Review: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Note: This book is not actually about the Berlin-Baghdad Express railway. It has a few good chapters on the subject, but the bulk of the book is actually on Ottoman-German political relations and the Ottoman sphere in World War One. That said, it is a good book about WWI, if that’s what you’re looking for.

McMeekin’s The Berlin-Baghdad Express probably should have been named “Oppenheim’s Jihad.” The book traces the peculiar German notion that they could, perhaps in exchange for some bribes, inspire the Muslim world to come together in an anti-French, British, and Russian jihad in support of German efforts in WWI. They managed to get the Ottoman Turks, who wanted to take back Egypt and the Suez Canal from the English and to oppose Russian advances on their northern border, to go along with their jihad idea, but the rest of the Muslim world was far from convinced. The Bedouins, who depended largely on British traffic for their food and income, took German bribe money and disappeared. The Sherif of Mecca, perhaps the most important person in the world to get behind an Ottoman-declared jihad, decided the new Ottoman government was dominated by secular modernizers and declared war on them instead. The Sudanese and Libyans were less than enthusiastic about trekking across a continent or two to help the Germans. A Muslim uprising within British Egypt never materialized. The Germans never quite overcame the Sunni-Shia split, and while the Afghanis ostensibly signed on, there was never any practical way to get men and materials to and from Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the largest Muslim country in the world at the eve of WWI was not the Ottoman Empire, but the British Empire–which ruled over millions of Muslim subjects in India. The ultimate realization of the Germans’ scheme was for Muslims in India and Egypt to revolt against British rule, causing havoc in the colonies and cutting off the Suez, thus distracting the British from the Western Front where they and the French had bogged down into a grinding death-match stalemate with the Germans. German propaganda pamphlets undoubtedly made it to India, but the jihadi stampede never materialized.

Compared to the colossal cost of the European theaters in WWI, these African and Asian adventures were small potatoes–a week’s worth of guns, men, and bribes might bring whole armies over to the German side. In essence, they were small bets with small odds but the potential to pay off grandly, if any of them worked. Unfortunately for the Germans, they all failed. Jihad might be the duty of all Muslims, but traipsing across a continent to wage jihad in a foreign country on behalf of the Germans did not sound particularly appealing to the vast majority of Muslims (especially when you could just wage jihad at home against local infidels). The Ottoman Empire’s declaration of a holy war against the infidels did, however, make the Empire’s 25% non-Muslims rather insecure (and in some cases, very dead).

The war was an absolute disaster for the Ottomans, who simply had no ability to wage it. They were broke, without the manpower transportation networks, or equipment necessary to undertake a world war. The Ottoman Empire might look impressive on a map, but much of that territory was desert, wasteland, or desert wasteland. Much of it was sparsely populated by nomads who dabbled in tribal warfare and banditry; the hinterlands had not at all been pacified and brought under central control. The British-supported Muslim rulers in Egypt didn’t want to trade their positions of relative power for subordination to the Ottomans, and no one wanted to pay higher taxes.

Unlike central Europe, the Ottoman Empire had very few completed train lines, especially across its vast deserts, and even roads were scarce in some areas–not to mention water. Down in Mecca, the economy was based on the pilgrimage, and as mentioned above, the world’s biggest Muslim country was British India. British ships brought the pilgrims, grain and other foods to a region that could do very little farming for itself. War with the British meant, for the Arabians, economic ruin and starvation.

The German attempt to build railroads across the Ottoman Empire so that troops and equipment wouldn’t have to be transported by wagons and camels across the desert kept running into setbacks, from paranoid sultans who were afraid of too much work being completed at once to funding issues to mountains to the sudden loss of all of their Armenian employees (a non-trivial part of the work crews in a country where almost the ethnic Turkish population had been drafted). The Armenian Genocide was, of course, both a humanitarian and strategic disaster. While some Armenians did side with Russia during the war, the majority of Armenians were in fact loyal subjects and the state could hardly afford to lose both subjects and the money it cost to kill them. (Their corpses also literally clogged up rivers, wells, and rail lines. It’s hard to overstate just how horrifying a million dead people are.)

The Ottoman Empire’s military forays were just as disastrous. They tried to attack Russia in the middle of winter, which worked out exactly like you’d think. They schlepped men and equipment across the Sinai desert to attack the Suez, only to discover that the British had machine guns. Their army hemorrhaged men through death and desertion so quickly that they were soon enlisting men in their 50s. About the only thing that worked out in their favor was the British inability to do anything even remotely intelligent, thus sparing the Ottomans attacks on their weakest points. Instead they threw their men into the (literal) bloodbath that was Gallipoli, just about the worst possible place they could have chosen to attack on the entire Ottoman coastline.

If you’re trying to make sense of the absolute mess that was WWI, this book is a good place to start. It shows how each decision, looked at in isolation, basically made sense–and yet when you zoom out to look at the big picture, what you get is nonsense. The British decisions to attack the Dardanelles (the straight connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) directly made sense. The British could use their impressive Navy in the attack, opening the Dardanelles would let their allies the Russians move more easily into the Mediterranean, and their forces could be brought to bear directly on Constantinople, the Ottoman capitol. If it had worked, it would have been a stupendous victory. Unfortunately, the British should have paid more attention to the fact that Constantinople has been conquered only a handful of times in 2000 years–it’s a difficult city to take. When the naval attack failed because the Turks figured out how to mine the waters around the Dardanelles, the British decided they needed to land a ground force to support their naval force. Gallipoli, they decided, was a good spot to provide ground support to their naval force, so that’s where they landed their forces. Unfortunately, Gallipoli was extremely easy to defend, the Turks quickly moved in machine guns, and the British were slaughtered. And slaughtered. And slaughtered.

If you’ve seen Futurama, the British are basically Zapp Branigan:

Gallipoli was such a stupid place to attack that at first the defenders didn’t really believe the British were attacking it. They assumed the attack was just a diversion, and that the real attack would come somewhere weaker and more difficult to defend. The Germans essentially couldn’t believe that the British would actually be this stupid, but the “real” attack never came: against all logic, they were actually trying to attack Gallipoli.

In the end, Gallipoli was a terrible loss, an absolute humanitarian catastrophe that produced nothing of worth for anyone. But like the entirety of WWI, each step that led up to the decision to land at that point made sense in isolation. Likewise, the German dream of pan-Islamic jihad on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan (a weak puppet of the Young Turks’ CUP gov’t that had deposed the former sultan) looked good on paper–and was an absolute disaster in reality.