The Lion's Share: As the hapless Ottoman Sultan looks on, the major imperial powers openly bid for huge chunks of his empire. New Zealanders died in their thousands so that John Bull (him with the scissors) could keep the Royal Navy supplied from its Middle-Eastern oil-wells. The very same oil-wells that the German Kaiser (him with the shears) was so keen to get his hands on.
DIPLOMACY AND WAR have always been uneasy bedfellows. Uneasy because, when diplomacy fails it is usually war that triumphs. Sometimes, however, the baton is passed on quite deliberately. In those cases: when diplomacy is allowed to fail; the uneasiness arises out of war’s wild contingency. It is upon the bodies of warring states that the Law of Unintended Consequences inflicts its most dreadful wounds.
On 25 April, Australians and New Zealanders will mark the hundredth anniversary of a catastrophic military defeat. Close to 3,000 young New Zealanders died in the Gallipoli campaign and many thousands more were wounded. These shattering losses (New Zealand’s population in 1915 was barely 1 million) provided but a foretaste of the bitter repast that awaited New Zealanders in Flanders and Picardy. From a very little country, diplomacy and war were about to extract a very high price.
This would have been tragic enough if the diplomatic and military decisions that sent so many young New Zealand men to their deaths had been made by New Zealanders themselves. That they died as a result of the deliberate failure of British diplomacy, in a war intended to enrich and enlarge the British Empire, renders their sacrifices even more absurd and obscene.
Such, however, are the hard, cold facts of the matter. The Dominions of Australia and New Zealand entered the First World War at precisely the same moment as Great Britain (11:00am 4 August 1914) because constitutionally, diplomatically and militarily they were appendages of the British Crown. Where Britain stood, we stood. Her enemies were our enemies. Where she led – we followed.
That we ended up following Great Britain on to the territory of the Ottoman Empire was only partially accidental. One of the most important reasons British diplomacy did so little to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 was the British Empire’s rising concern at the Germans’ lengthening strategic reach. British policy makers were especially wary of Germany’s rapidly expanding diplomatic, military and economic ties with the Ottoman Empire. The British had observed the dramatic benefits of French investment in the Russian Empire and were fearful that Germany’s administration of a similar tonic to the tottering Ottomans could compromise Britain’s strategic future.
It was Winston Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, made the decision (just one year out from the First World War) to power the Royal Navy with oil rather than coal. With Churchill’s primary source of oil being the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (whose wells were perilously close to the Ottoman border) Germany’s “peaceful” expansion into the oil-fields of the Middle-East loomed instantly as a major strategic threat.
The decision to invade the Ottoman Empire, which swept the hapless ANZAC’s into the doomed assault on Gallipoli, was first and foremost Churchill’s. Ostensibly an attempt to come at the Central Powers from a new direction, its true purpose was to secure for the British Empire and its French allies the strategic oil reserves located in Ottoman territory. Britain’s other ally, Tsarist Russia, would receive Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and control of the crucial straits linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement: In complete secrecy, the British and French negotiators (Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot) carved up the Ottoman Empire to their respective governments' satisfaction. The peoples who actually lived there were never consulted. Had the Bolsheviks not published its contents (Britain and France had thoughtfully provided their Tsarist Russian ally with a copy) the Arabs would never have known what they were fighting for - and neither would we! Modern-day borders are overlaid.
The first of these strategic objectives were confirmed in the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the Ottoman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) were divvied up between the British and French Empires. The top-secret deal was to be delivered militarily not only by British arms, but also by the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects (inspired to revolt by T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) with additional assistance from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and the Australian Light Horse.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles
The second objective – Russian control of Constantinople and the Bosphorus – was thwarted only by the intervention of the Russian people, who overthrew the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
Undaunted, the British simply revised their plans. Just how inimical these would have proved to the people of modern-day Turkey was revealed in the extraordinary Treaty of Sèvres. Had the latter been allowed to stand, virtually the entire empire of the Ottomans would have been parcelled out between the British, French, Italians and Greeks.
That this did not happen was due to the efforts of a man not unknown to the ANZAC’s – one Mustapha Kemal. The man who had held the heights at Gallipoli rallied the Turkish people behind him, drove out the Greek invaders, forced the Allied occupiers of Istanbul to withdraw, and established the Turkish Republic – where Saturday’s ANZAC centennial commemorations will unfold.
On TVNZ’s Q+A programme (19/4/15) Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, declared that New Zealand entered World War I to fight “a great evil”. Presumably, he was referring to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. History refutes him. The First World War was a war between rival empires. The “great evil” was Imperialism. And New Zealand’s sons were fighting for it – not against it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 April 2015.