The best books by Western veterans of the Great War in the Middle East

Eugene Rogan Author Of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East
By Eugene Rogan

Who am I?

As a professional historian of the Middle East, I’ve long recognized WWI as a vital turning point in the region’s history, when the ancient Ottoman Empire fell and the modern states of the Middle East took its place. Based in Oxford, I am particularly aware of this university’s role in shaping so many of those whose book captured the British experience of the Ottoman Front. But there’s also an element of family history behind my fascination, as in following the story of my great-uncle’s death in Gallipoli in 1915, I came to appreciate the magnitude of sacrifice suffered by all sides in the Great War in the Middle East.

I wrote...

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

By Eugene Rogan,

Book cover of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

What is my book about?

By 1914 the powers of Europe were sliding inexorably toward war, and they pulled the Middle East along with them into one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In The Fall of the Ottomans, award-winning historian Eugene Rogan brings the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the Middle East to vivid life, uncovering the often ignored story of the region's crucial role in the conflict. Unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was fast-moving and unpredictable, with the Turks inflicting decisive defeats on the Entente in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Gaza before the tide of battle turned in the Allies' favor. The postwar settlement led to the partition of Ottoman lands, laying the groundwork for the ongoing conflicts that continue to plague the modern Arab world. A sweeping narrative of battles and political intrigue from Gallipoli to Arabia, The Fall of the Ottomans is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Great War and the making of the modern Middle East.

The books I picked & why

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By John Buchan,

Book cover of Greenmantle

Why this book?

John Buchan served in the War Propaganda Bureau during WWI, crafting press releases that sought to preserve public morale against the terrible losses on the Western Front. Already a successful novelist, he created a new character named Richard Hannay who starred in his 1915 adventure thriller The Thirty Nine Steps. Hannay was so popular that Buchan revived him for a 1916 sequel set in the Ottoman Empire that proved an enduring classic: Greenmantle. Through his work in intelligence and propaganda, Buchan was aware of British war planners’ concerns that the Ottoman call for jihad that followed their declaration of war might provoke colonial Muslims to rise against the Entente Powers in India, Egypt, North Africa, and the Caucasus. He captured British fears of an Ottoman-inspired jihad inflaming Indian Muslims with the memorably Orientalist line: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spar. And the wind is blowing towards the Indian border.” It is amazing to think that Buchan managed to publish his book at the very height of the war in 1916, and it’s still a rollicking good read today.

The Secret Battle

By A.P. Herbert,

Book cover of The Secret Battle

Why this book?

Herbert served as a junior infantry officer in Gallipoli and captured his experiences in one of the grittiest and most credible accounts of the horrors of that campaign in this early anti-war novel. His hero is a brilliant young Oxford graduate (Herbert was himself an Oxford man and served as MP representing the University of Oxford from 1925 – 1940) named Harry Penrose who suffered fear, doubt, and mental illness on both the Ottoman and Western Fronts – like so many of his contemporaries. Herbert captures the injustice of wartime courts-martial in which gallant officers were condemned for failing to carry out unreasonable orders. “That is the gist of it,” the narrator concludes in the novel, “that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice – and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.”

Five Years in Turkey

By Liman von Sanders,

Book cover of Five Years in Turkey

Why this book?

For all the interest in the British experience of the Great War in the Middle East, there are precious few books that captured the other side of the trenches in the immediate aftermath of the war. Liman von Sanders was one of the few. His book first appeared in German in 1919, but was published in English eight years later and gave American and British readers their first real sense of the Ottoman and German experience of the war. Liman began service in Ottoman domains as the head of a German military mission to rebuild the Turkish Army after the catastrophic Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Given all he knew about the low level of Ottoman war preparedness, he was outspoken against concluding an alliance to draw Turkey into the Central Alliance. But once the die was cast, Liman threw himself into the Ottoman war effort with all he had. The Turks didn’t always appreciate him, and Ataturk was particularly hostile. But Liman shows respect for the courage and determination of his Ottoman colleagues built over five years in Turkey in which he participated in the Gallipoli campaign and in the Palestine campaign.

The Road to En-Dor Being an Account of How Two Prisoners of War at Yozgad in Turkey Won Their Way to Freedom

By Elias Henry Jones,

Book cover of The Road to En-Dor Being an Account of How Two Prisoners of War at Yozgad in Turkey Won Their Way to Freedom

Why this book?

Jones was a Welshman who served in the Indian Army in Mesopotamia. He was among the 13,000+ officers and men who surrendered at Kut al-Amara in April 1916. However, he has nothing to say of the horrors of the siege of Kut, or the fate that befell common soldiers, many of whom were marched to death in the Syrian desert. As an officer, Jones was dispatched to the relative comfort of a prisoner of war camp in Yozgat, in central Turkey, and his story begins there in 1917. It is a madcap story of how the British prisoners conspired to persuade their Turkish captors that they were mediums and were able to communicate with spirits through a Ouija board. Jones and one of his fellow officers then feigned madness to secure their repatriation to Britain. While there is something of the tone of a public school adventure to it all, the book is a fascinating look at the conditions in which British officers were held when taken prisoner, and the workings of the mental asylums in wartime Turkey. Suffice it to say Jones and his colleague had their work cut out for them in persuading the skeptical Turkish medical officers that they were in fact mad.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

By T.E. Shaw,

Book cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Why this book?

Not hard to explain why I’m recommending Lawrence of Arabia’s classic – perhaps harder to explain why I’ve waited until the 5th slot to do so. The answer is that I have listed my five choices in order of appearance. After the war, Lawrence returned to Oxford where he was hosted by All Souls College and encouraged to write up his experiences of the Arab Revolt. He completed the first draft in 1921. Many drafts followed, some destined for print and others for obscurity (one draft allegedly went missing at a railway station, fittingly enough, given the damage Lawrence did to stations along the Hijaz Railway line). First published in 1926 as a subscription edition, most general readers had to make do with an abridged version published in 1927 under the title Revolt in the Desert, which quickly became a best seller. Lawrence’s many fans had to wait until after his death in 1935 to access a trade edition of Seven Pillars. It hasn’t been out of print since. I am always surprised by the success of Seven Pillars, given the oddness of Lawrence’s writing style. But he was there, is often the only eyewitness to write about the events he survived, and it was an absolutely captivating moment in the history of the Great War which Sevel Pillars immortalized (with some help from David Lean).

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