This week 100 years ago was the week of the
Easter Uprising in Ireland, a pivotal point in Irish history, but that’s not my “hook”
today. Instead we made a whole special episode about it so I can look at it a little deeper.
But something else happened this week 100 years ago that still has major repercussions
today; 100 years ago the Allies were planning how to divide up the Middle East after the
war. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the spring floods had come and the
scattered action on the Eastern Front was mostly in small boats since the rivers had
burst their banks and the roads were non-existent. Flooding on the Tigris had also helped prevent
the British relief force from reaching the British army under siege at Kut, and in Anatolia
the Russians had taken Trabzon from the Turks, while sending nearly 20,000 men to fight on
the Western Front, where the Battle of Verdun was now two months old. I want to look at some naval stuff for a minute
first this week. Last year, Sir John Jellicoe, Commander of
the British Grand Fleet, was worried that small German naval successes, U-Boat warfare,
and the need to send part of the fleet to secondary theaters of the war was slowly eroding
British naval superiority. Near the end of the year the ratio of British to German dreadnoughts
had sunk to 17-15, down from 20-13 months before, and that of battlecruisers was only
5-4. But by now the balance had swung back toward Britain’s favor. The end of Gallipoli,
the addition of the Italian fleet to the Mediterranean operations, and the destruction of German
raiding cruisers had now made clear that the Grand Fleet had superiority. I read in John
Keegan’s “the First World War” that this month it had 31 Dreadnoughts and 10 battle
cruisers while the German High Seas Fleet had only 18 Dreadnoughts and 5 battle cruisers.
The British also had a big advantage in light cruisers and destroyers. So it made sense to adopt a passive policy
by which the navy would justify its existence simply by causing the German navy to protect
its harbors, but German naval pride didn’t allow Germany the passive option, and in Germany
the navy was junior to the army and not senior like it was in Britain, and this was a time
of great German blood letting in the army. The German navy needed to gain the esteem
of the German people and Admiral Reinhard Scheer made clear that the navy needed action,
and he had been sending the fleet out looking for it, and this week he got it. On April 25th, the day after German naval
forces bombarded Lowestoft and Yarmouth, came a battle between zeppelins, battle cruisers,
and submarines on the German side, and destroyers, land batteries, airplanes, and seaplanes on
the British side. The airplanes and seaplanes had flown up to attack the zeppelins that
were heading west and flying high. The zeppelins turned out to sea and the planes followed,
bringing them within range of the naval guns. Four U-boats appeared and began firing at
the planes, one of the airplanes was actually destroyed by fire from a zeppelin and two
seaplanes were damaged by fire from the subs. That sounds pretty mundane, but the timing
of this, coming on the heels of the Irish Easter Uprising, caused a lot of concern and
also big anti-German anger in civilian Britain, but showed that, as long as the Grand Fleet
at Scapa Flow blocked off the exit from the North Sea, German operations would be hit-and-run
against targets close enough to run from to home before the big ships of the British could
head south and intervene. And intervening is something the Allies were
quite good at. The Sykes-Picot agreement, named after Englishman
Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Georges Picot, was signed April 26, 1916, although some sources
say May 9th and May 16th. This was a secret agreement between Britain and France, with
Russian approval, which divided the Middle East between them. France would control Lebanon,
with a capital at Beirut, there would be a sovereign Arab state in Syria, based around
Damascus, which would still be under French protection. Britain would be in charge of
the Port of Haifa and the city of Acre, controlling the bay that would make a Mediterranean terminal
for Mesopotamian oil. Palestine would be under protection of Britain, France, and Russia
combined. France would get Southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, Britain would also get
southern Iraq, and Russia Istanbul and the Armenian regions of Anatolia. The map was
divided pretty much with straight lines 100 years later this agreement still defines
many of the conflicts of the region. It defined the borders of Syria and Iraq, certainly helped
precipitate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and was a big turning point
in Western-Arab relations since it, in advance, negated all the promises Britain would make
to Arabs for an Arab homeland in Greater Syria. ISIS has even claimed that one of their goals
is to reverse the effects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which would be made public in 1917
to the great consternation of the Arab world. All that had to happen for it to go into effect
was to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Thing is, the Ottoman Empire was far from
being defeated, as they were showing in Mesopotamia. On April 27th- three British officers, including
Captain T.E. Lawrence, soon known as Lawrence of Arabia, offered the Ottomans two million
pounds in gold to allow the besieged British and Indian troops at Kut to go free and rejoin
their comrades. The Turkish commander replied, “Your gallant troops will be our most sincere
and precious guests.” Russian troops were driving west from Persia, from the Paitak
Pass, trying to reach Kut, but were still 150k from Baghdad, and by the 28th Kut was
finally out of food. And looking just a bit to the west, we see
some developments at the Suez Canal. Last month, General Sir Archibald Murray had
taken command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, the EEF, which had been put together
from some of the leftovers from Gallipoli, which had finally ended as the New Year was
getting rolling. By this summer, the EEF would number four infantry divisions, a cavalry
force, and the Imperial Camel Corps, a Corps that would number one British battalion, one
New Zealand, and two Australian. Now, it was over a year since the Turks had
tried to attack the Suez Canal, but Murray thought an active defense was his best bet
anyhow, so he planned an advance to the coastal town of El Arish from where his men could
disrupt any Turkish movement through the Sinai Desert. The main issue was, as you may guess,
water supplies, so this month Murray had secured the oasis region between Qatiya and Bir el
Abd and had sent small forces out to destroy the Turkish water supply points that they
had used in early 1915, which would limit any future Turkish desert operations. Finally learning something from their mistakes
in Mesopotamia last year, the British wanted to have a secure communication line back to
the Nile Delta, but how do you create a transport infrastructure in such desert territory? Well,
there was actually a simple solution, wire roads. Yep, wire roads. Ordinary wire netting
was simply unrolled to make a “road” that prevented soldiers from sinking into the sands
when they marched. Clever. But the railway was the only way for a larger force to travel
and it went out to Romani, like 40 kilometers from the Suez Canal. Thing is, a large force
would need a large amount of water, so a 12 inch pipeline was laid and water was pumped
forward, and there were storage tanks from where camels could carry water to forward
positions. Too little water at Suez and too much water
in Europe. Rains prevented any big action at Verdun in the West and the Eastern Front
was still flooded. Though on April 28th, German artillery began
a bombardment of the area near the village of Stavarotche. Back on March 20th, the Germans
had lost a series of important trenches there and a strong attack was now launched to regain
that ground, and they captured not only the territory in question but went on to take
a series of Russian trenches. Losses were high on both sides, but became higher for
the Russians when they made a night counterattack in the face of machine guns. I don’t know
the numbers killed or wounded, but the Germans took 56 officers and 5,600 men prisoner, as
well as 28 machine guns and five big artillery pieces. And that was the week, a quiet and wet Europe,
desperation in Mesopotamia, and action off the English Coast. National borders in much of the world are
often natural boundaries or have developed over the centuries between ethnic groups and
different peoples or tribes, but the partitioning of the Middle East ignored this and was completely
fabricated from thin air in straight lines. These boundaries and the failure of the Allies
to keep their promises of liberation have, in large part, led to 100 years of conflict,
violence, and death in the whole region. That’s beyond the scope of this channel, though,
but it serves as a huge example of the fact that the horrors of a war are never restricted
to the boundaries of that war, and have far-reaching consequences that can affect the lives and
deaths of millions of people decades, or even centuries after that war is over. War is hell. As I said earlier, the Irish Easter Uprising
also shook things up on the British Isles this week. It is an extremely important event
not only for the Irish but with a lot of ramifications for the rest of the world. So, we made a whole
special episode about it and you can check that out right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Karl
Whillier. Help us out on Patreon to make our show even better with new formats and more
animations. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next
week.