Bloodland: The First World War's Legacy in the Middle East

Bloodland: The First World War’s Legacy in the Middle East

By John Calvert, Ph.D., Professor of History

In no other region of the world are the effects of World War I as current as they are in the Middle East. The war’s dark inheritance is especially apparent in a core territory made up of five countries — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel — and one seemingly permanent nonstate, Palestine. Hemmed in by the stronger and arguably more stable nations of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, this median zone is the “bloodland” of the Middle East.

No other region on earth has endured as many wars, civil conflicts, military coups and terrorist outrages. These days, the area is the cockpit of vicious struggles, sometimes overlapping, which involve, to various degrees, salafi jihadis, Shi‘i militias, obdurate state regimes, not to mention Palestinians and Israelis.

To understand this historical anomaly, we must consider several factors, chief of which is the post-World War I fall of the Ottoman Empire and the accompanying division of Greater Syria and Mesopotamia into arbitrary political units that cut across the region’s religious and ethnic boundaries.

These divisions set the stage for the political exclusivity and sectarian blood-letting that plagued the region over the following decades.

Can we identify the starting point of this unfolding tragedy?

The Berlin-Baghdad Railway

On Aug. 2, 1914, the Ottomans signed a secret treaty that bound their empire to Berlin and Vienna. For the Ottomans, the alliance was consequential because it meant that they would end up on the losing side in the war.

Why did the Ottomans make such a rash decision?

One reason has to do with German influence within the empire during the period leading up to the war: German engineers built the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and German officers played a prominent role in modernizing the Ottoman army. Yet German mentorship in Ottoman affairs was not a sufficient cause for the pact.

The primary motivation was the Ottoman need for protection from Russia. For at least two centuries, the tsars had threatened the Dardenelles — the strategic strait that would allow Russia unimpeded access to the Mediterranean. Ultimately, Russia’s ambition was to capture Istanbul — the medieval Constantinople — and revive it as the seat of Eastern Christendom.

Because of their treaty obligations to Tsar Nicholas II, neither France nor Britain was willing to shield the Ottomans from the Russian Bear. That left Germany. On Nov. 11, 1914, the Ottomans declared war against the Triple Entente: Russia, Britain and France.


Almost immediately, the shaykh al-Islam (the highest ranking Ottoman religious official) issued five fatwas, or juridical statements, which called Muslims around the world to jihad against the empire’s new enemies. Islam, the shaykh said, was under siege by the Entente powers, and it was the duty of Muslims everywhere to respond.

Actually, it was the Germans who pushed hardest for the jihad. Strategists in Berlin had discussed the scheme even before the war commenced. Their idea was to awaken the alleged fanaticism of Islam and direct it against the colonies and peripheries of the Russian, French and British empires, each of which contained a significant Muslim population.

Leading this German effort was Max von Oppenheim, the scion of a prominent banking family whose prewar passion had been Near Eastern archaeology. Implementing the plan he laid out in his 1914 treatise, Memorandum for the Revolutionizing of the Islamic Territories of Our Enemies, Oppenheim dispatched German and Ottoman emissaries throughout Africa and Asia to circulate pan-Islamic propaganda.  

But the jihad did not take off the way the Germans and, indeed, the sultan-caliph had anticipated. The Muslim world was too diverse for the proclamation to have any effect.

Many Muslims saw straight through Germany’s manipulation, while others questioned a jihad that targeted “disbelievers” in three Western countries but excluded three others: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.

Nonetheless, the specter of Muslim holy war did succeed in frightening government officials in London, Paris and St. Petersburg.


With grim determination, the Ottoman leadership prepared for war. The government imposed conscription, forced many Christian and Jewish subjects of the empire into labor battalions and expelled Zionist settlers holding Russian passports from Palestine. In their military efforts, the Ottomans were aided by German engineers, economic advisors and army officers — some 25,000 in all.

The Ottomans, however, got off to a rough start. In December 1914, Enver Pasha, Ottoman general and commander in chief, launched his Third Army against the Russians in the highland region between the Ottoman and Russian empires — a plan made worse by the bitter cold. At Sarikamesh, the site of the campaign’s main battle, Enver’s army was completely destroyed.

The Ottomans blamed their defeat on the pro-Russian activities of local Armenian nationalist groups. In response to the perceived threat, the Ottomans forcibly removed the Armenian population from the sensitive areas in Anatolia. Perhaps a million Armenians died in the ensuing death marches and massacres — the first genocidal operation of the 20th century.

The Ottomans were more successful at the Dardenelles. Almost as soon as the Ottomans joined the war, Winston Churchill, then Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, concocted a plan to storm the straits with battleships, occupy Istanbul and knock the Ottomans out of the war. The campaign would allow Britain to supply its faltering Russian ally through the Black Sea and attack the Austro-Hungarians by way of the Balkans.

The naval offensive began in February 1915 but was halted after the British lost several ships to underwater mines and shells fired from the heavy guns the Ottomans had situated along the high shores. Forced back to the drawing board, the British decided to support the naval forces with troop landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

But the element of surprise had been lost. As a result, the British and ANZAC (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps) landings — the largest amphibious assaults in history prior to D-Day — ended in tears. It was Britain’s most decisive defeat in the entire world war.

Revolt and Betrayal

Defeated at the Dardenelles — and in Mesopotamia, too — the British decided to focus on the Ottoman Empire’s vulnerable Arab provinces. The plan matched up with the desire of some Arabs to cast off the Ottoman yoke.

In July 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, began to correspond with Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the Hashimite amir of Mecca who dreamed of an independent Arab nation-state that stretched from the Taurus Mountains to the Red Sea, and from the Mediterranean to the Persian border — the so-called “Arab rectangle.”

Husayn told McMahon that he would lead a Hashimite revolt against his overlord, the sultan-caliph in Istanbul, in return for a British promise to facilitate Arab freedom once the Ottomans were defeated. The British agreed to the condition. Like the Germans, the British were ready to harness the supposed mystic power of Islam for their own purposes.

The Hashimites fulfilled their end of the bargain. In June 1916, they began their insurgency by attacking Ottoman garrisons in western and northern Arabia as British General Edmund Allenby advanced out of Egypt into Palestine.

One of the liaison officers the British assigned to the Hashimites was an eccentric archaeologist named T.E. Lawrence, whom the American journalist Lowell Thomas glamorized as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Britain, however, had a different future in mind for the Arabs.

Just prior to the launch of the Arab Revolt, the British diplomat Mark Sykes met with his French counterpart, Georges Picot, to plan for the division of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces following the expected Ottoman defeat.

France would control a northern swath of territory from the Mediterranean to Mosul, while Britain would dominate the region’s southern areas thus safeguarding the route to India and its oil fields in Mesopotamia.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was an unabashedly imperialistic document that made no reference to independent Arab statehood.

In 1917, the British made yet another advance booking, this time to the benefit of the Zionists.

In order to win world Jewry over to the British war effort, and at the same time pave the way for the creation of a loyal Jewish client state, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised to help the Zionists establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people.

The incipient Arab nationalist movement regarded the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration as egregious deeds of double-dealing.


After the war, the British and French acted on the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Quite literally drawing lines in the sand, they carved out of the vanquished Ottoman Empire new Arab states whose legitimacy has been in contention ever since.

It would be specious to pile all of the blame for the problems of the Arab sub-region at the feet of Sykes and Picot.

Yet it is not far-fetched to look back to the war and its aftermath as moments that set the course for the contention and mayhem that followed. Still, we live in the shadow of the Great War.

Recognizing the 100th Anniversary

Over the past year, Creighton’s Department of History and the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library have organized public lectures, poster displays and exhibits in recognition of the centenary of World 
War I.

“The war was a global event that involved millions of people in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East,” says Creighton history professor John Calvert, Ph.D. “It resulted in the destruction of empires, the redrawing of maps and accelerated the spread of new ideologies and political systems.”

For more on the impact of World War I on the Middle East, Calvert recommends reading the following:

  • Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, Basic Books, 2015.
  • Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Doubleday, 2013.
  • Sean McMeekin, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, Belknap, 2012.