The occupation of the Arab Ottoman provinces by European powers started well before the outbreak of the First World War, as they were included in the larger issue of the “Eastern Question”. By the mid-19th century, Algeria and Tunisia had been occupied by France and Egypt had been under British occupation since 1882. Pre-war occupation styles varied, ranging from full occupation to economic control over specific sectors. Egypt experienced a rather unique status, as it was British controlled but under Ottoman sovereignty. Inconsistent plans, paired with loose ideas about the future of the region, had been circulating between European powers. However, the urgency of re-designing the Middle East emerged during the first year of the war.

This article addresses the creation of a British Protectorate in Egypt and its long-lasting repercussions. Secondly, a brief overview of Ottoman losses in the Arab lands is followed by a discussion of the occupation of Jerusalem and Baghdad. Lastly, this article engages with the creation of the Mandates as a new form of colonial occupation, following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the signing of several peace treaties. From a local perspective, the war proved to be a dramatic event that produced destruction and an enormous amount of victims, but eventually, it was shown to have only been the beginning, as some of its consequences have to this day not yet been absorbed and dealt with.


It has been argued that the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 produced one of the most significant colonial encounters of the modern era.[1] Great Britain occupied Egypt after a round of nationalist demonstrations in order to protect the Suez Canal, choosing a rather unique form of occupation, as the country was not made into a colony or a protectorate. Although Egypt remained under formal Ottoman sovereignty, neither Ottomans nor Egyptians had much say in its governance, and Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), who “ruled” Egypt from 1883 to 1907, influenced all aspects of life, from economy to education, promoting British financial interests and, at the same time, contributing to the emergence of a strong political opposition.[2] Cromer’s successors relaxed some of his policies and, by 1914, political parties and press flourished. Upon Ottoman entry into the war, the British declared Egypt to be an official protectorate (18 December 1914), ending four centuries of Ottoman sovereignty: ’Abbas II, Khedive of Egypt (1874-1944) was deposed and his uncle Husayn Kamil, Sultan of Egypt (1853-1917) was appointed sultan. Britain declared that it would protect Egypt, and Egyptians were not required to be actively involved in the conflict. Nevertheless, the demands of the British army impacted the civilian population as prices rose and more peasants were recruited into labour battalions. Profiteers and foreign landlords benefited from the rising prices, while the middle and lower classes began to resent British rule and enlisted in nationalist organizations, ready to demonstrate their alienation.[3] The end of the war and the popularity of the Wilsonian idea of self-determination contributed to the rapid politicization of Egypt, which led to the creation of a delegation – wafd – whose purpose was to petition the British to represent Egypt at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. When the Wafd and its leader Saad Zaghloul (1859-1927) were denied the possibility of being heard in Paris, a wave of popular riots and demonstrations broke out in various parts of the country, resulting in the death of more than 800 Egyptians. By then, the newly appointed High Commissioner, General Edmund Allenby (1861-1936), allowed the Wafd to travel to Paris. In 1922, Britain unilaterally declared the independence of Egypt; however, it was not until 1956, with the outbreak of the military and political Suez Crisis, that the British occupation of Egypt finally ended.[4]

Ottoman Losses

Following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, Europeans believed that the Ottoman Empire would collapse rapidly after joining the war effort. Despite this, the Ottoman armies performed fairly well, even though the empire’s extensive borders required troops at several fronts simultaneously.[5] At the beginning of the war, Ottoman losses were confined to the Eastern Front with Russia, and to the Persian Gulf and southern Mesopotamia as a result of limited British penetration. In November 1914, the Sixth Indian Division crossed from Persia and occupied Basra, a position that was consolidated only later in 1915.[6] Nevertheless, the military reality was that, in the same year, the Ottomans were not only defending their empire, but were planning to attack on multiple fronts. Ahmed Cemal Pasha (1872-1922), for instance, assembled a task force in southern Palestine in order to take the Suez Canal, hoping that the Egyptians might have turned against the British. The advanced failed; however, the Ottomans did not lose ground.[7] Though the British, led by General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend (1861-1924), attempted to push their way up from Basra to Baghdad later in 1915, they had to retreat on the Tigris, stopping in the muddy village of Kut, which was then sieged by Ottoman forces. On 26 April 1916, Townshend negotiated a surrender: nearly 13,000 men were taken prisoner. Kut was the second victory in a row for the Ottomans (Gallipoli being the first); territorial losses were minimal and the “Sick Man of Europe” was very much alive; as were the British, who, by mid-1916, were planning to reverse their performance in the Middle East.[8]

Occupation of Jerusalem and Baghdad

Early in 1915, the British established an interdepartmental committee led by Maurice De Bunsen (1852-1932), former British ambassador to Austria, in order to discuss their interests in the Ottoman Empire. However, it was not until the defeats at Gallipoli and Kut that they began to consistently plan the future of the region.[9] The Husayn-McMahon correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement went hand in hand with military preparations on the British side, showing the willingness of the newly appointed British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) to seal the fate of the Ottoman Empire once and for all.[10] Whereas an agreement with Husayn ibn Ali, King of Hejaz (c.1853-1931) and Sharif of Mecca, was the outcome of a necessity dictated by the unfolding war events, the Sykes-Picot agreement was an act of official and secret imperial planning, one that would have re-designed the map of the Middle East. A comparison of these agreements shows the inconsistencies of the promises made, first to the Arabs and later to the Jews, with the Balfour Declaration. After all, these agreements were by-products of the war effort and its unpredictability. Lloyd George believed that a strong military effort in Palestine and Mesopotamia would have changed the course of the war.[11] The conquest and occupation of Jerusalem was planned in order to enhance the nation’s morale; the practicalities were left in the hands of the head of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force General Allenby.[12] The occupation of Jerusalem became the centre of a heated debate in the cabinet ahead of the city’s conquest in November 1917. The War Office formalized the main policies for its administration through a note that also suggested how holy places should be administered.[13] Belligerents on both sides were concerned about the potential negative impact that a battle for Jerusalem could have on holy sites. On 8 December, Ottoman, German, and Austrian troops evacuated the city, leaving a declaration of surrender in the hands of the mayor of Jerusalem, Husayn al-Husayini (?-1918), who, after a rather bizarre sequence of events, was able to hand it to General Allenby, who made his official entry on 11 December.[14] Allenby read a proclamation to the people of Jerusalem, promising religious freedom while maintaining martial law. The occupation of Jerusalem had local, regional, and international repercussions. Jerusalemites were happy the war was over, but were also suspicious of their new rulers. Streets were crowded with joyful people who later saw the occupation as a curse rather than a blessing.[15] At the same time, Zionists, the beneficiaries of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, had a different take on the long-term effects of British occupation, believing it to be a necessity for the establishment of a Jewish entity in Palestine. Whereas in Britain the conquest of Jerusalem was used as a propaganda tool, internationally the occupation of the city, and later of Palestine, came to represent the willingness of the British to re-draw the borders of the Middle East.

Moving to the Mesopotamian Front, the occupation of Baghdad started with the appointment of a new commander of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, Major General Stanley Maude (1864-1917). While increasing the number of troops and laying down railway tracks, Maude forced the Ottomans to retreat from Kut on 24 February 1917, vindicating his predecessor, but more importantly, securing a way up through the Tigris to Baghdad. The Ottoman army was effectively disbanding, and no major defences were left to protect Baghdad. The British encountered some resistance on the Diyala River, but on 10 March, the city had fallen to British hands.[16] While leaving the city, Ottoman and German troops destroyed all military installations. Total chaos spread in the city as people started looting whatever they could. General Maude made his entry on the afternoon of 11 March, and read a proclamation, crafted in London, which highlighted the history of the city and its symbolic value. By making reference to the great Islamic caliphates, the British hoped to appease the local population and to appear as liberators rather than occupiers. Like Jerusalemites, Baghdadis welcomed the restoration of order, but soon realized that the British had different plans for the emerging new state of Iraq.[17]

Conclusion: From Armistice to Mandates

In the fall of 1918, the British staged a large offensive that resulted in the occupation of Damascus on 1 October, which fostered the dreams of Faysal I, King of Iraq (1885-1933), the son of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, as a contender in the occupation of Syria.[18] The next few weeks marked the collapse of the Ottoman army, and an armistice was signed at Mudros on 31 October 1918 on board the HMS Agamemnon, a veteran of Gallipoli. The Ottomans were forced to surrender unconditionally and to accept the occupation of strategic points detailed in the text of the armistices. However, with the establishment of the Mandates Ottoman lands were partitioned and occupied as Lebanon and Syria came under French control, while the newly created states of Iraq and Palestine were assigned to Great Britain. The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was briefly discussed in Paris, but as the British and the French were concerned that the Americans would support the idea of Arab independence following Woodrow Wilson’s (1856-1924) Fourteen Points speech, decisions were postponed. The Americans, through the King-Crane Commission, investigated what the local populations wished for themselves, but the findings were ultimately ignored in favour of international realpolitik.[19] The future of the defunct Ottoman Empire was decided with the Treaty of Sevres (1920) – superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) – and with the Treaty of San Remo (1920), which eventually sanctioned the occupation of the Middle East in the form of British and French Mandates.[20] Expectations of a new era of independence were rapidly replaced by European imperialism and new borders. Though physical occupation of the Middle East ended after the Second World War, its effects are still palpable, and the First World War, albeit in a different form, is still being fought, with no clear end in sight.

Roberto Mazza, Limerick University

Section Editors: Melanie Schulze-Tanielian; Yiğit Akin