Most books and documentaries about the First World War focus on the carnage of the Western Front, where Germany faced off against France, the British Empire, and their allies in a grueling slugfest that wasted millions of lives. The shattered landscape of the trenches has become symbolic of the war as a whole, and it is this experience that everyone associates with World War I, but that front was not the only experience. There was the more mobile Eastern Front, as well as mountain warfare in the Alps and scattered fighting in Africa and the Far East.
Then there was the Middle Eastern Front, fought across the Levant and Mesopotamia, which captured the imagination of the European public. There, the British and their allies fought the Ottoman Turkish Empire under harsh desert conditions hundreds of miles from home, struggling for possession of places most people only knew from the Bible and the Koran.
The Arab revolt has been engraved in modern memories by movies such as Lawrence of Arabia as a widespread nationalistic movement against the cruel Ottoman occupier. The reality is far more complex. In 1914, as the Ottomans entered the war, the Arabs’ loyalty to the Sultan and Caliph was not in question. Arab nationalism did indeed emerge in the wake of the revolution of 1908, but it mostly attracted Arab intellectuals as the local population remained loyal subjects of the Empire. European encroachment on several former Ottoman provinces such as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt made the danger of a possible Arab revolt relatively clear.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire set the geopolitical scene of the new Middle East. In 1920, two years after the end of the war, the region was already experiencing growing instability. The issues and trends that would plague the region until today were growing. On April 4, Arab riots broke out in Jerusalem, fueled by the growing hostility against the Zionist movement. The British passivity would convince one of the Jewish leaders, Vladimir Jabotinsky (the future founder of the Israeli right-wing), of the strategic necessity of a strong Jewish military as the core of the future state.
In the end, the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire drew up borders that ignored local populations, although with the patchwork of groups in the region, it would have been difficult to create even small countries with any sort of ethnic, tribal, or religious homogeneity. Instead, the resulting nation-states were conglomerates of minorities, paving the way for generations of conflict the region is still experiencing today.