Shadow of the Sultan's Realm: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East
Washington: Potomac Books, 2011. Pp. xiv, 271. ISBN 978–1–59797–496–7.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks, two Gulf wars, and the tumultuous Arab Spring in the Middle East have increased the interest and curiosity of not only specialists but also the wider public about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the modern Middle East. This and the imminent centenary of World War I have brought an explosion of scholarly and popular histories.
In Shadow of the Sultan's Realm, Daniel Allen Butler, a popular (mostly maritime) historian and former military officer writes an account of the last years of the Ottoman Empire based on a controversial thesis: "It was the Turks themselves who were the agents of the empire's demise: the Ottoman Empire expired as a consequence of a series of self-inflicted wounds" (238).
Butler, envisioning an American reader seeking to understand the historical roots of the current Middle Eastern conflicts, ambitiously starts his book from the very beginning—the arrival of Turkish tribes in Anatolia in 1071. He makes many mistakes while trying to summarize the long, complex history of the Seljukids and Ottomans in less than twenty-five pages. He confuses different branches of the Seljukids (2) and misidentifies the proto-Ottomans and their appearance in the historical record (3). He then credits the founder of the dynasty, Osman Gazi, with conquering all the Anatolian emirates (4), something not in fact accomplished till some two centuries later. He labels Mahmud II's early reign (1808–28) as "Tanzimat" (18), when the proclamation of the imperial edict of Tanzimat occurred only in 1839.
In chapter 2, Butler attempts to build a case against the main culprits in the demise of the empire—the "Three Pashas" (Enver, Talat, and Cemal)—using epithets like "psychopath," "magnificent pirate," "born conspirator," and "natural counterrevolutionary," among others. He then distorts the biographical record to cast them as rebels without cause. But there was nothing extraordinary about, for example, the early military promotions of Enver; his career followed the typical pattern of a talented general staff officer. He had no connection to the palace at this stage (46). Nor was his fellow conspirator, Talat, any sort of aristocrat; his father was not a senior military officer and did not enjoy a life of privilege (50).
This chapter is as riddled with errors as the first one. For example, Butler confuses Prince Sabahaddin, the well known opponent of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and leader of the so-called Ottoman liberals, with Bahaeddin Şakir, a key leader of the CUP party and Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization) (28). Resneli Niyazi was not the brother-in-law (30, 47) of Enver Pasha, nor was Gerald Fitzmaurice the British Ambassador to Constantinople (32–33). Further, Resneli Niyazi and Enver did not march with their soldiers to capture Constantinople: they revolted and took to the mountains of Macedonia; no other military unit tried to go to the capital (30). The battalions that rebelled against the CUP-led government in 1909 had been selected and brought to Istanbul by the CUP itself, not by Abdülhamid (37). The abortive counterrevolution of 1909 had nothing to do with the Arab population, even though some of their leaders were secretly sympathetic (37). The Italians did not initially ask for the Dodecanese islands in addition to Libya (39), and they assisted not the Imam of Yemen but his rival Sheikh Idris of Asir (40). The peace treaty that ended the Ottoman-Italian war was signed at Ouchy, not Lausanne (47).
In chapter 3, Butler writes that the Turks "had the luxury of standing thoughtfully to one side while the Allies and the Central Powers mauled each other in Belgium, France and Poland…. [They joined the war] by a strange combination of an overabundance of zeal on the part of the Three Pashas, a political blunder by one of the most brilliant members of the British Cabinet, and a perfidious charade played by the German Kaiser and one his admirals" (53–54). Whatever the merits of his claims about the Three Pashas, Butler again frequently misinforms the reader. For example, the actual strength of the German military advisory mission (the Sanders mission) grew from forty-one to seventy-eight, not twenty-five thousand, during summer 1914 (55). The Ottoman military suffered badly from lack of ammunition but not small-arms ammunition (57). Colmar von der Goltz was not an obscure major but a prominent Prussian military thinker in 1883 (58). Liman von Sanders did not receive an army corps command as planned because of diplomatic crisis; instead, he was promoted to inspector general of the army (67).
The following six chapters on the Ottoman war effort fall short even in describing the famous campaigns of Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Erzurum, for instance, is not a harbor but a landlocked city far from the Black Sea coast (87). Cemal Pasha was not recalled to Istanbul after the Canal campaign, but remained to govern Syria and command the 4th Army until 1918 (95). Cavid Pasha was in command of the Iraq region until the end of December 1914. Colonel Subhi Bey was only a division commander and was captured in Basra on 9 December 1915. So Cavid Pasha's replacement, Süleyman Askeri Bey, not Subhi, was the Ottoman commander at the battles of Rota and Shaiba (97–102). Anzacs were not the only troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula: British soldiers carried the main burden (105). Winston Churchill did not make his Dardanelles plans based on information received from T.E. Lawrence (108). Talat did not hold secret meetings with German generals behind Enver's back (111). The Dardanelles Fortified Zone Command did not exhaust its ammunition stocks on 18 March 1915, so not all the straits were open the next day (117). The 19th Infantry Division was the III Corps reserve; it did not face the initial landings but raced towards Anzac cove afterward (120, 123). The discussion of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is too often flatly wrong or problematic (121). Keith Murdoch spent little time at Gallipoli, and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was not an Australian journalist (129). Since Sharif Hussein's Arab Revolt did not start in 1915, it had no effect on the loyalty of Indian Muslim soldiers at this stage (136). Sakallı Nurettin Bey was relieved of command on 10 January 1916; thus, it was his replacement, Halil Pasha, who conducted the siege of Kut al-Amara (139–41).
The last chapter mainly deals with the aftermath of the Mondros Armistice of 30 November 1918. It describes neither the Arab opposition to British-French settlement, nor the battle of Maylasun between the French and Faisal's Arab army, nor the serious disturbances and uprisings against French authority. Likewise, there is nothing about Palestine and the effects of the Balfour Declaration. The treatment of the Turkish Independence War is superficial, giving little idea of events after the peace treaties in Anatolia. Butler falls far short of delivering his subtitle's promised information on "the Creation of the Modern Middle East." The same sort of mistakes continue in this chapter also. For instance, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk did not send units to Ankara to establish "the nucleus of a resurrected Turkish army" before his return to Istanbul on 18 November 1918 (221).
The bibliography is thin, even in a work meant for common readers. The quality of the photographs, too, is poor—except for those from the Library of Congress collection—and the maps are a weakness as well. In conclusion, this book will reward neither specialists nor lay readers wanting to understand the background of current affairs in the Middle East.