Railroads and Dragon's Teeth
The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power
by Sean McMeekin
Harvard University Press, 496 pp., $29.95
The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Jonathan Schneer
Random House, 464 pp., $30
As dawn emerged on February 3, 1915, British machine guns positioned on the western bank of the Suez Canal mowed down a squadron of Ottoman sappers attempting to reach the shore. The German-led Ottoman troops vying to unseat Britain from its longtime stronghold would not recover from the barrage. They withdrew after several more hours' fighting, never to threaten Suez again.
The battle for Suez would seem unremarkable in the scheme of World War I, if not for the fighters responsible for revealing the Ottoman position to the British: Arab Bedouins. Recruited by the Germans to bring their fabled Islamic fervor to war, the Bedouins did just that—although in word rather than deed. The Bedouin warriors prepared for battle by shouting "Allahu akbar!" so loudly that they betrayed their location to the British. Once the machine guns erupted, the bulk of their force immediately scattered.
The Bedouins' poor showing at Suez signaled a major disappointment in the revolution they were meant to wage—a German-backed Muslim jihad against the British Empire. In a tale recounted by Sean McMeekin in The Berlin-Baghdad Express, the Germans believed that a declaration of jihad by the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph—titular head of the Islamic world—would rally Bedouin fighters and inspire rebellion among the British Empire's 100 million Muslims. The Germans, McMeekin writes, planned to ride the resulting "wave of anti-British pan-Islamism to world power."