The British Empire Library

The First World War in the Middle East

by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by C.W. Squire (British Army service in Palestine 1948; Northern Nigeria Administration 1953-59; HM Ambassador to Israel 1984-88)
This book is an extremely interesting overview of events in Palestine and the wider Middle East during World War I and the resulting peace settlement. It charts the conflict and competition between the rival European empires over the territory of the Ottoman Empire, which was both victim and participant. Though Palestine was of lesser account in the outcome of WWI, events there had dire repercussions for the future. British interests in Palestine arose out of the UK's perceived strategic need to defend the Suez Canal and our lines of communication with India and other British territories in Asia. British power based in Egypt was initially defensive (chapter 5) but the general effort to exert maximum pressure on the Central Powers on all fronts (pi 09) required a more forward policy, leading to the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. The resulting enormous demands on the local economy (the ration strength of British and Indian forces was nearly half a million men, combatants and non-combatants, by the end of the war), led the British to take responsibility for the civil population in coping with famine and disease endemic in the region.

Fears for the loyalty of their moslem subjects and soldiers and the need to win support from local Arab leaders led the British to promise a postwar future in which the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire would be ruled by the Arabs themselves. At the same time the need to win the loyalty of the Jewish population of the region helped to produce the Balfour Declaration (November 1917) in favour of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. These "flagrantly conflicting lines of policy" (pi 53) were in part responsible for continuing violence in the post-war period. The author gives a convincing account (in chapter 7) of how the UK's initial anti-annexationist stance and support for self-determination, reflected in its wartime agreements with Arab leaders, were overtaken by power politics and Anglo/French rivalry.

The author gives a good account of US policy (pp162-4), which favoured self-determination in the Middle East, as in Europe. But the decline of US influence due to President Wilson's ill health and growing isolationism in the US meant that the Paris peace conference never applied the principle in the Middle East, so the League of Nations granted the Mandate over Palestine to Britain. The British now had to face on the ground the complexities born of its wartime diplomacy.

From the earliest days of the Mandate, Arab distrust of Britain following the Balfour Declaration resulted in Arab riots in Jerusalem and Jaffa as early as 1920 and 1921. It is nevertheless possible to believe that Arab/Jewish tensions in the interwar period could have been resolved by agreement had it not been for the Holocaust. This led to an enormous increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine and to international sympathy for European Jewish survivors. With the 1948 war and successive conflicts in Palestine, the right of self-determination was forgotten and the legitimacy of possession by right of conquest reaffirmed.

British Empire Book
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Hurst Publishers


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