One such story is how the Ottoman Sultan’s call for jihad against Britain, France and Russia led to six deaths in the Australian outback on 1 January 1915. Badsha Mehmed Gül and Molla Abdullah had come to Australia from India as camel drivers. By 1915, Gül sold ice-creams while Abdullah was a butcher. Inspired by the Sultan Mehmed V’s call for Muslims worldwide to “throw yourselves against the enemy as lions”, they hid weapons in Gül’s ice-cream cart, positioned themselves on a hill and opened fire on a passing train. The passengers were on their way to a picnic. They only realised the shots were not part of the day’s entertainment when four dropped dead. The train pulled over. A posse assembled. Weapons were found. Gül and Abdullah were later that day killed hiding in a quartz mine.
The German empire was the dominant partner in this deal. The Ottoman Empire needed the money more than the German empire needed the declaration of jihad. The declaration still had its uses for the Germans. A German newspaper declared: “The enemy lost 40 killed and 70 injured. The total loss of Turks was two dead. The capture of Broken Hill leads the way to Canberra, the strongly fortified capital of Australia.” Here is a German newspaper seeking to reassure its readers about the direction of the war. Our histories of the war may predominantly focus on the Western Front but contemporaries were alive to the ‘world’ dimension of the war.
In spite of the power and weight behind the call for jihad, it was remarkably ineffective. It was only Abdullah and Gül stood on Broken Hill and there were few other incidents across the world.
To draw a comparison between these individuals and Abdullah and Gül may seem ridiculous. The aspirations of the Arab Revolt were more political and nationalistic than religious. The differences in nationality, form of religion, lifestyle are almost too much to make a comparison between Abdullah and Gül and the individuals who participated in the Arab Revolt. Yet the Sultan Mehmed V’s declaration of jihad was a cause of their different actions during World War One. For Abdullah and Gül, it was the motivation to rebel against those who governed them. For Sharif Husayn, the declaration presented the opportunity to realise his aspiration for power and Arab aspirations for independence.
Here is a World War One in which the European powers create the scenery but are not in the spotlight on the stage. The Ottoman Empire called on Muslims to fight in World War One as part of its efforts to protect its land. Muslims responded or did not respond according to their local circumstances and beliefs.
Like the story which Elena told about Mir Dast and Mir Mast, this story adds a variety and richness to our understanding of World War One. The focus of exam boards and therefore textbooks on the Western Front, reinforced by the focus of the centenary commemorations which took place 2014-2018, has given today’s students an imbalanced picture of what after all has been called the First World War.
Joshua Hillis is Deputy Editor of Parallel Histories
Quotes from E.Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015)