A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 19, 2014

Britain Raids the Syrian Coast: HMS Doris at Alexandretta 1914

We have previously talked about the British proposal at the outset of the Great War in the Middle East for an amphibious landing at Alexandretta (İskenderun today); that post looked at the strategic importance of the port, and future posts will delve further with the fate of the landing project; but in the meantime, it's time to talk about Britain's naval operations on the Syrian coast a century ago.

Since the feared Turkish attack on the Suez Canal had not yet shown any sign of happening (it would come in late January), it was decided to use naval assets to reconnoiter and if possible raid the Syrian/Palestinian coast of the Ottoman Empire.

HMS Doris
The ships would be HMS Doris, a British protected cruiser (a light cruiser with an armored deck), commanded by Captain Frank Larken, and the Russian protected cruiser Askold, Captain Sergey Ivanov. Askold had been serving in the Far East,  but after the defeat of the German raider Emden was transferred to the Mediterranean. Since Turkey had closed the Straits, Askold could not reach Russian ports in the Black Sea, so she operated with British and French fleets.

Askold was unusual in the Russian fleet for its five funnels, which gave it an easily identifiable silhouette.

At the beginning of December 1914, Askold was sent to reconnoiter the coast and at Haifa cut out a German steamer (also named Haifa) and captured it.

Admiral Richard Peirse
She then proceeded to Port Said. There Vice Admiral Richard Peirse, Commander-in-Chief of Britain's  East Indies (southeast Asia) station had recently arrived in Egypt to defend the Canal. On December 11, Peirse was instructed to dispatch Askold and Doris to the Syrian coast for reconnaissance and other operations. Askold left first, followed by Doris after an air reconnaissance confirmed that Turkish troops around Beersheba (Beersheva) had not left their camps to threaten the canal.

Askold proceeded to Beirut, where she sank two Turkish steamers; she landed landing parties for reconnaissance in several places.

HMS Doris,  meanwhile, proceeded up the coast for what the British Official History calls "a series of remarkable adventures."

The Naval Review, Volume III, No. 4 (1915) contains a rather detailed account entitled "Three Months on the Syrian Coast," available free online from either Google Books or from The Naval Review website. The article, which has no byline but was clearly done by someone aboard the ship or with access to her logbooks, begins on page 621; I draw much of the rest of my narrative from it, as well as from the British official histories, ground forces and naval.

The Eastern Mediterranean in 1914
On December 13 Doris began her voyage up the coast, bombarding a Turkish fortification around al-‘Arish in Sinai. On the 15th she bombarded a Turkish position about two miles south of Ascalon and put a landing party ashore which occupied the position "and removed certain objects of military value or antiquarian interest." Turkish troops soon arrived but the landing party withdrew unscathed under the protection of Doris's guns.

Proceeding up the coast, Doris' seaplane carried out reconnaissance at Jaffa and again at Haifa. The Naval Review article tells a tale about the local official in Jaffa that reads a bit like wartime propaganda but deserves to be repeated anyway:
While off Jaffa and Haifa, seaplane reconnaissances were carried out by Bimbashi Herbert, late of the Egyptian Survey, and Lieut. Destrem, of the French Flying Service. At the former place the arrival of the seaplane caused terror and affright; the Kaimakam, a notorious prosecutor of enemy non combatants, fled headlong from the Serail and concealed himself in a foreigner’s cellar. His Excellency emerged only when seaplane and ship were alike out of sight. He then blustered forth and sought to divert attention from his own unimpressive conduct by ordering the arrest of a number of old women, who, not having cellars in which to hide, had innocently put up umbrellas or parasols to fend off the anticipated shower of umbrellas or parasols to fend off the anticipated shower of bombs. These unfortunate ladies were soundly beaten by the unchivalrous Kaimakam for having “signalled” with these umbrellas to the seaplane.
["Bimbashi Herbert," mentioned here, was the ship's intelligence officer; "Bimbashi" is the rank of major in the Egyptian service. This is apparently one J.R. Herbert, not the far better known intelligence operative Aubrey Herbert, who this same week was settling in at British HQ in Cairo with T.E. Lawrence and others of the intelligence section, which I'll be talking about soon.]

The airmen flew as far as Ramla but neither around Jaffa nor later around Haifa did they spot any Ottoman troop concentrations. Proceeding up the Lebanese coast another landing party went ashore near Sidon to cut the telegraph lines to Damascus:
On December 18th a party under Commander K. Brounger landed about 9 a.m. at a point about four miles south of Sidon. The coastal telegraph line (five wires) and the telephone to Damascus were carefully removed for a distance of nearly three quarters of a mile, the posts being cut down and in many cases sawn in three. As the road bridge within the area occupied had already been cut off from the road to the north by the action of the river, no time was wasted in its destruction. A number of the inhabitants stopped ploughing in order to converse with members of the party and a Turkish mounted gendarme rode up and down at furious speed some two miles away towards Sidon. There was no fighting, but an elderly Maronite, who had been to New York, was temporarily deprived of a fowling piece, which was likely to be highly dangerous to its possessor, and a number of tortoises and two rare frogs were brought off. The latter were subsequently presented by their captor, Bimbashi Herbert, to the Cairo Zoological Gardens.
After the specimen collection, the Doris headed north to Alexandretta, where her target was the railroad. After dark on the 18th she sent a party ashore:
On arriving after nightfall off Alexandretta the Doris experienced one of the savage squalls which haunt that area, and for some time it was doubtful whether a boat could get away. At 11.15 p.m. however the weather moderated enough for Lieut. R. S. Hulme-Goodier, R.N.R. to land with a party at a point about two and a half miles along the coast northward from Jonah’s Pillar (Bab Yunus) and some eight miles in an airline from Alexandretta. Along this part of the coast the rail way runs only a few yards from high-water mark. A couple of rails were loosened and the telegraph wires were cut. The party, working in darkness and as silently as possible escaped observation from the Turkish patrols, but regained the ship with great difficulty owing to the heavy weather. Less than an hour after their return, a train was seen approaching at some eight  miles an hour from the north, and many officers were specially called in order to see the expected fireworks, the ship being at the time less than 2,000 yards from the shore which is fairly steep-to all the way round that part of the gulf. Unfortunately the train was not loaded with ammunition. The engine jumped the damaged section and escaped into Alexandretta with terrified trumpetings. The train however was derailed, many of the trucks being telescoped and the contents, chiefly consisting of live camels, were spilt about.
At dawn another train was observed to be endeavouring to retire from the scene of the disaster and fire was opened on a railway bridge to the northward in order to cut off its retreat. The bridge, like so many on this branch of the Baghdad rail way, was built of steel girders and reinforced concrete, on which shell fire makes impression with difficulty. There was also a considerable sea running. The bridge was damaged, but not fatally, and fire was then directed upon the engine, which was wounded by two 12-pounder common in its Vitals. Proceeding southward, some of the trucks of the derailed train were observed to be on fire, and an immense tethered camel was seen apparently writhing in the flames. The sea had got up, and although every effort was made to put the poor beast out of its pain, it was unavailing until the creature ate the rope which tied it and so escaped.
This was in the morning of December 19, 100 years ago today.

At this point Captain Larken sent an ultimatum demanding the surrender of all railway engines and munitions of war or face bombardment; the local qaimaqam was given until 9 am the next day to reply. The Naval Review account continues:

In the afternoon of the same day, an ultimatum was presented to the Kaimakam of Alexandretta, Fahtin Bey, in which 'the surrender, for purposes of immediate destruction, of all railway engines and munitions of war then in Alexandretta, was insisted upon under penalty of a bombardment of the railway and harbour works and the principal Government buildings. The ultimatum which could not have been drawn in a more stately manner had the surrender of the entire Ottoman Empire been demanded, was handed to His Excellency in person by Lieut. Pirie-Gordon, the Intelligence Officer, at 3 p.m. and he was informed that an answer would have to be forthcoming at 9 o'clock next morning.
[This intelligence officer was apparently Harry Pirie-Gordon, who before the war had made a survey of the coast around Alexandretta and would later serve with the Arab Bureau.]
During the interval unceasing squalls flayed the bay, and although searchlights were played on the town, the rain was so heavy that little could be seen. It was afterwards learnt that the Turks had taken the opportunity to remove such stores as were still in the town under cover of the storm, but owing to the measures taken by the ship they were unable to smuggle out their engines. Next morning, with an eflrontery inspired by the best Prussian traditions, the Turkish Commander-in-Chief in Syria, Djemal Pasha, replied to the ultimatum threatening to massacre one or more British subjects from among the many civilians detained (contrary to international custom) by the Turks, for every Ottoman, combatant or non-combatant, killed in the bombardment, and utterly declining to surrender either engines or stores. Furthermore the United States Acting Consul, Mr. Bishop of the Standard Oil Company, (who very ably filled the difficult position of mediator throughout the whole of these negotiations) was allowed by the Turks to bring off telegrams from his Ambassador in Constantinople and from the British prisoners in Aleppo and Damascus requesting Captain Larken not to bombard Alexandretta. To this fantastic attempt at bluff the captain returned a short answer and informed Djemal Pasha that if he attempted to execute his infamous threat, he, his staff, and every one else who might have obeyed his orders to that end would be specially handed over by the terms of any Treaty of Peace to the British Government for trial and punishment both in person1 and property. A few hours’ grace was accorded for this threat to sink in, and the engines were demanded by 9 o’clock next morning.
While awaiting that answer, Doris made a quiet sortie to the north to destroy a railway bridge.
During the interval the Doris headed north and landed a party under the Commander at the mouth of the Euzerli Chai near the town of Deurt Yol (four roads), which the Armenians call by its equivalent in their language, Chokmerjumen. The Turks opened fire at about 150-200 yards’ range from a trench in front of a small hut, after very kindly allowing the party to land unmolested. The slope of the beach here provided an excellent breastwork from behind which our people returned the Turks’ fire while the ship shelled them out of their trench. The party then advanced in open order to the railway bridge over the Euzerli Chai, over which it was carried by a two-span bridge of steel girders on reinforced concrete abutments. This was carefully blown up by Lieut. Edwards in such a way that one span was twisted and canted over at an angle of 15° as well as being shifted more than three feet out of the true, and the two northern piers were much damaged.
revealing the treasures within. An inspection of the telegraph reel showed that the stationmaster had been doing his duty up to the very moment of surrender, as an unfinished message to the nearest military post was found, in which the Doris was described as a destroyer. The telegraph instruments and the cash were seized in the King’s name by the Intelligence Oflicer, and Herbert removed certain notice boards as souvenirs. The three Armenians volubly insisted on being taken away as prisoners, explaining that the German railway authorities had made the Turks hang two stationmasters the previous day because the Doris had derailed a train, and they feared worse things if they were to be caught after their bridge had been blown up. They were taken on board where they provided exact and valuable information about the Turkish supplies and reinforcements which had passed through their station. Before retiring, a good many shots were fired into the station water tank, from which the water squirted in a most diverting manner through the bullet holes. Some telegraph poles were battered down. The casualties were Private A. H. Brimson, R.M.L.I. [Royal Marine Light Infantry], and one Turk wounded.
After this side venture, Doris returned to the standoff at Alexandretta and the demand for the railway engines.
Next morning, December 22nd,. the Turks agreed to sacrifice their engines and produced two machines which the owners valued at £15,000. They were French built and are believed to have belonged to the old British company which had worked the Mersina-Adana railway before it was taken over by the Germans a few years ago. The Kaimakam, however, explained that he had no explosives and asked if some dynamite could be lent to him by the ship. Captain Larken very obligingly provided some gun-cotton, regretting that he had no dynamite to spare. Lieut. Edwards with a party of torpedo men, specially selected for the size of their beards (it being a Moslem town), was sent, with the Intelligence Oflicer and Staff-Paymaster F. J. K. Melsome as interpreters. The Turks stood on their dignity and declined to allow our people to have anything to do with the explosion. It was explained to the Kaimakam that if the gun-cotton were lent to the Turks without skilled supervision they might (a) hurt somebody by letting it off too soon, or (b) omit to use it for the purpose for which it had been ostensibly borrowed. The former danger was somewhat real, as the German railway engineer upon whom the Turks relied to blow up his own engines for them, declined with almost vulgar emphasis to do anything of the kind, whereat the Kaimakam blandly confessed that he had no one else who would dare, or even knew how, to do the job. Anxious however to oblige, when he found that his proposal to postpone the explosion until the German should be in a more tractable frame  of mind was not entertained, he suggested that if the Doris’s torpedo-lieutenant were to lay the charges satisfactorily to himself, as representing His Britannic Majesty, he could then proceed to fire them, if lent for the purpose to the Ottoman Navy, in order that the actual explosion might be caused by an oflicer duly authorized to represent the Sultan. This proposal was readily accepted, and Mr. Bishop, the United States Acting Consul was witness that Lieut. Edwards, R.N., was rated as a Turkish Naval Officer for the rest of the day. Enjoying this dual capacity Lieut. Edwards afterwards superintended both sections of the explosions, although the actual firing, owing to the inaccessible position of the fuzes, was done by an agile Turkish quarryman under his immediate instruction. The rest of the day was deliberately wasted by the Turks, who exhausted every expedient in hopes of wearing out the patience of the British so as to induce them to agree to a postponement of the operation. Finally after an abrupt threat of bombardment within ten minutes, followed by the vigorous shaking of an unmannerly Ottoman officer of gendarmes, the harbourmaster, a prince of procrastinators, was cast into a shallow part of the sea. Almost immediately after this the matter was put through. The two engines, which had been running about, mournfully whistling from time to time, were caught by the exertions of a squad of cavalry which chased them in the dark. and held in the place of execution under the ship’s searchlights. They were then duly blown up.in the presence of Mr. Bishop, who attended Lieut. Edwards throughout to see fair play, as that officer was unable to speak Turkish and no other officer was allowed to approach the engines. The operation was one of some danger, as after the explosions, bits and bolts rained down over a con siderable area. When at last the party was able to put off, a final laugh was raised among its cold and hungry members when the harbourmaster, pathetically bootless, swordless, and wet, ambled up out of the darkness and remarked in a polite but melancholy voice, “I beseech you go away, the people are excited, oh please to go away, I implore, oh go away.” The party had been some eight hours on the beach on a bleak day, covered the whole time by the rifles of a considerable force of Turks who were posted behind walls and in houses commanding the various piers and cambers whereon the somewhat humorous events of the afternoon and evening were taking place.
After the charade of a British naval lieutenant being officially a Turkish soldier for the purpose of destroying the engines had been duly witnessed by the neutral American Acting Consul (an oilman), the Doris left Alexandretta. Her adventures on the Syrian coast would continue, however, and I'll be providing Part Two soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18, 1914: A Khedive becomes a Sultan, but Egypt Becomes a British Protectorate

In our discussion of the centennial of the First World War in the Middle East, we have already discussed the anomalous position of Egypt: though ruled by a hereditary Khedive, it was still de jure a province of the Ottoman Empire, paying annual tribute to Constantinople. But, since 1882, it had been de facto under British control, occupied by Britain, whose innocuously titled "British Agent and Consul-General" functioned as a virtual viceroy. It was an awkward legal status often referred to as "the veiled protectorate," and once Britain went to war with the Ottoman Empire, It became wholly untenable.

A century ago today, the veil came off. Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt, deposed the Khedive and installed his uncle as ruler with the new title of "Sultan," but it was not as simple as that, as there was a month or so of hard bargaining before the deed was done.

Ronald Storrs
Lord Kitchener had been British Agent at the time of the outbreak of the war, when he was kept in Britain to take over the War Office. In his absence, Milne Cheetham was the Acting British Agent, with Ronald Storrs as his "Oriental Secretary," his Middle East expert.

Once Turkey entered the war, there was no question that Britain had to alter the status of Egypt. But to what? In London, many favored outright annexation, making Egypt as much a part of the Empire as India. The Agency in Cairo was alarmed: direct rule would alienate Egyptians and the Muslim world generally, while the policy since 1882 had been to govern through a local ruler. Cheetham and Storrs pleaded for a protectorate instead, On November 19, London agreed, but it took another month before the protectorate was proclaimed.

‘Abbas Hilmi II
The reason was Britain needed a candidate for ruler of Egypt; the incumbent Khedive, ‘Abbas Hilmi II, was in Constantinople, recovering from a failed assassination attempt, and he was an inveterate opponent of British rule. Kitchener had been determined to depose him even before; now he had to go.

‘Abbas Hilmi II was the son of the Khedive Tawfiq and grandson of the great Isma‘il, the man who both glorified and bankrupted Egypt the previous century. Isma‘il had two surviving sons, uncles of ‘Abbas Hilmi; the elder of these, Hussein Kamil, was respected by both the British and the Egyptian establishment, and he became Britain's candidate. But he was to prove a hard negotiator: insisting on protecting the hereditary rights of the Muhammad ‘Ali family among other issues. Ronald Storrs in his Memoirs (as the British edition was called; the US edition is called Orientations) tells the story:
Sultan Hussein Kamil
But before proclaiming the good news it was necessary to provide the throne with an occupant. Prince Hussein procrastinated in the hope of better terms. The fact of the negotiations was known, and strong family and general pressure was secretly exerted upon him through emissaries from Constantinople to drag on discussions until mid-January by which time the Turks would be ready to attack Egypt and then to break them off. I do not think the Prince was appreciably influenced by this sort of thing, though Harims in those days were almost exclusively Turkish, and domestic pressure, like the Mills of God, though it grind slowly yet grinds exceedingly small. He considered, and I agreed, that he was conferring as well as receiving a favour and that, in the matter of status, his wishes should be met. The Prince was strongly of opinion that Egypt should be transformed into a Kingdom under an Egyptian King. As it was impossible that a vassal prince should bear the same style as his suzerain, I ventured to suggest the alternative of Sultan, an Arab name signifying "the bearer of ruling power" which had been first adopted in Egypt by Saladin, and which was incidentally the title of the ex-Suzerain ruler of the Ottoman Empire. My proposal was accepted by both sides. Majesty being impossible for the same reason as King, Hautesse, the ancient and dignified double of Altesse, was suggested in order to distinguish the sovereign from the spate of obscure and sometimes ignoble collaterals all claiming the title of Highness. Meanwhile, nothing was settled, neither side was committed to anything, and a sharp Allied reverse on any front might plunge us into the dreaded inferiority of hawking round an ever less desirable crown and continually having to offer higher inducement for its acceptance. I had spoken frequently but, as a junior, unofficially, with Prince Hussein, having fresh in my memory the perplexities and humiliations of the Mustafa Fehmy crisis. Negotiations dragged on for about a month. At last the question was narrowed down to the offer by the Government of the throne of Egypt to Prince Hussein with the title of Sultan and - nothing more. The Prince behaved with great dignity, but pointed out that the document contained no mention of heredity in his family or indeed among the descendants of Muhammad Ali; that he, was allowed no voice in the choice of a flag nor was even sure he would have one at all; and that he was not informed whether Egyptians would be British subjects or retain their own entity and nationality under a British Protectorate. I considered him entirely justified on these three points, but we had our instructions, and it seemed impossible to persuade him to accept. The alternative was the proclamation of a Protectorate without any Egyptian Sovereign at all.
The imposition of the Union Jack, containing as it does the cross in three forms, would have had a bad effect in Egypt and a worse throughout Arabia; and the Khedivial Turkish party, which though dormant still existed, would have been immensely strengthened when it became known that we had not been able to make the rival claimant an offer which his dignity could accept. The Ministers told us frankly that they would not continue in office under a throneless Protectorate. We had given up all hope, and a telegram embodying the Prince's refusal, drafted and typed, lay ready for ciphering on Cheetham's table. As a last resort I primed Shaarawi Pasha, a rich landowner who had been intimate with the Prince all his life, and Ambroise Sinadino, a Greek, in more or less intimate contact with the Agency for the past thirty-five years. They went round independently and as if with no knowledge of the circumstances (I had in fact told them very little) pointed out to Prince Hussein how nervous the country was getting at the prolonged delay in the pro duction of the proclamation, and hoped that the responsibility did not lie on his side, as that might force the English to do things repugnant to them and disastrous to the country. On Sunday evening I received a note from Sinadino. "Mon cher Storrs, J'ai fait de la bonne besogne pendant une heure et demie. Son Altesse aimerait beaucoup avec l'autorisation de Monsieur Cheetham que vous alliez le voir demain lundi avant midi a sa Daira; il pourra ainsi vous parler a coeur ouvert. ]e vous serre la main; bien a vous. Ambroise."  I persuaded Cheetham to postpone his final telegram and telephoned to the Prince asking him to see me that evening instead of the next day. He received me very kindly in his Palace at Heliopolis and kept me from 10 till 12. A laconic brevity and a direct coming to the point are not the virtues of Prince Hussein, and he began by quoting a number of instances of his friendliness and loyalty to Great Britain from the very beginning. My soul fainted within me when he described with a wealth of horticultural detail how he had rooted up trees from his own garden at Giza and presented them to the first Lady Cromer and I longed to say: "Monseigneur! passons au Deluge" However, he eventually attacked the subject and speaking without any reserve at all told me that he wanted to accept the Sultanate, but as offered by H.M.G. could not face it. I begged him for his own sake and that of the country to trust the British Government, which had recalled him from exile and which had never yet betrayed him; still he would not accept. At about half-past eleven I said I feared I was intruding upon his leisure, and he asked me whether I would leave with an impresion of an obstinate man: I said No, but with a distinct impression of a Prince who had no confidence in Lord K. or the British Government. He appeared a little staggered at this and said: "I cannot let you go away under this impression; what do you think I had better do?" I recommended him to allow us to put in a strong appeal for the heredity, and to leave the question of the flag and the nationality to the wisdom of the British High Commissioner who was coming out. I pointed out that a Sultan on the throne was in a much better position for bargaining than a claimant however illustrious, and that the Foreign Office, confronted with this notable proof of his bonne volante would be likely to allow him a larger share of confidence and consequently a freer hand in the future. He thought awhile and said: "If you will guarantee that the High Commissioner will decide the other two points in my favour and procure for me the heredity, I accept." I told him that this was not an acceptance at all, but only a post-dating of his demands, that I regretted so small a thing should keep him from doing all the good I knew he would be able to do, but that there was nothing for it now but to dispatch the telegram embodying his refusal. He took leave of me very cordially, and said he very much appreciated my anxiety that the Sultanate should not pass into less worthy hands. I left him at midnight, impressed by his dignity and the real justice of his cause, and informed Cheetham of his offer. Early next morning Prince Hussein sent for the Ministers and, after informing them of what had happened, telephoned to me that he was prepared to accept my suggestion of the night before. He visited Cheetham (who was not a little pleased), withdrew his former refusal and made the new proposal which we have now embodied in a telegram and sent home. 
At the end of this long saga, Storrs comments:
I have ventured to record thus at length the last inner workings of that rumbling and irregular but beneficent old machine, then about to be thrown on the scrap-heap -- the British "Occupation" of Egypt.
So the Khedive became a Sultan, Egypt became a protectorate, and the British Agent/Consul General became a High Commissioner. And the new Sultan did get a new flag and Coat of Arms:

Flag of the Sultanate of Egypt

Something Lighter in a Dark Week

In this week that brought us the horrors of Peshawar, it may be worth a diversion into Ancient Near Eastern Studies humor.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Four Years Ago Today, Mohamed Bouazizi Set Himself on Fire...

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. The flames from the self-immolation of the young street vendor in Tunisia soon spread throughout the Arab world.

Mohamed Bouazizi
Ironically but perhaps fittingly, it is only in Tunisia that the legacy of Arab Spring still offers promise. Egypt has come full circle, actually welcoming military leadership; Syria and Libya are devastated, and Bahrain's spring was cut short. Though Tunisia's two runoff candidates for President are flinging charges at each other, the constitutional process is in play. Good for Tunisia.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Naguib Mahfouz's Widow Has Passed Away

Just days after what would have been Nobel Laureate Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz's 103rd birthday (see here for my post on the 100th three years ago, interviewing his translator and biographer),his widow,  Atiyatallah Ibrahim Rizq, has reportedly passed away. (Link is in Arabic).

Mahfouz kept his family life extremely private, and this has received little attention.

Hanukkah Greetings

Greetings to my Jewish readers for the first night of Hanukkah, which begins at sundown.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Erdoğan's Ottoman Script Revival and the Legacy of Kemalism

I haven't commented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcement last week  that he intends to institute the teaching of Ottoman Turkish as a requirement in high schools. Those unfamiliar with the history of Modern Turkey may wonder why the idea of teaching people the language used in the early 20th century is provoking a backlash in Turkey.

It is not just a sign of Erdoğan's "neo-Ottoman" proclivities as well as his continuing efforts to dismantle the secular "laicist" aspects of Turkish society; it is also one of his most direct assaults to date on the Kemalist legacy.

Of all of Kemal Atatürk's reforms aimed at radically transforming Turkey — abolition of the Sultanate and Caliphate, declaring the republic, instituting secularism and a Western work week, adoption of regularized surnames, banning traditional headgear like the fez and the veil — perhaps none more thoroughly undercut traditional Ottoman ways more than the language reform of 1928, which abandoned the Arabic/Persian script used to write Ottoman Turkish and adopted a modified Latin script. At the same time and after (with the founding of the Turkish Language Association in 1932), efforts were made to purge the language of the large vocabulary of Arabic and Persian loanwords and to replace them with Turkic words.

The Kemalist reforms made much linguistic sense: Turkish is an agglutinative language in which vowel harmony plays a major role, but the Arabic script is usually written with few or no vowels. But the other side of the reform was to cut modern Turks off from their heritage; only scholars and historians still learned Ottoman, so most Turks could not read materials written before 1928 unless they were transcribed into Modern Turkish.

So by seeking to require the teaching of Ottoman and the Arabic-Persian script in secondary schools, Erdoğan is directly attempting to reverse perhaps the most sweeping of the Kemalist reforms and thus the whole Kemalist legacy, which he has been  chipping away at as long as the AKP has been in power.

Haaretz on "The Forgotten Jews of Sudan"

Haaretz' title sums it up: "The forgotten Jews of Sudan even researchers haven't heard of."

In its heyday, the Jewish community in Sudan had fewer than 1,000 members – a drop in the sea compared to the 260,000-strong Moroccan-Jewish community, the 135,000-strong Algerian community, the 125,000 Jews living in Iraq, the 90,000-strong Tunisian community, and the 75,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before Israel was established.
The Jewish community in Sudan dissolved after 1956, when the country became independent and joined the Arab League. An estimated 500 Jews came to Israel, while the rest dispersed around the world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 13, 1914: Submarine HMS B11 Sinks Turkey's Mesudiye in the Dardanelles

A fanciful portrayal as B11 was submerged
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the first loss of a major warship in naval action in the Middle East in the First World War. Smaller river patrol craft had been lost in the Mesopotamian campaign, and some Russian vessels in Admiral Souchon's Black Sea Raid, but on this day the British submarine HMS B11 (Lt. Norman D. Holbrook, Commanding) sank the Turkish battleship Mesudiye (Maj. Beşiktaşlı Arif Nebi Bey, Commanding, but with Captain Üsküdarlı Rıfat Bey in acting command during the attack) as she was moored to protect minefields at Sarısığlar Bay off Chanak (Çanakkale), at the narrowest point in the Dardanelles.

It looked nothing like the fanciful sketch above, however, since His Majesty's Submarine B11 remained submerged at periscope depth throughout the entire attack

The achievement earned for the 26-year-old Lieutenant Holbrook the first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a submariner, and the first naval VC of the war. The VC is of course Britain's highest military honor.

Holbrook souvenir card
Holbrook even became a celebrity of sorts for a while, as the trading card at right shows; and in 1915 the Australian town of Germanton in New South Wales, feeling "Germanton" was not suitably patiotic, changed its name to Holbrook (who was English); and today, Holbrook, NSW houses the Holbrook Submarine Museum (though it is not on the coast). and features a scaled-down model of B11.

Scale model of HMS B11 in Holbrook, NSW
The war would see far more dramatic instances of submarine warfare, but the war in the Middle East was still new and in need of heroes.

Mesudiye after her refit
B11's daring was real enough (she also appears as B.11, B-11,  etc.), but Mesudiye was very much a sitting duck, anchored as a floating battery to defend the minefields. Her captain and officers had vigorously protested this role, but she was old and slow and the Ottoman Navy was now under German command, and Souchon and the Germans insisted.

Mesudiye was old (launched in 1874) after being built, ironically given her ultimate fate, at the Thames Iron Works in Britain. She was originally rated as a central-battery ironclad. In 1903 she was sent to Genoa for a complete rebuild and refit, and was subsequently classed as a pre-Dreadnought battleship, though her tonnage was less than half of that of the modern battle cruiser Yavuz (ex-Goeben). Worse still, her two big central guns had never been installed. 

B11, decks awash
HMS B11 was a British "B"-class sub launched in 1906. With her sister boats B9 and B10, she had been based in Malta since 1912 and was now operating from Tenedos with her sister boats and three French submarines as the sub force attached to the British flotilla patrolling the Aegean and blockading the exit from the straits since the flight of the Goeben and Breslau. Lt. Holbrook had taken command of B11 in December 1913.

Here's a period newspaper illustration; the narrative of the battle follows below.

Let's begin with the British side first. From the History of the Great War - Naval Operations, Volune 2, by Sir Julian Corbett (himself a distinguished sea power theorist), we find the details of Lieutenant Holbrook's attack:
So great was the demand for destroyers at home to meet the submarine menace that he [Admiral Carden] was only allowed to keep the six he had on his urgent representation that the six boats the French had sent were of too old a type to deal with the modern Turkish ones. The Goeben moreover was soon active again. From December 7 to 10 she had been out in the Black Sea with the Hamidieh escorting troops and transports, and had bombarded Batum for a short time. At the same time the Breslau had been detected apparently laying mines off Sevastopol, but had been met by bombing aeroplanes. In the Dardanelles was another cruiser, the Messudieh, guarding the minefield below the Narrows. Without more cruisers it was therefore impossible to maintain a blockade of Smyrna and Dedeagatch, and at the same time guard the flying base which had been established for the flotilla at Port Sigri, in Mityleni. The French, however, came to the rescue by sending up two ships, the cruiser Amiral Charner and the seaplane carrier Foudre, which, having left her sea-planes in Egypt, had been doing escort duty on the Port Said-Malta line. They were still on their way when a brilliant piece of service was performed, which did something to relieve the Admiral's anxiety and much to brighten the monotony of the eventless vigil.
For some time the three British submarines (B.9, 10 and 11) and the three French, had been itching for a new experience. There were known to be five lines of mines across the fairway inside the Straits, but Captain C. P. R. Coode, the resourceful commander of the destroyer flotilla, and Lieutenant-Commander G. H. Pownall, who commanded the submarines under him, believed that by fitting a submarine with certain guards the obstacle could be passed. Amongst both the French and the British submarine commanders there was keen competition to be made the subject of the experiment. Eventually the choice fell on Lieutenant N. D. Holbrook, of B.11, which had recently had her batteries renewed and had already been two miles up the Straits in chase of two Turkish gunboats.
On December 13, having been duly fitted with guards, she went in to torpedo anything she could get at. In spite of the strong adverse current Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in taking his boat clear under the five rows of mines, and, sighting a large two-funnelled vessel painted grey with the Turkish ensign flying, he closed her to 800 yards, fired a torpedo and immediately dived. As the submarine dipped he heard the explosion, and putting up his periscope saw that the vessel was settling by the stern. He had now to make the return journey, but to the danger of the mine-field a fresh peril was added; the lenses of the compass had become so badly fogged, that steering by it was no longer possible. He was not even sure where he was, but taking into consideration the time since he had passed Cape Helles, and the fact that the boat appeared to be entirely surrounded by land, he calculated that he must be in Sari Sighlar Bay.
Several times he bumped the bottom as he ran along submerged at full speed, but the risk of ripping open the submarine had to be taken, and it was not till half an hour had passed and be judged that the mines must now be behind him that he put up his periscope again. There was now a clear horizon on his port beam, and for this he steered, taking peeps from time to time to correct his course since the compass was still unserviceable. Our watching destroyers noticed a torpedo-boat apparently searching for him; but after he had dived twice under a minefield and navigated the Dardanelles submerged without a compass, so ordinary a hazard seems to have escaped his notice. It was not till he returned to the base, having been nine hours under water, that he learned that the vessel he had torpedoed was the cruiser Messudieh. Such an exploit was quite without precedent. The Admiralty at once telegraphed their highest appreciation of the resource and daring displayed. Lieutenant Holbrook received the V.C, Lieutenant S. T. Winn, his second in command, a D.S.O., and every member of the crew a D.S.C. or D.S.M. according to rank. (The Turks state that the Messudieh was placed in this exposed position by the Germans contrary to Turkish opinion. They also say she was hit before she saw the submarine or could open fire, and that she turned over and sank in ten minutes. Many men were imprisoned in her, but most of them were extricated, when plant and divers arrived from Constantinople and holes could be cut in her bottom. In all 49 officers and 587 men were saved. The casualties were 10 officers and 27 men killed. She sank in shoal water and most of her guns were afterwards salved and added to the minefield and intermediate defences.)
Encouraged by this success Admiral Carden asked for one of the latest class of submarines. He was sure that if fitted like B.11 she could go right up to the Golden Horn. But as the Scarborough raid had just taken place and the High Seas Fleet showed signs of awakening none could be spared, and the blockade settled down again to its dull routine. Though there were constant rumours of a coming destroyer attack in retaliation for the loss of the Messudieh, the indications were that at the Dardanelles the enemy's only thought was defence.
It may be worth mentioning that B11 was operated by a crew of two officers and 11 men. In these early days of submarine warfare, it is worth noting how frequently the accounts note with some wonder that B11 remained submerged for nine hours. At this time surface vessels had no sonar and no way of detecting submarines unless they spotted the periscope. Even if spotted, they had no depth charges, while the sub had the torpedo.
Mesudiye after sinking
 To offer the Turkish perspective, I am quoting this from the website Turkey in the First World War's page on Major Naval Opeations: I urge you to visit their site. They quote the Mesudiye's acting commander in the course of the account:
The Allies were planning first to cross the straits with submarines, which would make the warships’ job easier in the subsequent phases of the war. However, crossing the straits was not an easy job, not only because of the mine barrages, coastal barriers, observers and projectors, but also because of the strong currents and differences in water density. The first Allied submarine to be sighted by the Turks was the French Faradi, which, on November 23, approached the entrance of the Dardanelles, but had to retreat as the Turkish batteries at Seddülbahir opened fire. A few days later, the British submarine B-11, commanded by Lt Cmd Norman Holbrook was given the task to attempt to force the Dardanelles.B-11 set sail from Tenedos during the early hours of December 13, 1914. Successfully passing under five mine barrages, she arrived at the Sarısığlar Bay where she sighted Mesudiye at around 11:30 am. B-11 fired two torpedoes. Mesudiye immediately opened fire with her remaining guns, but this was to no avail. In ten minutes the battleship capsized and sank in shallow water. In his memoirs, Captain Üsküdarlı Rıfat Bey, who was the acting commander of Mesudiye at the time of the attack, wrote about the details of the event: “There was no point in continuing to fire. I had to think about the personnel, so I ordered ceasefire to be followed by an order to leave the ship. The first torpedo of the enemy submarine hit a little above the ammunition storage of Mesudiye’s stern guns. If it were only 15-20 cm below, it would be a direct hit on the ammunition storage and the ship would blow up in the instant. We had replaced the removed guns with sand and chains in order to keep the balance. If that had not been done, the ammunition storage would be elevated and that would result in a direct hit.”

As B-11 returned to its base, the Turkish transport Bolayır rescued 48 officers and 573 men from Mesudiye. Some sailors were trapped inside the ship and it took 36 hours to release them. Total Turkish losses were 34, including ten officers and 24 men. The guns salvaged from Mesudiye were installed at a coastal battery named after the ship itself.

The loss of Mesudiye was a psychological blow for the Turks, which forced them to strengthen the defenses of the Dardanelles. New mine barrages were erected by Samsun and Nusrat. By the end of 1914, there were nine lines comprising of a total of 324 mines inside the Dardanelles. On the Allied side, encouraged by B-11’s success, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden asked for more submarines to be deployed in the area, although his request could only be fulfilled to a limited extent by the Admiralty. Carden also decreed that no Allied submarine would sail on patrol without his express permission.
As for the aftermath, I've mentioned the naming of Holbrook, New South Wales, at the beginning. Holbrook rose to the rank of Commander during the war. He returned to England after the war and lived in Sussex until his death in 1976, aged 87. After his death his widow donated his VC to the town named for him. At last report it was on loan to the Australian War Memorial.

Even the sunken Mesudiye would have a measure of revenge. As the accounts above note, one reason that so many were rescued was that it went down in shoal-depth. As a result, her guns were also salvaged, and they were installed ashore in a shore battery also named Mesudiye.

Mesudiye's Guns'  Revenge: Bouvet sinking, March 1915
Ironically, Mesudiye's guns would be responsible for gaining a measure of revenge. During the Allied attempt to force the Strait on March 18, 1915, the beginning of the Dardanelles campaign, the Mesudiye shore battery provided some of the fire that sank the French battleship Bouvet.

At least one of her guns is still reportedly on display at Gallipoli (left).

Two New Sites for Digitized Arabic Texts

 Not one but two new projects are digitizing Classical Arabic texts online:
  • Arabic Collections Online is funded by New York University Abu Dhabi and partner institutions (Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and AUB are reportedly among them) and isays "this mass digitization project aims to expose up to 15,000 volumes from NYU and partner institutions over a period of five years. NYU and the partner institutions are contributing all types of material—literature, business, science, and more—from their Arabic language collections. ACO will provide digital access to printed books drawn from rich Arabic collections of prominent libraries."
  • A somewhat more specialized collection is A Digital Corpus for Graeco-Arabic Studies, a joint project of Harvard and Tufts, is dedicated to digitizing Greek texts and Arabic translation of Greek works, during the 8th to 10th centuries AD.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ambassador Robert B. Oakley, 1931-2014

Robert B. Oakley
Ambassador Robert B. Oakley, whose long and distinguished diplomatic career was often spent in trouble spots such as Pakistan and Somalia, has passed away at the age of 83. He held a range of posts during his career in the State Department, the National Security Council, and as a Special Envoy.

Joining the Foreign Service in 1957, his first posting was to Khartoum. He also served in Abidjan, Saigon, Paris, and Beirut. He was Senior Director for the Middle East and South Asia at the National Security Council. In 1979 he was named Ambassador to Zaire, and in 1982 Ambassador to Somalia.

In 1984 he became Director of the State Department Office for Combating Terrorism, and in 1987 he returned to the NSC as Assistant to the President for the Middle East and South Asia.

In 1988, when US Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel died in the same air crash that killed Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, he was named Ambassador to Pakistan at a moment of crisis.

Oakley retired from the Foreign Service in 1991, and served at the US Institute for Peace but he was soon back at work as in late 1992, President George H.W. Bush named him Special Envoy to Somalia. He served in the same capacity for Bill Clinton in 1993-94.

He later served at National Defense University. With his wife Phyllis, who held senior State Department positions as well (including Spokesman), and who survives him, he was a familiar and approachable figure in the foreign policy community here in Washington.

The Birth of ANZAC: "Birdy" Birdwood is Ordered to Egypt, December 1914

So many World War I in the Middle East anniversaries are clustered in December and January that I'm going to have to do some of them a day early or late; this marks the centennial of something that happened on December 12, but I don't want to clump too many WWI posts together, and I need to deal tomorrow with an event that happened 100 years ago from the coming weekend.

William Riddell Birdwood, later General Sir William Birdwood, later still Field Marshal the 1st Baron Birdwood of Anzac and of Totnes, with a string of letters after his name, may be little known in this hemisphere, but for most of the past century, Lord Birdwood has been well-remembered Down Under by a shorter name; Birdy. There is a whole subcategory of folklore devoted to "Birdy" and his rapport with the men under his command, much of it centered around his moving among the men without his rank insignia, and echoing Shakespeare's Henry V before Agincourt in being mistaken for a common soldier.

Birdwood at dugout, Anzac Cove, Gallipoli
It may be mythology, but the men he commanded have earned  mythical status all their own. For Birdwood would combine a number of Australian and New Zealand Imperial Forces into a combined corps, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Birdwood was the first commander of the legendary ANZACs. Although he had already been informed in November 1914 (at which time he was Secretary of the Indian Army Department) that this would be his assignment, he received his promotion to temporary Lieutenant General rank and his formal order sto Egypt on December 12, 1914. He arrived in Egypt on December 21.

Once the Ottoman Empire entered the war, the Imperial troops originally scheduled for the European front had been redirected to the Middle Eastern war. The Australian, New Zealand, and Indian troops were already being trained in Egypt, the British having felt it was better to train them there than in a British winter on the Salisbury plain. Now they were repurposed for the defense of Egypt, and would become famous for their sacrifices at Gallipoli and their daring during the Palestine campaign.

Birdwood was not himself from Australia or New Zealand. He was born in India, son of a British member of the Indian civil service and later judge. Both his parents were also Indian-born. Birdwood attended Sandhurst and served in the British Army in India, and in the Second Boer War. He became attached to the staff of Lord Kitchener, and when Kitchener was sent to India, he followed, soon becoming Kitchener's Military Secretary, and thereafter rose through the Indian military.

Kitchener of course served in Egypt thereafter, until being named to the War Office in the summer of 1914. When the defense of Egypt became an issue, he turned to Birdwood to forge a corps from the "Imperial" (colonial) forces.

In a bush hat on a visit to Australia
As the ANZACs' fame and reputation grew, Australians and New Zealanders would form their own national identities separate from Great Britain, in part at least due to the nightmare of Gallipoli, in which they were the sacrificial lambs slaughtered through the incompetence of the British (or as they are known Down Under, "Pommy bastards") generals. But the resentment of British generals did not extend to "Birdy"; he was one of their own in a way, a colonial born in India of Indian-born parents. And he was loyal to them. The photo at right shows Birdwood on a later visit to Australia, wearing the typical Aussie bush hat or slouch hat.

Of the British generals in the Middle East campaigns in the Great War, probably only Allenby surpasses Birdwood, though in the southern hemisphere, "Birdy" may have the advantage. Allenby won more battles, but Birdwood became a legend among his men even in the defeat at Gallipoli.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Makovsky: Netanyahu "No Longer the Presumptive Favorite"

David Makovsky at The Washington Institute looks at the shifting alliances and pre-election maneuvering in Israel, including the new alliance between Labor and Tzipi Livni's Hatnua. It's a good summary of the shifting alliances on the right as well as the center-left.

Egypt's Draft Parliamentary Election Law is Weighted against Party Lists

Egypt's draft law spelling out the details of the Parliamentary election promised for early next year was approved by the Egyptian Cabinet today. Like previous Egyptian electoral laws, it calls for a mixture of constituency races and party lists, with the balance heavily weighted towards constituencies, where all candidates are supposed to be independents. (Historically this has tended to favor big landowners or others capable of dispensing patronage.)

Unsurprisingly, some political parties are complaining,  and others are expressing concerns that the constituencies may not provide a just distribution based on population.

Parliament will have 567 seats; 420 will be independents elected in 231 constituencies, with each constituency returning between one and three candidtes. Party lists will choose another 120 MPs, and the President will appoint 27.residential appointments have usually been used to assure that Copts and women, for example, are represented.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

This is All I Will Have to Say About the Senate CIA Torture Report

From Notes On the State of Virginia.

November-December 1914: Djemal Pasha Discovers Logistics Problems First Hand, the Hard Way

I've noted that in November 1914 Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha, frustrated that the Commander of the Fourth Army in Syria, Zeki Pasha, was reluctant to plan an attack on the Suez Canal, relieved him and named Djemal, his fellow member of the Young Turk triumvirate and at that time Navy Minister, to take over both the Fourth Army Command and also, essentially, the political administration of Syria. In late November and early December 1914 Djemal set out to make his way to Damascus. Last Friday, in discussing the strategic reasons for the (never implemented) plan for British landings at Alexandretta, I noted that since the Taurus and Amanus tunnels on the Baghdad railway were not yet cut through and the Amanus Pass was impassable by automobile, to travel from Adana to Aleppo one had to take a train on an often washed-out line to Alexandretta, then cross to Aleppo over a highway often impassable as well before rejoining the railroad. Djemal may have been one of the most powerful men in the Ottoman government, but he discovered the transportation problem at first hand and the logistical difficulties it would present to moving troops to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian fronts.

Djemal Pasha
Djemal told the story of his rather harrowing journey in his postwar memoirs, which appeared in English in 1922, the year he was assassinated in Tbilisi by Armenian nationalists) as Memories of a Turkish Statesman 1913-1919, now in the public domain and available at the link from Google Books. The account of his journey quoted below is from pp 141-144 of the 1922 New York edition. (Despite that the spellings and punctuation are all British.)
At that time the Adana-Aleppo railway was only working to the station of Taprak Kaleh. Although the Taprak Kaleh-Alexandretta sector had been finished, the line had been washed away at various points in the neighbourhood of Dort Yol owing to the rains, and communication with Alexandretta was interrupted. the rains, and communication with Alexandretta was interrupted.
I therefore decided to go by train to Taprak Kaleh or even Mustafa Bey, and if possible to continue my journey from there by car or horse to Alexandretta and Aleppo. Accordingly I left Adana very early next morning. As I had ascertained that the Bozanti-Tarsus sector, the only route which offered secure communication with the army in Anatolia, was in very bad communication in various places, I asked Ismail Hakki Bey, the Governor-General of the province, to have the repair work put in hand as soon as possible. An hour or so after leaving Adana we reached Mustafa Bey, where the horses and cars were detrained. We had barely got a yard or two in our cars before they sank in the mud. As we realised that we should get no further that way, we mounted our horses and I started off, after instructing my aide-de-camp, Captain Selaheddin Effendi, to have the cars towed to Alexandria, whence he was to follow us.
Three or four hours later we came to Dort Yol. This is a large and important village on the shores of the Gulf of Alexandretta, and lies almost equi-distant from five or six other villages, which are inhabited almost exclusively by Armenians, and celebrated for their orange trees.
During the time I was Governor-General of Adana I had had a plan drawn out by German engineers for another colony, to be built on the extensive plot of ground between Dort Yol and the five other villages. But as I had to leave the vilayet this scheme, like so many others, had not been carried out.
In the years 1910 and 1911 I had often visited Dort Yol, and the villagers, whom I had often helped, now came down in crowds to meet me. As I had heard that I could get from Dort Yol station to Alexandretta by an ordinary trolley in two hours, while it would take me six hours to ride there, I preferred to use this method of locomotion and started off with my Chief of Staff.
Never shall I forget this journey by trolley on the slippery track. More than once we went in danger of our lives as in pouring rain we passed along the coast, which was watched by enemy ships. After a violent storm, the moon emerged from the clouds and then disappeared again, after lighting up the sea in a wonderful way, so that in the distance we could see the enemy's ships — a sight which intensified the bitterness in my heart.
I did not conceal from myself that our foes were strong and stubborn. But as there was no other way of preserving our existence, we were compelled to resort to arms for weal or woe. I had sworn to leave no stone unturned to break the power of our adversaries.
Djemal on horseback (Dead Sea)
Clearly the man who until recently had been Navy Minister knew full well the vulnerability of the coastal rail line to the Royal Navy. He continues:
I remembered my oath, and seeing the difficulties which stood in my path, I realised the terrible weight of the burden which rested upon my shoulders. We reached Alexandretta after a journey during which the trolley passed over rails which, in some places, hung suspended over a void for fifteen to twenty metres, and in others were under water. It was four or five hours before the other General Staff officers turned up. We spent the night in Alexandretta.

According to the information we received, the road between Alexandretta and Aleppo was not passable for cars. The road which had thus been allowed to become unusable for motor traffic was the only road connecting Aleppo and the district around, or, to speak more accurately, the whole of Northern Syria, including the regions of Urfa, Diarbekir and Mosul, with so important a Mediterranean depot as Alexandretta. When I returned from Bagdad some years before and passed this road in a car, I had ascertained that repair work had been taken in hand at many different points. It had been undertaken by the General Road Construction Company, and since August, 1912 — two years back — it would have been perfectly possible to finish it. Thanks to the difficulties innumerable which the Roads Department had met with — a department totally incapable of doing anything on its own initiative — the restoration of the road had been neglected. Until we make up our minds to free our administration from the shackles of bureaucracy, neither a Constitutional Government nor the help of God will enable us to carry anything through to a successful conclusion. The most extraordinary thing of all was that, on the excuse of the repair work, those parts of the road which had previously been in good condition had been allowed to get into a wretched state. All the stones had been taken from the crown of the highway, and they were piled up in two long heaps on each side. The holes between these heaps had filled with rainwater, and the result was a perfect canal. Such was the condition of the Alexandretta-Aleppo road in November, 1914.
We were compelled to stop one night in Bilan whether we liked it or not. On the following morning we continued our journey on horseback, after arranging that three strong cars should be sent from Aleppo to the nearest village. From here we reached Katma Station by car. This station is the second from Aleppo on the Bagdad line. As it is also the point of junction of the Aleppo-Alexandretta road and the Bagdad railway a lines-of-communication depot had been established there. The zeal and industry of those concerned
The zeal and industry of those concerned may be well imagined from the fact that, when we were about fifty metres from the station, it was impossible to get the cars any further, and we had to be carried in by soldiers in the inky darkness.
At that moment I remembered the Kirk Kilisse-Adrianople road and the Kirk Kilisse-Bunarhissar- Wiza-Serai road during the Balkan War. Here again the roads had a pile of stones on each side, and as the rain had filled up the centre they looked exactly like ditches.
What a dismal prospect it was for the march of the army I had been appointed to command! Once more I had before my eyes the unforgettable picture of wretched misery presented by our batteries, ammunition wagons and limbers failing to make any further progress along the roads and being compelled to strike across the fields until they stuck in the mud. "And here is the only road which keeps my army in touch with the home country!" I thought.
I think it's telling that he clearly is thinking like the Turkish nationalist he was: Anatolia is "the home country," and Syria is not.
Aleppo was the point of concentration of the 13th Army Corps, which had completed its mobilisation in Mosul and neighbourhood. Colonel Fahri Bey, of the General Staff, was in command. The bulk of this corps consisted of Kurds, and the balance of trained Arabs. One division was at Aleppo, the other at Hama. I stayed two or three days at Aleppo and inspected the troops. In spite of Fahri Bey's extraordinarily hard work, the divisions and the formations independent of the corps were not in a very satis factory condition. The material required for a mobilised army corps had not been completed, and indeed, we could not hope to complete it, for there was no chance of getting the necessary equipment in and around Mosul, which was the mobilisation zone of this corps.
I asked the Vali of Aleppo to take in hand the repair of the Aleppo-Alexandretta road, and also to construct a new road from Islahie to Katma Station via Radjo. Then I went to Hama to inspect the division in garrison there. It was in exactly the same condition as the division at Aleppo. It was my intention, before going to Damascus, to visit Northern Syria, to see for myself the condition of that region.
Even from postwar retrospect I find it interesting to note how candid he was about the poor shape of his new command.
It was my intention, before going to Damascus, to visit Northern Syria, to see for myself the condition of that region. First I went through Horns to Tripolis [Tripoli in modern Lebanon], returning the same day to Horns, where I spent the night. Next morning I continued my journey and went to Damascus through Rayak [now in Lebanon]. In all the towns through which I passed, the people displayed the greatest patriotism and devotion to the Turkish cause. It gave me enormous pleasure to see and feel that the majority of the Arabs would not hesitate to make any sacrifice in this great war for the liberation of the Mussulman Khalifate. It was my duty to make the best use of that frame of mind and to preserve this region, a region in flammable as powder, from the enticements of traitors who had sold themselves to the enemy.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Syria at Night From Space, 2011 and Today: The Lights are Going Out

They say a picture is worth a thousand words These two pictures are powerful. Via The Atlantic.

Aleppo has nearly disappeared;  Damascus is a shrunken shadow; Homs and Hama are much reduced; Deir al-Zor and the other cities in the east are faded to remnants.

Any questions about the time of night etc. are covered by the fact that southern Turkey, all of Lebanon, northern Israel and northwestern Jordan are about the same in both photos.

Welcome to a new dark age.

43 Years After the Retreat from "East of Suez," Britain Will Have a Base in the Gulf Again

J.B. Kelly, thou shouldst be living at this hour! (If you don't get the reference, see my 2009 obit, "J.B Kelly, 84: The last Imperial Briton.")

Back in 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that for budgetary and strategic reasons, Britain would be withdrawing from its remaining bases and colonial relationships in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, many of which dated back to the days when Britain's control of India required chains of defense positions along the routes of empire. Aden had already been given up with the independence of South Yemen in 1967, and the Suez Canal itself, of course, in 1956 (though from 1967 the Canal itself was closed to traffic until after the 1973 war). The policy meant pulling British bases out of Malaysia, Singapore, the Maldives, and the Gulf states, and granting independence to those Gulf states that had remained protectorates. This was known as the policy of retreating from "East of Suez," (the phrase was Kipling's), and led to the formal independence of Bahrain, Qatar, and the formation of the UAE in 1970-71.

In addition, the British withdrew forces from Malaysia, Singapore, and the Maldives, leaving no formal bases between Cyprus and Hong Kong.

British advisers and seconded officers remained influential in some of the newly-independent states (some until quite recently), and British special forces (along with the RAF and Jordanian and Iranian troops) assisted Oman in putting down the Dhofar rebellion down to 1975, but the era of permanent British bases "East of Suez" ended in 1971.

Well, they're baaack, or soon will be.

During the various Iraq wars, Britain has kept up a naval presence in the Gulf when needed and currently operates four minesweepers out of Bahrain, but Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has announced an agreement to set up a base in Bahrain that, in The Guardian's words, "will also be a base for much larger ships including destroyers and aircraft carriers." 

The more Tory Telgrraph  offers its interpretation here.

Hammond reportedly noted that Britain and France are seeking to play a bigger role in Gulf Defense now due to the US "pivot' towards East Asia. (France has an air base at Dhafra in the UAE.) Ironically, the large US role in the Gulf was originally developed to fill the vacuum created by the British fallback of 1971.

Some critics have characterized the announcement as a "reward" from Bahrain for Britain's silence about Bahraini human rights issues post-Arab Spring. Bahrain is, of course also the headquarters off the US Fifth Fleet. Patrick Cockburn offers an example of this criticism in his "Building a British naval base in Bahrain is a 'symbolic choice' – for no clear reason" in The Independent:
The British decision to spend £15m establishing a naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain is being presented as a "symbolic" deal to increase stability in the region, guard against unnamed threats and strengthen Britain's partnership with the states of the Gulf.
The agreement will identify Britain as an old colonial power strongly supporting the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain that mercilessly crushed demands for democracy and civil rights from the island's Shia majority during the Arab Spring in 2011. Even by the standards of the time, repression was excessive. Shia mosques and holy places were bulldozed. Doctors at the main hospital in Bahrain that treated injured protesters were tortured by being forced to stand without sleep for days on end. Other prisoners were told that unless they sang the praises of the king their interrogators would urinate into their mouths.
And for historical trivia buffs: Back in 1968 when Defense Secretary Denis Healey announced the British retrenchment, he did not originally say "East of Suez," but "East of Aden," though Britain had lowered the Union Jack in Aden the year before. "East of Suez," however, became both the official and unofficial shorthand for the policy, inspired by the lines from Rudyard Kipling's "Mandalay":
Ship me somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst.