There has been remarkably little comment in Ireland and England about the war that began 100 years ago yesterday. That is the war on the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps no war has had such repercussions for things today as this war. And yet there are no discussions about how it came about, what it was for or whether it was worth it – as there was about the war on Germany that began 3 months before it.
The war on the Ottoman Empire was one of the major things that made the Great War into a World War. It marked out the future for not only Turkey but the regions that were at the time administered by the Ottoman Empire – Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon etc. They were being liberated, it was said. But liberated for what?
For England the war on Ottoman Turkey came about from a great change of policy. Britain acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War. During this period Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and the warm water port that this would have given them. It was for this reason that England fought the Crimean War. Later on in the century the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli negotiated the Treaty of Berlin to help preserve the Ottoman Empire against another attempted Russian expansionism in the region.
However, whilst Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman Empire and was prepared to use force to prevent the Russians having Constantinople its relations with the Sultan were very disadvantageous to the Turks. England, with the French, helped preserve the Ottoman Empire in a weak, dependent state through devices like the Capitulations so that outlying Ottoman territories could be absorbed into the British Empire in a gradual process (for example, Egypt in 1882) when a favourable opportunity arose.
At the same time, despite some writers in England calling for a liquidisation of the Ottoman territories and their sharing between the Imperialist powers, it remained British policy to preserve the Ottoman Empire so that it would not fall into the wrong hands and pose a threat to the British Empire in India. In some respects the British acquisition of the Suez Canal altered the commitment to the Ottoman State but it was not the main reason for the great policy change in Britain.
What completely changed British relations with Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the 19th century. Britain had always practiced a Balance of Power policy with regard to Europe. For centuries Britain had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the weaker powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Then, whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. It had the great advantage of being an island and therefore it could meddle with Europe and then retire from the continental battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained. Its chief weapon of war, its senior service, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for it. When the continent of Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established elsewhere by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength.
During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on Turkey inevitable.
The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But what was it that made this alliance so important to Britain that she overturned her traditional foreign policy of preventing Russia from having Constantinople?
Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. Therefore it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in the English press as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.
The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople. That fact should always be borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey, one way or another.
There were other issues of concern for Britain in relation to Turkey that encouraged an aggressive attitude. Germany had, itself, begun to show interest in the Ottoman Empire. In 1898 the Kaiser made a celebrated visit to Istanbul to show Germany’s good faith to Turkey and to establish relations. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not a parasitic relationship like the other imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the sick man, and dash their dreams of conquest.
The centrepiece of German involvement in the Ottoman Empire was the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. This was a major cause of the war because Britain looked at it and saw the economic and strategic advantages it would provide to continental Europe and Asia. As I have said, at this time the Royal Navy controlled the global market by ruling the sea. It was feared that if the Berlin to Baghdad Railway was built trade would increasingly go across land and be beyond the guns of the Royal Navy. It was also feared that the Railway would transport goods at a lower cost, giving the Germans a commercial advantage over Britain in the East. And there might even be the development of a great customs union – a kind of early European Community, with Germany at its head – that would prosper outside of the global market that Britain had established for its own benefit and which the Royal Navy policed.
One of the first things Britain determined to do about this railway was to stop it achieving a port at the Persian Gulf. It was the British policy to prevent any power establishing a trade route at this point because England was obsessed with the security of the ‘jewel in its crown,’ India. For this reason, a local tribal leader was encouraged to detach his territory from the Ottoman Empire and establish his own principality called Kuwait, guaranteed by Britain, so that the Baghdad Railway could be prevented from having a terminus and a means of shipping goods further on.
When the Germans saw how important this issue was to Britain they decided to make concessions and offered Britain a stake in the Railway. However, these proved to be too late because anti-German feeling had been built up in England and the process of strategic reorientation and organizing and manoeuvring for the war had already begun. When the issue was debated in the Westminster Parliament there was a great outcry and the proposal was dropped.
Historians, even those that are sympathetic to Turkey, do not attribute enough responsibility for the war on the British State and tend toward putting some blame on the Ottoman Government, and particularly Enver. They tend to ignore the wider context of the war and get tied up in the diplomatic detail, which can be very confusing – and intentionally so. The British State is expert at diplomacy, at covering its tracks and producing a narrative that, if it does not exonerate, sufficiently confuses people into tacit acceptance of the British position.
It must be remembered that the British State puts get resources into producing its case to the world and it is very difficult for alternative, independent views of matters to gain currency against this version.
So why did Turkey end up in the Great War? British accounts present a number of arguments. The first one is that the Germans lured the Turks to their doom by political trickery. A second argument centres on Enver and claims that he worked with the Germans so that Ottoman power could be expanded after a successful war. In other words, like the Kaiser, Britain accused him of desiring conquest and world-domination.
The Great War on the Ottoman Empire is usually treated as an incident in the war against Germany, with the Ottomans taken as merely a military ally of the Kaiser. But the activity and behaviour of the Turkish Government in the years preceding the Great War suggest that the Ottoman Government did everything possible to establish good relations with England and France, and the alliance with Germany was actually a defensive act of the last resort, when the Ottoman Government was left with little other option.
The Young Turks, who had overthrown the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, in 1908, were admirers of Britain and France. Many of them had been educated in London and Paris and had got their political ideas from there. They mostly wished to disentangle Ottoman Turkey from the German connection and to establish closer ties with Britain and France – and even the Russians to secure the future of the Ottoman state.
According to Lord Kinross, between November 1908 and June 1914, the Young Turk Government made at least six attempts to establish defensive alliances with Britain, Russia and France – but all were rejected. Some humiliating economic concessions were granted to Britain along with recognition of the British control in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait in an attempt at buying off the aggressors. England was granted a monopoly on navigation of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia. And it was agreed that the Berlin/Baghdad Railway should not terminate at Basra and also have two British directors on its board.
However, the logic and closeness of the Entente that had been established to encircle and wage war on Germany at the appropriate moment, doomed all these Turkish initiatives and concessions to ultimate failure.
As part of this conciliating process, and as a token of goodwill, the Young Turks entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. If it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.
The Turkish Government offered England and France extraordinary positions of influence in the Ottoman State – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of their capital – the reorganisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Gamble and Admiral Limpus and a English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkey’s centre of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.
It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their long term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. It countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and controlling influence over the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, and how it should be attacked, with all the inside information they had obtained.
So the last thing on the minds of the Turks was to wage war on Britain – for to have had this intention and to have entrusted England with such expert knowledge of the defences of the Turkish State would have been like the proverbial Turkey voting for Christmas.
The only aspect of Ottoman reorganisation entrusted by the Young Turks to the Germans was the army. I’m sure the Turkish Government saw this as a kind of insurance against being betrayed by the English and French and also as a kind of balancing act between the Powers to ensure that everyone was kept happy.
And so the Turkish alliance with Germany should be seen as an alliance of last resort forced on the Turks by the gathering of hostile aggressors around the Ottoman territories who refused to be bought off with either goodwill or bribes. This fact determined that Ottoman Turkey, having been refused security from the Entente, could only remain neutral in the war at great risk to itself.
In July 1914 the main intention of the Ottoman State was to survive the War. It knew that Britain had its eyes on grabbing the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire and its ally Tsarist Russia wanted Constantinople. To ensure its own survival Turkey initially remained neutral in the war and played for time. The Ottomans initially resisted German attempts to get them into the war with a number of preconditions for an activation of the alliance, when it became important for the Kaiser to gain allies.
It is sometimes argued by British historians that England desired Turkey to remain neutral in the war. However, there are a number of reasons to doubt this argument. Firstly, whilst Turkey had little to gain in entering the war it was necessary from Britain and Russia’s position that the Ottoman Empire should be engaged in the conflict. How else was Constantinople to be got for the Russians? Secondly, Britain began to engage in some highly provocative behaviour towards Istanbul. A major example of this was the seizure by Winston Churchill of two Turkish battleships being built by the Royal Navy that were being paid for by popular subscription. These was seized illegally and confiscated without compensation by the British – effectively signalling that the naval alliance with Turkey was over.
It is difficult not to conclude that the manner of their seizure was designed to give the maximum provocation to the Turks and to drive the Ottoman government toward Germany. It might be argued that England was only looking after its own security in doing this. However, Lloyd George later publicly stated that the Ottoman entry into the war had added at least two years to its duration. Britain, if it was really serious about keeping Istanbul out of the war, could easily have sacrificed two minor ships in this effort. Two extra years of war, which resulted in the bankruptcy of the British Treasury and the loss of hundreds of thousands, was surely worth two ships?
It was not the British intention to keep the Ottomans out of the war. Its aim was to make war on Turkey at an opportune time and blame the Ottoman Government for the breakdown in relations – while at the same time denying it all for the historic and diplomatic record.
Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who had been making the arrangement to hand over Constantinople to the Russians, set down British intentions toward Turkey in early October in an internal memo at the Foreign Office: “To delay the outbreak of war as long as we could, to gain as much time as we could, and to make it clear, when war came, that we had done everything to avoid war and that Turkey had forced it.” (A.L. Macfie, The Straits Question In The First World War, Middle Eastern Studies, July 1983, p.49)
The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews faced with the prospect of destruction if they re-entered the Aegean handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain.
Churchill laid a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This, in itself, was an act of war against the Ottomans. Then he organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to “Copenhagen” the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before a declaration of war. And on the last day of October Churchill gave the order to “commence hostilities with Turkey” without informing the Cabinet or formally declaring war. The Royal Navy began bombarding the Dardanelles on 3rd November even before war was declared on Turkey by England.
The occasion for the British declaration of war was an obscure incident in the Black Sea where the two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Constantinople to complete the blockade which the British had instituted at the other end of the Straits. The ships then engaged Russian guns at the port of Odessa. The Russian operation was designed to prevent the Turks from being able to reinforce their Eastern provinces via the Black Sea – something that was indispensable to Ottoman forces due to the lack of a road network toward Eastern Anatolia.
The Black Sea incident that provided the cause for war is an unusually obscure event and I could not find a detailed account of it published in Britain. This is despite the fact that many detailed accounts exist about the events leading to the war on Germany.
Mustafa Aksakal, in his recent book The Ottoman Road to War attempts to piece together the events that led up to the incident using the Ottoman, and other archives. He argues that Enver’s account of the incident was false and that the Russians were deliberately attacked by the German Admiral Souchon in order to bring on the war – even though Enver never actually gave the order. He suggests that Enver and other members of the cabinet realised that they could not hold back from the war any longer with German patience running out and vital financial assistance needed for the defence of the Ottoman territories – which was inevitably going to be attacked by the Entente anyway. It was therefore a question of fighting with German assistance or being left in the lurch to resist the Entente alone, either during or after the war on Germany.
His argument is that Enver and his comrades, who had decided that war was inevitable and who saw the importance of the German alliance for the long-term security of the Ottoman Empire against the Entente predators, required an incident for which the Russians would be blamed to win over the rest of the cabinet, CUP and Turkish people for the war effort – for which most were disinclined.
This account is plausible. But it does not condemn Enver and his associates as instigators of war unless it is removed from the overall context of the situation. If some had decided within the Ottoman cabinet to bring about what they saw as the inevitable conflict with Russia, they did so as a consequence of the position they found themselves in – with little room for manoeuvre.
An account of the war must take in much more than the decision-making process within the Ottoman elite. It must take into account the historical relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the West and the great change in British policy that was made between 1904 and 1907 that led to the reorientation against Germany. It must also take into account the perception of the Ottoman/German relationship that emerged in England in relation to this reorientation and which manifested itself so markedly in the hostility directed toward the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.
It is only within this historical and geopolitical context that the Ottoman road to war can become understandable beyond the details and manoeuvrings of diplomacy.
This is because the Ottoman decision to go to war took place within a context imposed upon the government at Istanbul that gave them very little room to manoeuvre – and intentionally so. They were “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” in the old British saying. And, of course, if they had somehow managed to have avoided entering the war we will never know what would have happened – although, an understanding of the war intentions of the Entente would give us a good indication that things would have turned out similarly.
In late 1914 the Ottomans were confronted with a number of massive extraneous events including a British understanding with Russia that left the field clear for the annexation of Istanbul and the division of the desirable parts of the Ottoman Empire between the Western Imperialist powers, a European war that could provide for a radical restructuring of Europe and its Asian hinterland, and the probable destruction of the Ottoman’s only substantial ally.
Within this vast, over-bearing context the Ottoman leadership struggled to find a way out of its predicament and various points of view emerged at Istanbul. One point of view won out – not because of the deviousness of its proponents or their political trickery, nor indeed because it was the majority view. But because it was the only course of action that was left to the Ottoman State as events took their course. All other possibilities were carefully closed off to Istanbul, despite all the wishful thinking and Ottoman diplomatic efforts to avoid it.
If a prisoner is killed in an attempt to escape the prison should we condemn him for having attempted to escape?
Istanbul waited another week to declare war on Britain when they found a British army coming up from Kuwait and heading for Baghdad. Kuwait had supposedly been an independent principality in 1914 but it found itself with a sizeable British Indian army camped inside it and ready to expand the Empire into Mesopotamia. And by this time the Russians had already made an incursion into Ottoman land in the east.
Britain’s Great War on Ottoman Turkey that was to remake the Middle East was on… And it seems to be still going.