During the last few years, I’ve been at pains to point out the part played by the First World War in spreading European imperial control through the Middle East, and in shaping the region for the conflicts it still endures. I’ve tended to focus on the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and on the British, who planned and carried out wartime Allied invasions of the Middle East, and were the prime movers behind its reorganisation in the wake of Ottoman collapse – but it wouldn’t do toss around blame for the mess without giving the French Empire its fair share.
A century ago today, General Franchet d’Espèrey, the grizzled French firebrand latterly in command of Allied forces on the Salonika Front (15 September, 1918: Walkover), arrived in Constantinople to begin work as c-in-c of Allied occupation forces in the Ottoman Empire. That sounds straightforward enough, albeit laden with symbolism as the Christian world once more took formal control of a region it had been invading in vain since the eleventh century, but in fact the general’s ceremonial entry into the city was both controversial and provocative.
For one thing, no Allied occupation of Constantinople had been agreed or pre-arranged. The Mudros Armistice, which halted fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire from 30 October 1918, had made provisions for occupation of those areas where Allied forces might be under military threat, but the British didn’t waste much time on such niceties. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet steamed into Constantinople on 12 November, accompanied by French, Italian, Greek, US and Japanese vessels, and substantial (predominantly British) ground forces began landing the following day, cheered through the streets by the city’s Christian population while its Moslem folk stayed quietly indoors. The Allies did not occupy the capitals of the other wartime Central Powers – Berlin, Vienna and Sofia – and exactly why British foreign minister Lord Curzon decided to seize Constantinople has never been established, but plausible motives aren’t too hard to find.
Control of the Bosphorus provided the Allies with a valuable conduit for support of anti-Bolshevik forces scattered around the Caucasus, while control of the Ottoman administrative hub offered the most efficient means of speeding up disarmament of an empire long since marked for dismemberment in the event of an Allied victory. Other, less tangible motives ascribed to British imperial strategists included a desire to expunge the public embarrassment of the Gallipoli campaign by occupying its ultimate target, and a broad concern to discourage pan-Islamic movements in India and elsewhere in the Middle East by controlling one of the faith’s major seats of power.
Whatever the precise mix of motives behind it, the British move on Constantinople triggered a minor stampede. A few French troops had actually been the first Allied units to reach the city on 12 November, and more soon followed, while Italian forces landed at Galata, the district on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, on 7 February. By way of giving the occupation a formal connection with the peace process underway in Paris, token US, Greek and Japanese forces also arrived in the Ottoman capital. The city was divided into British, French and Italian occupation zones, and high commissioners from each of the six occupying countries formed the new administration’s highest authority, though in practice power rested with the British and French representatives. Beneath that level, administration was strictly military, with a committee of generals controlling commissions responsible for various departments concerned with disarmament, public order or requisition.
The British were clearly in charge. The commissioners were led by the British representative – c-in-c of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Gough-Calthorpe – and military command on the ground rested with General Milne, whose force from the Salonika front had been the first to enter the city and who had been named by the British in September 1918 as commander-in-chief of ‘Black Sea operations’. The arrival of Franchet d’Espèrey, Milne’s c-in-c at Salonika and still claiming seniority, sent a loud message to the contrary that complicated the administrative command structure, annoyed the British and generated high-level arguments between London and Paris until the Frenchman’s eventual departure in March 1920. So why did the French bother?
French influence pre-dated British in the Middle East, which had begun with the expulsion of French revolutionary forces from Egypt at the start of the nineteenth century. The two empires had squabbled over their competing ambitions for the next hundred years, until entente between them taught each to treat the other’s Middle Eastern interests with some respect, albeit a grudging, narrow-eyed respect riddled with mutual suspicion. Once a great war for survival was underway, the two empires had entered into mutually dependent alliance, and once the Middle East had become a battleground both Britain and France were ready to cut a definitive deal.
That deal was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and I’ve discussed its details before, as well as its incompatibility with promises of independence made to leaders of the Arab Revolt (9 May, 1916: Big Deal). Now is a good time to take another look at the map it sought to create, because by early 1919, long before the signing of any formal agreements made in Paris, it was being turned into reality.
Sykes-Picot was out of date by the start of 1919, because the British and French were no longer required to consider Russian ambitions. One Ottoman zone designated for Russian control had been the area around the Bosphorus Strait and Constantinople, opening the door for occupation of the capital. The land between the Black Sea and the Persian frontier, also designated for Russian imperial control, was now being claimed as sovereign by Caucasian states on the frontline of the battle between the old ways and bolshevism, a position that made independence for Georgia, Azerbaijan and above all Armenia worth promoting from an allied point of view.
The British were already in effective control of their planned area of dominance in the south of the former Ottoman heartlands. France had neither a major army in position nor the resources to send one, so the British had agreed to mind the southern section of the area marked in blue while the French used what resources they could muster to take control of the northern section.
Some 15,000 French troops had landed in the province then known in Western Europe as Cilicia (the part of Anatolia north and northeast of Cyprus now called Cukurova) on 17 November 1918. They had spread out to occupy the region by the end of the year, and moved into towns further east in early 1919. To the apparent surprise of the French, who seem to have decided the British had already subdued any potential opposition in Cilicia, regional nationalists immediately began organising resistance (in collaboration with Arab elements), and resistance quickly matured into guerilla warfare, becoming part of a wider nationalist struggle for an independent, largely intact Turkey.
It’s hard to believe that French authorities weren’t ready for trouble in Cilicia. In order to field such a large force, they had cashed in on their wartime support for Armenian nationalists, and most of the occupying troops in Cilicia were Armenian volunteers with the French Legion of the East (which was rebranded as the French Armenian Legion on 1 February 1919). With Turks and Armenians in a state of virtual civil war, and the French openly in support of Armenian separatism, civil unrest in Cilicia was inevitable and predictable. The conflict, known as the Franco-Turkish War, would escalate and splutter on until March 1921, but the failure of a first treaty to halt nationalist violence meant that French troops did not finally withdraw from the region until the following January.
So France had military reasons to install a senior general at Constantinople, but Franchet d’Espèrey’s presence was also a means of keeping an eye on British adherence to the Sykes-Picot terms and of maintaining international pressure for Armenian independence, a cause promoted to the max by wartime propaganda and correspondingly important to the French public. The British behaved themselves, and at the end of 1919 handed over those regions they were holding for the French, but Armenian independence, while logical in the context of western anti-Bolshevik plans, was both difficult to achieve (and another story) and anathema to most Turks. Along with the generally harsh and overtly anti-Moslem nature of the occupation, Allied support for the Armenian cause helped spur Constantinople’s Turkish population to active resistance.
The occupation was administered under the notional umbrella of the Sultan, his grand vizier and cabinet, and the Ottoman parliament. Grand viziers, some more apparently collaborative than others, came and went in rapid succession, but none of them made much effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons to nationalists in Anatolia from the stores of arms confiscated as part of the disarmament programme. Meanwhile underground organisations were springing up all over the city’s Turkish quarters, and parliamentary deputies kept up a barrage of nationalist rhetoric. To further complicate matters for the Allies, a steady inflow of ‘White Russian’ refugees evacuated from the Crimea (eventually some 200,000 of them) added to the stress on both an administration terrified of Bolshevik infiltrators and a population that, apart from its (largely Greek) Christian element, treated the occupiers with sullen hostility.
In Constantinople, though not among nationalist leaders in the provinces, official hostility to the occupiers was deliberately muted in early 1919, because the Sultan’s government and parliamentary politicians were hoping to convince the Allies that they were the good guys in Turkey. The Turkish press, public and politicians all agreed that the criminal wartime leadership of Enver Pasha and his Young Turk colleagues (who had done a David Cameron and fled the disaster they had caused) was entirely to blame for any Ottoman disagreements with the Allies. If the Allies could be persuaded of the same, the argument ran, Turkey might yet secure a relatively lenient peace.
Even without hindsight this seemed a faint hope, and it quickly achieved unicorn status. Once the second phase of peace talks in Paris got underway, from mid-March 1919, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the European Allies were set on a punitive peace, because their political constituencies demanded revenge and because their wartime diplomacy demanded a carve-up of Ottoman territories to be shared among the victors. Long before the spring of 1920, when final Allied demands presented to the Sultan’s regime triggered its collapse and replacement by a nationalist assembly in Ankara, nationalist leaders away from Constantinople were operating in the belief that only armed defence of the frontiers could prevent Turkey’s dismemberment.
The Allied occupation of Constantinople strikes me as interesting in itself, and as a fairly major example of important stuff either forgotten or deliberately left out of Western Europe’s historical narrative, but it was only one facet of a much bigger story. In Cilicia, for instance, the French might have been driven out more quickly if Turkish nationalist leaders hadn’t prioritised another war that kicked off in May 1919, when Greece invaded at Smyrna (Izmir) in a doomed attempt to secure territories promised by the Allies. Meanwhile nationalists were competing with Bolshevik Russia and independence campaigners in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus for control of Turkey’s eastern heartlands… but these were all long stories and they’ll have to wait, as will an overall picture of the national struggle led by Kemal Ataturk.
I can’t claim that this particularly long and unstructured ramble has much of a point to make. Think of it as a reminder that the British and French didn’t let an outbreak of peace interrupt the business of empire building, and that any sense of mistrust emanating from modern Turkey has a basis in Anglo-French mistreatment a century ago.