Neither Suvla nor Sedd-ul-Bahr—when Harp and Crescent intertwined

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

The animosity of both the Irish and the Turkish national movements towards their common foe found expression in their public pronouncements.

By Merve Dogan Kader and Seán Patrick Smyth

It is sometimes forgotten that Irish and Turkish soldiers faced each other on the battlefield during the Great War. Irish soldiers fought against the Turks not only at Gallipoli but also in Palestine, where they took part in the battle of Nablus just a few months before the armistice. At the conclusion of the war, Turkey was occupied by the victorious Allied powers and plans were drawn up to partition the country.

The remnants of the wartime Young Turk administration formulated plans to resist the occupation. A young officer named Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk, who had earned his stripes commanding troops at Gallipoli, eventually emerged as the leader of this movement. Turkish resistance to Allied occupation began in May 1919, just four months after the beginning of the Tan War in Ireland, and the animosity that the Irish and the Turkish national movements held towards their common foe found expression in the public pronouncements of both movements.

Kemalist support for the Irish struggle

The Turkish press was divided when it came to the pitiful situation in which the country found itself after the armistice. Some journalists argued for working alongside the forces of occupation, while others supported Mustafa Kemal’s national movement. The Istanbul-based Peyam-ı Sabah newspaper, edited by Boris Johnson’s grandfather, Ali Kemal, adopted a line in favour of working with the British. It is thus unsurprising that Ali Kemal also expressed open hostility to the Irish struggle. On the other hand, foremost among the publications that expressed a positive interest in the Irish struggle was the Hakimiyet-i Milliye newspaper, the semi-official organ of the Kemalist movement. This position is best epitomised in an editorial dated 11 February 1921, addressed to ‘the heroes of Ireland’:

‘In the shadow of the chains of servitude, a small but battered colony, a heroic island, a weak and unarmed people with their eyes set on the vision of victory are intent on slaying the beast in their midst. However weak and small the Irish forces may be, no force on earth can usurp the freedom of a heroic nation. And isn’t this why the Turks, who carry principle and faith in their own spirit and who have been compelled to retreat even to the caves in the mountains, are following the developments in Ireland with such excitement? In the east those who suffer under oppression see the sacred struggle of the Irish as a natural ally in the struggle for revenge against injustice. However, the Turks in particular—Sinn Féin’s real comrade in arms—see ourselves as the brothers of Ireland’s heroic manhood. We wish their success as if they were one of our own armies going into battle. Nay, we don’t merely “wish”—but trust and believe in their ultimate victory. Undoubtedly the day will arrive when the children of Turkey and Ireland are reading history books, the Irish will show the sons of the Ottomans as heroes struggling under their scarlet flag against the English invasion of Turkey, and we will explain the heroic deeds and selflessness of the blonde men of the north.’

Above: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with irregular fighters during the Turkish War of Independence. (Istanbul Research Institute)

Turkish nationalists placed great importance on framing their fight as an international struggle. They emphasised the fact that both the Irish and Turkish national movements had received support from India in an effort to accentuate the idea that the struggle against the British was a wider struggle against imperialism. The negotiations between Lloyd George and the representatives of Dáil Éireann and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty were of particular interest to the Turks, as were the pronouncements of Éamon de Valera, which were often translated verbatim into Turkish.

Wartime collaboration

While distance precluded any direct material support between Ireland and Turkey, papers held in the National Library in Dublin demonstrate the extent to which Irish nationalists in the United States strove to cultivate links with the Turkish Red Crescent societies during the Great War. Irish-Americans also participated in German-organised events to celebrate the Turkish victory at Gallipoli. The German Orientalist Max von Oppenheim worked with the Turks to foment rebellion among the Muslims of India, a plot to which Roger Casement and Joseph McGarrity, who later became de Valera’s representative in America, were party. After the war, a group of Irish-Americans wrote directly to Mustafa Kemal in December 1922, calling on him to assist the newly founded Irish Free State.

The Turkish struggle against the terms imposed on them as a defeated power at the conclusion of the Great War aroused the interest of Irish nationalists. The Turks had established their own national parliament in Ankara as a result of the occupation of Istanbul; many members of the imperial parliament in Istanbul defected to Ankara, arguing that the Ankara government was the only legitimate representative of the Turkish nation. The parallels with the manner in which the first Dáil was founded are uncanny. Unlike the Irish, however, the Turks eventually succeeded in rolling back the egregious terms of the treaty that had been imposed on them.

Press coverage in Ireland

When it came to the tumultuous events unfolding in the Near East, the editorial line of the anti-republican press in Ireland was largely based on that of English newspapers. Much of the coverage was coloured by fervent support for the British-backed Greek invasion of Turkey’s western seaboard. Despite a press that was largely hostile to the Turks, there are notable exceptions to be found in Irish nationalist journals.

Founded as a Home Rule publication in 1911, the Catholic Bulletin under the editorship of J.J. O’Kelly adopted a line in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Bulletin also expressed a deep interest in how the Turks were working to undermine the imposition of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and went as far as to publish translations of articles that had appeared in the Turkish nationalist Hakimiyet-i Milliye newspaper. Commenting on an address on the Near East given by British MP Aubrey Herbert, the Bulletin argued that the ‘unrest, anarchy and misery’ in Turkey existed solely as a consequence of British policy.

As the Irish delegation in London negotiated the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in September 1921, the Turks had succeeded in reversing the course of the war against the British-backed Greeks at Sakarya. The Turks won the battle on 13 September, delivering a smashing blow to Lloyd George’s ambitions in the Near East. This was a world apart from the imperious tone exhibited by Lloyd George towards the Irish delegation in London less than a week later, when he stated that he ‘looked to Ireland to owe allegiance to the Throne, and to make her future as a member of the British Commonwealth. That was the basis of our proposals, and we cannot alter it.’

After their final success on the battlefield against the Greeks a year later, the Turkish army moved north and found themselves once again face to face with the British, who still occupied Istanbul and surrounding areas. This led to a call from London for the dominions to send troops. The Canadian government balked and the call provoked fear in Ireland. TDs openly called on the government to refuse the request. An Irish News editorial published shortly afterwards was in no doubt about the success of the Turks. It noted that Mustafa Kemal had ‘resurrected the Turks, exalted the Bolsheviks, and finally smashed the Western European Entente’. Cathal O’Shannon TD asked in the Dáil whether, if war broke out between Turkey and Britain, there was a ‘single Irish citizen who would want to send a single young Irishman out to fight the war of the oil owners against Kemal Pasha or anybody else’. The issue came to nothing, however, and foreign forces evacuated Turkey the following year.

Treaty of Lausanne, 1923

Through a combination of military victory and skilful diplomacy, the Turks were eventually able to convince the foreign powers to withdraw from Turkey and sign an agreement more favourable to the Turks than the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. This resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923.

Above: Desmond Fitzgerald, Irish Free State minister for external affairs, argued that ‘practically all’ of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was of no interest to the Irish government. (NLI)

While Ireland was not a party to negotiations at Lausanne, the Free State government was kept informed of proceedings, according to Desmond Fitzgerald, minister for external affairs. Almost a year after the treaty had been signed the Dáil debated a motion on ratifying it. Much of the debate surrounded the question of whether the Free State was technically at war with Turkey. Fitzgerald argued that ‘practically all’ of the treaty was of no interest to the Irish government. This was objected to by Bryan Cooper TD, a former MP for South Dublin County who had joined the British Army in 1914 and subsequently fought at Gallipoli. Cooper noted that he was ‘more concerned with peace with Turkey than any Deputy in this Dáil, because I am the only Deputy who fought against Turkey, and while I thank God that peace has come, because I know what war is, I say we have a vital interest in this Treaty; and that we should have been represented at Lausanne … [and that Irish war graves] … from the slopes of the beaches at Sedd-ul-Bahr, where the Dublins and the Munsters were dashed to death, to Kiretch-Tepe-Sirt, where the Tenth Irish Division was bombed out of existence without being able to make reply’, needed to be protected.

Other members of the Dáil argued that Ireland should negotiate directly with Turkey rather than ratify the Treaty of Lausanne. Their position was that the treaty did not concern Ireland directly and its stipulations were non-binding, as Ireland had no role in negotiating it. Less clear, however, was whether Ireland was at war with Turkey or not, as Britain had declared war on behalf of the British Empire and those circumstances had remained in force when the Free State came into existence. Fitzgerald summarised this comedic state of affairs: ‘it can be argued that at the present moment we are in a technical state of war with Turkey. On the other hand it might be argued that we are not. We propose to make it perfectly clear beyond all reasonable doubt, as we say in the resolution that we are not at war with Turkey.’

The interest shown in Turkey by nationalist Ireland was brief. While the revolutionary anti-clerical changes embarked upon by Atatürk aroused little sympathy in Catholic Ireland, the Department of External Affairs nevertheless instructed the Free State representative in Paris to cultivate close relations with the Turks, as ‘we regard them as old friends, at least since they sent us a food ship during the famine’. The Turks’ interest in Ireland was equally ephemeral—save for the efforts of Atatürk’s daughter, Afet İnan, to demonstrate that the Irish were of Turkish stock during the 1930s heyday of Turkish nationalist historiography. But sinn scéal eile.

Merve Dogan Kader is a lecturer at Biruni University, Istanbul; Seán Patrick Smyth is a Ph.D student at the Central European University, Budapest.


F. Ahmad, The making of modern Turkey (London, 1993).

P. Walsh, Britain’s Great War on Turkey (Belfast, 2009).


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