Arab Fronts Multiply; Germans Want Control;
British and Turks Eye Offensive for Palestine.
Special to The Great War Project.
(13 August) Now for an update on the war in the Middle East, where by this time a century ago, war has spread to two fronts, and is threatening to spread even further as the Ottoman Turkish forces occupying much of the Arab world are facing collapse.
“As of August 1917,” writes historian Eugene Rogan, “General Edmund Allenby, [commander of British forces in the Middle East] was securely in command of a two-front campaign to defeat the Ottomans in Syria and Palestine.”
“He turned his attention toward the Palestine front and prepared his army for a third attempt at Gaza.” Two earlier attempts to seize Gaza from the Ottoman Turks had not been entirely successful.
The British are also hailing the seizure of Aqaba on the Red Sea just a month earlier. This has shocked the Ottomans, and they are fearful the victory of the Arab revolt may spread quickly to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Earlier, reports Rogan, “the Ottoman minster of war, Enver Pasha, convened his army commanders in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.” They come from far and wide, from Mesopotamia (now Iraq), from Gallipoli in western Turkey, from the Turkish front in the Caucasus, and from Syria.
Convening such an unusual gathering of Turkish commanders, is not “an everyday affair,” observes Rogan. The Turkish supreme commander proposes a “bold new initiative.” It involves the Germans.
He proposes to seize Baghdad from the British, who had conquered that city earlier in 1917. The German General, Erich von Falkenhayn, would be in command. Falkenhayn had failed to seize Verdun from the French the previous year, but had lead a victorious offensive in Romania.
According to Rogan, the Germans commit five million dollars in gold – an enormous sum at the time — to prevent Ottoman failure in the Middle East.
German commanders do not welcome Enver’s proposal. In fact, according to Rogan, “the Ottoman commanders were stunned by the plan. Offensive operations to recover Baghdad seemed foolhardy when the empire was threatened by attack on so many other crucial fronts.”
“And they were appalled by the prospect of coming under German command. Relations between Germans and Turks had grown strained in the course of the war. Soldiers’ diaries capture the resentment among officers and the ranks alike at what they saw as German arrogance.”
One warned that Turkey was becoming a German colony. The proposal is to dispatch officers from Germany “who had no knowledge of the Ottoman Empire or Turkish culture.” Not to speak of the language barrier that German speakers and Turkish speakers alike are facing.
But the Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha, is not to be deterred. In the summer of 1917, Enver assembles a force that he intends to use against the British. But where?
The British are putting together a force of their own that provides the perfect challenge for the combined Turkish and German troops. It appears the British are assembling an army — to seize Palestine.