The road to Gallipoli— a Turkish perspective

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Volume 23, World War I

Turkish front-line commander Mustafa Kemal and his staff at Gallipoli. (Australian War Memorial)

Turkish front-line commander Mustafa Kemal and his staff at Gallipoli. (Australian War Memorial)

The triumph of the Young Turk Revolution of 24 July 1908 was sudden, unexpected, always patchy, and never complete in the way revolutions are meant to be. Only after five years did the Committee of Union and Progress definitively move to fully consummate its power. The over-arching aim of the Young Turks was to find a way to reverse the decline of the Ottoman Empire. They understood well that the foreign policy of the empire would have to change first if domestic reform were to stand a chance. The dominant paradigm of other European powers, however, was that this empire of the East would soon be up for grabs. This was the perennial Eastern Question and, paradoxically, every power was afraid of a mort subite before any agreement on how to proceed with the partition was in place.

Turkey’s ‘Greater War’
To revamp the empire the Young Turks needed a lengthy period of recovery, but they never got that chance. The unprovoked Italian assault on Tripoli in September 1911 sidelined the recent perturbations caused by Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia (1908–9), as the Balkan Wars (1912–13) were to sideline those of the Libyan War. When the Republic of Turkey was declared on 29 October 1923, Turkey had been at war almost incessantly for twelve years, thrice as long as the other major belligerents.

Now, a century later, with the spotlight still focused on colossal human tragedies, defeat and its aftermath, the easiest thing is to place every Ottoman sin at the door of the Young Turks. Yet this is simply the reincarnation of the Liberal Imperialist narrative of the victors, which disregards the woeful predicaments of the Young Turk government, such as the rising spectre of Russian aggression and Britain’s increasingly hostile policies. It downplays the way the question of the Straits rose to prominence as the Entente showed itself ready to disregard the vital interests of the Ottomans. Likewise, it conceals how Britain was promising bits and pieces of the Ottoman Empire to other possible allies like Greece and Bulgaria already in September 1914, almost two months before the Black Sea incident (see below) by which the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on 29 October 1914.

Liman von Sanders Crisis, November 1913–March 1914
2The Young Turks were ousted from the government in May 1912. After coming back to power in January 1913, following Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in the First Balkan War in November 1912, they were determined to reform the army and especially the officer class. They first approached the British, who refused to help the reform movement. Only then did they approach the Germans, who agreed, but only half-heartedly, because they assumed (wrongly) that the French were about to accept a similar approach.

The arrival of Liman von Sanders, a high-ranking German general, and about 40 officers in Constantinople provoked a diplomatic crisis with Russia, which preferred, for the time being, to see the Ottoman Empire continue to exist as a sluggard, anachronistic eastern empire without allies. Russia was determined not to let any other power (especially Germany) capitalise on the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. It was also during the Liman von Sanders Crisis that Russia started to further articulate and modernise its Straits policy. As the minutes of the Council of Ministers meeting in February 1914 and the memorandum of Count Basily make clear, Russia understood that achieving her historic aims on the Straits would only be possible in the context of a ‘great upheaval’, i.e. a large-scale European war. She also understood that in order to be able to retain the Straits she would have to take hold of both sides of the Marmara Sea. Hence Grey’s description of Constantinople and the Straits as the ‘great prize’ (glavnyii priz) of the war.

As August 1914 approached, the relationship between Britain and Russia developed into a fully-fledged alliance. Russian troops were vital for Britain, devoid of a land army and traditionally averse to military interventions on the Continent. Britain, like France, could ill afford to lose Russia. To make sure that she remained within the fold and was not swayed to the German side, the British government repeatedly signalled to the Russians that they would be compensated by gains from Turkey. Increasingly after 1908, preserving the Russian connection became Britain’s paramount concern, and this fundamental outlook dominated British policy towards the Ottoman Empire.

British blockades

A mule grazes on Gully Beach while a British destroyer waits offshore. (Glucksman Library, UL)

A mule grazes on Gully Beach while a British destroyer waits offshore. (Glucksman Library, UL)

At the outbreak of the war and in the wake of the flight of the German warships Goeben and Breslau to the Bosphorus, Britain instituted blockades—in and of themselves reasons for war—at the mouth of the Dardanelles and at Basra. It chose to apply them very strictly—so much so that, on the eve of a harsh winter, the British blockade starved Constantinople of coal on the pretext that it would be used for the German ships. Normal trading vessels carrying perishable goods for daily consumption were not able to leave or enter the Dardanelles. Indian forces had been stationed in Bahrain in support of the blockade at Basra, and they had explicit orders to move on Basra at the occurrence of the slightest ‘provocation’. But Britain did not just pursue aggressive blockades; at the same time she was promising Adrianople and Thrace to Bulgaria and Smyrna (now Izmir) and its interior to Greece to win them over to the Entente. With the same purpose, it was promising as yet undefined regions of Anatolia to Italy.

Young Turks’ dilemma
After the loss of the Balkans and the ensuing massacres and human tragedies attendant on the expulsion of the Turkish and Muslim population from the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire was at its lowest ebb. At a time when the great powers went to great lengths to maintain their alliances and gain new allies, the Ottomans were seen as deficient on many counts. Since 1908 Britain had already rejected at least four serious Ottoman attempts at alignment and/or alliance with the Entente. The German establishment, meanwhile, was against any idea of alliance with Turkey, and even in August 1914 it remained aloof. Yet the sheer weight of geography, history and realpolitik was bearing down on the Young Turks and should have dispelled any confusion about the gravity of the situation; the Ottoman Empire would soon be drawn into war. It did not have the luxury of vacillating between action and procrastination, like Italy, for example, or Greece. This was the context of the defensive alliance forged with Germany on 2 August. What would lead to disaster for Turkey in the long run seemed at the time a diplomatic success: for the first time since the Crimean War of the 1850s she now had a Great Power ally.

Talks between the Entente and the Ottoman government lingered on for some time. As the Liberal Imperialist narrative and its modern versions never fail to point out, it is true that the Entente offered to guarantee the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, but it was a sham offer. The Ottoman government demanded that this guarantee be given on a bilateral basis rather than collectively by the Entente, which was, at the end of the day, a political/diplomatic construct. The Entente members refused. When the Turks asked what would happen when the Entente ceased to exist, they had no credible answer to that quite intelligent question.

The ‘Black Sea incident’

Surgery in a Turkish military hospital behind the lines. (Turkish general staff, History of War Dept.)

Surgery in a Turkish military hospital behind the lines. (Turkish general staff, History of War Dept.)

Weeks moved on, and Constantinople increasingly felt the effects of the blockade at Gallipoli. Once Russia started to mine the other end at the Black Sea, Turkey was left with no choice but to react and break her way through—hence the 29 October incident and the bombardment of Odessa and Sébastopol. Russian mining of the Black Sea would not only have completed the suffocating blockade but would also have doomed the Ottoman Empire. The Black Sea route from Istanbul to Hopa was vital to the defence of the eastern front, which in turn held the key for central Anatolia. In the absence of dependable roads, the Black Sea connection provided the only reliable supply route, and if that were also unavailable there would have been no Caucasus front to speak meaningfully about.
The very scant material pertaining to the twilight meeting at the yalı of Said Halim Pasha in Yeniköy, when the leadership debated the increasingly dire situation in which the Ottoman Empire found itself, gives us a few jotted-down words of Enver Pasha: ‘They are winning, we must enter the war too’. The dominant interpretation of this specific sentence, developed in tandem with British propaganda of the time, is that Enver Pasha, being the ‘gambler’ and ‘pan-Turanist’, wanted to enter the war recklessly and as soon as possible on the winning side to make sure that the Ottomans received their share of the spoils of war. But what if he was solely referring to the force majeure of pre-empting a separate Russo-German agreement, which would have the Straits at its centre? This was the essence of German ambassador Wangenheim’s menacing words, condemning the Ottomans for not taking action.

Pro-German bias?
The Ottomans did not have a world of opportunities awaiting them. In contrast, they were surrounded by huge existential threats, and Enver Pasha would surely have distinguished between the two. He was not a ‘gambler’, as his opponents in the Entente camp and within the domestic opposition have made us believe to this day. Rather, he was not a defeatist. Looking at the circumstantial evidence and the threats of the Entente, along with increasingly severe blockades and a deteriorating strategic context in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, he would have had to be court-martialled if he did not act and enter the war on the side of Germany in the absence of any other alternative. It is with the hubris of hindsight that we are tempted to think that opportunism was at the heart of the Ottoman decision to enter the war. The allegation of pro-German bias within the Young Turk leadership is rubbish thrown at the face of scholarship unless considered against the background of the persistently anti-Ottoman policies of the Entente, and especially Britain. Whatever the reproductions of that particular narrative claim, Britain and the Entente had more than a fair chance to avoid direct confrontation with Turkey. Yet Britain allowed this chance to pass, and refused to offer the Ottomans the benefits of an alliance or meaningful neutrality. Instead, she chose to risk facing the Turks over the length of the still huge geography of the Ottoman Empire.

The Entente had the Ottoman Empire in its sights not because she had turned into a German ally but because the grand balance among the existing and prospective Entente allies could only be achieved by offering and dividing Ottoman lands. This was precisely why the Entente had been able to pursue ‘constructive’ diplomacy towards any other prospective ally, because it felt that its hands were free to offer Ottoman territory. Depicting the Turkish leadership as irreconcilably pro-German served their higher purposes.

Russia’s war aims
Nothing but the glavnyii priz would make meaningful the great sacrifices Russia had to incur, even at the risk of revolution at home, to the horror of the pro-German establishment of landowners and other aristocrats around the tsar. Grey and the foreign office understood this quite well. They knew that Russia would not continue to fight for long in pursuit of imaginary and undefined war aims, and that only a more solid, galvanising war aim could compel the Russians to keep fighting. Whether or not Turkey entered the war, Russia would have moved by every means at its disposal, diplomatic and otherwise, towards gaining the Straits. The First World War was exactly the type of major European upheaval needed, fulfilling the prerequisite conditions. Russia had already made its mind up that its development as a great power could not be achieved without control over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, and only that could be the possible final solution to the question of the Straits. Indeed, as Russia’s foreign minister Sazonov made clear in his memoirs, Britain had agreed to Russia’s expectations with regard to Constantinople and the Straits before the Ottoman Empire had entered the war.

In the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was the only power from the primordial East to take on a group of mighty Western powers, who believed that they would finish her off quickly. This was not at all the case. Lloyd George divulged that much in his speech to the Commons at the end of the war, admitting that the Ottomans’ ‘choice’ to enter the war caused it to drag on for two more years. He did not, of course, admit how Britain pushed them to the brink, because his purpose was not to flatter but to lay the ideological ground for their forthcoming severe punishment. In fact, Britain was as much revanchist towards the Ottoman Empire at Sèvres as France was towards Germany at Versailles. However paradoxical it may seem, the Turco-German alliance was the result of British intransigence and Entente politics. The Young Turks had met ‘perfidious Albion’ par excellence!

The ‘weakest link’?
Britain, led by the thinking of the so-called ‘Eastern school’, mainly represented by Churchill, chose to hit the ‘weakest link’ in the Central Powers’ chain. A victory at Gallipoli and the fall of Constantinople would have swayed all the remaining neutral powers to the side of the Entente and opened the way to supply the Russian armies. Gallipoli was the biggest military involvement of Britain and its allies, including the ANZACS, in 1915. More than 5,000 Irishmen also perished at Gallipoli. The unexpected Turkish resistance, on the other hand, which lasted over eight months of intense land and sea battles and the final victory of the Turks, directly contributed to the downfall of tsarist Russia within a little over a year.

In August 1914, their gut feeling told the Young Turks that tsarist Russia would not miss the opportunity arising in the midst of the ‘great upheaval’ to settle once and for all the historic question of Constantinople and the Straits. Given the long history of Russo-Turkish wars, this conclusion would have been easy for any Ottoman leadership to draw, Young Turk or not. But only the Young Turk leadership had the wherewithal to act—and the rest is history, with all the consequences of this momentous decision to enter the First World War. To be sure, the end of the Ottoman Empire was a most painful and tragic process for its ancient and time-honoured millets. Yet ignoring the complexities that surround the Young Turks’ decisive moment—failing to see the hand of Great Power politics in the shaping of that moment, and how a multitude of factors rose to the surface from the disturbed substrata of dormant considerations—will hardly teach a lesson of history to the generations of today.

Altay C¸engizer is a former Turkish ambassador to Ireland.

Read More: Anglo-Turkish antagonism
Seizure of the Sultan Osman and Res¸adiye

Further reading

R. Adelson, London and the invention of the Middle East: money, power, and war 1902–1922 (London, 1995).
R.P. Bobroff, Roads to glory: late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits (London, 2006).
J. Heller, British policy towards the Ottoman Empire: 1908–1914 (London, 1983).
E. Kedourie, England and the Middle East: the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, 1914–1921 (London, 1987).


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