WWI Centennial: Britain, France Slice Up Ottoman Empire

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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. 

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