The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oriental Institute


The Great War in the Middle East will be the first comprehensive history of the Middle East and North Africa in the First World War, and will be published to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the war in 2014. The book will be based on new research in Arabic, Turkish and Western sources, both archival and published, to provide a balanced narrative based on the perspectives of all belligerent states involved.
While there are numerous studies of the Western Front, there has yet to be a comprehensive account of the Great War in the Middle East. This is all the more surprising for, unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was quick moving and unpredictable. British and Dominion campaigns that might have expected to prevail over the Ottomans instead met with total defeat -- in the Dardanelles as well as in Mesopotamia.
The Great War in the Middle East will be the first book to examine all of the Middle Eastern fronts - Egypt, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the Arab Revolt and the Palestine Campaign. While there are numerous books about individual campaigns (there are scores of books on T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt alone), they seldom address campaigns in other parts of the Middle East. Yet the different fronts were clearly linked. Stalemate in the Dardanelles drove British commanders to make an ill-fated attempt on Baghdad in 1914 ending in the disastrous surrender at Kut al-Amara. Many of the same British and Ottoman soldiers who fought in Gallipoli were to fight again in the Palestine campaign. Such connections are captured in the rifle used by T.E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt, now preserved in the Imperial War Museum. The rifle was collected from a dead British soldier in Gallipoli and given as a trophy to the Ottoman commander Cemal Pasha in Damascus, who later presented it to the Amir Faisal of Mecca, who in turn gave it to Lawrence to turn against the Turks. As the many hands Lawrence's rifle passed through demonstrate, it makes far more sense to study the Middle Eastern battlefields together than in isolation of each other.
The book will address the impact of war on Middle Eastern societies. With the arrival of foreign troops, the region witnessed the introduction of new technologies like electricity, the motor car and the airplane. Yet the war years were remembered as a time of great hardship for civilians in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands were conscripted to serve in the Ottoman army. Egyptians were recruited for labour gangs to assist the British war effort in the West. North Africans were conscripted in their tens of thousands to serve in the French army in the Western Front. Moreover, the war was close at hand, as many parts of the Middle East became theaters of military operations. Civilians were forced to deliver crops and livestock at prices set by the Ottoman government and paid for in paper money that became increasingly worthless in the course of the war. The British and French imposed a maritime blockade on the Eastern Mediterranean that blocked key trade routes for food and grain. After two years of crop failures, much of the Syrian coastline was reduced to famine, in which hundreds of thousands were reported to have died. Thousands of Ottoman civilians suffered exile and the Armenians became the target of the first modern genocide for their real or suspected loyalties to Russia.
Finally, the book will examine the political developments that resulted from the war, including the emergence of nationalist movements in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of Zionism, aspirations for independence in Egypt, and claims for full French citizenship by North Africans who fought for France on the Western Front. The book will demonstrate how the Middle East turned a European conflict into a world war, and how the war created the modern Middle East.

Planned Impact

The Great War in the Middle East will be written in an accessible way to ensure it reaches the widest public. Crucially, the book is contracted for publication in 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, when interest in the subject will be at its height. That said, the First World War remains a subject of perennial interest, and I expect the book to enjoy a long shelf life.

Aside from academics, the prime beneficiaries of the research in the UK will be museums and archives, the media, and the general reading public. However, the Great War in the Middle East will have impact far beyond the UK through translated editions, press coverage abroad, and lectures I will give in the US, EU and the Middle East.
There are a number of UK museums with established interests in the First World War and the Middle East. I have worked extensively with the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol on the Palestine Mandate, and have given gallery talks on the British Empire in the Middle East for the National Portrait Gallery in London. My research can also help British archives with some of their Middle Eastern material. I supervised a masters student who transcribed and analysed the hand-written diary of a Turkish soldier taken prisoner in Mesopotamia during the Great War. The diary was among the private papers in the Imperial War Museum, and they have now been given the full transcription of this fascinating (and to those who can't read Ottoman Turkish, illegible) document, along with the M.Phil. thesis. I would expect my research to contribute to the work of these and other museums interested in the Great War in the Middle East.

There will be active press interest in the Great War in the centenary year, and this book will provide extensive new material from exotic settings that will contribute significantly to press coverage on the subject. Not only will the book generate interest, but I am often called on by UK and international press -- print and broadcast media alike -- to comment on historical, cultural and political affairs. This experience, along with my press connections, ensures that my research on the Great War will find maximum diffusion through the press.

In publishing The Great War in the Middle East with highly respected trade presses (Penguin in the UK, Basic Books in the US), I am deliberately targeting the general readership in the UK and abroad. On the experience of my last book, these presses are most successful in ensuring the wide dissemination of the book through retail outlet, web sales and electronic publishing. They are also excellent in securing press reviews of their books in leading newspapers and magazines. The Arabs: A History was reviewed by virtually every UK newspaper and most magazines, and was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist, The Financial Times, The Scotsman, and the Atlantic Monthly. I also was widely interviewed by TV and radio, with appearances in Radio 4's Start the Week, BBC TV with George Aligiah, Al-Jazeera TV, BBC Arabic service, the Charlie Rose Show on US Public Television, and radio stations across the USA. This favorable critical response and press attention for my last book should enhance interest in my next book.

Having published nine foreign language editions of The Arabs to date, many of my international publishers have expressed interest in translating The Great War in the Middle East when it is completed. I would certainly expect Turkish, Arabic and several European editions of the book. Not only does this ensure a global audience for the research, but it serves an additional role in bridging Western and Middle Eastern scholarship on a crucial period of history of interest to both sides. I will follow publication of the book with lecture tours in the UK, the US, the EU and the Middle East to reach out to this global audience.
Description Two key findings emerged as particularly significant from my research into the Great War in the Middle East.
The book, "The Fall of the Ottomans", provides a bridging narrative between Armenian and Turkish accounts of the Armenian Genocide. Long denied by the Turkish authorities, my book has sought to provide a context within which to explain the deportation and massacre of Armenians, all the while accepting that those acts constituted genocide, in line with Armenian demands for historic justice for this crime against humanity. The success of this bridging narrative on Turkish opinion has been demonstrated by my invitation to address a think tank in Ankara, funded by the Turkish Chamber of Commerce, on the genocide, and by the forthcoming publication of the book in Turkish.
The second key finding was the re-assessment of wartime partition diplomacy, including the controversial Hussein McMahon Correspondence, Sykes-Picot Agreement, and Balfour Declaration. By studying those key diplomatic agreements in their wartime context, my book has been effective in dispelling claims of duplicity and demonstrating how each agreement was shaped by wartime exigencies in a bid to achieve victory. These findings have been taken up in meetings in the Foreign Office and in Parliament.
Exploitation Route Policy makers in Turkey are interested in finding a way to address the historic barriers between Turks and Armenians to enable a better trade and tourism relationship between Turkey and Armenia.
Diplomats and parliamentarians in the UK draw on my findings to address questions raised in the Middle East on the historic anniversaries of key British diplomatic agreements like Sykes Picot and the Balfour Declaration, and draw on history to determine the extent of responsibility that might inform Britain's policies towards the Middle East peace process.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description I have given interviews and articles to three international journals to reach global audiences. I contributed an article on Indian soldiers on the Ottoman front to the Special Issue of the Indian magazine Outlook on "World War 1: India's Great War," published 31 March 2014. I gave an extensive interview for the French magazine Moyen-Orient on the First World War in the Middle East, published in the July-Sept 1914 issue. I also gave an extensive interview published on the website of the Italian quarterly Limes on the Great War in the Middle East. These articles have fostered discussion and debate in India, Italy and France. In 2015-16, I have spoken to the Middle East and North Africa Group at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on two occasions, once to treat the WWI partition diplomacy between Britain and France, and took part in a second meeting at the FCO to advise on how British embassies in the Middle East might prepare to deal with the anniversaries of controversial wartime agreements such as Sykes Picot and the Balfour Declaration. I have been interviewed for television documentaries by Turkish TV, German TV, Al-Jazeera, the ARTE network in France, and for US Public Television, on WWI in the Middle East.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Public lecture (British Academy) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Gave the 2014 Elie Kedourie Lecture in the British Academy.

After my talk I was approached by journalists and academics from across Europe. One of the journalists in the audience, Florence Waters subsequently interviewed me and I contributed to her cover article of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine on North African POWs in WWI, published August 2014; see the link below.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014