DOUGLAS NEWTON.  Beersheba – the Scramble for the Ottoman Empire

The centenary of the bloodshed at Beersheba this month is being used to bolster a narrow nationalist understanding of Australia’s First World War. Vital truths about the worldwide catastrophe that had enveloped countless millions by October 1917 are being obscured in a flood of media material that focuses almost entirely upon deeds of gallantry and dash.  (Because of technical problems on Tuesday, I decided to repost this important article as some readers may have missed it.)

What really matters about Beersheba? Why were Australians there at all?

The overall purpose of the military efforts in the Ottoman territories of the Middle East was to win such a victory that the entire Ottoman Empire could be divided up between the victors. A veritable ‘scramble for the Ottoman Empire’ underpinned the whole campaign. The resource-grabbing would be the biggest thing since the ‘scramble for Africa’ at the height of the New Imperialism in the late nineteenth century. And German commercial enterprise could be excluded entirely from this new imperial sphere according to the plans of the protectionists increasingly dominant in London and Paris.

The agreement to divide up the Ottoman Empire had been struck in negotiations between Paris and London in early 1916. The Sykes-Picot agreements, concluded in May 1916, contemplated the swallowing up of the great bulk of Ottoman territory by Britain and France.

The spirit underlying this bargain was starkly revealed in December 1915 when Sykes spoke to the War Committee in London. Sykes reported to the War Committee on 16 December 1915, and got his riding instructions for the deal with Paris. He warned the politicians that, if Britain were defeated in its wrestle with Ottoman Turkey, peril awaited. The fearful ‘French financiers’ (mentioned eleven times), ‘a very evil force’, would then do deals with the Ottomans to get their way. Competitive plans for ‘railways’ (mentioned five times) was a vital interest. Moreover, he feared Russia. Peace without victory, he cautioned, ‘means ending the war with grave danger – post-war – to India, Egypt, and to the Entente, if Russia is unsatisfied with regard to an open port.’ The Gallipoli campaign, we must remember, had just failed.

The solution? A new ‘great offensive’ in the Middle East, and agreement beforehand with France to snaffle up the lot. And how to divide the spoils? Here Sykes famously pointed to a map and suggested, ‘I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kerkuk [sic]’, that is, a line running almost a thousand kilometres, from the coast (of what is now northern Israel) to northern Mesopotamia. France would take everything north of the line – Britain, under various guises, would take everything south of the line. (War Committee. ‘Meeting held at 10, Downing Street on Thursday, December 16, 1915’, ‘Evidence of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, Bart., M. P., on the Arab Question. TNA: CAB 24/1/51.)

But the fall of the Tsar in March 1917 threw all this into doubt. In April, therefore, the Western leaders met again, this time at St-Jean-de-Maurienne, a small town near the Franco-Italian border. Italy urged that recent back-channel peace overtures from Austria-Hungary’s new Emperor, the young Karl, be rejected. Shunning any peace overtures, the British, French, and Italian leaders then haggled out an agreement to hand out to each other second-helpings from Turkish booty at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Now Italy was to gain a vast share, the ‘green’ area on an updated Sykes-Picot map, that is the southern third of Anatolia (now Turkey) including Smyrna, and an area of indirect control to its north, on the Aegean coast and hinterland. These deals were confirmed in follow-up secret conferences between the British, French and Italians in London in August 1917.

Such were the purposes underpinning Beersheba.

Whether Australians fought gallantly or not is in fact a question of little importance in the scale of things. Whether Australians received their fair share of the glory of this or that particular victory is also an unworthy nationalist obsession.

Much more important is this: in a war of manufactured murder on a grand scale, of industrialised killing and mutilation, victory would eventually go to the side that brought its overwhelming industrial power to the front line in Europe. And so it did.

What we fought for matters much more than how we fought.

The bravery of the individual soldier anywhere in this orgy of slaughter mattered little, when in the course of battle so many were simply blown to pieces by ever greater masses of artillery.

What really matters in the history of the First World War by October-November 1917?

By the autumn of 1917, Britain, France, Italy and the USA had spent months evading and spurning the diplomacy of the Provisional Government of Russia. The new democratic government in Petrograd produced by the March Revolution had been pressing for a grand inter-allied council to repudiate imperialist war aims and state credible progressive aims. This endangered all the imperialist treaties struck between Paris, London, and Rome. The West shunned this opportunity and the war became utterly discredited in Russia. A second revolution in Russia resulted, which would catapult the Bolsheviks to power. The West’s determination to prolong the war would cost Russia its democratic moment.

In Australia, the battle at Beersheba was above all grist for the pro-war propaganda mill. A spectacular victory in a corner of the Middle East boosted the efforts of the Hughes government to impose conscription in Australia. The government launched a second effort to persuade the people to accept conscription at a referendum in December 1917. The government resorted to a phoney question, and held the referendum on a work day rather than on a Saturday. Still a majority of the Australian people voted NO. Thus they refused to give the government and the British generals a blank cheque to spend as many men as they wished in their prolonged war. It is probably the most important event of all in the record of Australia’s war.

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.

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11 Responses to DOUGLAS NEWTON.  Beersheba – the Scramble for the Ottoman Empire

  1. Jim Kable says:

    I’d vaguely heard of the Beersheba Charge of the Light(horse) Brigade back in the past. Conflating it somehow with “Henry V” – Shakespeare – studied for the 1965 NSW Leaving Certificate – and the Crimean War but last week-end was jolted out of that general ignorance by the NewsCorp/Weekend Australian glossy magazine insert devoted entirely to this Beersheba Engagement – and then through the starters of this week with news reports from Israel (not Palestine) and tales of Walers and of descendants engaged in re-enactment scenes – here and over there – including, suddenly it seems, of stories of Indigenous participants back in 1917 and of their descendants to-day. What is going on – I thought to myself! So thank you Douglas NEWTON for providing the true context to this early 20th century imperial surge – with its obvious softening up of Australians with this preparation in this century for more military engagement in the service of other imperial objectives – nothing to do with us here in Australia!

  2. Thank you Douglas for another great article on Australia and the First World War which sheds more light on the subject.

  3. what is interesting about the new historical narrative told by the Veteran Department and other institutions is that it glorifies blind obedience. Thought is discouraged. Violence and action are sanctified.

    I do not think much deliberation has been put into it, but the trajectory that this propaganda takes Australia is scary. Australians are being prepared for violence against an enemy. Who will be the enemy that the machinery gets turned towards? Who threatens the interests of the elites?

  4. I hope the author in his new book writes of the evil spirit of social darwinism that saw the “survival of the fittest” zeitgeist expressed in the war mongering arrogance of the elite across Europe.

    And to identify the spirit of love at work in “Austria-Hungary’s new Emperor, the young Karl..” who lived a life influenced by Jesus Christ’s ” love your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and, to love your neighbour as yourself”.

    Two immense influences rarely mentioned in the lives of an age of great tragedy. Fortunately the latter stirs the hearts of good people still.

  5. Phil Patterson says:

    “stirs the hearts of good people still.”

    It’s that kind of simplistic binarism that facilitated the evil of imperialism to begin with. It was – and is – as much a part of the evil you complain of as anything else.

  6. derrida derider says:

    This is also part of the more general point that so many of today’s Middle Eastern woes stem from the behaviour of the British Foreign and Colonial Offices during the period 1914-1923. Staring with Winston Churchill’s theft of those two Turkish battleships that pushed Turkey into the war, ending with his creation of a pile of artificial and unstable states under British and French suzerainty, with things like Gallipoli, the Balfour declaration, Sykes-Picot and the (British sponsored) Greek invasion of Anatolia in between. Of course our troops were once again puppets for the self-interested and shortsighted adventures of a foreign power – as so often since.

  7. David Allison says:

    Thank you for your enlightening account.

  8. Michael Faulkner says:

    A really important article Douglas. Thank you.

    The Murdoch father and son team for a century now, has typically encouraged Australians to engage in international warfare. As Phillip Knightly has observed, in all epochs since the mid 19th century, there has been a close relationship between the health of newspaper proprietors profits and their reporting on the events of prevailing wars.

    In late 1917, Keith Murdoch was a stanch advocate of Bill Hughes ‘Yes’ vote for conscription in the two referendums that the Australian people soundly rejected, He took this as a personal failure that his plan in that year, had not been successful in his efforts to ‘ ….. rouse martial feeling in Australia. ‘ ( Tom Roberts (2014), Before Rupert : Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty, p. 77 )

    Rupert Murdoch as we know, took a similar stance more recent conflicts, most notably in relation to the American war in Vietnam, and again more recently, was the English speaking world’s most insistent media advocate in the U.S. The UK. and Australia, for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  9. Julian says:

    Thank you Professor Newton for this excellent article which points out – to those who did not know – where the axis of real power lay at that time and the linked (imperial) interests of whom were being served by the participation of colonial (including Australian) troops.

    As others have noted, the recent publicity surrounding the anniversary of Beersheba serves mainly to extol the bravery and dash of the Australian Light Horse, with nothing that I could see written about just how expendable Australian troops really were – at Gallipoli, in Europe, at Beersheba and elsewhere.

    In this particular context, I note the comment of Paul Fritjers (2 November 2017 at 8:21 AM) about where this propaganda is liable to take us. I have no doubt Paul that you are correct in saying that we are being “set-up” for action against an enemy yet to be named (or re-named).

  10. Glen Tye says:

    Thank you Prof. Newton for an informative article that fills many gaps in my knowledge of and unfortunately contributes to my scepticism about Australia’s involvement in WW1. I look forward to your book on the history of diplomacy to end the Great War and expect to be similarly disappointed by the actions of the “great men” of that time.

  11. Lynne Newington says:

    For me, the quickening of the spirit was overwhelming with encompassing thoughts the chalice of the minds of those warriors had not been poisoned by anti-Semitism that tore the Jews apart just two decades later.

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