Ireland, the Great War and Gallipoli

The present writer was in attendance at a conference given at Collins Barracks, Dublin, on Saturday 13th November 2010 entitled ‘Ireland and World War One.’ With the centenary of the Gallipoli disaster fast approaching it is worth remembering that event for the insights it brought to light about this event. The main speakers were Altay Cengizer, historian and Ambassador to Ireland from the Republic of Turkey and Philip Orr, a very knowledgeable schoolmaster from Co. Down who wrote the book, Field of Bones, about the Irish at Gallipoli.

The Turkish Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Altay Cengizer, gave a talk at the conference entitled ‘Diplomacy of the Choiceless: Turkey’s entry into the First World War’ which was about how the Ottoman Government found itself with little alternative but to fight in the Great War when it had initially attempted to stay out of it.

The Ambassador, who has an MA in International History from the London School of Economics and is a keen historian, started by saying that Turkey’s entry into the war should be the subject of “revisionist thinking” giving credit to the idea that the Ottoman Empire was not simply waiting for the opportunity to join the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. The Ambassador emphasized that the triumvirate at the head of the Ottoman State was not pro-German, as depicted in British propaganda, and the idea that statesman could be turned into mere puppets of a foreign power was ridiculous.

Turkey had no choice in getting involved in the war, stated the Ambassador, because it knew it was going to be partitioned by the Entente Powers. Turkey had wanted to become allied with the Entente powers, but the Ottoman Government at the time was rebuffed, at least on four occasions, because of the desire, mainly of Britain, to keep Russia on its side, he said. When the Liberal Imperialist government of Asquith and Grey was in place they continually turned down Turkish offers and did not come up with anything meaningful in relation to Turkish neutral status to keep the Ottomans out of war. All the Turks asked for from the Entente powers was a guarantee of the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. However, the Entente refused because they wished to dismember it instead and divide it amongst themselves.

He suggested that Constantinople was the great prize of the war for the Russians, who were not just fighting Germany for “a strip of land around Posen.”

The Ottomans had attempted to remain neutral in the war but neutrality became “out of the question” for the Ottoman government because of the “need for money, ammunition and allies” – in order to defend such a neutrality against hostile states determined to carve up the Ottoman State, said the Ambassador.

The Ambassador also pointed out that it was often forgotten that for Turkey the Great War lasted for more than a decade. It had begun in June 1911 with the Italian assault on Libya. It took in the Balkan wars and did not end until October 1922, or even February 1923.

Next, the Ambassador turned to the events that led to Turkey’s involvement in the war. He revealed that both the Russians and Greeks had asked Churchill to confiscate the two ships being prepared in Royal Navy dockyards for the Turkish Navy, in order to deplete the defensive capability of the Ottoman State. These had been paid for by popular subscription by ordinary Turks and had been part of the naval alliance which Britain operated with the Ottoman government. When Churchill seized these ships, (prior to even the start of the Great War on Germany, let alone the war on Turkey) the British added insult to injury by offering the Turks £1000 per week in ‘compensation’. This would have meant Britain not completing the ‘compensation’ for 20 years! And all the while the Turks would have been without the ships, leaving their capital defenceless, and vulnerable to Russian and Greek naval attacks in the Black Sea and Aegean.

The Ambassador also told the audience that the Black Sea incident which the Entente used as a pretext for war against the Ottoman Empire began when the Russians started laying mines at the approaches to the Dardanelles in the Black Sea. This would have had the effect of preventing the Ottoman navy supplying their army in the Eastern provinces due to the lack of roads and railways. It would have meant the end of the Ottoman Empire if this route was not kept open to supply the Eastern armies of the Ottoman State who faced accumulating Russian invasion forces in the Caucuses.

The Ambassador noted that the British Imperialists underestimated Turkey’s strengths because they had portrayed the Ottoman Empire for generations as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and ripe for the taking. However, the fighting ability of the Turkish people escaped their notice and they paid the price for their over-confidence.

At this point in the talk a presentation of rare photographs of the Gallipoli and Turkish fronts was presented by Dr. Nesime Ceyhan. One of the first photographs was an example of a Turkish propaganda poster. It was of the crude German type, lacking the sophistication of the masters of the art, in England.

The Ambassador explained that the Turks had no idea about propaganda and had to be taught by the Germans had to produce it. He said that to this day Turks were no good at the art of propaganda.

The next series of pictures were from the battle at Gallipoli. The Ambassador described a number of things that are not generally known in the West. The Turkish trenches, which were often cut by women, as one photograph showed, were bombarded by the British with up to 6000 shells per hour. The British also aimed their shelling at the minarets of local mosques – which had to be subsequently camouflaged by the Turks. The British intention in aiming at the minarets seems to have been to demoralize the local Moslem population.

To the present writer this was a very significant fact because of the use of propaganda in Ireland about the supposed German destruction of Reims Cathedral and other Catholic churches to get Irishmen in British uniform. This had been the staple diet of the Home Rule propagandists for the Imperial war writing in the Liberal Press.

Finally, the Ambassador pointed to the links between Republican Ireland and the Turkish Assembly at Ankara established by Atatürk. The Turkish democracy had been one of the first recipients of Ireland’s ‘address to the free nations of the world’ proclaiming its independence from Britain.

At the end of the Ambassador’s talk a couple of people from the audience pointed to the fact that the Irish who went to Gallipoli had no notion that they were going to fight the Turks until the last minute. They had been recruited on the basis of war propaganda against Germans and when Britain had taken on a new enemy in Turkey they found themselves on the way to Gallipoli, much to the surprise of many in Ireland.

Another speaker asked the Ambassador about how Gallipoli (or Canakkale) was commemorated in Turkey. The Ambassador pointed out that the Gallipoli front was only one of four or five fronts that the Turks had to defend against invasion. Some Turks even died fighting in Galicia in central Europe. This was not because the Ottomans had any territorial pretensions there but because the German/Austrian front was so important in relation to Istanbul. If this front capitulated to the Russians the Ottoman capital was in dire danger and the war would be lost.

In relation to this aspect the Ambassador pointed to the “loneliness of the Turks” during the Great War and offered the example of how the Turkish military attaché was astonished to hear the bells ringing in Vienna in celebration for the British capture of Jerusalem. He was dumbfounded at this and said to the Austrians: “Why are you celebrating the victory of your enemies?”

At the end of the question session there was a rather poignant moment when the Ambassador was audibly affected in describing the great loss that the Turkish people had suffered at Gallipoli. The majority of the young, first generation of highly educated Turkish youth, died in defending their homeland at Gallipoli and were lost forever to the country. This rather put into perspective for the audience the lesser extent of sacrifice suffered by Irish, Australian and New Zealanders in the invasion – the main commemorators of the battle.

The next talk was given by Mr. Philip Orr, the author of ‘Field of Bones,’ a fairly recent book about the battle of Gallipoli. Mr. Orr described himself as coming from an Ulster Unionist background. His talk was entitled ‘Gallipoli Ireland’s forgotten battle.’ He noted that there had been a “rediscovery of the story in the last 25 years” in the Irish Republic. However, he contrasted this new discovery with the attitude in the Unionist community in the north where the Somme had always been a marker for identity. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Orr did not elaborate on the reasons for this which might have been interesting.

He noted that the 10th Division, which was often called an Irish division, left for Gallipoli from this very building of Collins barracks (it being subsequently renamed when the British handed it over to the Free Staters).

He asked the question why Gallipoli? His answer included the reasons that the Gallipoli operation was to get around the “quagmire of the Western front.” It was also aimed to breach the Straits and resupply the Russians. He noted that Turkey was felt by Britain to be the “sick man of Europe” and an easy touch for her navy.

The main objective was to knock out the artillery on the side of the Straits in order that the Royal Navy could penetrate the Dardanelles and bombard Istanbul into surrender. An earlier naval attempt by Churchill to storm the Straits had been unsuccessful due to this artillery and the mines laid by the Turks and that led to the sinking of the Queen Elizabeth, the world’s greatest battleship.

Mr Orr noted that the 29th Division, which contained many Irish veterans of the British Army, old professional soldiers rather than recent volunteers, was brought in from Madras in India for the operation. He also noted that there was a large French contingent at Gallipoli but the French like the British tended to use their colonials in the operation. He revealed that it was sad that the French Senegalese Moslem troops who died were buried under crosses at Gallipoli. Furthermore, the British used many Moslems in their forces who became disconcerted when they heard the call for prayer coming from the enemy trenches. They did not realize and were not told that they were being used to destroy the great Islamic state in the region.

Mr. Orr argued that after about six months of the Gallipoli operation it was found that “the old quagmire of the Western front had reappeared at Gallipoli.” There was half a million casualties on both sides and about a third of these were deaths. An estimated 4000 Irishmen were killed during the battle.

He talked about the Hellas – the operation where a large ship, the River Clyde, was used as a Trojan horse by the British, adjacent to the site of Troy. The idea seemed to be to beach this ship and to unleash the troops hidden within it on the unsuspecting Turks. However, the Turks were wise to this Trojan horse, and felt (according to the Ambassador) that they were avenging the Trojans. 850 of the 1000 men contained within the ship became casualties as a result.

The Royal Dublin and Munster Fusiliers were so devastated by casualties at Hellas Bay that their remnants were subsequently formed into what was known as the ‘Dubsters.’

Mr. Orr also explained that the British recruitment in the North of Ireland was based on a “cunning plan to get both communities involved in fighting” for Britain, even though they were fighting for diametrically opposed objectives – Union and Home Rule.

He noted also that the men haven’t a clue where they were going or who they were fighting until they neared the beaches at Gallipoli. Some of the officers who were aware and had had classical educations about Troy and Achilles romanticized the mission and tended to fall into an imperial complacency about its prospects.

Mr. Orr also revealed that one of the most serious miscalculations of the British plan concerned the water supply to its troops. Soldiers were given one day water supply and after that were forced to use local wells. 70% of these wells had water that was not drinkable and which caused disease. Only the Turks knew which wells were drinkable so this became a major cause of death with dehydration accounting for many casualties. He also spoke of the “sniper madness” that developed amongst Imperial troops, an early form of post-traumatic stress that accounted for many subsequent suicides.

Mr. Orr also valuably pointed out that the 10th Division was afterwards sent to Macedonia against the Bulgarians (and to subvert Greek neutrality) after it’s evacuation from Gallipoli.

Finally, Mr. Orr tried to answer the question of why Gallipoli had been “placed in the shadows” in the Irish Republic. He noted that the battle was associated with “rejuvenation in Turkey and formed the founding myths of the Australian and New Zealand States.” His reasoning seemed to be that Gallipoli had no such use for Ireland where it was seen simply as a disaster. It is a pity that this aspect was not further explored.

Mr. Orr also argued that commemorating Gallipoli and the operations in the Middle East was a far more complicated business than the Western front commemorations that had been established. This was because the British Empire had attempted to capture the great cities of Islam, like Istanbul and Jerusalem. This had much more of a serious consequence in the world today and was therefore very problematic as a harmless commemoration. He argued that it was important that commemoration go beyond mere “celebrating of bravery” to deal with the important issues connected to imperialist conquest in the area.

This view was backed up by a questioner at the end who felt that remembrance commemoration should be merely a stage in the process of remembering and that the next stage should be to examine the wider implications of the British Empire’s activities in the region. Whilst commemorating the dead was fine commemorating the cause was another, more dangerous, thing entirely, he said.

On the whole, the present writer felt that this meeting was very worthwhile. It was obvious from a glance at the 200-strong audience, and the nature of some of the questions, that many were mainly there with an interest in remembrance. A sizable section of the audience seemed to have been on the recent Mary McAleese led ‘pilgrimage’ to Gallipoli.

However, the presence of the Turkish Ambassador and his insightful talk was a valuable intrusion into what might otherwise have been another remembrance event. It forced the audience to confront the fact that there was another view of the Great War, and that this event at Gallipoli was not merely a sad event for Ireland in terms of loss of life but also a disastrous event for the region that was subject to the British invasion and further military conquests afterwards.

It is also apparent from Mr. Orr’s talk that Ulster Unionists have a much more realistic view of the Great War than that being foisted on the population of the 26 Counties lately.

This article was originally published in the Irish Political Review of November 2010

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