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A tangled web
on 18 January 2011
I came to this book from both the UK and US reviews and have not been disappointed. The book is anglocentric (not a criticism) but it covers a huge amount of ground on complex issues in a rounded way.
The information on the interplay of forces both military and political, particulalry between Britain, Russia and Turkey was was well brought and fascinating. The role of Clemenceau in trying to limit French exposure in the region is of interest. A pity his counterparts in Britain could not have had as much foresight instead riding so many horses in Arabia, Palestine and Syria that they were bound to please virtually nobody. The use of the jewish desire for a homeland, the arab desire for autonomy used as a balance to offset the war aims of Germany and Turkey is well described. As is Kitchener and the Arab Bureau's both misreading of the region and their misleading representations that affected policy during the war.
I actually came away from reading this with a new respect for the Turks. Whatever the shambolic failings of the Ottoman Empire of the period, the gutsy determination of their oft maligned military was surprising. Apart from quality of the defending at Gallipoli (admittedly bolstered by competent german support), the ineptitude of the British command when they could have walked into Constantinople virtually unchallenged, because the Turks had run out of ammunition, an action that could have brought WW1 to a much swifter conclusion, highlights that quality of operational command, planning and their obverse blind luck are never far away from any complex military operation.
The roles of Churchill and Lloyd George are well brought out. It is hard to credit given the level of political discourse in this country now that such politial giants, for all their sometimes major faults once ran this country. The roles of the adminstrators and their own political prejudices and ambitions is well desribed. Mark Sykes influence and naivety are brought out in some detail. The machinations of the Arab Bureau in Egypt would have led to mass dismissals, had anybody in the British cabinet had a grip on what was actually happening there.
This really was the high water mark of British imperial ambitions and pretensions. An almost anachronistic hangover from late victorian imperial and cultural pride and self-belief, to post war self doubt, near bankruptcy and social implosion. The transition of the Northcliffe press from pro war 1914 to anti middle east involvment in 1921-22 is illustrative of that change of worldview, although the pull of empire continued for many decades.
It is also interesting to note how Lloyd George tried to push the mandate for Palestine on to the Americans, and may well have succeeded in doing so had Woodrow Wilson lived. What would the region have looked like then I wonder.
I would read this book in conjunction Corelli Barnett's 'The Collapse of British Power' to get a fuller picture of the relationship between Britain and the Dominions. and how attitudes changed both because of the war and because of the liberal elites attachment to the benfits of empire at the neglect of Britain itself.
All together a superb book that his significantly broadened my historical perspective and understanding of the middle east. Highly recommended.