This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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Today in Middle Eastern history: the Balfour Declaration (1917)

and that's the way it was

I’m kind of cringing at writing this, because you can’t really talk about the Balfour Declaration without pissing somebody off and I actually approach these historical pieces with the hope that I won’t do that (I don’t so much care whether or not I do it with the other stuff I write). But I wouldn’t be keeping up with this history business if I didn’t mention that today is the 98th anniversary of the day when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to Walter Rothschild that would wind up becoming one of the most important letters of the 20th century, at least insofar as the makeup of the modern Middle East is concerned.

The Declaration as it was printed in The Times on November 9, 1917 (Wikimedia)

The Balfour Declaration has a lot more importance in hindsight than it really had at the time Balfour…

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Today in South Asian history: the Siege of Delhi ends (1857)

The 1857 Siege of Delhi is interesting in that it serves as both a pivotal battle and a pivotal marker in world history. Or at least it seems that way to me. As a phase of the 1857-1859 Indian Rebellion, it was a decisive British victory that did much to stifle the rebellion’s national ambitions, even though the fighting continued for many months afterward. It also, and here’s the world history part, marked the formal end of the Mughal Dynasty, and when you’re talking about the last hurrah of a dynasty that ruled most of modern India and Pakistan for more than three centuries, that’s the kind of thing I consider to be pivotal. There is a counter-argument to this, though, and it’s related to the fact that I have sitting on my bookshelf right now a book, The Mughal Empire by John F. Richards, that pretty much ends in the 1720s, at the beginning of the reign of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (d. 1748).

Why would a history of the Mughals end in the 1720s, when the Mughal dynasty stayed on the throne well into the 1850s? Because from the early 18th century on the Mughals soon stopped actually ruling much of anything anymore. Aurangzeb (d. 1707), the last effective Mughal emperor, instituted a repressive Islamic governance that upended the dynasty’s previous tolerance for other faiths (i.e., for Hinduism) and thereby completely undermined the foundations of Mughal rule over their majority Hindu subjects–though Aurangzeb himself died before he got to witness the fallout. After his death Hindu principalities quickly began to assert their independence in central and southern India, and Nadir Shah’s 1739 Sack of Delhi made it clear that Mughal power was on the wane. By the end of the 18th century the Mughals were under the “protection” of the Hindu Maratha Empire, based in the Deccan. It was the Marathas, not the Mughals, who resisted the expansion of British control over the subcontinent, and when Maratha power was finally smashed in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1816-1819) the Mughals came under British East India Company “protection” instead.

In that sense, then, the 1857 end of the Mughal dynasty may be one of the great historical examples of an anticlimax. For all practical purposes, the Mughal dynasty had gone defunct more than a century earlier. Still, I think the actual end of the dynasty is historically noteworthy.

Nominally, the 1857 sepoy (sepoy means “soldier” and derives from the Persian word sepahi, but in this case it specifically means local soldiers recruited to fight for the British East India Company) mutiny that snowballed into a full-on Indian rebellion against British rule had as its aim the restoration of Mughal authority. But I have a hard time believing that the rebels who stood against Britain were really fighting for the Mughals. Rather, I imagine that “restoring the Mughals” was cover for “kick the British out” and was meant to serve as a rallying cry more than a concrete goal. I say this because none of the people who fought in the rebellion–hell, none of the people who were alive when it began–had been alive the last time the Mughal dynasty actually mattered in any practical sense. But hey, whatever gets people out of bed, I guess.

The immediate cause of the revolt was much more mundane than restoring the grand old Mughal Empire–it was about guns and ammo. Continue reading

Today in North African history: Muhammad Ahmad declares himself the Mahdi (1881)

Long before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to make himself the Caliph (on June 29, 2014), a move that probably hasn’t worked out the way he’d intended it, a Sudanese Sufi named Muhammad Ahmad (d. 1885) had similar, though really even more spectacular, delusions of grandeur and proclaimed himself the Mahdi. The Mahdi, of course, is a once-in-history messianic redeemer who is supposed to appear in the Last Days–usually, at least for Sunnis, either accompanied by or around the same time as Jesus returns to Earth–to rule the world, defeat evil, all the usual things one does in preparation for the Day of Judgment. Declaring yourself to be that guy is way more grandiose than declaring yourself to be a caliph–for one thing, there have been a lot of caliphs over the centuries, but the next Mahdi to show up will, kind of by definition I guess, be the first.


Drawing of Muhammad Ahmad, “the Mahdi” (Wikimedia)

Muhammad Ahmad was by all accounts a devoted student of Islam, known even when he was a young man for his seriousness as a scholar and for the depth of his piety. In an earlier time he might have been called a “Holy Man” and remained an object of religious veneration, like the 5th century Saint Simeon the Stylite or any of the legendary founders of the major Sufi schools. But in 19th century Sudan, which was living under the yoke of an Egyptian domination that gradually, over the course of the century, became a British domination via Egypt, it was probably inevitable that a man who attracted a large following of religious devotees would also become a figure of political resistance. Continue reading

Today in Iranian history: the 1921 Iranian coup

The irony of Iran’s experience during World War I is that the evaporation of Imperial Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution should have marked a positive turning point for the Qajar Dynasty, but instead it eventually led to their overthrow. Russia and Britain had dominated Iranian affairs (first as rivals, then as allies) for most of the 19th century through the first half of the war, and the 1917 revolution removed one of those two oppressive foreign powers from the equation. The Qajar monarchy, crippled by internal dissension and by the infantilizing effects of having two hegemonic powers controlling their affairs for over a century, might have now had an opening to rebuild its authority. Unfortunately for Ahmad Shah Qajar (d. 1930), though, while the Russians were no longer an issue the British weren’t going anywhere. They negotiated the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 with Ahmad Shah, which stipulated British rights over all of Iran’s oil fields in return for British military, infrastructure, and financial aid. It was a terrible deal for the Iranians, criticized both within Iran and internationally, but Ahmad Shah had little choice but to accept it.

The popular backlash to the Qajars’ continuing weakness and that hated 1919 agreement with Britain helped fertilize the development of Iranian nationalism. Iranian elites had already begun to embrace nationalist sentiments before this, but now the feeling began to permeate, largely through popular literary culture, to the Iranian people in general. Nationalism often needs some foreign occupier or enemy to react against (see: all of 19th century Ottoman history), and in this case the Iranian people were reacting to centuries of Turkic military and dynastic governance going back to the Safavids (a dynasty of mixed ethnic origins whose authority rested on the Turkic tribes that supported it). There was now an uptick in anti-Turk feelings–a very bad thing for the Qajars, who were, you guessed it, ethnically Turkic. There’s even some literature from this period (and later) that expresses regret for the Arab conquest of Iran way back in the 7th century. Considering that it was the Arab conquest that brought Islam to Iran, this is a rather shocking sentiment to read in 20th century Iranian literature. Or at least it seemed shocking to me when I first encountered some of it in my grad school Persian classes. A literary Iranian person might not find it that shocking, I guess.

Anyway, as the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand in the Russian civil war, they saw British-dominated Iran as a problem insofar as the Brits kept using Iran as a staging ground to interfere in Russian affairs. It’s pretty clear that Britain didn’t want a direct confrontation with the Bolsheviks, but they weren’t above sending aid to a local revolt here, or sending an army via Iran to Baku, Azerbaijan, to try to keep the oil fields there out of Ottoman and Bolshevik hands (the Battle of Baku, in 1918, was an Ottoman victory). In May 1920 an amphibious Russian force landed at Anzali, an Iranian Caspian Sea port, and quickly established the “Soviet Republic of Gilan” on the southwestern Caspian shore, based in the city of Rasht. Their objective was plainly to march on Tehran. Continue reading

Today in Iranian history: Reza Pahlavi is crowned Shah (1925)

Decades before they helped engineer the coup that restored Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power, the British were responsible for engineering another Iranian coup that eventually resulted in the enthronement of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944), and the institution of the Pahlavi “Dynasty.” I put “dynasty” in quotes because it was just the two of them over the 54 years it was in power; by contrast, the Qajar Dynasty that the Pahlavis succeeded covered 7 rulers (two of whom ruled for more than 35 years each) and 136 years.

Reza Shah Pahlavi (Wikimedia)

Anyhoo, the 1921 Persian coup was of a piece with the political and military maneuvers that had marked the 19th century “Great Game” competition for Asian supremacy between the Russian and British Empires, only in this case Soviet Russia had (sort of; I mean, the name was different) replaced the imperial Russians. Iran (or Persia, if you prefer) was never a colony, as such, but it gave up considerable autonomy to the two great empires, who viewed Iran as part of the dividing line between their Asian empires and informally divided the country into spheres of influence–Russian in the north, British in the south. The Great Game ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which settled things between the two empires left Iran, which had in 1905 transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, as a single nation that was now formally divided into those two spheres of influence. As you might imagine, a monarch trying to rule a kingdom that two much more powerful empires had divided into semi-formal pieces was inevitably going to be pretty ineffectual, and Ahmad Shah Qajar (d. 1930) probably wouldn’t have been that strong a ruler even in the best of circumstances.

Then World War I happened, and the Russian Revolution happened, and that whole Anglo-Russian partnership went right out the window. Continue reading

Good history reading: the Battle of Ctesiphon (1915)

Earlier this week (November 22-25) was the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Battle of Ctesiphon, the point at which Britain’s 1915 campaign to take Baghdad went from a bad decision in theory to a bad decision in fact. That campaign, in short, consisted of the 6th (Poona) Division of the British Indian Army, under General Charles Townshend, hoofing it into central Iraq, stretching its supply line too thin in the process, and encountering much tougher than expected Ottoman resistance. With the Ottomans able to get reinforcements and supplies much easier than the Brits could, they had little trouble isolating and eventually crushing Townshend’s force.

Charles Townshend, British commander during the Mesopotamian Campaign. Townshend was captured at Kut and spent the rest of the war living in what sounds like a pretty luxurious captivity in Istanbul. (Wikimedia)

Ctesiphon was the first heavy engagement of the offensive, and it ended in a tactical stalemate, as both the British attacking force and the Ottoman defenders took heavy losses and ordered a retreat on the final day of the battle. But it turned into a strategic Ottoman victory when their commander, Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha, realized that the Brits were in even worse shape than his forces were (because of the supply line issue), and turned his army around to pursue them. Rather than retreating all the way back to Basra and safety, Townshend opted to hole up at Kut, a town about 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the resulting almost six month Siege of Kut ended in April 1916 in what is often described as the single greatest military defeat in the history of the British Empire–over 10,000 men of the 6th Division were taken captive, and many thousands more were killed in the fighting. The Brits finally took Baghdad in 1917, but only after the Ottoman capacity to wage war had been significantly weakened across the board.

The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn put together a two-part series (that link will take you to part 2, which then has a link to part 1) on Ctesiphon this week, and if you’re interested in World War I and/or military history I highly recommend reading it. Last month Dunn did a six-part series (again, I’m linking to the last entry, which has links to all the others) on why the Brits made the ultimately disastrous decision to march on Baghdad in 1915 in the first place, and last summer he wrote a three-part series on the British surrender at Kut. I probably don’t cover as much World War I here as I should, except insofar as the fallout from that war has some bearing on contemporary events in the Middle East, so hopefully these will satisfy any WWI buffs out there.

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