And Never The Twain Shall Meet: Britain’s spoils from the First World War were many, but its greatest prize was indisputably the vast territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire (whose territory we invaded on 25 April 1915). Between them, Britain and her principal wartime ally, France, carved up the Middle East as if it was an oil-soaked Christmas pudding.
IN JUST A FEW DAYS tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders will gather to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the ANZAC landings. All the usual bromides about heroism, sacrifice, freedom and democracy will be trotted-out. Young people, who are featuring more and more in contemporary Anzac Day ceremonies, will construct their public remarks on the foundational assumption that, in 1915, New Zealand stood on the moral high ground. (By which they mean alongside Great Britain). It does not do to question this assumption. April 25 is this country’s Day of the Dead – and the Dead must be respected.
Let us, therefore, leave the Dead and examine the empire for which they died. Because the lines of British force and British interests that intersected at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 were not broken there. They survived all that fruitless killing, growing stronger and more extensive as the war wore on. So much so that, by 1919, when most of the peace treaties were signed and sealed, the British Empire controlled considerably more of the earth’s land surface than it had when the conflict began. (As did New Zealand, which found itself in possession of the former German colony of Samoa.)
Britain’s spoils of war were many, but its greatest prize was indisputably the vast territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire (whose territory we invaded on 25 April 1915). Between them, Britain and her principal wartime ally, France, carved up the Middle East as if it was an oil-soaked Christmas pudding.
Nations that are still, more than a century later, providing the world with its blackest headlines: Palestine (now Israel) Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia; were all cradled in the intersecting lines of British force and British interests. Young protesters may have waved placards decrying the exchange of young blood for oil during the first Gulf War of 1991 but, rest assured, the idea – if not the slogan – is much, much older than that!
Not that all the people of the region were content to live their lives enmeshed in the lines of British force and British interests. Many of them rose in rebellion against the British Empire – just as T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, had encouraged them to do against the Ottoman Empire during the Great War.
In 1920, anxious to conserve British blood and treasure while putting down these Arab revolts, the then British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, recommended that the RAF deploy chemical weapons – mustard gas in particular. Gas, he insisted, was bound to inspire “a lively terror” in the rebel-held territories.
Not that Great Britain restricted itself to terrorising the Arab peoples. In “Arabia” they were only too happy to secure a kingdom for the House of Saud. In a bewildering series of alliances forged and friendships betrayed, the British armed Abdulaziz al Saud and his fanatical Wahhabist militia and allowed them to take control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, including the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. When the Wahhabists attempted to spread their fundamentalist version of Islam beyond Abdulaziz’s new realm, he had their leaders mown down with British-supplied machine-guns.
It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Great Britain and the Muslim world. In India the lines of British force and British interests were deliberately drawn between the Muslim and Hindu communities. While the British Raj endured, the purpose of these “divide and rule” tactics remained purely political. Only in 1947, as British rule was coming to an end, did they become geographical. It was the Foreign and Colonial Office that partitioned India and created the Muslim state of Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Wahhabism: for the past 70 years these have been the nurseries for all manner of Islamic religious fanaticism and jihadi terrorism. Saudi Arabia gave us Osama Bin Laden, and Pakistan, when it wasn’t busy organising and supplying the Taliban, gave him shelter. And through it all, though increasingly difficult to discern clearly, the lines of British force and British interests have continued to run. Which countries are counted among the biggest importers of British military equipment? Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The invasion we celebrate every year on 25 April continues to cast a very long shadow. Wherever Britain and the Anzacs were standing on that day, it was nowhere even remotely near the moral high ground.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 April 2018.