Ottoman soldiers with a captured Russian machine gun

In the early 1900s, reformist groups remained active under the repression of Abdül Hamid II. In 1907 the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, united under military officer Mustafa Kemal, who later took the name Atatürk, “father of the Turks.” Between 1909 and 1912, European powers took advantage of a weak Ottoman government to occupy or liberate most of the empire’s remaining territory in southeastern Europe. In 1912 the First Balkan War deprived the empire of territory in Macedonia and Thrace. In 1913 these losses led to the overthrow of the government by Enver Pasha, who headed a dictatorial regime of Young Turks during the ensuing war period. The empire regained some European territory during the Second Balkan War of 1913. [Source: Library of Congress, August 2008 **]

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Enver Pasha’s alliance with Germany caused Britain, France, and Russia to declare war on the Ottoman Empire. In early 1915, mass deportation of the Armenian population led to the death of as many as 1 million Armenians, an event that remains controversial nearly 100 years later. Atatürk defeated a British amphibious landing at Gallipoli on the Dardanelles later that year. However, in 1916 a successful British campaign cut through the empire’s Arab territory, capturing Damascus in 1918. After the empire had suffered numerous defeats, a provisional Ottoman government sued for peace with the Allies. **

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages ; Turkish Culture Portal ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Ottoman Empire Before World War I

On the eve of World War I, the Ottoman empire was on its last legs. It lost most of its last remaining European possessions during a series of Balkan Wars in which Russia came to the assistance of the the Balkan states.The Turks lost Albania and Macedonia and it remaining territory in Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria by 1912. Italy took the Dodocene islands in 1912. In the meantime independence movements began arising in the Muslim nations and the European nations took advantage of Ottoman weakness to grab territory in the Middle East. Britain took Kuwait in 1899 and the Sinai in 1906. Italy took Libya in 1912.

The Ottomans nominally controlled most of the Middle East—including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen—and the islands in the Aegean Sea and ruled 20 million to 25 million people. Its territory was comprised of scores of different ethnic groups and semi-autonomous states held together by a common religion: Islam.

Ottoman-German Alliance Before World War I

Ottoman-Bulgaria, Austro-Hungarian,German Alliance

With German help, the Ottomans built the Hijaz (Hejaz) Railway from Damascus to Medina. The stated purpose was to ferry pilgrims to Mecca but actually it was to bring troops and military supplies to the region. It opened in 1908. The Ottoman Sultan Abdullah II had developed strong ties with Germany. German engineers were also working on a railway intended to link Berlin with Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.

As the two European alliance systems drew closer to war in 1914, Enver's pronounced pro-German sympathies, shared by many in the military and bureaucracy, prevailed over the pragmatic neutrality proposed by Talat and Cemal. Germany had been pro-Ottoman during the Balkan wars, but the Porte had no outstanding differences with either Britain or France in the summer of 1914. In guiding his government toward alignment with Germany, Enver was able to play on fear of the traditional Ottoman enemy, Russia, the ally of Britain and France in the war. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

As Germany was preparing to invade Belgium, Enver Pasha negotiated a secret treaty with the German Kaiser, who pledged to protect Ottoman territory in return for Turkish support in Europe. The Young Turks tried to "Christainize” Turkey. They chose to side with Germany because they believed it would make them strong.

Ottoman Empire Enters World War I

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I in November 1914 on the German side in hopes of dividing the spoils of a defeated Russia. In a conspiracy arranged beforehand, two German ships cruised toward Russia on the Black Sea flying the Ottoman flag. The ships fired some shots, and the Russians, thinking they were attacked by Turks, declared war on Turkey. The Ottoman army, aided by Germany and Austria, fought Russian on its northeast frontier and mainly British forces in the Middle East.

On August 2, 1914, Enver concluded the secret treaty of alliance with Germany. General mobilization was ordered the next day, and in the following weeks concessions granted to foreign powers under the capitulations were canceled. It remained for Germany, however, to provide the casus belli. Two German military vessels — the battleship Göben and the heavy cruiser Breslau — that had been caught in a neutral Ottoman port when war broke out in Europe were turned over to the Ottoman navy.

raids on Novorossiysk in the Black Sea in 1914

In October they put to sea with German officers and crews and shelled Odessa and other Russian ports while flying the Ottoman flag. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 5, followed the next day by Britain and France. Within six months, the Ottoman army of about 800,000 men was engaged in a four-front war that became part of the greater conflict of World War I. *

Turkey Attacks Russia in World War I

When Germany's plan to knock out France in six weeks failed, the Germans tried to convince the Ottomans to attack Russia. Most Turks who knew of the plan were against it but Enver Pasha supported the idea because at that time it looked like Germany was going to easily defeat Russia. During World War I, Enver took control of the Ottoman Third Army

Enver launched an ill-prepared offensive in the winter of 1914-15 against the Russians in the Caucasus, vainly hoping that an impressive demonstration of Ottoman strength there would incite an insurrection among the tsar's Turkish-speaking subjects. Instead, a Russian counteroffensive inflicted staggering losses on Ottoman forces, driving them back to Lake Van.

The Ottoman attack poorly planned and poorly executed. Enver lost about 86,000 of his 100,000 men in what one German observer said was "a disaster, which for rapidity and completeness is without parallel in military history.” Even so the Russian generals panicked and urged the Allies to establish a diversionary tactic. The result was Gallipoli. The Ottoman survivors trudged back to Turkey but no one in Russia informed the Allies of this. Had the Allies known this. Gallipoli would probably have never happened.

Turkey and the Armenians in World War I

The Armenian population that remained in the Ottoman Empire after the 1895 massacre supported the 1908 revolution of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, who promised liberal treatment of ethnic minorities. However, after its revolution succeeded, the Young Turk government plotted elimination of the Armenians, who were a significant obstacle to the regime's evolving nationalist agenda. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

corpses of Armenian children

In the early stages of World War I, in 1915 Russian armies advanced on Turkey from the north and the British attempted an invasion from the Mediterranean. Citing the threat of internal rebellion, the Ottoman government ordered large-scale roundups, deportations, and systematic torture and murder of Armenians beginning in the spring of 1915. Estimates vary from 600,000 to 2 million deaths out of the prewar population of about 3 million Armenians. By 1917 fewer than 200,000 Armenians remained in Turkey. *

Whatever the exact dimensions of the genocide, Armenians suffered a demographic disaster that shifted the center of the Armenian population from the heartland of historical Armenia to the relatively safer eastern regions held by the Russians. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to the Caucasus with the retreating Russian armies, and the cities of Baku and Tbilisi filled with Armenians from Turkey. Ethnic tensions rose in Transcaucasia as the new immigrants added to the pressures on the limited resources of the collapsing Russian Empire. *

Armenian Genocide

During the campaign in eastern Anatolia, assistance was given to the Russians by some Armenians, who saw them as liberators rather than invaders. Armenian units were also part of the Russian army. Enver claimed that an Armenian conspiracy existed and that a generalized revolt by the Armenians was imminent. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

During the winter months of 1915, as the shattered Ottoman army retreated toward Lake Van, a massive deportation of as many as 2 million Armenians was undertaken in the war zone. It shortly degenerated into a massacre, as ethnic Turks and Kurds descended on Armenian villages or slaughtered refugees along the road. *

The most conservative estimates put the number of dead at 600,000, but other sources cite figures of more than 1 million. The situation of those Armenians who survived the march out of Anatolia was scarcely improved under the military government in Syria. Others managed to escape behind Russian lines. The episode occasioned a revulsion in Western Europe that had its effect in the harsh terms meted out by the Allies in the postwar settlement. *

See Armenia


landing party approaaching the chore of Gallipoli

The battle at Gallipoli was one the bloodiest military campaigns of bloody World War I. The idea behind it, hatched by Winston Churchill, was to launch a naval sweep through the Dardanelles to capture Istanbul (The Turks were on the German side). This action, it was hoped, would open a sea route to Russia, bringing them much-needed supplies, and encourage the anti-Turkish Balkan states to side with the Allies.

Churchill was frustrated by the stalemate in Belgium and France. He attempted to outflank the Germans and Austro-Hungary and take the pressure of Allied troops in Belgium and France by landing an offensive at Gallipoli. At that time Britain was at the height of its imperial power and the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs.

The Allies came close to achieving their objective—a train was ready to evacuate the Sultan and his harem—but ultimately indecision and confusion doomed the campaign. British Commonwealth and French troops lost six battleships and a quarter of a million men. Many of the dead were from Australia and New Zealand.

Film: “Gallipoli” (1981), directed by Peter Weir and staring Mel Gibson. Book: “Gallipoli” by Michale Hickey (John Murray)

Anzac Beach and the Allied Arrival at Gallopoli

The most tragic Allied error took place on April 25th, 1915 when Allied units were carried by strong currents to cliff-surrounded Anzac beach, a mile away from where they were supposed to be dropped. In this one battle—a sort of D-Day that didn't succeed—50,000 men were lost, most of them Australians and New Zealanders machine gunned down by Turks waiting in trenches.

Describing the fighting at Gallipoli in June 1915, Leonard Thompson wrote: "We arrived at the Dardnelles and saw the guns flashing and heard the rifle fire. They heaved our ship, the “River Clyde”, right up to the shore. They had cut a hole and made a little pier, so we able to walk straight off and on to the beach."

"The first thing we saw were big wrecked Turkish guns, the second was a big marquee...I remember how we rushed up to it, like boys getting into a circus, and then we found it all laced up. We unlaced it and rushed in. It was full of dead corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open. We all stopped talking. I'd never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at two or three hundred of them.

Between April 1915 and January 1916 over 500,000 men died on both sides. Many historians put the blame for the massacre on General Ian Hamilton, the Allies commanding officer, who screwed up the operation by giving out incomprehensible orders and letting his subordinates do as they pleased.

Trench Warfare at Gallipoli

soldiers in a Gallipoli trench

Much of the fighting at Gallopoli took place in trenches that were as little as 10 meters apart. "Later that day we marched through open country and came to within a mile and half of the front line," Thompson wrote, "We lay in little square holes...I was on sentry that night. A chap named Scot told me that I must only put my head up for a second but in this time I must see as much as I could. Every third man along the trench was a sentry...I knew the next sentry quite well. I remembered him in Suffolk singing to his horses as he ploughed. Now he fell back with a great scream and look of surprise—dead. It was quick anyway."

There was the most terrible stink and for a while there was nothing but the living being sick on to the dead...At night, when the stench was worse, we tied crepe around our mouths and noses. The crepe had been given to us because it was supposed to help us being gassed. The flies entered the trenches at night and lined them completely with a density, which was like moving cloth. We killed millions by slapping our spades...We were all lousy and we couldn't stop shitting because we all caught dysentery. We wept, not because we were frightened but because we were so dirty."

"On June 4th we went over the top. We took the Turks' trench and held it. It was called Hill 13. The next day we were relieved and told to rest for three hours, but it wasn't more than half an hour before the relieving regiment came running back. The Turks had returned and recaptured their trench."

One New Zealander said that the sensation of bayoneting a Turk was the "fiercest individual excitement...sickening, yet exhilarating unspeakable." A soldier named Henry de Man said he "saw bodied or parts of bodies go up in the air, and heard the desperate yelling of the wounded...I had to confess to myself that it was one the happiest moments of my life,"

using a periscope to take a look above the trenches

"On June 6th," Thompson wrote, "my favorite officer was killed and no end of us being butchered, but we managed to get hold of Hill 13 again. We found a great muddle, carnage and men without rifles shouting, "Allah, Allah”...Of the sixty men I had started at Harwich with, there were only three left...We worked to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trenches but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging—even waving! There was one we all shook when we passed, saying 'Good morning', in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath."

Sitting Ducks at Gallopoli

Malcolm Hancock, an 18-year-old second lieutenant in the British army, wrote his parents, "We were not facing the enemy at all and they were firing at us from the our right. Our whole position was absolutely wrong, as we realized very soon. As we were not used to hiding ourselves, we were standing or crouching where we must have been seen plainly."

"Halfway down one of these gullies, my first man, a lance corporal in my platoon, was wounded. We got him cover behind a bush and I sent a man for stretcher bearers. This man, as he was coming back, was himself wounded when he was standing next to me, reporting that stretcher bearers were on their way. This man I carried back to the top of the gully as we had one stretcher."

"I was afraid the enemy might advance still further and we would be forced to leave the wounded. It was only about 50 yards but it was in the open and uphill. Soon after that the Essex [regiment] came up to relieve us and straggled back to the rest of the battalion, minus a good many things, including our first feelings of funk."

Turkish Counter Offensive and Evacuation of Gallipoli

The Turks turned out to be incredibly tenacious and were willing to take staggering loses. The counter offensive that saved the day for Turkey was led by a young Turkish officer named Mustafa Kemal. "I don't order you to attack; I order you to die," he told his panic stricken army during a pivotal battle.

Kemal reportedly didn't sleep for three days during they key battle and the Turkish victory catapulted him to prominence. This same man, who later become known as Atatürk, defeated an invasion force of Greeks and founded the secular Turkish republic in the 1920s. For Churchill, the debacle shadowed him until he redeemed himself in World War II. When he ran for reelection in 1920 the campaign slogan of the opposition was: "What about the Dardanelles."

Ataturk surveys the scene from the Turkish trenches

Gallipoli was evacuated in December 19, 1915. Describing the event Norman King-Wilson wrote, "The men in the trenches spend the last day turning every dugout into a death tarp...A drafting table had several memorandum books lying on it each with electrical connections to an explosive charge sufficient to destroy a platoon. A gramophone, wound up with record on, ready to be started, was left in one dugout so contrived that the end of the tune mean the death to listeners."

"That evening...officers and myself dined well on supplies left for us. We had a roaring fire in a big dugout, burning someone else's house. We laughed and yarned and jested, waiting, waiting for God knows what, but for something to break the silence that oppressed that vast empty graveyard, not only the graveyard of thousands of good men, but of England's hope in the Dardanelles."

In 1934, while president of Turkey, Ataturk wrote a group of Britons, Australians and New Zealanders planing to visit Turkey, "Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your son are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well."

World War I Fighting Involving the Ottoman in the Middle East

During World War I, units of the British Indian army and other Commonwealth forces were dispatched to the Middle East to fight the Ottoman Turks. They attacked from the east in present-day Iran and occupied Basra, Baghdad and eventually Mosul. In the battle for Nasiriya, British forces lost 500 men at the hands of the Ottoman Turks partly because they were overconfident and their supply lines were stretched too thin.

In the spring of 1915, the Allies undertook naval and land operations in the Dardanelles that were intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with one blow and to open the straits for the passage of supplies to Russia. Amphibious landings were carried out at Gallipoli, but British forces, vigorously opposed by forces commanded by Atatürk, were unable to expand their beachheads. The last units of the expeditionary force were evacuated by February 1916. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

In Mesopotamia the Ottoman army defeated a British expeditionary force that had marched on Baghdad from a base established at Basra in 1915. The British mounted a new offensive in 1917, taking Baghdad and driving Ottoman forces out of Mesopotamia. In eastern Anatolia, Russian armies won a series of battles that carried their control west to Erzincan by July 1916, although Atatürk, who was then given command of the eastern front, led a counteroffensive that checked the Russian advance. Russia left the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The new Russian government concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, under which the Ottoman Empire regained its eastern provinces.

Ottomans at a German camp in the desert

Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the sultan's regent in Mecca and the Hijaz region of western Arabia, launched the Arab Revolt in 1916. The British provided advisers, of whom T.E. Lawrence was to become the best known, as well as supplies. In October 1917, British forces in Egypt opened an offensive into Palestine; they took Jerusalem by December. After hard fighting, British and Arab forces entered Damascus in October 1918. Late in the campaign, Atatürk succeeded to command of Turkish forces in Syria and withdrew many units intact into Anatolia.

Ottoman Surrender in World War I

Ottoman resistance was exhausted. Early in October, the war government resigned, and the Young Turk triumvirate — Enver, Talat, and Cemal — fled to exile in Germany. Mehmet VI (r. 1918-22), who had succeeded to the rule upon his brother's death in July, sued for peace through a government headed by liberal ministers that signed an armistice at Mudros on October 30, 1918, that had been dictated by the Allies. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

In October, 1918, when Turkey surrendered to Britain, Turkey was a mess. The sultanate was all but dead and Turks were hungry and unsure where their next meal was coming from. In his diary Ataturk wrote, “Saw many refugees on the road, going back to Biltis. They are all hungry and wretched. A child, age four of five years, abandoned by its parents and left to die, was dragging its feet 100 meters behind a man and woman. I reproached them for not taking the child with them. ‘It’s not ours,’ they said.”

Allied warships steamed through the Dardanelles and anchored off Istanbul on November 12, the day after the end of the war in Europe. In four years of war, the Ottoman Empire had mobilized about 2.8 million men, of whom about 325,000 were killed in battle. In addition, more than 2 million civilians, including both Turks and Armenians, are believed to have died of war-related causes. Talat and Cemal, who were held responsible for the deportation of Armenians and the mistreatment of refugees, were assassinated by Armenian nationalists in 1921. The following year, Enver was killed while fighting the Bolsheviks in Central Asia. *

Ottoman prisoners at Es Salt

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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