WWI—Part Seven: Turkey Joins the War

Read Part Six here

At the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of terminal decline. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Three years later the Italian bourgeoisie proclaimed its colonial ambitions by grabbing Libya in North Africa from the Ottomans. Later they seized the islands of Rhodes and Kos. A year later a league of Balkan nations drove the Ottomans from their last foothold in Europe.

The Empire was now facing revolts of Christians in the North and growing discontent among Arabs. On its northern border the vast power of the Russian Empire posed an ever-present threat. Its breakup was confidently expected in St. Petersburg, where the Russian imperialists were hovering like hungry vultures waiting to tear the flesh of their dying victim.

In 1908 the Young Turks—a movement of ambitious, discontented nationalist junior army officers—had seized power with the aim of modernizing and strengthen the Empire. Enver Pasha, supreme commander of the Ottoman armed forces, was ambitious and dreamed of reconquering Central Asia and areas that had been lost to Russia previously. However, his military skills were not equal to his rhetoric, and the Russian armies were successful in their struggle with Turkey for domination of the Caucasus.

Turkey joins the Central Powers

ataturk-and-the-young-turksMustafa Kemal Ataturk and The Young TurksThe Young Turks entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers, the secret Ottoman–German Alliance having been signed in August 1914. In fact, the backward semifeudal Ottoman Empire was in no shape to wage war. After several crushing defeats, it had lost territories and its economy was in a state of collapse, its people and army demoralized and exhausted. But the outbreak of world war made it impossible for the Ottoman Empire to stand aside.

The Italo-Turkish War and Balkan Wars had exhausted the Empire’s resources in both weaponry and financial reserves. Its only option was to enter into an alliance with a European power; and it did not really matter which one. In the words of Talat Paşa, the Minister of Interior, “Turkey needed to join one of the country groups so that it could organize its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads, in short to survive and to preserve its existence.”

An alliance with Russia was ruled out in advance, since Russia was its main adversary and aimed to exercise domination over the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. And since France was allied to Russia there could be no question of entering an alliance with it. London showed no interest in coming to the help of Constantinople. But Berlin was very interested indeed.

Since the first German military mission to the Ottoman Army after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, German officers had often been attached to the army in an advisory or training role and some of the best Ottoman officers had attended staff colleges in Germany. Ottoman officers admired the German Army’s professionalism and traditions, and, like many foreign observers at the time, were convinced that it was the best in the world. Therefore pro-German sentiment was widespread in the Ottoman Army, at least among its officers, reflecting the close professional ties between the Ottoman and German officer corps.

The powerful War Minister Enver Pasha was pro-German. Invited to Berlin where he witnessed the impressive spectacle of a parade of disciplined and well-armed Prussian soldiers, he was dazzled by Germany’s military might. But this admiration was not mutual. The German general staff was unimpressed by the military potential of the decaying Ottoman Empire and skeptical about the advantages to Germany of an alliance. But nevertheless, the Turks were the traditional enemy of Russia, and the old saying proved to be decisive: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Germany had been steadily pursuing its march to the East. Ever since 1889 the Orient Express had run directly to Constantinople, and before the First World War the Sultan had accepted a German plan to extend it through Anatolia to Baghdad. This would strengthen the Ottoman Empire’s link with industrialized Europe, while also giving Germany easier access to its African colonies and to the lucrative markets of British India.  Part of the reason why Germany wanted Romania and Bulgaria to join the Central Powers was precisely to keep the Ottoman Empire from joining the Triple Entente.

Another element came into the strategic calculations of Berlin. The Kaiser and his clique were convinced that in order to deal a decisive blow against Britain it was necessary to strike at its Empire by stirring up a revolt of the Muslim populations of India and Afghanistan. The Kaiser thought that Muslim Turkey would be a valuable ally in this scheme. Even before the outbreak of war, enraged by England’s diplomatic maneuvers and proposals for peace, he is reported to have exclaimed,

Now the whole scheme must be ruthlessly exposed, the mask of Christian readiness for peace which England has shown to the world must be rudely torn off, and her Pharisaic protestation of peace pilloried! And our consuls in Turkey and India, our agents, etc., must rouse the whole Mohammedan world to a wild rebellion against this hated, deceitful, unscrupulous nation of shopkeepers. If we are to bleed to death, England shall at least lose India.

At first, the German alliance was kept secret. Apart from anything else, there were sharp divisions in Constantinople over this question. It is known that Sultan Mehmet was against it since he feared the effects on his fragile Empire of entering a war and was trying to keep out of it. His signature was not on the agreement. But the real power in Constantinople was not in his hands, but in those of Enver Pasha.

Constantinople was seething with German agents. On August 5, 1914, one day after declaring war on Germany, the British government decided to requisition two Ottoman battleships that were being built in British shipyards. Since the ships had already been paid for by public subscription, the decision provoked the fury of the Turks. A few days later two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, fleeing from the French and British fleets, requested passage through the straits to Constantinople.

One week later the two warships, complete with their German crews, their identity thinly disguised by wearing the Turkish fez on their heads, were renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli and “transferred” to the Ottoman Navy. The British refused to recognize the transfer unless the German crews were removed, and to back up their demand the Royal Navy blockaded the entrance of the Dardanelles: a warlike action that was bound to provoke a hostile reaction.

Although the Ottoman Empire was still ostensibly neutral at this point, Enver Pasha was growing impatient and Berlin was pressing him to commence hostilities. A series of open provocations followed. The German naval commander of the Goeben and Breslau was put in command of the Ottoman Navy and the Germans were given the responsibility of shoring up the coastal defenses of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

The Ottoman Empire finally entered the war in October when Enver Pasha, without consulting any of his ministerial colleagues, ordered the Ottoman fleet, including German-crewed ships, into the Black Sea to attack the Russians. The fleet carried out surprise raids on Theodosia, Novorossiysk, Odessa, and Sevastopol, sinking a Russian minelayer, a gunboat, and 14 civilian ships.

On November 2, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. France and the British Empire, Russia’s wartime allies, followed suit. Enver Pasha had succeeded in bringing the Ottoman Empire into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Whether he would be as successful in achieving his principal war aim—pan-Turkic expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus at Russia’s expense—was another question.

War with Russia

Russian tsarism cynically used the small oppressed nationalities for its own expansionist purposes. Shortly after Russia’s entry into the war, Nicholas II issued a statement aimed at the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, which said:

From all countries Armenians are hurrying to enter the ranks of the glorious Russian Army, with their blood to serve the victory of the Russian Army. . . Let the Russian flag wave freely over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, let your will the peoples [Armenian] remaining under the Turkish yoke receive freedom. Let the Armenian people of Turkey who have suffered for the faith of Christ received resurrection for a new free life.

The Tsar of all the Russias forgot to mention that other small nations were almost as oppressed by his regime as the Armenians were by the Turkish Pashas.

The Germans were putting heavy pressure on Enver Pasha to launch a land attack against Russia. In December 1914 the Turkish army launched an offensive against the Russians in the Caucasus with an army of 100,000 troops. The aim of attacking Russia in the Caucasus was to capture the city of Baku with its huge oil reserves. Enver Pasha insisted on a frontal attack against Russian positions that were dug in on the mountains. At first the Russians fell back in panic. But the harsh conditions of winter soon took a heavy toll on the Turkish soldiers, most of them poor peasants from Anatolia.

Without adequate footwear or clothing many of them were soon crippled by frostbite. The result was the loss of 25,000 men, many of whom froze to death in the snow before they had even made contact with the Russians. Many others deserted. Those who remained found that their weapons had been made useless by the freezing conditions. Piles of Turkish corpses lay on the mountainside where remains of bodies with staring eyes were torn to pieces by starving dogs.

The Russians then begin a multipronged invasion of the Ottoman Empire from the Caucasus.  On January 6, the 3rd Army headquarters found itself under fire. Hafiz Hakki Pasha ordered a total retreat. On January 7, the remaining forces began their march towards Erzurum. The resulting Battle of Sarikamish was a shattering defeat for the Turks, who lost 86 percent of their forces. Only ten percent of the army managed to retreat back to its starting position.

This was a military catastrophe and a national humiliation of extraordinary proportions. As a result, the architect of the disaster, Enver Pasha, desperately needed to find a scapegoat for his defeat, and found one in the Christian Armenians. Armenian volunteer units played a role in the success of the Russian forces, a fact that was used by ruling circles in Constantinople to stir up feelings against the Armenian population. On the eve of World War I, there were two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. By 1922, there were fewer than 400,000. The others—some 1.5 million—were dead.

The Armenian genocide

For generations in the Ottoman Empire minority religious communities, like the Christian Armenians, were allowed to maintain their religious, social, and legal structures, though they were often subject to extra taxes or other measures. Largely concentrated in eastern Anatolia, many of them merchants and industrialists, Armenians appeared markedly better off in many ways than their Turkish neighbors, most of whom were small peasants or low-paid government functionaries and soldiers.

Armenians marched by Turkish soldiers 1915Armenians marched by Turkish soldiers 1915As was also the case with the Jews, the relative prosperity of the Armenians provoked the envy of their neighbors. The fact that they were of a different religion made them objects of suspicion and resentment. But it was the outbreak of war that turned these elements into an explosive mixture of hate and fear. The defeats of the Turkish Army on the Caucasian Front threw gas on the fire of religious and national hatred. Armenians were presented by official propaganda as agents of the Russians and blamed for the military setbacks.

It is true that there were Armenian nationalists who acted as guerrillas and cooperated with the Russians. In fact they briefly seized the city of Van in the spring of 1915. But the great majority of Armenians played no part in such things. They merely wished to be left alone to live their lives in peace. But this was not to be. The Young Turks began a campaign to portray the Armenians as a kind of fifth column, a threat to the state.

The Young Turks, who called themselves the Committee of Unity and Progress, launched a set of measures against the Armenians, including a law authorizing the military and government to deport anyone they “sensed” was a security threat. Another law later allowed the confiscation of “abandoned” Armenian property. April 24, 1915, marks the fatal date when several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up, arrested, and later executed. This was the start of the Armenian genocide, a bloody massacre which lasted until 1917.

Armenians were ordered to turn in any weapons that they owned to the authorities. Those in the army were disarmed and transferred into labor battalions where they were either killed or worked to death. Innocent people were executed and thrown into mass graves. Even worse was the fate of those men, women, and children who were forced to go on death marches across the baking, waterless Syrian Desert to concentration camps. Many of these poor creatures perished along the way of a combination of exhaustion, exposure, and starvation, or else were murdered by Turkish troops and bandits.

There had been other massacres of Armenians in 1894, 1895, 1896, 1909, and this was to be repeated again between 1920 and 1923. But in their scope and ruthlessness nothing can compare with the mass slaughter of 1915–17, which is correctly described as genocide. In his excellent book A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin describes the terrible fate of the expelled Armenians:  “Rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink, or shelter. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed.”

Thousands of sick and hungry people, men, women, and children, were driven to their deaths in this way. Those few pitiful human skeletons who managed to survive the march of death across the mountains into Turkish-occupied Syria did not live to tell the tale. The pretty ones were handed over to the Turkish soldiers for their amusement. The others died of starvation or were murdered.

These terrible atrocities were quite well documented at the time by Western diplomats, missionaries, and others, creating widespread wartime outrage against the Turks in the West. Although its ally, Germany, was silent at the time, German diplomats and military officers wrote to Berlin expressing horror at what was going on. Later the Turkish authorities tried to downplay these horrors as merely “abuses” committed by “some officials.” But the American ambassador, Henry Morganthau Sr., wrote in his memoirs, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

Following the surrender of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the three Pashas fled to Germany, where they were given protection. But the Armenian underground formed a group called Operation Nemesis to hunt them down. On March 15, 1921, one of the Pashas was shot dead on a street in Berlin in broad daylight in front of witnesses. The gunman pleaded temporary insanity brought on by the mass killings and a jury took only a little over an hour to acquit him.

Winston Churchill and the Gallipoli adventure

gallipolliTroops in battle in GallipoliWith the war stalled on the Western Front by 1915, the Allied Powers were considering going on the offensive in another region of the conflict, rather than continuing with attacks in Belgium and France. Early that year, Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas appealed to Britain for aid in countering the Turkish invasion in the Caucasus.

On learning of this request, the French imperialists immediately demanded that they should be included. This was not an act of gallantry on their part. The gentlemen in Paris had no wish to see the British Navy controlling the Mediterranean. They were moreover extremely anxious not to be left out of the division of the spoils when the Middle East was carved up after the war.

Finally the British and French decided to launch a naval expedition to seize the Dardanelles Straits, that narrow passage connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara in North-western Turkey. If successful, capture of the Straits would allow the Allies to link up with the Russians in the Black Sea, where they could work together to knock Turkey out of the war.

The most enthusiastic advocate of this campaign was the first lord of the British Admiralty, an ambitious young politician called Winston Churchill. However, his plan met with the strong opposition of Admiral John Fisher, head of the British Navy, who mistrusted Churchill as a man and correctly doubted his military and naval qualifications. But Churchill’s colossal ego more than made up for his lack of military training and experience, and he pushed the plan through anyway.

With his characteristic arrogance Churchill immediately began to interfere in strategic and operational matters. He reasoned that, since the Western Front was in a state of deadlock, the Allies should look for a weaker target. And he believed he had found it in Turkey. This belief led to one of the greatest catastrophes of World War I. The linkup between Germany and Turkey did not only represent a threat to Russia’s Caucasian territories. It also threatened Britain’s communications with India via the Suez Canal.

As a fanatical advocate of Britain’s imperial role, Churchill saw this threat to the Suez Canal as a powerful reason to attack Turkey. Moreover, if Turkey could be knocked out of the war, it would alter the balance of forces in the Balkans to the detriment of Austria and therefore alter the whole course of the war. It all seemed very fine—on paper. But in practice it turned out very differently.

Not long ago Winston Churchill was voted the most important figure in British history. The reason is that people in Britain have always been encouraged to believe that he was a great war leader. In fact, Churchill was an opportunist and an adventurer whose main interest in life was self-promotion. He had no understanding of war and was responsible for some of the greatest military disasters in both the First and Second World Wars. He overlooked the small detail that the weak and decaying Ottoman Empire had the backing of mighty German imperialism. Churchill’s “soft underbelly” turned out to be a very tough proposition indeed.

The attack begins

The attack on the Dardanelles began on February 19, 1915, with a long-range bombardment by British and French battleships. Turkish forces abandoned their outer forts but met the approaching Allied minesweepers with heavy fire, stalling the advance. On March 18, an Anglo-French force involving 18 battleships attacked the Dardanelles but suffered heavy losses when Turkish fire sank three ships in one day and severely damaged three others. They were sitting ducks for the Turkish guns onshore.

Despite the evident fact that the Anglo-French naval bombardment had ended in total failure, preparations began several weeks later for large scale troop landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Troops from Australia, New Zealand, and the French colonies assembled with British forces to carry this out. However, the element of surprise had already been lost, and the Turks under the command of experienced German officers had had plenty of time to strengthen their defenses in preparation for the attack.

General Liman von Sanders stationed Ottoman troops along the shore where he expected the landings would take place. On April 25 the allied troops waded ashore at five beaches at Gallipoli. The Turkish troops were waiting for them. The troops walked right into an inferno. The Turkish bombardment was intense. Many Allied soldiers did not even succeed in leaving the landing vessels before being cut down. Under the withering hail of Turkish machine guns, men fell like ripe corn before a deadly scythe.

Despite suffering heavy casualties, Australian and New Zealand troops managed to establish two beachheads: at Helles on the peninsula’s southern tip, and at Gaba Tepe on the Aegean Coast. The latter site was later dubbed Anzac Cove, in honor of the men who fought with great courage against a determined Turkish defense. However, after the landing, the Allies were not able to advance much further from their initial landing sites, while the Allied officers showed excessive caution in ordering the men to dig trenches. This tardiness allowed the Turks time to bring in fresh troops in ever increasing numbers from Palestine and the Caucasus. With neither side able to gain a decisive advantage, the situation turned into yet another bloody stalemate.

In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Allies made another major troop landing on August 6 at Sulva Bay, combined with a northwards advance from Anzac Cove towards the heights at Sari Bair and a diversionary action at Helles. The surprise landings at Sulva Bay advanced, meeting only light opposition, but the vacillations of Allied commanders slowed their progress, allowing Ottoman reinforcements to arrive and shore up their defenses in all three locations.

The Allies had badly underestimated the fighting qualities of the Turkish soldiers, who were fighting a defensive war to defend their homeland against foreign invaders. These peasants in uniform fought like tigers, despite taking heavy casualties. The Allies found themselves trapped. Under a murderous hail of bullets and shells, suffering from the torments of heat, thirst, and flies, and ravaged by malaria and dysentery, the Allies clung on desperately, while the Turkish forces suffered an even higher death rate.

The Gallipoli Front became a bloody stalemate, just like the Western Front in France.  On May 19, The Turks launched a major attack to force the Allies out of Gallipoli, but suffered heavy casualties. On August 6, hoping to break the stalemate at Gallipoli, the British renewed the offensive. An additional 20,000 troops were landed but their attack was hampered by poor communications and logistical problems. The Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, responded by rushing in two divisions, issuing the famous order to his troops: “I do not order you to attack: I order you to die!”  The British offensive was beaten back.

The Allied soldiers suffered the torment of heat, thirst, flies, and sickness. Pinned down on the coast and subject to a constant bombardment of shells and machine gun fire, they were being killed in large numbers. When winter came they suffered from cold. In November, 15,000 troops were evacuated from Anzac Cove for frostbite, trench foot, and exposure. With Allied casualties mounting, the British commander Hamilton, encouraged by Churchill, petitioned the war secretary Kitchener for 95,000 reinforcements. But the men in London were already beginning to doubt the success of the Gallipoli adventure and offered him barely a quarter of that number. The venture was already doomed to failure.

Decision to evacuate Gallipoli

By mid-October the situation of the Allies had not improved. The idea of an evacuation was in the air, but Hamilton (backed, naturally, by Churchill) stubbornly opposed withdrawal, arguing that an evacuation would cost up to 50 percent casualties. London was not impressed and Hamilton was subsequently recalled. His replacement, Sir Charles Monro, took one look at the situation and proposed that the remaining 105,000 Allied troops should be evacuated. The evacuation began from Sulva Bay on December 7, 1915, and the last troops left Helles on January 9, 1916. It is an irony that the most successful episode in the entire campaign was the evacuation.  Contrary to Hamilton’s dire warnings, the Turks did not attempt to slaughter the retreating soldiers. They were just relieved to see them depart.

The Gallipoli Campaign ended in a humiliating defeat for the Allies. Of the half a million Allied troops who participated in the campaign, over a third were either killed or injured. The losses on the Turkish side were even heavier. But for the Turks this was a great national victory. Masses of people danced and sang on the streets of Constantinople. Eight years later the man who had led the Turkish troops to victory stood at the head of the new nation called Turkey that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He became known to history as Kemal Ataturk (the Father of the Turks).

Accepting his responsibility for the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign, Winston Churchill resigned his post as First Lord of the Admiralty and rejoined the army as a battalion commander. He lost his job. But the soldiers he sent to their deaths lost a lot more. In all, some 480,000 Allied forces took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, at a cost of more than 250,000 casualties, including some 46,000 dead. On the Turkish side, the campaign also cost an estimated 250,000 casualties, with 65,000 killed.  In the end, the total Allied casualties on all the Ottoman fronts amounted to 650,000 men. The total Ottoman casualties were 725,000 (325,000 dead and 400,000 wounded).

When the war finally ended, the Ottoman Empire was divided up between the victors, with Britain and France taking the lion’s share. Britain seized Iraq with its oil wells, while France got Syria and Lebanon. What was left is what we call Turkey today. During the war the British had promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs. In the end neither of them got anything and Palestine was under the control of British imperialism. We are still living with the consequences today.

Read Part Eight here

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