Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Ottoman Empire in World War I

There can be no doubt that Turkish intervention in the First World War was the worst decision ever made by the Ottoman Empire. An empire that had withstood storm and stress from within and without for more than 600 years was ruined beyond repair in less than four. Here was a country which had dominated the cross roads of the world, the most lucrative trade routes, which had ruled all of north Africa and much of southern Europe for centuries, brought down by choosing the losing side in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire did not collapse immediately as the war ended like Austria or Germany, nor did it come down during the war like Russia but although it may not get the attention of the German, Austrian and Russian Empires falling, it was really even more of an historic event. The Ottoman Empire had existed long before the first Hapsburg ever achieved imperial status, long before the Prussians ever had a country of their own and long before the Romanov dynasty came to power in Russia. At their height of power, the Ottoman Empire was the sole superpower of the western/near eastern world and yet all of that glory seemed to be but a faded memory to most of the world in 1914. Most did not give the Turks much time.

The Kaiser visits Constantinople
For years the Ottoman Empire had been in decline and for no small amount of time had been called, dismissively, the “Sick Man of Europe”. Their tenuous hold on Algeria and Tunisia was lost to France, Egypt and the Sudan became autonomous and later dominated by Britain, the provinces that are today Libya were taken by the Italians and Ottoman power was pushed almost completely out of Europe by the Balkan Wars. It seemed that the Ottoman Empire would have collapsed much, much sooner were it not for the intervention of other powers like Britain and France to prop it up and save it from being crushed by the Russians. It is almost amusing now to look back and consider that this was done because, in those days, the Great Powers feared the chaos and wars that might result in the Middle East if the order imposed by Turkish rule was lost. Imagine that. Because of this very long, downward spiral, many viewed the Ottoman Empire as a power unworthy of serious consideration, as a people not to be taken seriously. That was a mistake and one man who understood the potential that rested in the Ottoman Empire was the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. When few others cared to give the “Sublime Porte” the time of day, the Kaiser actively courted the Turks as a friend and ally.

Sultan Mehmed V
The Germans invested heavily in Turkey and were given a warm welcome by the new crop of ambitious officers who had come to power known as the “Young Turks”. These men, it should be mentioned, were not exactly devoted monarchists and the Ottoman Empire went into the war as perhaps the most nominal monarchy of all with the sovereign, Sultan Mehmed V, being little better than a prisoner in his own palace. In fact, for much of his life he had been a prisoner in his own palace but the “Young Turks” who seized power in 1908 put him on the throne a year later as a figurehead. The empire was dominated by three pashas, the most famous being Enver Pasha who was so enamored of Germany that he even took to wearing a Wilhelm-like moustache. For his part, Sultan Mehmed V was dubious about the new friendship with Germany and thought intervening in World War I to be a great mistake, like almost every other monarch at the time. Yet, there did seem to be some hope that the war could be a successful one for the Ottoman Empire, particularly since so many of their enemies had come to underestimate them. In fact, the Ottoman Empire had been rebounding with great advances in industry, trade and improving the infrastructure of the empire, illustrated by the much talked about “Berlin to Baghdad Railway”. When it came to war, the Turks would prove more formidable than almost any of the Allies expected.

Enver Pasha
For quite some time the military sciences had stagnated in Turkey but prior to World War I there was a massive campaign of revitalization. Armies were armed with the latest German weaponry, German officers came to advise in training and tactics and the average Turkish soldier proved to be a tough and tenacious warrior. It was a naval incident that ostensibly brought Turkey into the war but a secret alliance was quickly signed and Turkish ships attacked the Russian coast on the Black Sea. On November 1, 1914 the Russians declared war on the Ottoman Empire, followed by Britain and France a few days later. Other powers would later join in as the Turks had grander aspirations than almost any other of the Central Powers. Given the lofty heights from which their empire had fallen, this is not a great surprise. If the Central Powers had won the First World War, the Turks had quite a long “wish list” to be filled. They hoped to regain practically the whole of North Africa (central and southern Africa being left to the Germans) and toward that aim sent support to rebels in Libya, planned an invasion of Egypt, sent arms to Muslim dissidents and the Emperor of Ethiopia in the hopes of dominating the Horn of Africa, planned for great gains in southern Russia and to expand eastward to reclaim their central Asian homeland. If the war had gone differently, the world would have looked quite different indeed.

Reading out the declaration of jihad
The Turks also called upon religion to help them in their efforts to instigate rebellions in Allied colonies and not long after joining the war Sultan Mehmed V, as the Caliph of Islam, formally declared a jihad, a holy war, on the Allied nations, calling on all Muslims to rise up and fight. The Kaiser had hoped that rebellion would spread around the world and cause Britain to lose India, the crown jewel and capstone of the British Empire, and there certainly seemed to be no downside to such a tactic. Almost half of the Muslims in the world lived under the direct or indirect rule of one of the Allied nations with Britain, France, Italy and Russia all holding colonies or territories with large Muslim populations. Yet, though there were small scale attacks in Libya, Somalia and Egypt-Sudan, and an isolated mutiny of Muslim troops in Singapore (suppressed with help from Japan) the majority of Muslims felt no compulsion to rise up and fight because the Sultan of Turkey, Padishah Emperor, Caliph of Islam etc, etc had commanded them to do so. It was also somewhat disingenuous given that the triumvirate ruling the Ottoman Empire at this time were hardly the devoutly religious sort. Enver Pasha would, after the war, make common cause with the Soviets, Djemal Pasha supposedly proposed making peace with the Allies if he could be left in control of what was left of Turkey and Talaat Pasha had taught at a Jewish school and had an affair with a Jewish girl as a young man. The “Young Turks” had always been known as being more inclined toward secularism than religious fervor. Still, they would take up the flag of Islam when it seemed useful but a pan-Islamic movement was not an easy fit with Turkish nationalism. It probably also didn’t help that this call came with Turkey allied with three Christian powers.

Turkish troops in the Caucasus
Focus on more modern, western ideas had brought advances to the Ottoman Empire. However, despite the rapid progress that had been made, the Ottoman Empire still had many disadvantages going into the war. Their commanders were often not up to the task of fighting a modern war, their system of logistics was quite weak and the farther one traveled from Anatolia, the harder it was to support armies and the less reliable was the loyalty of the locals. It is easy to conclude that the new leadership were a bit overconfident in their ability to succeed in conquering such vast swathes of territory. As it happened, their first major action in the war proved to be a resounding failure. This was an offensive against Russia, long planned and hoped for, to ultimately gain control of the Baku oil fields. On December 22, 1914 this invasion was launched under the leadership of Enver Pasha himself but it quickly turned into a disaster. Despite all their planning, the Turks lack of experience was shown in their failure to prepare for the harsh winter conditions of the Caucasian mountains and the Russian Imperial forces resisted fiercely. In a bitter four day battle at the start of January, 1915, at Sarikamish the Turks were totally defeated and almost entirely wiped out by the Russians. 95,000 Turks had invaded Russian territory but only 18,000 survived the ordeal. Fighting continued but there would never be another major Turkish offensives against Russia.

Baron Kressenstein
Only a short time later, the Turks launched an attack towards Egypt aimed at seizing control of the Suez Canal from the British and instigating a major uprising by the local population against them. Djemal Pasha, another member of the triumvirate, was in overall command of the southern theatre but it was a Bavarian colonel, Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein who effectively led the attack. He made careful preparations for crossing the desert and the canal but, though it was a masterful advance, the British learned that it was coming and were fully prepared to meet the Turks when they arrived. With relatively little difficulty, the British were able to force the Turks to retreat back across the desert after two days of fighting. All in all, the war was off to a disastrous start for the Ottoman Empire but things were about to turn around. In fact, these early Turkish defeats may have caused the British in particular to further underestimate them. This is unfortunate given that initial operations in wartime are rarely resounding successes and are seldom an indication of what the enemy is truly made of. Yet, the British, particularly Winston Churchill, became convinced that Turkey was the weak link in the Central Powers chain and the key to an easy victory in the war.

Gen. Limon von Sanders
The British planned an attack on the Dardanelles, ultimately to capture the capitol of Constantinople. This would knock Turkey out of the war and open up a naval route to keep Russia well supplied and in the war. After naval power alone proved insufficient, the Allies launched an invasion at the Gallipoli peninsula in April of 1915. However, being so close to the nerve-center of the whole Ottoman Empire meant that not only did the Turks fight with greater tenacity than on any other front but also that they were closer to their sources of supply. It also happened that the troops defending the peninsula, the Turkish Fifth Army, were the best in the empire and under the command of the talented German general Otto Limon von Sanders. The result was a disaster for the Allies that was much worse than the statistics alone suggest. In the end, losses were about the same for both sides but the Allies had been hoping for a quick and easy victory and what they got was a bloody stalemate, ending in a retreat with absolutely nothing gained. The Turks fought with incredible tenacity and earned the grudging respect of their enemies. The success was a huge morale boost for the Ottoman Empire and proved that they could win battles against the Allies. The British and ANZAC troops lost over 200,000 men, the French nearly 50,000 before finally retreating from Turkish soil. It was also this battle which saw the rise to prominence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who would later become the first President of Turkey.

Baron von der Goltz
Elsewhere in 1915, British overconfidence also ended in disaster at the hands of Turkish forces. A small excursion from the Persian Gulf to secure the local oilfields was expanded into a major operation because Turkish resistance was initially so weak. A British army (consisting largely of Indian troops) advanced up the Tigris River under Major General Charles Townshend with the ultimate goal of seizing Baghdad. However, his advance was stopped by a Turkish army under the veteran German Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. The British fell back to Kut-al-Amara where they were besieged. More Turkish reinforcements were rushed in and British attempts to relieve the starving garrison all failed. Finally, on April 29, 1916 Townshend surrendered, marking another major victory for the Ottoman Empire. It was the largest mass surrender of British forces up to that time, surpassing the defeat at Yorktown in the American War for Independence and would remain the largest British surrender until the fall of Singapore to Japan in World War II.

A Turkish line in the sand
However, in the summer of 1916 another Turkish advance on the Suez Canal by Baron Kressenstein again ended in failure. The Turks were better prepared but so were the British and such a major campaign across so much desert proved an insurmountable obstacle for Turkish logistics. It was the last such offensive and the initiative switched to the Allies (primarily the British though token forces of French and Italian troops also participated) as General Sir Archibald Murray advanced to the border of Palestine. However, Baron von Kressenstein and his Turkish forces redeemed themselves by stopping Murray cold at the First Battle of Gaza in March of 1917. The next month the British tried again but were again defeated by the Turks in their strong defensive positions, backed up by effective artillery. Allied losses were heavy compared to their enemies and Murray was sacked and replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby who came with considerable reinforcements. 1917 was to be a gloomy year for the Ottoman Empire. Previously, the British made an alliance with the Arabs who rose in revolt against their Turkish rulers and this played a major part in the Allied victory. Turkish logistics were always a weakness and the Arab revolt exploited this by constant raids that left Turkish forces ill-supplied and which forced the dispersal of troops to defend railways and supply lines. Even with assistance from Germany and Austria-Hungary, it was simply too much for the Turks to face the Allies at their front and the Arab harassment on their flank and rear.

Staff of the 6th Army in Iraq
Gaza was taken, Jerusalem was taken and soon the British were advancing in Iraq again where Baghdad was taken. With the Battle of Megiddo the Turkish army began to come apart. Limon von Sanders had been in command there but the victor of Gallipoli could perform no miracle against the Allied forces that so outnumbered his own. This was also partly due to Russian action in the Caucasus where it was feared that an offensive was in the making which forced the Turks to weaken their southern front to defend the north. In 1918 the Ottoman forces did win some victories against Armenian separatists and actually succeeded in capturing Baku from the British who had rushed in to secure the area but it was too late to do any good. Resistance in the south had disintegrated and on October 1, 1918 the Arabs occupied Damascus and Aleppo fell later in the month while in Iraq the Turkish Tigris Army was forced to surrender. On October 30, 1918 the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice with the Allies, one month after Bulgaria had done the same. Allied troops arrived later to occupy Constantinople and most of the Ottoman Empire was partitioned between the French and British. The Turks had fought to the bitter end and while their opening offensives had ended in defeat, they proved capable of determined resistance, throwing back every Allied attack on their territory. Ultimately, however, the superior Allied numbers and the number of fronts that had to be defended proved impossible to overcome. The Arab Revolt was the final straw and there was simply no way for the Turkish forces to prevail.

Ottoman regimental flag on Gallipoli
Nonetheless, the Turkish forces had played a pivotal part in the Central Powers war effort. They had forced the Allies to extend themselves greatly, diverted forces that could have been used elsewhere and had proven themselves more than a match for their enemies with victories at Gallipoli, Kut and Gaza. None of the troops involved in these operations, who encountered the fierce Turkish resistance, would have ever thought of the Ottoman Empire as the “Sick Man of Europe”. For a “Sick Man” he had put up one hell of a fight and inflicted on the British what will probably always remain the second-largest defeat in British military history. They had succumbed to overwhelming numerical and material superiority and by being forced to fight irregular rebels as well as the enemy at the front but they had proven themselves a match for their enemies and that they could accomplish great feats of arms. This gave the Turks a pride that carried on and saw them succeed in subsequent conflicts almost as soon as the First World War was over.


  1. If only they found oil earlier they could have a comeback! If the territories of the former Ottoman Empire in 1914 was united today, it would be one of the great economic and geopolitical powers of the world


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