Gallipoli; More Than A World War 1 Side-Show
by Keith Rankin
24 April 2007
One of the less-remarked upon legacies of World War 2 is the resulting lack of awareness of World War 1, and what the European powers were fighting for in the 1910s. This is a great pity, because better knowledge today of "The Great War" might just have dissuaded the western powers from meddling in the "Middle East" once again, as we are doing today.
World War 1 was not about the trenches of France and Belgium. That was - for all its horror - a sideshow; albeit a sideshow that was needed before the war could end. Rather, the war was about which European vulture would devour the tasty entrails of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire; an empire that then closely matched the area we today call the Middle East (but which we should really call Southwest Asia). [The term "Middle East" implies that the whole world revolves around Western Europe.] By 1914 the Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its European possessions in Greece and the Balkans. It was an empire that had already been in a state of decline for more than a century.
The Ottoman Turkish territories however were extremely important to an emerging global economy that was becoming a playground for European nationalism. Controlling Turkey in 1914 was like controlling Mayfair in the English version of the game of Monopoly. Egypt, with the Suez Canal, had been under British occupation since 1882. Russia depended on access through the Turkish Bosporus and Dardanelles to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea.
The biggest prize in Southwest Asia was oil. British investment had taken the lead, but it was clear that Germany stood to become a much more powerful industrial power for whom control over the Ottoman oil reserves could eventually give it a decisive military and economic advantage over all other twentieth-century powers with the possible exception of the United States.
Britain had the early advantage as the European power with the most influence, especially in Egypt and Persia. But Britain failed to secure the formal alliance with Turkey that had been offered to it. So Turkey sought and gained an alliance with Germany in lieu. Indeed today Turkey continues to maintain a strong economic and political relationship with Germany.
Serbia, independent from Turkey since 1878, looked to Russia for protection, as it did in 1999. France (and to a lesser extent Britain) had invested heavily in Russia's industrialisation, in large part to limit the influence of Germany in Eastern Europe.
So, in 1914 when a Serb assassin shot and killed an Austrian Arch-Duke in Bosnia, Austria threatened to invade Serbia. They were only put off by Russia's commitment to aid Serbia. This intervention by Russia brought in a counter-response by Germany in aid of Austria. Thus, in essence, World War 1 was a contest between the two emerging industrial powers of Europe [the "New Europe" of the times], Germany and Russia.
So how did Old Europe, the two declining economic powers of France and Britain, get involved? France had never forgiven Germany for taking part of its territory - and imposing costly reparations - in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Indeed that desire to regain what was lost (Alsace-Lorraine) is why France had invested so heavily in Russia. So France declared war on Germany.
With Britain it was less clear-cut. Britain could have sided with Germany, or remained neutral. But Britain was embarrassed by having given Turkey on a plate to Germany. And Britain too had significant investments in Russia. Britain had no real reason to again fight its old enemy and neighbour, France. This was an opportunity instead to cement an historic alliance with France.
Germany, the emerging superpower, was much more threatening to Britain's global economic interests. More specifically, Britain needed to protect its security on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, namely its oil interests in Persia (Iran) and its control over the Suez Canal. So Britain joined France in an attempt to neuter Germany while regaining its dominant position of influence in the Middle East. Ending the German alliance with Turkey was priority number one. While Britain was fighting against Germany, it was fighting for Turkey. Ottoman Turkey was the prize; a prize that could have been its through diplomacy. World War 1 was not inevitable.
So Britain lost Gallipoli, and hence the Turkish part of the Turkish Empire. But, by continuing its fight with Germany on the western front, and aided by Russia tying up much of Germany's military resource on the eastern front, Britain stood to win back its influence in Southwest Asia by defeating Germany. In 1917 Britain invaded and occupied Baghdad in a precursor to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the end of World War 1 in 1918, Britain and British interests (including a company called BP which was 51% owned by the British government) had effective control over Middle Eastern oil. France was left to look after Syria, including the part that is now Lebanon. Meanwhile Russia had had its socialist revolution, and was too preoccupied to compete with Britain and France for the spoils of the Middle East.
So when we commemorate our war dead at Gallipoli, we are remembering a series of battles that were central to Britain's war objectives. This was no sideshow. Britain lost those battles, which meant that Plan B - war of attrition in the trenches of France and Belgium - became the only way for Britain to prevent Germany from controlling the Middle East through its alliance with Turkey. Germany was on its way to becoming the world's first truly industrial-scale super-power.
In his 1996 book The Origins of the First World War, Gordon Martel concluded that "The First World War was - in the final analysis, fought to determine who would control the future of the Middle East. Whoever won this struggle would, it was believed, be in a position to dominate all of Europe. Germany and her ally made the bid for control; Russia and her allies resolved to stop them."