Britain, France Slice Up Ottoman Empire

Wikimedia Commons (1,2)
Wikimedia Commons (1,2)

By Erik Sass

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 234th installment in the series. 

May 9, 1916: Britain, France Slice Up Ottoman Empire

Of all the First World War’s far-reaching effects, some of the longest-lasting – and arguably most destructive – were felt in a region considered a sideshow during the war itself. Indeed the basic conflict underlying the Middle East’s tortured transition to modernity, pitting the Western concept of the nation-state against much older sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties, is still unfolding today, most visibly in the horrific Syrian civil war. 

While the Middle East has always been a violent place, the roots of many of its 20th and 21st century woes trace back to a letter sent by the French ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, to British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey on May 9, 1916. The letter set down in writing the terms of a secret agreement hammered out during negotiations between a British diplomat, Mark Sykes (top, left), and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot (top, right), in which the two powers basically drew the map of the modern Middle East over the decaying Ottoman Empire. 

At the time the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it was later called, may have seemed a tad premature; after all, the Allies had been defeated at Gallipoli, and thousands of Anglo-Indian troops had just surrendered following the siege of Kut in southern Mesopotamia, indicating that the Ottoman Empire was far from finished. But the Russians were still advancing in Anatolia, the British were planning new offensives in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and diplomats in London, Paris and Petrograd – far-sighted and acquisitive as always – were looking ahead to the day when the Turks’ medieval realm finally collapsed once and for all. This was only natural, as divvying up the Ottoman Empire had been something of a parlor game for European diplomats long before the war even began.

The final draft of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, drawn up by Cambon on May 9 and agreed by Grey in a reply sent a week later, focused on British and French acquisitions in the Middle East, but with reference to Russian gains further north, where the Tsarist regime was to receive Constantinople, the Turkish straits, and a large chunk of Anatolia. With Russia’s share already dished out, on paper at least, Britain and France wasted no time in outlining their own claims. 

Recognizing the British conquest of southern Mesopotamia and Britain’s designs on the rest, the Agreement apportioned most of what would later become Iraq to Britain, while the Syrian coast and a large part of southern Anatolia, now part of Turkey, went to France (see map below). According to the agreement northern Palestine (later Israel) would become a vaguely-defined “international zone,” although Britain would control the ports of Haifa and Acre, and France would also receive Lebanon. Britain’s pre-war control of Kuwait, Oman and Yemen would continue. 

In addition to designating the areas to be directly administered by Britain and France, the Sykes-Picot Agreement also established two neighboring areas of influence – one stretching across central Mesopotamia and Jordan,  the other in the Syrian interior  which would effectively fall under British and French control but with government left to an Arab state, or more plausibly a “confederation of Arab states.” Significantly, the boundaries of the hypothetical Arab state or states were left undefined, leaving the door open for both Britain and France to begin encroaching on the tribal territories (today the heartland of Sunni Islamist extremists, including ISIS). 

Even before the Sykes-Picot Agreement was finalized, events on the ground were making the situation much more complicated. To the south, in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, Bedouin tribes led by Sherif Hussein bin Ali were preparing a rebellion against Turkish rule with assistance from the British – but with the goal of Arab independence, not simply becoming another British subject state. 

Meanwhile British diplomats were considering ways to bolster their claim to Palestine (in their eyes a buffer zone for the strategic Suez Canal) including an alliance with European Zionists and Zionist settlers already living in Palestine under Ottoman rule, who hoped to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land. While these negotiations were in their early stages, later British promises to the Zionists would conflict with their commitments to the Arabs, portending another conflict that continues to the present day. 

Accident Kills Hundreds At Verdun

It was one of the awful ironies of war that in the midst of deliberate, state-sanctioned killing on an unprecedented scale, plenty of people still died in trivial accidents – or sometimes not-so-trivial accidents, like the fire which killed hundreds of German soldiers in the recently captured Fort Douaumont outside Verdun on May 8, 1916.

The war undoubtedly helped create the circumstances that led to the accident: as fighting raged across the Verdun front, thousands of German soldiers on reserve duty crowded into the stronghold at Fort Douaumont for protection, gladly enduring squalid conditions for a temporary respite from unrelenting shelling. The fort naturally became a weapons dump as well, with hundreds of tons of shells and crates of grenades stacked in hallways and other “safe” spaces. 

Unfortunately the proximity of exhausted, demoralized soldiers and enormous amounts of high explosives would prove fatal. In the early morning of May 8, 1916, a direct hit ruptured the storage tanks for the fuel used in flame throwers, which then ignited because of nearby cooking fires. Exploding grenades triggered the artillery shell dumps in a series of huge explosions which killed scores, especially where the shock waves were amplified by the fort's narrow, sealed passages. Worse, the explosions led many observers to assume the fort was being attacked and (according to one story) open fire on soot-darkened survivors whom they mistook for French colonial troops from Africa.

Between the explosions, shock waves, fire, smoke inhalation, toxic fumes, stampeding and friendly fire, the death toll for the accident was an appalling 650 men; only around 100 German soldiers made it out of Fort Douaumont alive. In Arnold Zweig’s novel Education Before Verdun, a staff sergeant describes the experience of fleeing the inferno through a subterranean corridor, being knocked unconscious, and coming to in a makeshift morgue: 

Then we started to run; some, who were sensible, in silence, and some yelling with terror… From all the side passages men ran into that tunnel and fought for their lives with their own friends and comrades. The man who tripped or turned round was lost… From the rear came crashes, bursts of smoke and fumes, and the acrid reek of the exploding rockets like a lunatic firework display. It was bound to reach the ammunition, and it did. But first it reached the hand-grenades; from behind us came a thunderous roar, then a shock like an earthquake caught us all and flung us against the walls, myself included… I then sat up, the damp pavement stones eased my burning hands, and, to the right and left of me, before me and behind me, I could see nothing but dead men: blue, congested, blackened faces. Four hundred men in column take up a good deal of space, but here lay many more, and the orderlies were continually carrying in fresh corpses. 

See the previous installment or all entries

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

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