Sword of the Sea:
The Ottoman East in the
Second Great War

Note: The Second Great War is our alternative-history story arc, positing a world where Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to negotiate an end to the First World War in late 1916 succeeds (he tried, in our own history, but failed). In our story, war returns a generation later. Our Second Great War at Sea: Sword of the Sea is an expansion for Second World War at Sea: Horn of Africa, and it tells the story of this conflict that never happened in Middle Eastern waters. Today we look at the south-eastern realms of the Ottoman Empire, one of the major players in this campaign.

In the world of the Second Great War, the Ottoman Empire has survived the conflict that led to its collapse in our own reality. When Wilson’s Peace stilled the guns in late 1916, the Turks had successfully ejected the Allies from their beachheads at Gallipoli and Kum Kale. On the Sinai Front, the British had not entered Ottoman territory; on the Mesopotamian Front, the British held Basra and the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, but had been defeated at Kut in 1915 and not yet been able to mount a fresh offensive. Only in the Caucasus had the Turks lost considerable territory.

Wilson’s Peace resulted in the permanent loss of most of that territory, to a new independent Armenia. In compensation, the Ottoman Empire absorbed the formerly Russian region of Azerbaijan, and a corridor linking it to the rest of Turkish territory. The British held onto Kuwait, but the Ottomans exerted their hitherto loose sovereignty over Qatar and the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, which the Empire officially called the Arabian Gulf.

The Ottoman Empire waged the First Great War as part of the Central Powers military alliance, fighting alongside Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Afterwards, the military alliance remained in place, with the newly-independent Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland joining. Sweden entered the alliance later, with no objections from the Turks.

The world of Wilson’s Peace is not one of free trade. The Central Powers have a version of a free-trade zone, with some protections for the industries in the non-German economies. The British Empire hide behind its own wall of tariff barriers, but otherwise there are no economic blocs even between military and political allies. With the steady flow of Turkish oil and the juggernaut of German heavy industry, the Central Powers are a large and vibrant economic power.

Ottoman Turkey received large-scale investment from its partners, and its agriculture in particular thrived. New rail lines carried grain, olive oil and other agricultural products from the Orontes Valley and Mesopotamia to markets in Germany and Austria. Culturally, German-language cinema and literature found a ready market in translation. Post-war Ottoman Turkey made enormous strides toward modernization, exactly as the new Ottoman Grand Vizier, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (right), had dreamed.

Note: Kemal Westernized written Turkish, but not Arabic – a movement calling for this existed, centered in Lebanon, but was unsuccessful.

The peace left the Empire with a festering revolt in its Arab lands, mostly the Hejaz, the desert region including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When the British withdrew their advisors and military aid, the former Sharif of Mecca found himself facing a large Ottoman army on one side and fanatic tribesmen from the interior of Arabia on the other. Kemal looked to the Ottoman governor of Damascus, Gen. Ali Rida al-Rikabi, to negotiate Sharif Hussein’s surrender. Several British subjects who had remained in Ottoman territory after the British withdrawal hoping to continue the revolt, including T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, were hanged. The Sharif and his son Abdullah, along with their families, went into comfortable internal exile on an island in the Sea of Marmora. Some years later an unfortunate outbreak of food poisoning claimed their lives.

Note: Rikabi, a former Ottoman general, would become the first prime minister of Syria, and an ardent Arab nationalist. The historical Abdullah became king of Jordan.

Rikabi had made a great many concessions in order to end the revolt relatively peacefully, and Kemal followed through by establishing an Arab Parliament in Damascus. The new dual system, with a matching Turkish Parliament in Ankara, had been modeled on that of pre-war Austria-Hungary, even though both Kemal and Rikabi were well aware that the Dual Monarchy had jettisoned the system as unworkable during a major crisis.

Rapid economic development helped build support for the new political system. The Arab parties jostled for influence in Damascus, split along ideological as well as regional lines. Conservative Islamists, outraged by Kemal’s secularization drive and abolition of the Arabic script in favor of Romanized letters for the written forms of both Turkish and Arabic, had more strength in Damascus than in Ankara but remained frozen out of the government in both capitals. Kurdistan became an autonomous region subordinate to Ankara.

The island of Perim in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.

The Ottoman Empire enforced universal conscription in both halves and the Kurdish Autonomous Region, excusing very few young men from this obligation. Kemal viewed the army as the school of the nation, taking the French example, and the three-year service obligation is intended to reinforce secular values. In 1928, a similar obligation was extended to young women, requiring two years of service in non-combatant military roles or in public service. Islamists objected strenuously, but their threats had no impact on either Kemal or Rikabi.

The army is large, with over 70 divisions at full mobilization, and equipped with modern weaponry for the most part – some of its artillery and vehicles have seen their best days in German or Austrian service. The days of German military missions conducting training and even staff work are long over; the Central Powers allies have liaison officers at most higher Ottoman headquarters, just as Ottoman officers are found at similar locations in the other Central Powers. But the Ottoman Army has been able to forge its own corps of commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

Economic success, coupled with Kemal’s drive for universal secular education, allowed that military modernization and the formation of a strong native, Turkish- and Arabic-speaking professional officer corps. All children attended school through their 16th year, when some became apprentices and others went on for further teaching. Universities, newly arisen in both the Turkish and Arabic spheres, was free to those who could qualify for admittance. Universal health care, another goal of Kemal, had not yet been achieved by 1940.

The United States had agreed to invest huge sums in Turkish lands, in order to achieve Armenian independence. German and Austrian cash also poured into the Ottoman Empire. The Berlin-to-Baghdad Railway was completed and extended to Basra, a double-tracked, high-capacity line. Likewise, the Hejaz Railway branching off in Damascus and heading southward to the Holy Cities (passing through Jerusalem as well) received the same treatment. In the 1930’s, after unrest in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula had been subdued, the Hejaz Railway was extended to Hodeidah in Yemen. Another project saw a rail line built around British-held Kuwait to link Dubai and Qatar to the rest of the Empire, and a line directly across the Arabian Peninsula to join Mecca with the north coast.

Passengers on the Hejaz Railway.

The new rail lines went far toward integrating the Arab provinces with the rest of the Empire and with Europe as well. An oil pipeline followed the Basra line across Turkey and on to Austria and Germany, providing a flow of petroleum to the Empire’s Central Powers trading partners. The income from this flow kept Parliamentary debates lively in both Damascus and Ankara, as Arab leaders argued that revenue generated in the Arab half of the Empire should be spent there as well.

Wilson’s Peace left the Suez Canal under nominal British authority but de-militarized, with open navigation for all nations. Ottoman commercial traffic grew, as investment capital poured into the Red Sea ports. Not everyone found these changes to their liking.

In the depths of the Arabian Desert, the Bedouin tribes had never come under Ottoman authority. Starting during the Great War, they organized under the leadership of Ibn Sa’ud, perhaps the most powerful of them. The fanatical Islamic Wahhabi movement dominated the tribes, preaching a violent hatred for all non-Muslims – which included the Sunni and Shi’a inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire. Only Wahhabists were truly Muslim; the apostates claiming to be such must be forced to convert or die.

Kemal enforced a policy of isolation, figuring that the Sa’udi movement could do little damage if denied access to modern weapons. Yet armed with bow, lance and sword, camel-riding raiders descended on towns and villages all around the fringes of the Arabian Desert: in Yemen, the Hejaz, Jordan and Mesopotamia. A massive attack on the holy cities of Mecca and Medina came within a hair’s breadth of success, with the garrisons only barely holding on.

The Ottoman Army fully mobilized to crush this threat. Rikabi argued that this was an Arab problem, to be solved by Arab forces, and Kemal agreed to assign mostly regiments raised in the Arab half of the Empire to what soon became a very dirty secret war.

An Italian map of the strategic Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.

The Desert War began in earnest in 1922, with even greater raids by Sa’ud’s fighters, known as the Ikhwan. Ottoman columns, guided by a detachment of Austrian airships bearing Turkish radio operators, steadily pressed the Ikhwan deeper into the desert. Ikhwan fighters began to wield more modern weapons, supplied by British agents operating out of their colonial outpost in Kuwait.

In the depths of the desert, far from any observers, the Ikhwan conducted frightful massacres both of Ottoman prisoners and wounded and any inhabitants who would not accept the doctrines of Wahhabism. The Ottoman troops responded in kind, murdering both prisoners taken in arms and entire clans of Sa’ud’s supporters.

By late 1924 the Arabian Desert had come under firm Ottoman control. With the strong approval of the Damascus parliament – the desert Arabs had boycotted the elections – Kemal had the surviving Bedouin forcibly re-settled in the far corners of the Empire, in groups of no more than a single family in villages along the Black Sea coast and in central Anatolia.

Rumors of Ottoman atrocities leaked out of the desert, chiefly by way of British sources, but few cared in the rest of the world. Within the Ottoman Empire most approved of Kemal’s harsh tactics. The re-born Empire had responded promptly and successfully to a threat against its Arab citizens, and Kemal – who continued to privately loathe the Arabs – gained a great deal of prestige among the Ottoman Arabs. The Army’s Arab regiments had fought well, with no large-scale defections to the Ikhwan, while the central government labeled Islamist opponents as supporters of the Ikhwan.

Note: Facing only rival clans and tribes (some of them fairly well-armed), Sa’ud would consolidate power in the peninsula that his family still holds.

The Ottoman Navy had very little presence in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf before the Great War. The Damascus parliament demanded that their taxes help defend Arab waters as well as the Turkish Straits, and the Ottoman Navy responded by establishing a Red Sea Fleet in 1920, based at Hodeida.

The battle cruiser Yildiz (before modernization) in Hodeida’s floating drydock.

The new fleet and its base only saw rapid growth once the double-tracked connection to the Hejaz Railway arrived in 1934. Hodeida received repair and docking facilities, ammunition and fuel depots, staff headquarters and coastal defenses to protect the new infrastructure. More ships, including a few modern units, joined the Red Sea Fleet. By 1940 it had become a credible force, able to challenge the Italian forces stationed on the opposite shore and seal the southern end of the Red Sea against possible British intrusion. In case of war, the Red Sea is seen as a direct connection to the German colony in East Africa, and Ottoman Turkey’s German ally has been very willing to help fund base construction and to assist the Ottoman Navy’s growth.

At Umm Qasr south of Basra, the Ottoman Navy built a smaller station for its Arabian Gulf Squadron. Administratively the squadron is part of the Red Sea Fleet, but their wide separation makes it in effect a separate command. Its task is to protect the Ottoman shore from Persian attack; the many oil fields there make it a vulnerable target in case of war. And if there is war, no Ottoman military or political leader doubts that the Persians will be involved.

When war broke out in late 1940, the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of becoming a modern, first-tier economic and military power. Muslims under colonial rule from Morocco to the Moluccas looked to the revived empire for inspiration, and hope of liberation. Kemal’s Empire was no longer the Sick Man of Europe.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.

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