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Letters from the Holy Land: the influence of the Middle Eastern campaign in WW1 on Welsh culture and society

In this latest Guest Blog by Gethin Matthews, he talks about the imagery of the Holy Land and how middle eastern culture came ultimately to affect Welsh culture and society.

The First World War was a world-wide war which transported millions of young men away from their homes to foreign lands. Often these men sought an anchor which could help them make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings as they tried to convey their experiences to their loved ones. In the case of Welshmen who found themselves in Egypt and Palestine, they had a ready vocabulary to describe these countries which came straight from the Bible. The idea of the campaign in the ‘Holy Land’ struck a chord with newspapers and opinion-formers back in Wales, and shaped ideas which persisted with the Welsh public.

Engagement Centre Projects Engagement Centres Research

Performing Commemorations Project: Dramatic Responses to the Legacies of the First World War

On 10 February, Kurt Taroff and Michelle Young from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded “Living Legacies 1914-18” engagement centre, led a full-day workshop in the Brian Friel Theatre at Queen’s University Belfast.


Both sides of the trenches

This blog post looks at the involvement of the Middle East, particularly Turkish troops who took part in the First World War and the devastating effect it had for both sides of the trenches. 

“Everyone is fascinated by the post-war partition of the Middle East – the Sykes-Picot borders that emerged,” he says. “In my book I look at how the process of partitioning the Middle East begins very early in the war: March 1915, and goes right through.”

‘The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East’ is the forthcoming book by Eugene Rogan, a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He argues that these boundaries were not part of an imposition of a greater plan, but simply demonstrated what was possible at that moment and what was happening on the battlefields.

“Every one of the plans, rather than reflecting any deliberate thought by the parties involved about Zionism or Arab nationalism, were agreements that reflected the exigencies of the war at that moment,” he explains. “None of them would have made any sense without the war context. The British, French and Russians would not have engaged in any of this diplomacy. The borders are the errors of war. Rather than creating a stable post-Ottoman Middle East, the borders created an imperial post-Ottoman Middle East, and we’re living with the consequences of that in the present day.”

Rogan’s work explores the experiences of soldiers and civilians from all sides of the war, drawing on personal accounts and newly-discovered and translated diaries as well as official records to give a holistic picture, and using sources from all over the world, from New Zealand to Australia to the archive at his own university.

Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)
Turkish prisoners at Tuz Khurmatli, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)

“I bring in the Turkish and Arab sources to a story that we tend to know only through British sources,” he says. “I’ve been drawing on the diaries, the memoirs, the journals of Turks and Arabs, civilians and soldiers, from virtually all of the fronts: from the Caucuses to Gallipoli, the fighting in Syria, and balancing that with accounts from the British, French and Anzac soldiers. There’s frustratingly little primary material out there from Indian soldiers, but where I’ve got letters I use those to try and capture the Indian experience as well. We come away with the most balanced reading of what the war experience was from both sides of the trenches.”

Rogan was not, however, concerned with attempting to revise the established official histories of battles or tactics. “When it comes to the big battles and tactics, I don’t think there’s anything there that’s open to revision,” he explains. “We have to remember that anything like [the battles of] Gallipoli or Mesopotamia was the subject of so much investigation at the time because they were catastrophic for the British. The official histories were as a result very well informed on what went wrong; they don’t try and gloss over heroic atrocities in history and they explain some very embarrassing defeats for the British, some of which were also rather politically sensitive. What I was looking for were the accounts of what people went through.”

The idea for the book came from a personal experience of his own – visiting the war grave of his Scottish great-uncle, who was killed in 1915, along with scores of his schoolfriends, at Gallipoli.

“They suffered so much – the boys had been sent over the top after inadequate shellfire had not reduced the Turkish trenches and so they came straight into machine gun fire – they were just all mown down,” he reflects. “The sadness for the village after all these young men had died was more than my maternal great-grandmother could bear, and that’s when they moved to America. In a sense this was how my mum came to be, and me after her – we owe our lives to his death.”

Yet it was a chance encounter with a war memorial that made him realise just how necessary it was to publish an account of these battles from as many perspectives as possible.

“When we went to visit, we made a wrong turn, and stumbled upon a war memorial to the Turkish dead from the same engagement,” he recalls.  “As I read the plaque it explained that 10,000 Turks died there. It was probably three or four thousand more than the Scots who had died on the same day. The number of Turkish bereaved would have far exceeded the number of Scottish bereaved, but it was never part of my family story – we’d never heard about the Turks who were killed at the same time. It hammered home to me how limited my understanding of it had been. To come to grips with Gallipoli and all its horror, you need to view the conflict from both sides of the trenches.”

He also explores the schisms within the Ottoman Empire, particularly the massacre of the Armenian community, and the ways in which the Empire itself was beginning to disintegrate.

“At the heart of the book is the Ottoman war against its own people,” he says. “It begins with the history of tensions between the Ottomans and the Armenian community, it sets out how the deportations and massacres were organised and conducted, it draws on sources to give the view from the top down, and ends with the trials that the Ottomans conducted of those they charged with responsibility for the massacres, done to try and stave off a draconian peace settlement at Versailles.”

Dr Fred Anscombe of Birkbeck University, an expert on the Ottoman Empire, is looking forward greatly to the publication of the book. He says that Rogan’s approach to the research is unusual and particularly valuable in its breadth.

“It’s very good on the history of the Ottoman Empire and what happened afterwards,” he says. “He looks at a range of perspectives and interprets them; and he doesn’t approach the subject as an outsider. I just cannot think of anyone else who can do that or has done that with such a range of expertise.”

“It’s trying to give you all sides of the story so we don’t have a one-sided triumphalist view,” concludes Rogan. “Instead, we see the cost in human tragedy that lay behind a war that in so many ways was not the Middle East’s to fight.”