reason apart from ego. The imagery of the WW1 poster is just as potent today, via a different medium.

  4. @Ikonoclast

    Although I have not read the book itself, I understand that this is much the same as the major argument of The Great Illusion by Norman Angell, first published in 1909.

    Some people thought that Angell was proved wrong by the outbreak of the First World War, but others respond that Angell wasn’t arguing that war could not happen, only that it wouldn’t do anybody any good if it did.

  5. Bruce Hoffman’s book Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle For Israel, 1917-1947 is well worth reading, not least for its outline of how clueless Britain was about what to do with the Palestine Mandate from the end of WWI until Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

  6. @J-D

    Agreed. For Norman Angell to arrive at those conclusions by 1909 was excellent work. I wasn’t aware of his work but now I would not mind reading it. That kind of analysis of history is meaningful. In contrast, the kind of interminable diplomatic history indulged in by some British historians (won’t mention names here) sends me comatose. It illuminates nothing. The rubric of “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” is certainly true, but diplomatic history is the dullest stuff on the planet IMO.

  7. If you search for Angell on the blog search facility, you’ll find some old posts, endorsing the J-D interpretetation.

  8. I’ve written quite extensively elsewhere about the criminality, ignorance and stupidity of intervention in the Middle East (so no flings about war-mongering, please). But this gets the history all wrong, mainly by ignoring the policies pursued by the various Middle Eastern groups. British policy up to the late C19 Balkan Wars was not to seek gains at Ottoman expense, but to prop up the Ottomans (see Crimean War, various post-Balkan War Conferences), for fear that other powers would be better placed to take advantage than the British. The issue was, of course, communication with India – junior partner in and mainstay of the Empire. Trouble was, the Ottomans were coming apart from internal stresses – Turkish, Arab, Balkan and Armenian nationalism, the loss of the supra-national institutions that kept the Ottoman vision of a tolerant empire alive, administrative decay, financial pressures. Every lost war in the Balkans saw a flood of Turkish/Muslim refugees into the shrinking Ottoman domain as the victors indulged in ethnic cleansing (eg 90,000 from Crete alone).

    Around 1910 the Turkish nationalists concluded that the Ottoman vision was dead, and started looking for partners in a new vision – a Turkish state (cue the first Armenian massacres). They found a backer in Germany. Hence their choice in 1914. Many Arabs were thinking along the same lines, but they lacked the political cohesion to formulate any coherent program. Among the leading contenders were the Saudis, the Hussein family and various tribal notables from Mosul and Aleppo, The Shi’a were not on the horizon, as Iran was in eclipse. The Kurds were just starting to stir, the Greeks has ambitions in Anatolia…In short, a peaceful outcome was unlikely, and Britain did have a substantial stake in events there (that stake went away when India went).

    Sykes-Picot was not an aim as such, it was a rough draft of how the estate of the deceased might be disposed of, given that demise appeared imminent.

  9. @Peter T

    It would not be correct to say that the Allies (or just the UK and France, or just the UK) started the war in order to seize control of territory from the Ottomans, nor would it be correct to say that they drew the Ottomans into the war in order to seize control of territory from them. But it is correct to say that once the Ottomans had joined in the war the Allies formulated the plan of seizing control of territory from them, and after the war they implemented this intention.

    Even considered as a plan for what might be done with former Ottoman territory once it passed out of Ottoman control (blatantly ignoring the obvious fact that the reason the Ottomans were about to lose control of the territory in question was that the Allies were about to drive them out of it), the Sykes-Picot agreement was by implication a clear rejection of the option of not getting involved and letting the people who inhabited the territory sort it out for themselves.

  10. The Ottomans had been losing territory for decades – as recently as Thrace in 1905 (before that, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, Rumania, Crete, Greece, Libya, Egypt). In Asia, they had lost control of Mecca. The allies would have been happy with Ottoman neutrality in 1914 (the Ottomans declared war on the entente, not the other way round). As for “letting the locals sort it out” – the locals had been sorting it out for decades, mostly through wars, massacres and refugee crises. Greece claimed Istanbul and the Ionian coast, Russia Armenia, the Arabs had no coherent leadership at all, other than Saud. The decay of a multi-ethnic empire is not a pretty thing.

  11. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers provides a good discussion of how the decline of the Ottoman Empire excited the appetites of different European powers in the early C20 and thus contributed to the tensions that culminated in WWI.

  12. @Paul Norton
    There’s a view – exemplified by The Sleepwalkers – that WW I was such a foreseeable disaster that it could only have happened by accident or ill-judgement (Barbara Tuchman is another in this line). It’s only sustainable if you don’t look too closely at the German, Austrian, Turkish or Russian historiography, and if you think – against the evidence – that the very high degree of domestic pressure even in France and Britain could have been successfully managed without serious conflict. The awful warning is not that policy-makers can be blind or stupid, but that whole civilisational systems can lock themselves into situations where the irresistible general opinion is that a great war – even a doomed one – is preferable to the status quo.

  13. As terrible as the Gallipoli campaign was for Australia and New Zealand, even worse carnage awaited our soldiers in France and Belgium after 1916.

    “The Murdoch Archipelago” (2003 – 580 pp) by Bruce Page shows how war correspondent Keith Murdoch – so lionised for blowing the whistle on the Gallipoli campaign – was subsequently uncritical of the campaign in France and Belgium.

    On a related issue, “Hell-Bent – Australia’s leap into the Great War” (2014 – 353pp), by Australian Author Douglas Newton, shows how, on two occasions prior to the start of the First World War, the Australian government actually tried to persuade the British Governent to go to war. The first occasion was the Agadir crisis of 1911. The second was during the Second Balkan War of 1913.

    On each of those two occasions, popular opposition within Europe prevented the outbreak of a larger war.

    In 1914, after the Sarejevo incident, the majority of the British cabinet was initially opposed to going to war.

    However, in the ensuing weeks, the Australian government did all it could to persuade the British cabinet to declare war. As we know by 4 August 1914, that majority was reduced to a minority. So, Britain and the whole Commonwealth went to war and lost 900,000 lives, 60,000 of which were Australian.

    So, Australia was both a victim and a perpetrator of that war.

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