Category Archives: Ottoman Empire

8 APRIL, 1915: Wars Within War

In a world riddled with national, ethnic and religious divisions, big wars can serve as a convenient cover story for smaller ones. That was as true in 1915 as it is in 2015. A few months into what we call the First World War (and off the top of my head), the merry-go-round of the Balkan Wars was still spinning, Japan was still pursuing its war of conquest with China and the Boers of South Africa were still fighting the British Empire. Meanwhile the diplomatic desperation of warring European powers was stoking warlike rivalries all across the globe – from Greek territorial disputes with Turkey to the naval arms race among South American republics – and the distractions of their masters were encouraging ethnic, national or religious have-nots to rise for their causes within empires great and small.

For one particular set of rebellious have-nots, the Armenians of the Caucasian region in northeastern Turkey, 8 April 1915 marked the beginning of a terrible end. On that day, the Ottoman Army and government began enforced deportations of Armenians from the Caucasus, officially inaugurating a series of measures that have been variously and controversially described as genocide or simple resettlement, but are generally known in Western Europe as the Armenian Massacres.

According to neutral estimates, between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were living in Ottoman Turkey at the start of the War, and another million or so were living across the frontier with Russia. Unlike their traditional enemies, the Kurds, and other large ethnic minorities inside the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had no recognised homeland, but the majority were scattered near the Russian border. The Russian Empire had been encouraging a surge in Armenian nationalism since the turn of the century, arming and supplying a number of minor revolts before 1914, and trouble erupted in the region after the Ottoman government refused demands for an Armenian national congress in October 1914.

Most moderate Armenian leaders fled to Bulgaria at this point, but the more extreme nationalists crossed the frontier and formed a rebel division using Russian equipment. This force invaded in December, and killed an estimated 120,000 non-Armenians in an extended rampage around the northeastern Caucasus while Ottoman forces were busy preparing and carrying out their own offensive into Russia. As the campaigning season of 1915 got underway on the Caucasian Front, armed Armenian rebels were still at large in the frontier zones and the Ottoman government in Constantinople, with some justification, regarded the region’s Armenians in general as solidly pro-Russian. The deportations that began on April 8 were intended to clear the battlefront of hostile elements.

Armenians in the Russian Army, fighting the mutual enemy.

Whether or not the government intended this as the beginning of an attempt at genocide – a matter of searing controversy to this day, and not something I’m fit to judge – that’s essentially what happened. By June all non-Muslim civilians were required by law to take up ‘duties’ near the Empire’s battlefronts, but this was doublespeak for relocation to areas under firm military supervision, and exemptions effectively restricted the order to Orthodox and Protestant Armenians in the Caucasus. Deportations continued until late 1916, and deportees were often appallingly treated. Many were given only hours to prepare for long journeys without transport or protection to resettlement regions that were usually infertile or poorly supplied. Thousands of Armenians died of starvation or exposure, thousands more were killed by hostile (usually Kurdish) tribesmen, and there is no doubt that at least some Ottoman officials colluded in the slaughter in search of a ‘final solution’ to the Armenian question.

At least some Ottoman soldiers were quite happy to pose with their victims.

This particular small and nasty war swiftly became part of the wider War as news of the deportations was released through Armenian contacts with the Western press, especially strong in the USA. Entente propaganda went on to claim that the ‘massacres’ had killed a million Armenians, while the Ottoman regime blamed supply and transport shortages for 300,000 deaths. Modern estimates put the figure at around 600,000, but are essentially a matter of educated guesswork. The same is true of the numbers killed in subsequent ethnic warfare around a fluctuating Caucasian Front, which resumed in 1917 and continued into 1918, and of the thousands more who died trying to return to their homes after an exhausted Ottoman regime and a new Armenian Republic signed the Treaty of Batum on 24 May 1918.

The Massacres were big news in the States, and still are.

The Armenian Massacres, or whatever you want to call them, are hardly forgotten history, ongoing controversy about numbers and motives has seen to that.  But if you’re inclined to dismiss the catastrophe as a footnote to the First World War, it’s probably worth remembering that overall Armenian casualties in this nasty war within a war were on a very similar scale to those suffered by the entire British Empire.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.


From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.

19 FEBRUARY, 1915: Hell’s Gateway

A hundred years ago today, the first shots were fired in what became known as the Gallipoli campaign, one of the First World War’s most notorious cock-ups or, if you look at it from the other side, the defensive victory that saved Ottoman Turkey (at least for the time being) and made the name of Kemal Ataturk, one of post-War Europe’s most important political leaders.

The land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula holds a guaranteed place in the small pantheon of war stories from beyond the Western Front considered important by the British heritage industry, albeit largely because British command failures and genuinely shocking fighting conditions support the reassuring and popular ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the conflict. The same view is broadly accepted by the Australian commemorative industry, though in the context of Gallipoli’s totemic role in bringing national identity to the squabbling, competing states that made up Australia in 1914.

So the soldiers’ war in Gallipoli will be remembered in detail, and I’ll have no more than occasional sidelights to add, but ground fighting on the front didn’t get underway until April 1915. The shots fired on 19 February were the start a purely naval campaign, an Anglo-French attempt to force a passage through the heavily defended Dardanelles Straits and take Constantinople by sea. Land forces would be dragged into the fray in the wake of its initial failures.

The naval attack was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War, enable direct collaboration with Russian forces in the Black Sea and persuade all sorts of minor European nations to join the Allied side. Given that the Western Front already bore the mark of a hugely expensive stalemate, this seemed a tempting option to some strategists, particularly the all-action minister in charge of the British Royal Navy, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A simple map, borrowed and removable on request, illustrates the temptation nicely.


A purely naval attack on the Dardanelles had been deemed impossible by a British study in 1907, on the grounds that ships’ guns would be unable to subdue strong Turkish shore defences. Even if warships were able to ‘force’ a passage through the straits, enemy control of fortresses on the shoreline would force them to return. This was still true in 1915, but Churchill, one of the most strident voices for diversity of the British war effort away from the Western Front, was having none of it.

Never short on eloquence, energy or enthusiasm, Churchill ordered Admiral Carden – commanding the fleet of largely obsolete warships patrolling off the straits since August 1914’s Goeben fiasco – to carry out a raid against forts at the entrance to the Straits in November. Lucky British shooting caused considerable damage, alerted Turkish commanders to the danger of attack and told Churchill what he wanted to hear. In early January, the First Lord asked Carden for advice on the best way to force the straits with ships alone, and then mis-sold the admiral’s cautious reply to the British cabinet as a positive response. By the end of the month, despite the fact that no qualified authority had actually suggested it would work, Carden’s preferred option had become an authorised plan of action.

Most British naval strategists, led by fiery First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, regarded success as impossible without the support of ground forces to control the coast, but political optimism outweighed their mounting opposition and Churchill was able to assemble a powerful fleet for the task. When Carden’s operation began on 19 February he commanded one modern battleship, three battlecruisers, twelve pre-Dreadnought battleships and four cruisers, along with the seaplane carrier Ark Royal and a full supporting cast of destroyers, minesweepers (trawlers with civilian crews) and submarines. Carden was also supported by a French Navy force based on four more pre-Dreadnoughts, because although sceptical about the operation’s chances, the French government wasn’t about to be left out of anything that might affect its economic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Carden’s plan was hardly daring. He intended to force the straits in three stages, moving slowly and deliberately to maximise the damage to Turkish morale. Stage one involved destroying the outer forts with long, steady bombardments, beginning with an attack by heavy guns beyond the range of defensive fire; stage two concentrated on coastal batteries and minefields; and the third wave would destroy Turkish forts further inside the straits. By the end of the first day, the plan was looking unlikely to succeed.

Turkish defences had been strengthened since the heads-up of November. Minefields had been extended, an additional 24 German mobile howitzers had arrived and the siting arrangements for defensive artillery had been improved… but these had nothing to do with the ineffectual performance of Carden’s forces on 19 February. British aircraft performed poorly as artillery spotters, their reports were often ignored anyway, and observation problems contributed to lousy shooting that left most Turkish positions undamaged.

Bad weather prevented further efforts until 25 February, when Carden moved his ships closer to the targets and the outer forts were silenced – but after this small success the plan fell apart completely, as minesweeping was rendered impossible by shore batteries that could not be attacked until the mines were swept. The big guns of the modern battleship Queen Elizabeth did cause serious damage to the shore batteries when deployed on 5 March, but this was missed by British reconnaissance and the ship was withdrawn when it came under retaliatory fire from a mobile battery.

Churchill had always claimed that the operation could be called off and redefined as a raid if it went badly, but instead the stakes were raised, as the British and French governments responded to stalemate by sending ground forces to support their navies. Some 18,000 French colonial troops sailed for the Dardanelles on 10 March, and two days later General Hamilton took command of 75,000 British and Imperial troops ordered to the front.

As the invasion force gathered off the Gallipoli peninsula, and intelligence reported desperate Turkish ammunition shortages, Churchill remained convinced that victory was just a push away and ordered Carden to make a last dash for Constantinople. Carden suffered a nervous breakdown after ordering the attack on 17 March, and it began the following day under the command of his deputy, Admiral de Robeck. An unmitigated disaster, and a story for another day, it marked the end of the Gallipoli campaign’s opening phase, the point at which an audacious but ineptly planned adventure became a ghastly strategic error, and a living Hell for those sent to carry it out.

11 JANUARY, 1915: A Small Great War

What with the January blues, the occasional misery that comes with supporting Tottenham and a cold that kept me out of the best Sunday league game this season, Poppycock hasn’t got the units to get overly creative with one of the First World War’s duller weeks. Instead, and as a change from stressing the War’s essential modernity, let’s give a passing mention to the action known as the Battle of Muscat, which reached its climax on 11 January 1915. A sideshow within a sideshow, fought for the security of a tiny Persian Gulf state, it was a very small battle and a reminder that, outside Europe, a whole lot of warfare was taking place in nineteenth-century conditions.

The port of Muscat is now the capital of Oman and the main city of the governate of Muscat, a coastal enclave that behaved like a separate state in the years before the War. Its ruler since 1913, Sultan Taimur, presided over a mediaeval system of government and was the fourth successive Sultan of Muscat to prosper as a client of the British. Control over Muscat was strategically important to the British Empire, first and foremost as a vital source of oil for British machines, but also as the centre of a trade in small arms that linked India with East Africa and had once put rifles in the hands of many a rebel against British rule. So the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on Muscat, a British political agent was positioned close to the Sultan, a small garrison of British Indian Army troops protected the port, and plenty of money was provided to pay the Sultan’s expenses.

Speaks for itself…

Even before the outbreak of war in Europe, Muscat’s wealth had provoked angry resentment in Imam Salin bin Rashid al Kharusi, ruler of poverty-stricken Oman, theoretical overlord of Muscat and, when it suited him, loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire. By late 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers, a jihad against the British issued from Constantinople, and German financial assistance had persuaded the Imam to mount an attack.

The key to defending Muscat from inland attack was the fort at Bait Al Falaj, which lay about a mile from the coast and guarded the river and valley leading to the port. The Sultan’s small tribal army was stationed there, along with a detachment of Indian Army regulars. After this combined force repelled a preliminary attack in October 1914, six companies of infantry and two machine guns were sent from India as reinforcements, most of them Sikh troops, so that British strength in Muscat was up to 1,000 men by the time the Imam made his bid for conquest in January.

During 10 January, in a scene straight out of a Fifties colonial movie, large (if indeterminate) numbers of Omani warriors gathered a mile or so from the fort. Variously armed with swords and rifles, protected by shields made of East African hippopotamus hide and working up a noisy collective fervour for jihad, they attacked at two the following morning, charging the fort’s outposts and seizing a piquet to its northwest side.  British and sultanate forces launched a counterattack at dawn, and by noon they had systematically driven the Omanis back into the hinterland.

British Indian troops would go on fighting their mini-campaign in defence of Muscat throughout the War, but the victory at Bait Al Falaj kept things quiet for a time. The loss of some 300 dead, against a handful of casualties among the defenders, forced the Imam to rethink his tactics and weaponry options on twentieth century lines before contributing further to the ongoing Ottoman campaign, sponsored by Berlin, to disrupt British interests in the Middle East.

What should have been called the Battle of Bait Al Falaj was renamed the Battle of Muscat so the British public – far more informed about the world’s physical geography than modern audiences – would know roughly where it had taken place.  Even in 1915 it was seen as a relatively quaint example of the colonial upheaval triggered all over the world by Europe’s Great War, and as a suitably old-fashioned affair. On the other hand it was also a product of Britain’s, and in particular the Royal Navy’s, determination to secure oil supplies, and the modern world has been living with that particular strategic novelty ever since.

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

18 NOVEMBER, 1914: The Forgotten Front

A hundred years ago today, an Ottoman army began advancing eastward from the Anatolian city of Erzurum.  This was the opening move of a six-year war on what is known as the Caucasian Front, initially fought between the Ottoman and Russian Empires for control of the region.

Unless you’ve studied the First World War in some detail, or spent time in the area now covered by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, you may not have heard of the Caucasian Front.  And I’m guessing the British heritage media aren’t planning to make it a big part of the commemoration extravaganza, so here’s a beginners’ guide to where it was and why it was a war zone.

The area known as the Caucasus is the strip of land, south and west of the Caucasian Mountains, that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea.  Some 400 kilometres across, it has obvious strategic value as a trade route and is rich in natural resources, particularly oil. Like that other great international through-route, the Balkans, the Caucasus began the twentieth century as a patchwork of ethnic groupings and would-be independent states under the control of wider empires, in this case the Russian Empire to the north and east, the Ottoman to the south and west.  In 1914 this frontier zone represented the least complicated opportunity for either empire to indulge in territorial expansion.  Here’s a map, not perfect but the best I could steal at short notice and, of course, removable on request.


From a Russian perspective, control of the Caucasus was a necessary first step towards the Empire’s ultimate aim of controlling the Dardanelles Straits and entering the Mediterranean.  Since Russia’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1904–05, expansion into western Europe had been the watchword in St. Petersburg.  Although strategic thinking was principally focused on the prospect of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and care was taken to maintain reasonably good relations with Constantinople, plans had been laid by 1914 for a land invasion of the Caucasus in conjunction with a naval offensive in the Black Sea.  Advanced army bases on the frontier had been established at Kars and Ardahan, while Russian agents were busy across the border, equipping Armenian nationalists for revolt against Ottoman rule.

In Constantinople, the ambitious, militarist Young Turk government had been in power since 1909, promoting a pan-Turkish movement that demanded territorial expansion.  This was hardly feasible in the Balkans or the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire was crumbling rather than growing, and that just left the land south of the Caucasian Mountains.  By 1914 pan-Turkish expansionism had found expression in a rising tide of hostility towards Armenians and a wealth of contacts with ethnic Turkish groups living inside the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of war between the empires in late October 1914 triggered border skirmishes during the following days, but Turkish frontline troops soon retreated into the hills while war minister Enver Pasha prepared an ‘Eastern Army’ for a major offensive from Erzurum, a task slowed by the lack of a railway system in the region. Russian forces, smaller and denied major reinforcement by the demands of the Polish campaign further north, restricted offensive operations to providing support for an Armenian rebel division that crossed the frontier in mid-November.  As the Turkish invasion force began its advance on 18 November, under Enver’s personal command, the rebel division exploited the lack of troops left behind to embark on a campaign of raids against non-Armenians and slaughter an estimated 120,000 civilians during the months that followed.

The Turkish invasion, aimed at Kars and Ardahan, achieved its initial objective by forcing the Russians to come out of and fight, but that was all.  In worsening weather conditions, compelled to use predetermined routes through passable valleys, short of ammunition and supplies (most of which were delivered by peasant women on foot), and distracted by rebel activities to their rear, Enver’s two armies inched forward.  The force attacking Ardahan became hopelessly bogged down and never reached its target, and although the southern wing was approaching Kars by Christmas it was routed by defenders around the eastern Anatolian town of Sarikamish and forced into retreat.  The Russians, still too weak to mount a serious counter-invasion, edged their way into forward positions across the frontier, and the Caucasian Front’s opening campaign petered out into stalemate.

Offensives and counter-offensives would crisscross the region until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and rebel activity inside Turkish Armenia would be answered by genocidal Ottoman countermeasures known to the world as the Armenian Massacres. After 1917, a power vacuum would leave the region in turmoil, as Armenian, Georgian and Azerbiajani nationalists sought to establish an independent republic of Transcaucasia, only to descend into border disputes of their own.  Fighting continued to plague the front as post-War Turkish and Soviet regimes continued to press their claims, and finally came to a stop in 1920, when they partitioned the region between them.

So, millions died and a geopolitical hotspot was devastated, violently reshuffled in ways that still trouble us today.  The Caucasian Front may be forgotten by most westerners and ignored by their commemorative industries, but it mattered and made a real difference, not just to the peoples it scarred at the time but to the wider world we live in now.  Let’s keep an eye on it for the next few years.

5 NOVEMBER, 1914: Regional Redesign, Part 1

As mentioned in what I can’t help calling my last post, Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war a hundred years ago today.  During the four years of hard fighting that followed, this particular conflict was regarded as a ‘sideshow’ in Britain, seen by many as an unwarranted distraction from the war in Europe.  Popular British history has been treating it the same way ever since.

Big mistake.

British heritage and remembrance don’t completely ignore the Anglo-Turkish war, but they are only really interested in the Gallipoli campaign and Lawrence of Arabia.  Gallipoli was a bona fide military disaster, a classic example of lions being led by donkeys, a horror story for the troops that made much of the fighting in France look tame, and an exercise that did little or nothing to shorten the wider war.  For all its well-used dramatic potential, the campaign’s greatest importance lies elsewhere, in its enormous effects on national self-consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, whose men did much of the fighting, and in its galvanising effects on the career of Kemal Ataturk, the overwhelmingly dominant figure in modern Turkish history.

Meanwhile Lawrence provides an amazing story, and the Arab Revolt he helped lead played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, but the tale is usually referenced with little regard for context.  By context I mean the British Empire’s conquest, often slow and painful, of pretty much the entire Middle East.

On what we usually call the First World War’s Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, British imperial armies fought their way north from Egypt towards Turkey, and northeast from Basra, up the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates to Baghdad.  In the process and in the aftermath, they provoked and then controlled a comprehensive geopolitical redesign of the region to suit British and French strategic requirements, effectively creating the Middle East we know today.

You’d think, given how much trouble it’s been causing ever since, that this uncontroversial truth would be well known to all of us, but I keep surprising literate, generally well-informed people with the news.  On current form I can’t see the heritage re-run having much to say about it, so I will.

Fighting on the Palestinian Front didn’t get going until 1915, and I’ll get to it in detail then, but a British attack on Mesopotamia was primed and ready to go by the time war with Ottoman Turkey broke out.  With naval units already patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates), and five thousand troops from India waiting to go ashore, the operation was intended to be a limited affair.  Its sole stated aim was to protect vital oil supplies from Abadan, on the Persian bank, by seizing the Ottoman port of Basra on the opposite bank.

General Barrett, in command of the Indian Army force and under direct orders from the British Indian government, had been instructed to take Basra as a form of ‘forward defence’, in other words as a preventive strike against a likely base for future Turkish aggression.  This concept, arguably mirrored in US foreign policy since 1945, turned out to be a recipe for deeper entanglement, while London’s willingness to leave the theatre under Indian government control for eighteen months, using only limited Indian Army resources, turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Basra was taken without much trouble on 23 November, and forward defence prompted an advance upriver to take Qurna, at the junction of the two rivers, in early December.  These easy victories, along with the defeat of a counterattack by Ottoman regulars and Arab tribesmen the following April, blew forward defence out of the water as far as new commander General Nixon and the Raj government were concerned.  By mid-July Nixon had pushed on another hundred or so kilometres up both rivers to take a couple of lightly-defended Turkish bases, at which point he decided that Baghdad, 400 kilometres further on, was a feasible target.  Assured by Nixon that his force was equipped for the job, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge backed the idea, and though the London government wouldn’t provide Nixon with non-Indian resources, it closed its eyes and let the offensive go ahead in early September 1915.

Nixon’s force, led in the field by General Townshend, was anything but equipped for the job.  It lacked sufficient artillery, modern weapons, medicines and modern transport, while the absence of railways or usable roads in the hinterland left it completely dependent on supplies sent by boat from Basra, a port far too small and primitive for the amount of traffic required.  Hampered by a chronic shortage of boats and by failure to reform a chaotic logistic system, repeatedly ordered forward by a blindly optimistic Nixon (who spent most of his time in Basra), advancing Indian Army troops faced regular Turkish forces, the guerilla warfare of local ‘Marsh Arabs’, searing heat, floods, disease and mirage as their supply lines lengthened.  Ghastly failure beckoned.

Townshend’s force met no serious resistance until late November, but by then it was desperately short of everything.  Arms, ammunition, mules, engineering equipment and medicines were all running out, and manpower was dwindling in a warzone where casualties could only be treated by sending them back to Basra in a boat, so that most wounds were a death sentence.  When Turkish forces made a determined stand at Ctesiphon, just forty kilometres from Baghdad, Townshend could only retreat to the fortress of Kut, where survivors were soon surrounded and besieged by four divisions of Turkish regulars.

The siege of Kut, which ended with Townshend’s surrender the following April, was a resounding propaganda success for the Ottoman Empire that forced London to get properly involved in the Mesopotamian campaign.  By the end of the summer break in operations (nobody fought in temperatures above fifty Celsius) British Army officers were in charge of some 150,000 men in the theatre, modern equipment was arriving , Basra was being rebuilt and sweeping reforms were transforming the supply system.  The opening phase of the war in what is now Iraq had ended.  The British were no longer blundering into conquest as a form of forward defence gone mad.  They had a plan.  It was a big, ambitious plan, and it’s a story for another day.

29 OCTOBER, 1914: Self-basting Turkey

Remember the Goeben and the Breslau? Chased across the Mediterranean by the British right at the start of the War, the two German warships made it to Constantinople and were transferred to the then neutral Ottoman Navy, crews and all, as the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Medilli. The incident had been a clear indication that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were winning the contest to bring the Ottoman Empire into the War as an ally. That contest eventually ended a hundred years ago today, when the German vessels and various Ottoman naval units attacked Russian Black Sea naval bases, committing the Empire to four years of war that would end in its ruin.

The attacks weren’t preceded by a declaration of war, but something like them wasn’t entirely unexpected. Germany had long been the most important European influence, economically and militarily, in Constantinople, and only some fairly blinkered optimism on the part of British and French diplomats had enabled the Ottoman regime to maintain an appearance of undecided neutrality during the first months of the War.

This isn’t the place to delve into the conspiracies and complexities of a crumbling Ottoman Empire (almost always referred to as Turkey by contemporary Europeans), but a powerful, militarist faction within a divided government had been pushing for war in alliance with Berlin, partly because it expected Germany to win the war but primarily with a view to reversing Russian expansion towards the Mediterranean via the Black Sea and the Balkans. Led by war minister Enver Pasha, interior minister Talaat Pasha and navy minister Djemal Pasha – and quietly supported by the elderly and politically impotent Sultan, Mohammed V – the war party had signed a secret defensive pact with Germany as early as July 1914. Enver, the faction’s driving force and a veritable paragon of reckless ambition, had since made an offer of alliance to Russia, but when it was ignored he pushed ahead with plans to engineer an incident in the Black Sea that would trigger war against Russia.

The captain of the ex-Goeben, now Admiral Souchon of the Ottoman Navy, had no intention of settling for a mere incident. Under instructions from Berlin and probably in collusion with Enver, but otherwise in secret, Souchon steamed his fearsome battlecruiser, the smaller but deadly ex-Breslau and a selection of relatively fast, light Ottoman gunboats all the way across the Black Sea to launch simultaneous surprise raids on Russian bases at Sevastopol, Theodosia, Novorossisk and Odessa.

All this geography calls for a map of the Ottoman Empire, borrowed as ever and removable on request, and the map calls for a bit of additional information. Theodosia (known by far too many other names to list) sits high on the eastern Black Sea coast of Crimea, while Novorossisk (ditto) is on the Russian Caucasian coast, east of Ekaterinodar (ditto).


The attacks began before dawn on 29 October. The element of surprise was lost when torpedo boats struck Odessa before units were in position elsewhere, and although the raids sank a few small ships, bombarded ports and laid minefields they achieved nothing of strategic importance, leaving the Russian Black Sea fleet’s big warships untouched. They did achieve their political purpose, reducing opponents of war in Constantinople to outraged impotence when war against Russia and France was confirmed two days later.

The British, their diplomats apparently shocked by this ‘sudden’ turn of events, waited until 5 November before declaring war, but political reluctance masked a degree of military readiness. Well aware of oil’s importance to the war effort, the British had deployed Royal Navy warships on the approaches to Basra by late September and an Indian Army expeditionary force had put to sea in mid-October. Though the Ottoman Empire would indeed spend the next three years fighting Russia in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Enver Pasha’s optimistic vision of war was already a mirage, and the bulk of Ottoman resources would be committed to fighting a long, losing war against the British in the Middle East.

So that was the Sick Man of Europe, as the Ottoman Empire was also known, leaping for oblivion with what little strength he could muster, and in the process throwing the Middle East open to redesign in its modern form. There’s a lot more to be said about the Ottoman experience of world war during the next few years, and about the Islamic experience, but for the moment I’ll sign off with another, slightly fainter echo connecting then and now.

The Empire was founded on the Islamic faith, and the Sultan’s declaration of war came with a jihad attached, summoning the world of Islam to all-out war against the empires of Russia, France and Britain. For all that it created some fear in Britain of revolt among the large Moslem population in northern India, the jihad turned out to be a non-event, serving mainly to illustrate the limits of the Sultanate’s influence among competing branches of Islam.  And if that sounds like a familiar story, it won’t be last time the Ottoman Empire’s Great War throws up striking and direct links with today’s geopolitics.