The Lion's Share: As the hapless Ottoman Sultan looks on, the major imperial powers openly bid for huge chunks of his empire. New Zealanders died in their thousands so that John Bull (him with the scissors) could keep the Royal Navy supplied from its Middle-Eastern oil-wells. The very same oil-wells that the German Kaiser (him with the shears) was so keen to get his hands on.
DIPLOMACY AND WAR have always been uneasy bedfellows. Uneasy because, when diplomacy fails it is usually war that triumphs. Sometimes, however, the baton is passed on quite deliberately. In those cases: when diplomacy is allowed to fail; the uneasiness arises out of war’s wild contingency. It is upon the bodies of warring states that the Law of Unintended Consequences inflicts its most dreadful wounds.
On 25 April, Australians and New Zealanders will mark the hundredth anniversary of a catastrophic military defeat. Close to 3,000 young New Zealanders died in the Gallipoli campaign and many thousands more were wounded. These shattering losses (New Zealand’s population in 1915 was barely 1 million) provided but a foretaste of the bitter repast that awaited New Zealanders in Flanders and Picardy. From a very little country, diplomacy and war were about to extract a very high price.
This would have been tragic enough if the diplomatic and military decisions that sent so many young New Zealand men to their deaths had been made by New Zealanders themselves. That they died as a result of the deliberate failure of British diplomacy, in a war intended to enrich and enlarge the British Empire, renders their sacrifices even more absurd and obscene.
Such, however, are the hard, cold facts of the matter. The Dominions of Australia and New Zealand entered the First World War at precisely the same moment as Great Britain (11:00am 4 August 1914) because constitutionally, diplomatically and militarily they were appendages of the British Crown. Where Britain stood, we stood. Her enemies were our enemies. Where she led – we followed.
That we ended up following Great Britain on to the territory of the Ottoman Empire was only partially accidental. One of the most important reasons British diplomacy did so little to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 was the British Empire’s rising concern at the Germans’ lengthening strategic reach. British policy makers were especially wary of Germany’s rapidly expanding diplomatic, military and economic ties with the Ottoman Empire. The British had observed the dramatic benefits of French investment in the Russian Empire and were fearful that Germany’s administration of a similar tonic to the tottering Ottomans could compromise Britain’s strategic future.
It was Winston Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, made the decision (just one year out from the First World War) to power the Royal Navy with oil rather than coal. With Churchill’s primary source of oil being the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (whose wells were perilously close to the Ottoman border) Germany’s “peaceful” expansion into the oil-fields of the Middle-East loomed instantly as a major strategic threat.
The decision to invade the Ottoman Empire, which swept the hapless ANZAC’s into the doomed assault on Gallipoli, was first and foremost Churchill’s. Ostensibly an attempt to come at the Central Powers from a new direction, its true purpose was to secure for the British Empire and its French allies the strategic oil reserves located in Ottoman territory. Britain’s other ally, Tsarist Russia, would receive Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and control of the crucial straits linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement: In complete secrecy, the British and French negotiators (Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot) carved up the Ottoman Empire to their respective governments' satisfaction. The peoples who actually lived there were never consulted. Had the Bolsheviks not published its contents (Britain and France had thoughtfully provided their Tsarist Russian ally with a copy) the Arabs would never have known what they were fighting for - and neither would we! Modern-day borders are overlaid.
The first of these strategic objectives were confirmed in the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the Ottoman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) were divvied up between the British and French Empires. The top-secret deal was to be delivered militarily not only by British arms, but also by the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects (inspired to revolt by T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) with additional assistance from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horse.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles
The second objective – Russian control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus – was thwarted only by the intervention of the Russian people, who overthrew the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
Undaunted, the British simply revised their plans. Just how inimical these would have proved to the people of modern-day Turkey was revealed in the extraordinary Treaty of Sèvres. Had the latter been allowed to stand, virtually the entire empire of the Ottomans would have been parcelled out between the British, French, Italians and Greeks.
That this did not happen was due to the efforts of a man not unknown to the ANZAC’s – one Mustapha Kemal. The man who had held the heights at Gallipoli rallied the Turkish people behind him, drove out the Greek invaders, forced the Allied occupiers of Istanbul to withdraw, and established the Turkish Republic – where Saturday’s ANZAC centennial commemorations will unfold.
On TVNZ’s Q+A programme (19/4/15) Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, declared that New Zealand entered World War I to fight “a great evil”. Presumably, he was referring to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. History refutes him. The First World War was a war between rival empires. The “great evil” was Imperialism. And New Zealand’s sons were fighting for it – not against it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 April 2015.
I'm suffering Gallipoli battle fatigue myself 100 years later
It is said George W. Bush was a great admirer of Churchill.
I look forward to seeing their portraits hanging side by side - in the great Hall of Infamy. Both very passionate fellows - everything they touched they screwed.
I won't be at the commemorations tomorrow. Ok many NZers won't be, but they will be there in their hearts, or nodding, with the media coverage this weekend. I won't be. If there was clarity about the history, and clarity that we were there to respect soldiers who were conscripted, or even volunteered with incomplete information etc, that I can honour. But it has all been conflated with so many fake views of the past, the reality, and in service of today's powers - witness the abhorrent jingoism from Abbott when he was here - that in participating, you cannot isolate yourself from, and you in effect, unavoidably give support to, even if you were someone there, with clarity.
So I won't be there in person or in spirit.
Great couple of columns Chris by the way. One consolation I have is that we do live in times where you can write them and not be shot down. But not too much consolation: that's only because it doesn't matter, because the powers are firmly in control and confident of that control (which you also write of persuasively) - if it mattered, then you probably would be in trouble. So we live in times where free thought and dissedence can only be half celebrated - we are free, only because we can have no consequence!
Your erudite essays make it a joy to be informed.
Please keep up the excellent work.
The following excerpt may be of interest which is taken from the 1921 memoirs of Turkish Wartime Leasder Talaat Pasha.
From this it is quite clear that the Turks initiated hostilities against the Russians in October 1914. The Russian ambassador at once sent a vigorous protest. So did the French and British representatives. The latter two, however, were still hopeful of peace, and proposed that we make our innocence clear by dismissing our German admiral and sailors, and becoming strictly neutral.
So I advised that we accept the Black Sea affair as our own, put as good a front upon it as we could, and declare war against the Entente.
This makes it apparent that despite Chris Trotters inference that the British invaded Turkey to secure their oil supplies in fact they were reluctant to go to war with Turkey probably because they had quite enough to cope with against the Germans in France.
The Turkish war aims were the conquest of Egypt and the taking over of the Suez Canal.As they were at war with Turkey it seems perfectly obvious that the British would commence hostilities against the Turks and they decided rightly or wrongly to launch an attack in the Dardanelles.
The Turkish Declaration of War
An Account by Wartime Leader Talaat Pasha
(taken from his 1921 Memoirs)
The Germans and Austrians continued trying to trick us into the War, and the Entente tried to avoid each quarrel.
We played only for delay, which became constantly more difficult. The German sailors in the city were very hard to control; and the number of German officials increased every day. German influence grew always stronger.
Then came the Black Sea affair. Our German admiral, Souchon, deliberately took our best Turkish ships [the Goeben and others] and bombarded the Russian fleet and some of the Russian cities. We were generally supposed to have sanctioned this; and during the War I let this impression stand, rather than quarrel with the Germans.
The Russian ambassador at once sent us a vigorous protest. So did the French and British representatives. The latter two, however, were still hopeful of peace, and proposed that we make our innocence clear by dismissing our German admiral and sailors, and becoming strictly neutral.
We could not prolong this absurd situation. To satisfy the Entente by a public repudiation of Admiral Souchon would have meant the loss of our German alliance forever. We held another anxious Cabinet meeting, the important one at which war was decided on.
My own position was that while much annoyed at the Black Sea affair, I nevertheless continued to believe that we should join with Germany. The Entente could give us nothing but the renewal of promises, so often broken, to preserve to us our present territory. Hence there was nothing to be gained by joining them.
Moreover, if we refused aid to our German allies now in the time of their need, they would naturally refuse to help us if they were victorious. If we stayed neutral, whichever side won would surely punish Turkey for not having joined them, and would satisfy their territorial ambitions at our expense.
As my country's leader, I surely could not lead her into such a hopeless situation. Therefore, I favoured fighting on the side of Germany. The time of our entering was a lesser matter, though I would have preferred waiting for a more propitious moment.
During our Cabinet discussion news was brought us of an increased gathering of Russian troops upon our Caucasian frontier. The antagonism between the two armies there was already serious. So I advised that we accept the Black Sea affair as our own, put as good a front upon it as we could, and declare war against the Entente.
A majority of the remaining Cabinet members supported me, and the conditions proposed by the French and British ambassadors were refused. Turkey openly joined the Teuton cause.
The memoirs of politicians are among the least reliable of sources, Simon.
The Ottomans' loyalties were materially affected by Great Britain's pre-emptive confiscation of the 2 battleships Turkey had ordered from British shipyards.
Tsarist Russia's plans for Constantinople and the Bosphorus were of long-standing and well-known to the Ottoman Government.
Only the most overt and generous of diplomatic gestures could have prevented the Ottomans from throwing in their lot with the Central Powers.
It is, moreover, unwise to base one's judgement of a great power's war aims on the minutiae of day-to-day diplomacy.
Britain needed to keep the Russians distracted from Central Asia (where a collision with British interests would have produced all manner of dire consequences) as well as securing a reliable supply of oil for the Royal Navy.
Everything she did before, during and after WWI confirms these long-term strategic objectives.
The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part).
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