The Turk in WWI



The Turks established a reputation for themselves as fierce fighters in defensive battles. Their lines around Gaza were strengthened in 1916 and 1917.


Ottoman officers who successfully defended Gaza during the first battle. First Battle of Gaza

First Gaza

Turkey, despite its backwardness, had twice defeated Britain in battle, and its military contribution to the war as a whole was greater than that of the United States.

Tensions were multiplying in Germany’s relations with the Ottoman Empire during 1916. Turkey’s value to Germany lay in the threat it could pose to Britain in the Middle East and in its ability to divert Russian troops from the European front to the Caucasus. In achieving the second of these objectives, the Turks lost eastern Anatolia. The Russians captured Erzurum by 15 February 1916 and reached Trabzon on the Black Sea coast on 18 April. With the British defeated at Gallipoli and Kut, the Turks were able to concentrate twenty-six of their fifty-two divisions on the Caucasus front by the summer of 1916. But as combat casualties (which peaked in the first two years of the war) fell, losses through desertion and disease rose. In September 1916, Enver Pasha restructured the army in the light of its real strength rather than its paper establishment: ‘in general the old battalions became companies, the regiments battalions, the divisions regiments, the corps divisions’.27 Despite this, Enver was able to be supportive when he visited the newly appointed Hindenburg: ‘The decision of the war as a whole lies in Europe,’ he declared on 11 September 1916, ‘and I make all my forces available for the battle there.’

He did not mean quite what he said. Four Turkish divisions were already deployed in Romania, a campaign whose success could clearly jeopardise the Russian position in the Caucasus, but when Ludendorff asked him for three more he prevaricated. The success of the Russians in pulling Turkish divisions to the north of the Ottoman Empire had reopened the British route to Baghdad. The city fell on 11 March 1917. This was no side-show for the Germans: Ludendorff had begun prodding Enver about measures for Baghdad’s defence long before the Ottoman minister of war woke up to the threat. They immediately agreed to release a German commander for the theatre, none other than the former chief of the general staff, Falkenhayn, as well as 18,000 German and Austrian troops. Falkenhayn planned an offensive campaign, codenamed ‘Yilderim’ (lightning), to recapture Baghdad. But when he arrived in the Middle East in May, it became clear that the British in Egypt were pushing into the Sinai desert, and might well advance into Palestine in the autumn. In that event the Turks, conscious of the strengths and weaknesses of their own army, and of the limits imposed by logistical considerations, favoured fighting a defensive battle on the line between Gaza and Beersheba. Falkenhayn feared that the Central Powers’ forces would therefore be divided over two fronts and that a British breakthrough into Palestine would threaten his lines of communication in Iraq. He demanded that all the forces in the two theatres be combined under his command, creating what was essentially a German headquarters which not only marginalised the Turks but also was too far to the rear, in Aleppo. He proposed to strike first against the British in Sinai before turning back to Mesopotamia. His high-handed manner affronted the Turks, and it also antagonised Germans, who had been in the region much longer than he. Falkenhayn saw them as ’Turkified‘; they saw him as ’commanding the Turkish army in the desert as one would lead a German army in civilised Europe‘.

Falkenhayn was not the only new commander in the Middle East with ideas derived from the war in Europe. Edmund Allenby, fresh from leading the British 3rd Army in the battle of Arras and the capture of Vimy Ridge, arrived to take over the British command in Egypt in June 1917. A cavalryman, ‘he looks the sort of man whose hopes rapidly crystalise into a determination to carry all before it’. In London Robertson supported the idea of an attack on the Gaza-Beersheba line, realising that it would take pressure off Baghdad.

Here was no purblind westerner: Mesopotamia, Robertson declared on 1 August 1917, was not a ‘side-show because as long as we keep up a good show there India and Persia will be more or less all right’. Climatic considerations meant that the Palestine front would open up as that in France and Flanders closed down. When the battle of Gaza began on 27 October, the British mounted the war’s heaviest artillery attack outside Europe, with as many heavy guns per yard of front as in the battle of the Somme. Furthermore, aerial supremacy meant that their fire was better directed and coordinated.

But while the guns and infantry pinned the Turks frontally, inland and to the east ‘there grew a muttering that spread for miles – the pounding of ten thousand hooves’. This was a campaign in which cavalry still had a role to play: ‘though most of us laughed when the first shells screamed towards us, other men smoked as we broke into a thundering canter holding back in the saddles to prevent the horses from breaking into a mad gallop’. Beersheba, with its water supply, was captured on 31 October. ‘Men are remarking’, noted one exultant trooper of the Australian Light Horse, ‘how the Turk fights till the very last charge, until the pounding hooves are upon him, then he drops his rifle and runs screaming; while the Austrian artillerymen and German machine-gun teams often fight with their guns until they are bayoneted.’ Unable to hold the line, Falkenhayn pulled back to the hills north of Jerusalem, resting his right flank on Jaffa. In February 1918 he was recalled to Germany, but not before he had intervened to prevent the resettlement of the Jews; they were reckoned to be spying, but neither the Germans nor Talât, elevated to become Ottoman Grand Vizier in February 1917, wanted a repeat of the Armenian massacres.

Allenby’s forces entered Jerusalem on 9 December, and prepared for the expected Turkish counterattack. On his right flank, across the River Jordan, he had the support of Arabs under the command of Feisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca. The British were as ready as the Germans to use revolution as an instrument of war. The Government of India had pinned many of their initial hopes for the campaign in Mesopotamia on the possibility of Arab support. In reality, many Arabs remained loyal to the Turks, while others observed a form of neutrality, eyeing each other and ready to loot either army; as the British advanced up the Tigris in 1915-16, the rule was ‘upstream of us hostile, downstream friendly’. But to the west, in September 1914, before war with Turkey had even begun, Kitchener initiated contacts with Sherif Hussein. Initially Britain offered the Caliphate, which it understood in spiritual rather than temporal terms, but in October 1915 the high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, also promised Arab independence. The India Office was appalled, because it hoped to annex Iraq for itself. Moreover, although the high commissioner had entered a caveat in relation to French interests in the region, his proposal was at odds with a deal struck in December 1915 between Mark Sykes and François Picot of France. Picot, who represented a small group determined to secure ‘greater Syria’ for France, acted on his own initiative. Sykes responded by setting British desiderata higher in order to off-set French influence in the region. As a result he neglected Arab nationalism. The two divided all Arabia into two spheres of influence, albeit one in which suzerainty would be indirect rather than direct. Sykes was concerned with the post-war settlement; McMahon’s focus was on getting the Arabs into the war. Hussein remained undecided until June 1916. When he did at last declare his hand for revolt, he gave the Turks a scapegoat for defeat not unlike the subject nationalities exploited by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

The Foreign Office set up an Arab Bureau, staffed by such luminaries as the self-publicising T. E. Lawrence and the redoubtable explorer Gertrude Bell, in Cairo to liaise with Hussein and his sons. Its self-appointed role was to undo the Sykes-Picot agreement and to wrong-foot the India Office by making ‘an efficient Arab empire’. In 1918, Lawrence was to claim that, ‘The phrase “Arab Movement” was invented in Cairo as a common denomination for all the vague discontent against Turkey’. The strength of the Arab forces in the field oscillated wildly, and the difficulty in military terms was holding the tribesmen together in any coherent body, especially as the Palestine campaign moved north away from their home territories. Since 1915 Syria had been ravaged by famine. Its coastal areas were victims of the allied blockade, and the problems were exacerbated by poor Ottoman administration, bad harvests and speculation. By 1918 the death toll may have reached half a million, and ‘food was the commodity of political allegiance’. As the Australian Light Horse advanced in the wake of the shattered Turkish army, ‘swarms of Arabs, men, women and children, staggering under loads of loot’ pillaged its abandoned baggage. ’Numbers of these Arab cut-throats carried sacks of little flat loaves of brown Turkish bread, looted from the still warm ovens.‘ Lawrence’s success as a guerrilla leader lay in his ability to harness plunder for the purposes of the war.

The allies’ advance was amplified by the dissolution of the apparatus of the Ottoman state, at least in the southern half of the empire. Paper currency, if negotiable at all, was traded at eight to ten times its face value in Syria and Mesopotamia. For most Arabs, only gold was acceptable, and as the British disbursed it so they secured support. Even in Constantinople the cash economy collapsed. The price of bread rose fifty-fold between 1914 and 1918, and by February 1918 the cost of living had risen 1,970 per cent since the war began. An inadequate internal transport system had left Constantinople dependent on imported food even in peacetime. In war the blockade increased the city’s reliance on the hinterland, but its production was falling. Anatolia had been sucked dry of its principal resource, men. Total Turkish deaths in the war may have risen as high as 2.5 million, more than three times those of Britain, and in some villages only 10-20 per cent of those of military age returned. Agricultural production depended in large part on the enormous number of deserters, perhaps as many as half a million, who roamed the interior. Turkey was bitterly disappointed to be excluded by its allies from the proceeds of Romania’s surrender in May 1918.

But if the treaty of Bucharest was a source of frustration for the Turks, that of Brest-Litovsk was an opportunity. The Caucasian front had been quiet since the overthrow of the Tsar, and a local armistice was brokered at Erzincan on 18 December 1917. In the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, Richard Kühlmann was keen to make the German army’s lust for eastern conquests look like national self-determination, principally to appease the centre-left bloc in the Reichstag. Russia’s evacuation of eastern Anatolia and Turkey’s claim to its pre-1878 frontiers could be rendered compatible with such notions. But in the Baltic states and Poland independence was a fig-leaf for German domination. On 9 February Trotsky walked out of the negotiations, declaring ‘no peace, no war’, rather than accept terms so humiliating. Three days later, the armies of the Central Powers crossed the armistice line. ‘It is the most comical war I have ever known’, the German chief of staff in the east, Major-General Max Hoffmann, wrote in his diary. ‘We put a handful of infantrymen with machine guns and one gun on a train and push them off to the next station; they take it, make prisoners of the Bolsheviks, pick up a few more troops, and go on.’ To the south, the Ottoman army re-entered Trabzon on 17 February 1918 and Erzurum on 12 March. On 3 March, when the Russians signed the treaty, they accepted that Kars, Ardahan and Batum would be restored to Turkey, and acknowledged the independence of Transcaucasia. By now, however, the Turks said they were advancing not to check Bolshevism but to protect Muslims under attack from Armenians. In oil-rich Baku Muslims clashed with Bolsheviks and Christians. While Turkish troops abandoned the southern half of the Ottoman Empire, falling back on Damascus and Mosul, in the northern half the pan-Turk ambitions that had led Enver to Sarikamish over three years before revived. ‘You see that destiny draws Turkey from the West to the East’, Vehib, the army commander in the Caucasus, explained to the Armenians. ‘We left the Balkans, we are also leaving Africa, but we must extend toward the East. Our blood, our religion, our language is there. And this has an irresistible magnetism. Our brothers are in Baku, Daghestan, Turkestan, and Azerbaijan.’