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

11 Surprising Facts About Sylvester Stallone

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As streetwise boxer Rocky Balboa (in eight films) and haunted Vietnam veteran John Rambo (in five films), the man born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone has made his brand of muscular melodrama a staple of the action film genre across five decades.

The latest Rambo chapter, Rambo: Last Blood, opens September 20. In the meantime, check out some of the more intriguing facts about the actor, from his modest beginnings as an accidental porn star to his peculiar rivalry with Richard Gere to his waylaid plans to run a pudding empire.

1. An errant pair of forceps gave Sylvester Stallone his distinctive look.

Many comedians have paid their bills over the decades by adopting Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive lip droop and guttural baritone voice. The facial feature was the result of some slight mishandling at birth. When Stallone was born on July 6, 1946 in Manhattan, the physician used a pair of forceps to deliver him. The malpractice left his lip, chin, and part of his tongue partially paralyzed due to a severed nerve. Stallone later said his face and awkward demeanor earned him the nickname “Sylvia” and authority figures telling him his brain was “dormant.” Burdened with low self-esteem, Stallone turned to bodybuilding and later performing as a way of breaking through what seemed to be a consensus of low expectations.

2. sylvester Stallone attended college in Switzerland.

A publicity still of Sylvester Stallone from the 1981 film 'Victory' is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite a tumultuous adolescence in which he was kicked out of several schools for misbehavior, Stallone eventually graduated high school while living with his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to attend American College, a university in Leysin, Switzerland, where he also worked as a gym teacher and dorm bouncer in addition to selling hamburgers on campus. It was there he became interested in theater—both acting and writing.

Stallone continued his education at the University of Miami before moving to New York with the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry. While auditioning for parts, Stallone worked as a movie theater usher and cleaned lion cages at the zoo. He was fired from the theater for trying to scalp tickets to a customer. Unknown to Stallone, the customer was the theater owner.

3. Sylvester Stallone’s mother was an expert in “rumpology.”

Stallone’s parents separated while he was still a child. His father, a beauty salon owner named Francesco Stallone, was apparently prone to corporal punishment, and would cuff his young son for misbehavior. (Stallone was once caught swatting flies with a lead pipe on the hood of his father’s brand-new car.) His mother, Jackie Stallone—whom he once described as “half-French, half-Martian"—later grew interested in the study of rumpology, or the study of the buttocks to reveal personality traits and future events.

4. Sylvester Stallone had a small part in a porno.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during a promotional tour for the film 'Rambo' in Madrid, Spain in January 2008
Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images

While struggling to make it as an actor, Stallone was talked into making an appearance in Party at Kitty and Stud’s, a 1970 softcore adult film that was not as explicit as other sex features of the era but still required Stallone to appear in the nude. While he was initially hesitant to take the role, Stallone was sleeping in a bus shelter at the time. He took the $200 for two days of work. Following the success of Rocky in 1976, the film’s producers capitalized on their now-valuable footage and re-released it under the title The Italian Stallion. In 2010, a 35mm negative of the film and all worldwide rights to it were auctioned off on eBay for $412,100.

5. Sylvester Stallone wrote a novel.

In addition to his acting ambitions, Stallone decided to pursue a career in writing. After numerous screenplays, he wrote Paradise Alley, a novel about siblings who get caught up in the circus world of professional wrestling in Hell’s Kitchen. Stallone finished the novel before deciding to turn it into a screenplay. Paradise Alley was eventually produced in 1978. The book, which was perceived as a novelization, was published that same year.

6. Sylvester Stallone was not a fan of the Rambo cartoon series.

After the success of 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone was confronted with a litany of Rambo merchandising. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, he said he disliked that the psychologically-tortured war veteran was being used to peddle toys. “I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I tried to stop it, but I don’t own the licensing rights.”

On the subject of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a 1986 animated series featuring a considerably softened-up version of the character, Stallone was resigned. “They’re going to make this Saturday morning TV cartoon show for kids with what they tell me is a softened version of Rambo doing good deeds. First of all, that isn’t Rambo, but more important, they tell me I can’t stop them because it’s not me they’re using. It’s a likeness of a character I played and don’t own.” The show lasted just one season.

7. Sylvester Stallone never planned on the Rocky series enduring as long as it has.

Through the years, Stallone has made some definitive declarations about the Rocky series, which has been extended to eight films including its two spin-off installments, 2015’s Creed and 2018’s Creed II. Speaking with movie critic Roger Ebert in 1979 shortly before the release of Rocky II, Stallone indicated Rocky III that would conclude the series. “There’ll never be a Rocky IV,” he said. "You gotta call it a halt.” In 1985, while filming Rocky IV, Stallone told Interview magazine that he was finished. “Oh, this is it for Rocky,” he said. “Because I don’t know where you go after you battle Russia.” In 1990, following the release of Rocky V, Stallone declared that “There is no Rocky VI. He’s done.” Upon the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006, Stallone once more declared he was finished. "I couldn't top this," he told People. "I would have to wait another 10 years to build up a head of steam, and by that point, come on."

Creed was released nine years later. Following Creed II, he posted a message on Instagram that served as a “final farewell” to the character. Several months later, in July 2019, Stallone told Variety that, “There’s a good chance Rocky may ride again” and explained an idea involving Rocky befriending an immigrant street fighter. It would be the ninth film in the series.

8. Sylvester Stallone was offered the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during production of the 1978 film 'Paradise Alley'
Central Press/Getty Images

In one of the more intriguing alternate casting decisions in Hollywood history, Stallone was originally offered the Axel Foley role in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. Not wishing to make a comedy, Stallone rewrote the script to focus more on the action, as Detroit cop Foley stampedes through Beverly Hills to find his friend’s killers. Stallone described his version as resembling “the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy” and said his climax involved a game of chicken between a Lamborghini and an oncoming train. Producers opted to go in another direction. It became one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. Stallone would later use some of his ideas for a rogue cop in the 1986 film Cobra.

9. Sylester Stallone does not get along with Richard Gere.

While filming 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, in which Stallone and then-unknown actor Richard Gere both played 1950s street toughs, the two actors apparently got off on the wrong foot. Stallone recalled that Gere drew his ire for being too physical during rehearsals—and worse, getting mustard on Stallone during a lunch break. Incensed, Stallone demanded the director choose one of them to stay and one of them to be fired. Gere was let go and replaced by Perry King.

10. Arnold Schwarzenegger once tricked sylvester stallone into starring in a box office bomb.

Actors Sylvester Stallone (L) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are photographed during the premiere of 'The Expendables 2' in Hollywood, California in August 2012
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Stallone has often discussed his rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the two action stars were believed to be the two biggest marquee attractions in the 1980s. Recalling his 1992 bomb Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone told a journalist in 2014 that he believed Schwarzenegger was to blame. “I heard Arnold wanted to do that movie and after hearing that, I said I wanted to do it,” he said. “He tricked me. He’s always been clever.”

11. sylvester Stallone wanted to create a pudding empire.

In 2005, shortly before Rocky Balboa resurrected his film career, Stallone embarked on a line of fitness supplements. His company, Instone, produced a pudding snack that was low-carb and high in protein. Stallone even appeared on Larry King to hawk the product. A legal dispute with a food scientist over the rights to the concoction dragged on for years and Instone eventually folded.

Highclere Castle—the Real-Life Downton Abbey—Is Available to Rent on Airbnb

Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Emily_M_Wilson/iStock via Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to spend a night in a castle? And not just any castle—the Downton Abbey castle, Highclere Castle? On November 26, one lucky couple will get the opportunity to relive the TV show and movie, when castle owners Lady and Lord Carnarvon will cordially invite one person and their guest of choice to spend the night in the castle, which is located in Hampshire, England—about 45 miles west of London. On October 1 (Airbnb reservations go live at noon BST) anyone with a verified profile, positive reviews, and passion for Downton Abbey can vie for the opportunity. Even though the castle has 300 rooms, they are only making one bedroom available, for $159.

Upon arrival, the royals will host cocktails with the guests in the saloon. Visitors will hear stories from more than 300 years of Highclere Castle history (construction on the castle began in 1679, and has been in the Carnarvon family ever since).

“I am passionate about the stories and heritage of Highclere Castle and I am delighted to be able to share it with others who have a love of the building and its history,” Lady Carnarvon said in the Airbnb listing.

The Earl and Countess will host a dinner for the guests in the state dining room, and afterwards have coffee in the library. Before bed, the guests’ butler will escort them to their gallery bedroom. The next morning, guests will receive a complimentary breakfast, a private tour of the 100,000-square foot castle and 1000-acre grounds, and a special gift from the Carnarvons. (Airbnb will also make a donation to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)

It should be noted the castle doesn’t have Wi-Fi or central air, but it does have fireplaces and central heat. There are a few rules guests must follow, though: all newspapers must be ironed; one butler per person; cocktail dress is required at dinner; gossip is restricted to downstairs; the listing is midweek because, as the Dowanger once said, “What is a weekend?”

If you don’t win the opportunity to stay at Highclere, all is not lost: you can tour the castle year-round.

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