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History written in text books is one thing,  (hi)stories re-told from father to son, down the line of tribes and clans is another. For many Americans history recalls boring afternoons staring glassy-eyed at enormous books trying to remember details that seem far removed from their lives and interests.  In the Middle East, however, history does not lie quietly on the page.  It will not shut-up.  It barks from the muzzles of guns. In Syria and Anatolia, in Egypt and Palestine the stories go back for thousands of years. Romans are remembered, and Persians.  Empires have risen and fallen.  Religious belief has grown from mighty wells and branched into hundreds of streams.  Great trade routes and commercial centers are told of, and scenes of enormous slaughter recalled. Ancient history has shaped national character and belief.  More recent history has set the conditions in which we live today.  So it is in this 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One.

In that war, ignited in Europe,  was a Western Front where German, British, French and eventually American troops died in the millions.  There was an Eastern Front where Germans and Russians, Austrians, Serbs, Bosnians, Bulgarians and Romanians died.  In southern Africa, Germans and British battled, both with native troops dying in the thousands.  What was called the Southern Front, high in the Alps, took the lives of Italians and Austrians, subject troops among them.  South of south and east of east was another front, along the frontiers and deep into the body of the once mighty Ottoman empire, the first of the then-standing Empires to be pushed back from its claims on other resources, other territories, other peoples.

The rewards seemed stupendous: for the Arabs, subjects for many centuries to rulers not their own, freedom from the Pashas, their non Arabic speaking overlords; for the British, new oil fields of Persia and secure passage to the greatest part of their empire, India; for the French, a foot hold in Syria to counter the British weight in Palestine and Egypt.  Even Greece and Italy wanted a share.

Movies Blood and Oil PosterIt is this history, that Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War One, (2006) by Marty Callaghan tries to condense and present in image and explanation for the interested and puzzled. It is short-form history, as it must be, starting not with Arab irruptions of the 6th and 5th centuries into North Africa and the Levant, or the Ottoman coming to power from the 14th to 16th.  His starting point is World War One, his focus on the areas of Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Syria and Turkey of today.

Beginning with news footage of the 2003 American  invasion of Iraq and British Pathé clip of the WW II  capture of Kirkuk, a serious male voice over pulsing strings and drums asks how these invasions and wars began. The narrative turns to the Ottoman Empire in 1914 then lead by a triumvirate of Young Turks who have deposed the long ruling Sultan. Enver Pasha is foremost among them and believes an alliance with Germany, in the just starting European war, is their best insurance against Russian and British aggression.

On October 29th 1914 The Ottoman war fleet attacks Sebastapol and other Russian ports on the Black Sea. [That the fleet was under German command is not said in the film; see Barbara Tuchman’s great The Guns of August for a stirring account.) The war was joined.   Brief clips of the naval bombardment add to the sense of authenticity established earlier with images of men pouring out of trenches in odd helmets and strange backpacks.  A quick map showing Russia advancing over the Caucasus mountains into Turkish-Anatolia, British-India troops landing in Basra to push up the Tigris and British ships bombarding the coasts of the Dardanelles sets the circumference of the fighting and the film.

Although the bulk of the narrative and documentary footage is battle  oriented, we hear of the high death rate from disease, dysentery, cholera and typhus.  Of the million men who fought with the allies, over one half became casualties.  Callaghan does a adequate job of tying events –battles, changes of command– in Syria and Iraq to what was going on in France, though there are a few times I wished for more.  Surprising to many will be the accounts of the battles between Russia and the Ottomans in what is now eastern Turkey, the Russians advancing well into the country and holding major cities for several years.  Then, even as Ottoman armies are being pushed out of Iraq and Palestine, others are able to mount formidable campaigns against the Russians and push them back to the Caucuses.

Very interestingly, and appropriately, by the time the Armistice is shown being signed in November of 1918 the film is only half-way over. The Germans were defeated but the British and French had deep designs on the lands the Ottomans had been driven from and those they were sure would come. There were over one million British soldiers still in Ottoman lands; British and French armies occupied Istanbul, Greek armies penetrated deep into the Anatolian heartland.  From the ruins of the Ottoman armies Mustafa Kemal, the heralded defender against the Allies at Gallipoli, re-formed a Turkish army, took up the rising nationalist tides of Europe and shaped it for the Turkish people. According to the film, bullets, boots and clothing were made in villages all across Turkey.  For the Turks the fighting was not over for another seven years.


The first 25 minutes takes us, principally in British eyes,  through the end of the Gallipoli campaign  in late fall of 1915, leaving over half a million allied casualties and the demotion of First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, at whose insistence the campaign had been undertaken.  [For a very fine documentary on this campaign alone, with excellent footage from the Turkish side, see the 2005 documentary by Turkish director, Tolga Ornek, Gallipoli / Gelibolu ; here on Netflix]

From the Dardanelles the film takes up battles on two widely separated fronts.  To the south, British General Townshend advances from Basra [sadly familiar to us from the 2003 American invasion] swiftly up the Tigris to the gates of Baghdad where he is stopped and then pushed back by fierce Ottoman resistance.  At the same time, in the far northeast the Russians push deep into Anatolia, taking the city of Vons and territory along the Black Sea.  The Ottoman 2nd and third armies are in shambles.  The draft is expanded to include all men between 16 and 50.

Civilians, fleeing the fighting, die by the thousands from starvation, massacres and bandit raids, Armenian Christians the enormous majority but including Circasians, Kurds and other ethnicities and religions.  By the end of the war un-countable millions have died.  As is necessary in any such compressed telling, much is left out.  That Armenian rebels were allying with the invading Russians — hoping for better treatment from fellow Christians than the Muslim Ottomans– should not have been.

Shifting back to the south, footage of the British invaders caught in the merciless siege of Kut, brings the scene to life.  Attempts to break the siege fail multiple times at the cost of more men than are under siege. [An attempt by T. E. Lawrence, under orders from War Secretary General Lord Kitchener, himself, to pay ransom for the troops goes unmentioned.] Ultimately some 13,000 men surrender to the Ottomans, the great majority  of them Indian troops [un-said in the film]  who were used as a grim labor force until the end of the  war.

The scene shifts to the British advance from Cairo and other North African ports across the Sinai, the beginning of the so-called desert war, initially under General Archibald Murray.  There are interesting clips of soldiers laying rail lines, and of a strange tricycle-like armored track vehicle. This took place from January to June, 1916, but dates are not mentioned nor strategic thinking revealed, another example of the often impressionistic nature of the film.  Battles are talked over film excerpts of men fighting; diplomatic maneuvers are mentioned over scenes of men in morning dress behind conference tables.  We associate the sound and image not as rigorous cause and effect but as impression, sometimes a powerful one, sometimes puzzling.

Those caught up by the flow and confusion will want to turn to a fine new biographical history of the same events and area, Lawrence In Arabia by Scott Anderson.  It may, in turn, drive the reader to deeper and more detailed histories from the three experts Callaghan calls upon in the movie:  David Fromkin of Boston University, who brings lawyerly skills to his 1989  A Peace to End all Peace, David Woodward, professor at Marshall University, author of Hell In The Holy Land, and Edward Erickson, professor at The Marine Corps University, author of Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman Army in the First World War. 

Many more battles and personalities are introduced, with rare film of Arab raiders, along with their champion among the British, T.E. Lawrence.  Several battles of Gaza are mentioned, where the British, at the Third Battle,  finally defeated the Ottomans, “the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.”  The Treaty of Sevres, turning over immense parts of the Empire to the British and French, is signed by the Sultan and rejected by Atatürk and his new armies. Desperate fighting to push the Greeks out of Turkey follows and the subsequent population transfers of hundreds of thousands of Greek-Turks for Turkish-Greeks.  The war is not over until July 24, 1923  when a treaty with the west  recognizes the current borders of Turkey.

But wait!  There’s more!

This period was also the furnace in which the state of Israel was born.  Again, much is left out.  The sketch of what is left will give plenty of reason to pick up more history of the struggle, from the very beginning, of Arabs against Jewish settlers, and the long battle of Jews — beginning well before the Holocaust– to create not only a place to go in their ancient homeland, but a state in every sense of the word.

Lawrence In Arabia, already recommended, has much about the early proselytizers of Zionism, including a brilliant agronomist by the name of Aaron Aaronsohn and a band of Jewish spies he tried desperately to put together on behalf of the British, after forsaking his Ottoman employer.

Another film, by the same name, Blood and Oil, features Michael Klare, a US based expert on oil and weapons.  Both can be found on YouTube, the Callaghan one, reviewed here, and trailers for the Klare piece, along with many other interviews.