The studies on the Ottoman experience during World War I and the empire's collapse has multiplied in recent years mainly due to its centenary and the political crises brought about by the collapse of the Middle Eastern states. Many books and articles have been published in different fields of history analyzing the various aspects of the war from military strategies to political conflicts among the components of the empire and mass deportations, which unearthed many themes and knowledge unknown to the historians. However, the social history of World War I in the Ottoman Empire, particularly the Anatolian districts is still a most understudied subject and Yiğit Akın's recent book, When the War Came Home, makes a significant contribution to fill this gap by focusing on the totalizing and destructive impact of the war on Ottoman civilians with a bottom-up perspective.
The book draws on a number of the published and unpublished primary sources stored in Ottoman and foreign archives as well as newspapers, petitions, memoirs, diaries, interviews, letters, and literary pieces in Turkish and English, which shed light on the lives of the civilians and soldiers. These sources were successfully brought together to create a consistent and persuasive story of the Ottoman civilians who suffered extensively from the excesses of the war.
The book starts with the Ottoman experience of the Balkan Wars. Following that humiliating defeat, Ottoman society saw the devastating aspect of modern warfare—unpaid salaries and increased prices during and after the war created a reluctance among many across all walks of imperial society towards war. Contrary to that, however, the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) government tightened its control over political and social life; the defeat enlivened in CUP members “the burning need for more efficient tools to mobilize the empire's human and material resources” (p. 50). The aim was to increase the empire's fighting capacity. The book somewhat demonstrates the unwillingness toward and resistance to the projects, such as the conscripting of all imperial subjects to the army, from different segments of the society. But it fails to indicate how ordinary Ottomans reacted to the tactics used by the Unionist leaders to provoke religious antagonism and how such propaganda influenced daily life prior to the Ottoman entrance into World War I. The overwhelming majority of the chapter focuses on the CUP plans and projections preceding World War I.
Subsequent chapters have a clearer focus on the social history of the war period. In this regard, the second chapter concentrates on the mobilization of the Ottoman army which, for average people, “threw their lives and the lives of their families into great disarray” (p.52). It affectingly reveals how the seferberlik (mobilization), which placed a heavy burden on the Ottoman people's shoulders, was experienced and remembered. The title of Chapter 3 is staggering in terms of shedding light on the humanitarian and destructive aspect of World War I: “Filling the Ranks, Emptying Homes.” It analyzes the people's reluctance to be recruited to the army and government attempts to motivate them to fight, utilizing a patriotic identity although the efforts failed to overcome the exceeding difficulties of the real world which embittered the Ottomans. Akın's emphasis on the endured difficulties of ongoing wars, starting with the Balkan Wars detailed in the first chapter, is underscored by the content of this chapter.
The social cost of the seferberlik is further examined in Chapter 4, which details the taxing burden of provisioning the Ottoman army. This already daunting task was made unbearable by the Entente blockade of Ottoman ports and the underdeveloped and inefficient transportation network. The chapter includes awesome poems describing their miserable condition due to the excessive requisitioning to provision and supply the battlefields. The depth of description in these poems by their authors, the first hand witnesses of the Ottoman people's miseries during the war, adds to our knowledge on the social history of World War I in the Ottoman Empire. The chapter additionally points out how the Ottoman supply system was disorganized and exacerbated problems. The unexpected endurance of the battles that heightened the burden of the people should have been added to the factors contributed to the Ottoman misery and increased the people's reaction as the Ottoman statesmen estimated that the war would in short be concluded with a German victory and, thus, did not invest in the supply system. The next chapter, “Wives and Mothers,” provides a gendered perspective with reference to the hardships experienced by Ottoman women when their husbands and sons left them for war. Akın introduces here a widely neglected theme that the war increased the agency of the Ottoman women and compelled them to address the state regarding their sufferings in the absence of their husbands. By this way, female voices became more pronounced in the Ottoman archive.
The final chapter analyzes a most exploited topic and a most tragic byproduct of World War I: “Deportees and Refugees.” The author compares the experiences of both the Armenian deportees and the Muslim refugees of the Eastern Anatolia. However, Akın adds little to the available scholarship when measured against his previous chapters. The chapter repeats dominant approaches in the available scholarship. However, this does not minimize the impact of the book.
When the War Came Home is a remarkable contribution to the available literature, clarifying the realities of the Ottoman people during the war period and “humanizing” it rather than narrating heroic stories of battle. Thus, it is a noteworthy challenge to nationalist narratives of World War I. The book could be used as a textbook particularly for graduate level courses on the history of the Middle East, the Ottoman history of World War I, and social history of World War I and the Middle East. Those who are interested in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the post-Ottoman states in the Middle East should consult the book to extend their perspective. All in all, it fills an important gap in the available scholarship.