Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #55: A Legacy of Colonialism

The political impact of the Great War on Africa and South Asia was minimal; it essentially consisted of German colonies being appropriated by other European powers. The devastation in Europe did nothing to undermine the appetite for other peoples’ land. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, there was a tremendous loss of life. The military casualties were trivial, in total amounting to less than those suffered in a single day of any major offensive on the Western Front, but native civilian deaths were overwhelming.

Africa 1914
Africa 1920

Relatively few Blacks served in a military capacity, primarily with the Germans, but all the belligerents required bearers, tens of thousands of them. By 1917 a million porters had been conscripted, mostly in East Africa, and perhaps 100,000 had died, typically of disease. The mass conscription meant a shortage of farm labor and thus a shortage of food, aggravated by the confiscation of food and cattle by the military forces. This and poor rains in 1917 resulted in a famine that killed another 300,000 civilians, and then in September 1918 the Spanish flu arrived and accounted for 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 deaths.

The only non-European area (apart from Asiatic Russia) to undergo serious and lasting change because of the Great War was the Middle East. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire created a new pattern of states, few of them actually independent, but ironically Turkey itself benefited, becoming a compact Anatolian state with no need to administer and guard the relatively unproductive territories to the south. Initially, however, even Anatolia was to be partitioned. The Greeks, promised land in Anatolia and Thrace, decided to push their claim immediately and sent 20,000 troops to Smyrna (Izmir) in May 1919; violence resulted and the Greco-Turkish War (or Turkish War of Independence) was underway.


Greek troops enter Izmir

The Turkish National Movement, led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) of Gallipoli fame, was adamantly opposed to any partition of Anatolia and was already mobilizing forces, guessing the Allies and their meagre garrisons would not resist. Armed by the Bolsheviks, who wanted part of Armenia (at the moment an independent state), Kemal first dealt with the Armenians in the east and the French in the southeast. The Greeks, meanwhile, had occupied most of Western Anatolia during the summer of 1920, and in August of that year the Allies ratified their promises of partition with the Treaty of Sèvres.


Mustafa Kemal



Meanwhile, in November 1920 the Venizelist government in Greece was replaced, through elections, by the Royalists (remember the National Schism?), who opposed the war, and on 19 December King Constantine I, deposed in 1917, returned to the throne. Nevertheless, the Greek advance towards Ankara, the seat of Kemalist power, continued into 1921, and by August they had come to the Sakarya River, about 50 miles from Ankara. The Turkish army, entrenched along the river, was still outnumbered but was now a better equipped and trained force, and the Greeks failed to break through, a strategic victory for the Turks. The Greeks began withdrawing westward.


King Constantine I

A stalemate set in, and in March 1922 the Allies, who were now losing interest in supporting the partitions and discussing the abandonment of the Treaty of Sèvres, called for an armistice, which was rejected by Kemal. In August he launched his offensive and despite being outnumbered two to one he cleared the Greek army from Anatolia by 18 September, and on 24 July 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne confirmed Turkish control of all of Anatolia and eastern Thrace. More than a million Anatolian Greeks were resettled in Greece, while about a half million Muslims left Greek territory. The nearly 3000 year Greek settlement in western Anatolia had ended.


The Turks enter Izmir

Finally, the former Ottoman Empire. Remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916? France and Britain had made many promises to the Arabs and Jews about independence, but behind the scenes they had agreed to establish spheres of influence. All this was known of course, inasmuch as the Bolsheviks had published all Russia’s secret treaties in late 1917, and they declared no interest in the piece of eastern Anatolia assigned to Russia. The British began an unending stream of weak arguments that King Hussein had misunderstood the earlier agreements, but he refused to sign the Versailles Treaty. The British continued negotiations with Hussein until March 1924 and a half year later they switched their support to King Ibn Saud of Riyadh (Nejd).



Zones of French (blue), British (red) and Russian (green) influence and control established by the Sykes–Picot Agreement.


Feisal Hussein and Lawrence at Versailles

With no opposition from the British Ibn Saud was free to expand his power in Arabia, and Hussein’s days as King of the Hejaz were numbered.  The Hejaz was conquered in 1925, and the following year Ibn Saud became King of the Hejaz.  By 1929 Ibn Saud, as King of Hejaz and Nejd, controlled all the Arab Peninsula, excepting Oman, Yemen and the Gulf kingdoms, in which the British had interests.  On 23 September 1932 the two states were united as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and with the discovery of oil this repressive medieval autocracy became the darling of the West and ultimately a close and increasingly uncomfortable ally of the United States.   And with it came the poison of Wahhabism, the most extreme and vicious form of Sunni Islam.


Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia



Hussein, former King of the Hejaz


Ottoman Arabia


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia








The Versailles Treaty created the states of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq from the Ottoman provinces north of the Hejaz; in April 1921 the Emirate of Transjordan, carved out of southern Syria and eastern Palestine, was recognize as a state. But these “independent” states were all to varying degrees controlled by France and Britain through League of Nations Mandates., which allowed the Mandate power to determine when an area was ready for complete independence. The French Mandate covered Lebanon and Syria and the British Palestine and Transjordan; because of widespread revolts there was no Mandate for Iraq, but the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922 effectively gave the British control over the area – and the oil. The Zionists fared a bit better. They did not get a Jewish state, but Zionism had been recognized and the Balfour Declaration provided some hope for a new Israel.

Mandates of the Versailles Treaty

We are now living with the legacy of these post-war arrangements. Iraq was granted full independence in 1932 (though British influence clearly remained), but the other Mandates were not given up until after the Second World War, as colonialism was collapsing. The Arab world quite justifiably felt betrayed by the West, certainly by the French and British, and the foundation of contemporary Arab resentment of the West (and its values) and the emergence of extremist Islam can be laid at the door of Versailles. As can the disaster of Iraq, stitched together from areas with little sectarian relationship to one another and plundered by the British.

A patchwork country

Not being officially involved in the settlement of the Middle East and espousing a policy of self-determination, the Americans were generally spared of any blame, but in 1948 Great War veteran President Harry Truman, against the advice of his advisors, threw the support of the United States behind the establishment of the state of Israel. Quite understandably, the Arab world saw this as one of the last gasps of western colonialism, especially since most of the new Jewish population came from Europe and America and their new state had the ultimate military backing of the United States. The autocratic and aggressive nature of her neighbors notwithstanding, Israel’s rise to regional superpower and the increasing callousness and disregard for established international law embodied in her policies fueled further resentment and extremism. And now America, tied to Israel with the “passionate attachment” Washington warned of, reaps the hate.

Reports from the Front #5: August 1915

August was a good time to be on the Western Front: neither side launched any serious assaults on the trench lines. It was also a good time to be on the Eastern Front, if you happened to be German or Austrian. The Gorlice-Tarnów offensive, which Falkenhayn had launched at the beginning of May, continued its rapid advance eastward, destroying Russian units all along the line. This operation was remembered by the Russians as the “Great Retreat,” but that retreat, accelerated by the Stavka (the Russian supreme headquarters) saved the army from any large encirclements, especially in the Warsaw salient. On 5 August the Central Powers took Warsaw, on 25 August Brest-Litovsk and on 26 August Byelostok. The Russians were now being squeezed out of Poland.

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

German cavalry enters Warsaw

German cavalry enters Warsaw

Moving east

                                      Moving east

They were not doing so well on the Turkish front either, and on 3 August they evacuated the Van district, which they had captured in May. The Turks reoccupied the area on 5 August, but the next day they faced a serious challenge hundreds of miles to the west. On 6 August the western allies reopened the Gallipoli campaign, landing two fresh divisions at Suvla Bay, just north of “Anzac cove.” The plan was for the two beachheads to unite, seize the surrounding heights before the Turks could bring up reinforcements and then cross to the east coast of the peninsula, trapping the Turkish forces to the south.

Suvla Bay

                                  Suvla Bay

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli - not the cigarette holder

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli – note the cigarette holder

Liman von Sanders

          Liman von Sanders

The allied failure at Suvla Bay

             The allied failure at Suvla Bay

The plan failed utterly, not so much because of the quick reaction of the (German) Turkish commander, Liman von Sanders, and the equally able Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, but because of the incompetence of the British command. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener (of Omdurman fame), refused to appoint a younger general and instead saddled the Suvla landing with the inexperienced and 61 year old Frederick Stopford, who was asleep when the assault began and visited the beach only once. He left the operation in the hands of his subordinates, many of whom were also lethargic, and although the two beachheads were joined, inactivity, confusion and conflicting orders prevented the troops from controlling the heights. By the middle of August the battle was essentially over, and another static trench line had been established on the peninsula. By this time there were over 500,000 allied and 300,000 Turkish troops involved in the campaign.

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Lord Kitchener

                    Lord Kitchener

Yes, that's Kitchener

               Yes, that’s Kitchener

Off in the west 10 August saw the culmination of the Second Battle of the Isonzo, which ended like the First: little gained beyond mammoth casualties on both sides. More important, on 21 August Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of London, signed by Italy and the Triple Entente on 26 April, had lured the Italians into the war with promises of Austrian territory and a protectorate over Albania, but it also confirmed Italy’s possession of the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean (just off the coast of Turkey) and provided that “in the event of total or partial partition of Turkey in Asia, she ought to obtain a just share of the Mediterranean region adjacent to the province of Adalia (on the south coast of Turkey)…” Diplomatic promises apart, the Italian government apparently felt that being in an actual state of war with Turkey would enhance her position when it came time to dispose of the Ottoman Empire.

Fighting on the Italian front - Austrians

    Fighting on the Italian front – Austrians

And so it was in August 1915, an excellent month for the Central Powers.