Going Over The Top: The Death of Empire (Part II - Turkey voting for Christmas)

By David Flin

The Ottoman Empire was, at the start of the war, already known as the Sick Man of Europe. It had lost much of its influence and control of the Balkan lands, and the Italo-Turkish War of 1911, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 had hurt the struggling Ottoman economy.

The economy was struggling. There were also ethnic troubles, and the standard method adopted to deal with these was through massacres. Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians, Bulgarians, Greeks, and others.

It started off promisingly. When the Young Turks came to power, many things were promised. Multi-party politics came in, with a two-stage electoral system in the Second Constitutional Era. The intention was to modernise the state institutions, rejuvenate its strength, and enable it to hold its own against outside powers. It promised to eliminate inter-ethnic tensions and transform the empire into a harmonious place.

When WWI started, the transport infrastructure within the Empire was pitifully inadequate. The army’s headquarters was in Istanbul. It took a month to reach Syria, and two months to reach Mesopotamia. To get troops to the Russian border, the railway only ran 60 km east of Ankara. It was then a 35-day march to the provincial capital Erzurum. It took less time to reach any of these fronts from London than from Istanbul.

The railway network in the Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of World War One

Once war started, the ethnic tensions rapidly came into play. In 1915, the Ottoman Government started to exterminate the ethnic Armenian population. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians were killed. In addition, large-scale massacres were carried out against Greek, Arab, and Assyrian minorities. Turkey denies that the word genocide is appropriate term to describe the mass killing of the Armenian population with a view to extermination, but it has been officially recognised as such.

Unsurprisingly, the Entente took advantage of these to increase pressure against the Ottoman Empire. It wasn’t long before the Ottoman Empire had numerous fronts to contend with; there was the Caucasus Campaign, the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, the Gallipoli Campaign, the Mesopotamian Campaign, the Persian Campaign, and the Arab Revolt.

Some of these, such as the Sinai Campaign, were launched by the Ottomans. The Sinai Campaign had the objective of closing the Suez Canal to Britain. Others, such as the Gallipoli Campaign, were launched against the Ottomans. Some, such as the Gallipoli Campaign, ended successfully for the Ottomans. Others, such as the Sinai and Palestinian Campaign, went badly for them.

However they went, they were all costly. The Caucasus Campaign resulted in 300,000 Ottoman casualties; the Sinai and Palestinian Campaigns 250,000 casualties; Gallipoli another 350,000 casualties; 450,000 casualties in Mesopotamia; another 10,000 casualties in the Persian campaign; and 50,000 casualties in the Arab Revolt. Around 1.5 million casualties in total, out of a total military strength of around 3 million, and a total population of around 22 million, of which 12 million were ethnic Turks, and around 10 million were other ethnicities being massacred by the Turks.

By contrast, Britain had a population roughly twice that, and suffered about two-thirds of the casualties. France had a population of around 40 million, and suffered about 1.4 million casualties. The social impact of the casualty levels on Britain and France was immense, and Turkey suffered proportionately much heavier losses.

An original map from 1920 illustrating the Treaty of Sevres region

Then the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the war, and the Allies partitioned it according to the Treaty of Sèvres. Amongst other things, the Treaty allowed the Sultan to retain his title. Inevitably, this led to the establishment of a Turkish national movement, which inevitably led to the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). This ended in the formation of a new Grand National Assembly, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the creation of modern Turkey.

It didn’t come without a price, of course. Around 50-100,000 men died during this war, along with about 250,000 Greek civilians and 250,000 Armenians during various massacres.

Could things have gone differently? Once the Ottoman Empire entered WWI, it was going to have major difficulties. It had internal problems, and it had to try and project strength across totally inadequate infrastructure. The Entente could and did engage it at numerous points around the Empire, and the Ottomans had many problems supplying and supporting the forces to deal with these.

These problems were exacerbated significantly with the onset of the Arab Revolt. Many French and British officers went to the area to assist the Arabs, and Captain TE Lawrence was just the best known. The Ottoman infrastructure was inadequate, and the Arab Revolt damaged it even further. Protecting the infrastructure required extensive manpower, manpower that wasn’t available, because of demands from other fronts, and the inability of the Ottomans to switch forces between zones of operation. The Arab Revolt also involved heavy fighting, particularly in the Battle of Mecca, which the Arab forces took from the Ottomans after over a month of bloody street fighting. The numbers involved were small; around 1000 Ottoman troops, and 5000 Arabs. However, the Ottoman use of artillery in the streets of Mecca, causing extensive damage to the Holy City, was a powerful propaganda tool for the Arabs.

Railways came under constant attack, with lines and bridges blown with increasing degrees of skill. It became a matter of course for the line to be blown as a train was passing. Track repair parties would be ambushed as they worked, requiring them to be provided with a strong escort.

Inevitably, the Ottomans carried out reprisal attacks, which poisoned relations with the Arabs.

However the war goes on the different fronts, the Ottoman Empire will take heavy losses, and the ethnic tensions will grow. The Empire had been the Sick Man of Europe for some time, and the Young Turks would inevitably come into conflict with the Sultan.

The details can be varied, but the outcome remains the same.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow