Five years ago, in 2016, President of Ireland Mary McAleese visited Gallipoli as part of her remembrance escapade. I was approached to write an article marking this event because I had written a book a few years earlier on Britain’s Great War on Ottoman Turkey. It seemed a good opportunity to explain what Gallipoli was all about and why Irish people ended up fighting and dying there, at “Sud el Bar and Suvla side” as the song goes. So far, so good.
However, this proved to have been very naive. I was, of course, aware that I had to tread carefully with the article because the Irish Times (along with Trinity College, Dublin) was one of the residues of the British garrison in Ireland and would not take kindly to anything being said that might blacken the good name of Mother England. I also knew that the then President was a “peace and reconciliation” woman who, having called the Northern Unionists “fascists” in an unguarded moment, was keen to make amends and butter them up through notions of “shared sacrifice” for the Empire in the interests of placing them within a United Ireland. I found this a disreputable project – honouring the invasion of other countries and killing people far away, in order to dupe the Ulster Protestants into a United Ireland. For one thing I thought it a hopeless task since the Ulster Protestants are a substantial people with a resolute national will and they would not be taken in by such deception. And I also was of the firm belief that such a position was a betrayal of the leaders of 1916 and particularly Roger Casement, who staunchly supported the Ottoman Turks against the British Imperialists. It was, in essence, a subversion of the position of the independent Irish Republic by the incumbent President. This was confirmed to me by reading The Catholic Bulletin (1921-4) and its support for Mustafa Kemal/Ataturk in resisting the Treaty of Sevres and establishing the Turkish Republic.
But although I treaded carefully the article proved too much for The Irish Times. I later heard that Diplomatic representation was made to The Irish Times at the highest level. Facing this The Irish Times apologised, saying they had employed another, unrevealed, historian to mark the occasion of President McAleese’s visit to Gallipoli, and they would not bother with the article. Curiously, an article never appeared by this other historian. Perhaps it, and they, never existed at all! Who knows the secrets of The Irish Times?
Anyway, below is the article which The Irish Times never published in its original form. A forgotten aspect of Britain’s Great War that The Irish Times was evidently determined should remain forgotten. Below it is a report I made of a talk from around the same time by the serving Turkish Ambassador to Ireland, Altay Cengizer, and the Ulster historian, Phillip Orr, made at Collins Barracks Dublin, that illuminate the issue further:
President McAleese will this week deliver a speech at the site of a famous battle of a largely forgotten war – The Great War against Turkey waged between 1914 and 1924.
Ireland’s participation in the Gallipoli landings of 1915 is well known as an isolated event. What is less familiar is Ireland’s part in the Great War waged against Turkey. The Great War against Turkey was probably the most important thing that Ireland ever did in the world yet it is largely forgotten. That war helped make the Middle East what it is today and had the catastrophic effects on the Moslem world that persist to the present.
Of course, in 1914 Ireland was part of the British Empire and John Redmond had promised Irish help for Britain in its war against Germany. However, many of the Irishmen who had joined up expecting to fight the Germans instead found themselves being transported to Gallipoli to fight the Turk. It was suggested by nationalist politicians on the recruiting platforms that the war against Turkey was part of the war against Germany. But there was not the same enthusiasm for it and the Irish News of Belfast went as far as saying that it hoped Irish soldiers would not be sent to fight the Turk and instead be employed against the Germans.
The reasons for the involvement of the Turks in the Great War are clouded in the mists of war propaganda. It was suggested at the time that Turkey had an alliance with Germany but all the evidence suggests that the Turks did everything possible to stay out of the Great War and entered this alliance as a last resort. As Lord Kinross states in his book ‘The Ottoman Centuries’ the Young Turk Government, which was very well-disposed to England, made at least six attempts to establish defensive alliances with Britain, Russia and France, but found itself rebuffed.
The problem Turkey had was that Britain had made an alliance with Russia, which for years had had designs on Constantinople, as a warm-water port for its navy. That alliance had been necessary in order to fight Germany on two fronts. Britain had a comparatively small army and even with the Entente with France in place from 1904 Russia’s ‘steamroller’ was a necessity in defeating the Germans. Britain had spent many years trying to deny Constantinople to the Russians and had fought in the Crimea to do so. However, in 1907 an alliance was made with the Czar which was aimed at encircling the new potential threat, Germany. The price of this alliance was Constantinople, war with Turkey and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.
Britain also had designs on the Middle East itself. It had an interest in acquiring Palestine and Mesopotamia if the Ottoman Empire was going to collapse. So there were good reasons to involve Turkey in the War – in order to add its territories to the British Empire.
The War with Turkey was declared on 5 November 1914. The occasion for the declaration of war was an incident in the Black Sea where two formerly German ships had fired on Russian ports. These ships had been sailed to Constantinople by their German crews after Winston Churchill had impounded two battleships which English dockyards were building for the Turkish Navy. The German ships had been shadowed by the British fleet and forced into neutral Constantinople where they were handed over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of two battleships built for them in Britain, and paid for, which Churchill refused to deliver in July 1914 when he thought he might have a use for them himself. But, while accepting these ships, Turkey remained neutral in the War. Nevertheless, it was blockaded by Britain. Then, when an obscure incident in the Black Sea in November led to a Russian declaration of war on Turkey, Britain too declared war and launched an immediate invasion of Ottoman territory.
Before the war the Young Turk government had invited the Royal Navy to take charge of the Turkish Navy and the defences of the Dardanelles Straits. It would have been madness for the Turks to have wanted war against Britain with such inside knowledge being possessed by the British Admiralty. But the incident in the Black Sea provided the occasion for a declaration of war on the Turks and the putting into operation of the Allies ambitions in the area.
In many senses Ireland’s participation in the invasion at Gallipoli was the price for Home Rule. Although John Redmond was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Germany he could not, even if he had so wished, have objected to Irish participation in a war against the Turks. To have done so would have seriously disabled him in his competition of loyalty with the Ulster Unionists in relation to the British state. The Redmondites had to accept the enemy that the British Empire chose to take on. And they had to participate in the campaign of imperial expansion even if the original intention was to help ‘little Belgium.’
However, the failure of the Gallipoli expedition seriously damaged the prospects of Home Rule. For one thing, the successful Turkish resistance lengthened the war, which the Irish Home Rulers banked on being over before the close of 1915. The calculation, which many of them made, was that a British victory in 1915 under the auspices of a victorious Liberal government, and with large Irish participation in the British Army, would have greatly enhanced the Home Rule position after the war – particularly in relation to the Unionists.
The defeat at Gallipoli instead led to the ending of the Liberal Government and its replacement with a Coalition including anti-Home Rule Unionist ministers, one of whom was Sir Edward Carson.
This sequence of events came from the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, who had been opposed to Gallipoli from the start. Fisher’s resignation was the trigger for a Unionist move in May 1915 in which Liberal Ministers (including Churchill) were replaced by anti-Home Rule Tories in the Government. The Liberal Prime Minister Asquith was damaged and his days were then numbered. The Home Rule Bill that had been placed on the Statute Book in August 1914, and which Redmond had treated as an Act, was rendered still-born. From then a chain of events, beginning at Gallipoli, and including the stimulus of Easter 1916, put paid to Redmondism, the Irish Parliamentary Party and Home Rule Ireland.
After the defeat at Gallipoli Irish soldiers helped in the Salonika expedition which was primarily aimed at ending Greek neutrality. This had the effect of setting off the conflict between Greece and Turkey which was to prove so disastrous for the Greek population of Anatolia. Irish soldiers of the British Army also played a part in adding Iraq to the British Empire and putting into operation the Balfour Declaration in Palestine.
Ireland remained at war with Turkey until 1924 when the Irish Free State ratified the Treaty of Lausanne and finally made peace with the Turks, along with the rest of the British Empire.
As the Dail debate shows, it came as something of a surprise to the Free State Government that Ireland was still at war with Turkey in 1924. Cumann nGaedheal did not realize, when they had signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, that they had inherited Redmond’s war, by remaining part of the Empire. The Lausanne Treaty, which was a triumph for the Turkish leader Ataturk, committed the members of the British Empire to defend the settlement in the event of a new war, perhaps with Bolshevik Russia.
It is improbable that those who gather at Gallipoli to hear President McAleese’s oration will fully understand the significance of this terrible and costly battle.
Ireland and the Great War – Collins Barracks Event
The present writer was in attendance at a conference given at Collins Barracks, Dublin, on Saturday 13th November entitled ‘Ireland and World War One.’
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 statesmen 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 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. As a result of the Turkish resistance HMS Goliath was sunk and the Queen Elizabeth, the world’s greatest battleship had to be withdrawn from the fray.
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.