A war that nobody wants to mention

No-one in Turkey wants to celebrate what happened in 1914-18, writes Esen Uslu. But when it comes to the glory days of the Ottoman empire things are different

One hundred years ago, on October 31 1914, the headline across the front page of the Turkish newspaper Sabah (Morning) was “Success of Ottoman navy - two Russian ships sunk and two damaged”. The news made the literate public aware that the Ottoman empire had joined the World War I hostilities the day before.

The political editor of Sabah was Diran Kelekian, an Armenian, who was one of the most prominent intellectuals of the era: apart from his career in journalism he was a university lecturer in political history and had even been praised in the 1914 Nevsal-i Milli (national yearbook of the Ottoman state). Tragically just under a year later he was to be one of the casualties of the forced marches of Armenians expelled from their homelands into the Syrian desert.

Kelekian was also famous for the promotion of written Turkish using Armenian instead of Arabic script. Meanwhile the Orthodox Christian Turks of central Anatolia had traditionally used Greek script to write Turkish. They too were to be forcibly uprooted: they were sent to Greece in the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange, when the Muslim population of that country was expelled in the opposite direction. As for the general staff of the modernised Ottoman Army, it had been planning to switch to a Latin script just before the war, but this project was delayed because of the outbreak of hostilities.

These anecdotes summarise the underlying tensions in the Ottoman lands prior to and during World War I. But, a decade later, the Ottoman state was no more, but the Republic of Turkey that was formed in its principal land mass, was ethnically cleaned of its former Armenian and Greek Orthodox populations, and soon Turkish was to be written by everyone using Latin script.

War plans

The story carried by Sabah and other newspapers about the Ottoman fleet’s attack on Russian shipping, as well as on the ports of Sebastopol, Novorossiysk and Odessa, also contained a perversion of the truth. The media went along with the official communiqué of the state, claiming that, while the Ottoman navy had been conducting a peaceful exercise, it came under fire from the Russian fleet. The same approach was also evident in the sultan’s declaration of war, and the warped defence that the Ottoman navy had responded to a ‘surprise attack’ by the Russian fleet has been maintained by official Turkish historians ever since.

Actually the only surprise for some members of the Ottoman cabinet had taken place in August 1914, when they were greeted by the words of Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 ‘Young Turk’ revolution: “Good news - we have had a son!” Two German navy battleships attempting to escape from the British Mediterranean fleet were allowed to enter the Dardanelles and found refuge in the Marmara Sea. Soon both the ships and their crew had been enlisted into the service of the Ottoman navy, and their commander, admiral Wilhelm Souchon, had been appointed commander in chief - he remained in that post until late 1917.

In fact on August 2 1914 the Ottoman government, under the influence of the ‘Young Turk’ triumvirate of the Committee of Union of Progress, had entered into a secret agreement with Germany. Under this agreement the Ottoman state would side with Germany if a war between Germany and Russia broke out. It was actually a decision to declare war, since when it was signed the war between Germany and Russia had already started. But it was kept secret even from the sultan until the last moment, when his assent was needed. And the next day a mobilisation order was issued.

The British replied by requisitioning two battleships, which had been purchased by the Ottoman navy and were ready for delivery. On August 5 the Dardanelles Strait was closed to warring parties, and Ottoman state declared ‘armed neutrality’. However, when German battleships entered Turkish waters, this ‘neutrality’ was revealed as a fig leaf for the Turkish regime’s aggressive intentions. Censorship on military matters was introduced the same day. By October 21 Germany had agreed to extend a five-million-lira loan to the Ottoman treasury, and the scene was set.

However, not all the parties of the Ottoman government, including the grand vizier, were willing to take part in a war that they believed would lead to disaster.

So on October 21 Enver Pasha prepared a secret directive with the German general, Bonsart von Schellendorf, who was now chief of staff of the Ottoman army. This stipulated that:

When the Ottoman fleet’s move was reported to the cabinet, a likely Russian attack was the pretext used to overcome any opposition to the plan. Despite that ploy the grand vizier attempted to resign when he was informed. However, he was persuaded to stay, so that he could use his influence to try to ‘avoid war’.

So, after the initial bellicose attitude of the Turkish press, a more sombre mood prevailed. The government tried to reach an agreement with the Russians and Allies. But last-minute diplomatic effort came to nothing, since the Russians had demanded the disarmament of German battleships and the dismissal of the German military mission.

In fact the Russians did not even wait for a response to that demand, and on November 1 its forces crossed the Ottoman-Russian border in eastern Anatolia. On November 2 the Ottoman cabinet met to discuss a declaration of war on the Allies, but three ministers resigned rather than agree to this proposal. The resignations were presented as routine by the Turkish press, which at the same time was unleashing a rabid, nationalistic, warmongering campaign.

Two fronts

The Russian offensive initiated the war on the Caucasian front, but after some initial advances it was halted by the end of November. The relative success of the Ottoman army increased the appetite of the Turkish war cabinet for further action. An offensive operation was planned to encircle and defeat the Russian forces quickly. That plan led to the infamous Battle of Sarikamish, fought between December 22 1914 and January 17 1915, and ended in utter defeat for the Turkish forces. This first real battle of the war caused massive loss of life - 60,000 Ottoman soldiers, almost half the forces fielded, were killed.

Both warring parties organised militias and regular units from amongst the local populations. The Ottomans mobilised Kurds, while the Russian forces organised Armenian forces to make up the numbers required for operations in the mountainous terrain.

The Committee for Union and Progress government indeed attempted to use Turkish Armenians to foster a rebellion in Russian Armenia to crack the Caucasian front. The CUP had hoped that the world congress of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which was held in the city of Erzurum in late July and early August, would be swayed by promises of autonomy, but soon realised that there was no chance of persuading anybody.

However, the ARF realised that it had to walk a thin line - on the one hand, it had to avoid provoking yet another massacre on the pretext that the Armenians were aiding Russia, and, on the other hand, it had to be prepared to defend the population in case of a murderous assault.

Just before the offensive the Ottoman government cancelled the implementation of the Armenian reform plan which had been grudgingly conceded in February 1914. This entailed a provision for a European inspectorate in the six provinces where large numbers of Armenians lived along the Russian border. In Russia itself the provinces with a big Armenian population, desperate to avoid another catastrophe, were eager to lend support to the tsar’s army. The Armenian massacres of 1890s and April 1909 did not instil any confidence among Armenians in either the sultan or the CUP government. Indeed, the early defeats of the Ottoman forces were the pretext for the forced deportation of the Armenian population to the Syrian desert and the massacres which began on April 24 1915.

The second immediate action of the war took place along the Persian border. The Armenian, Azerbaijani and Kurdish populations living on the Persian side were mobilised. The CUP-led Ottoman government had seen the possibility of gaining a strategic advantage if it could defeat Russian and local forces on the lightly held Persian front. That would open a way to the south of Caspian Sea, towards the soft belly of Russia, Turkic central Asia. It hoped to encircle Russian forces engaged on the Caucasian front by marching towards Baku, one of the primary oil-producing regions of the time. Those illusive aims also coincided with German aims in relation to British-occupied India.

However, the initial skirmishes and advances towards Persian Kurdistan did not change the balance of forces. After the December 1914-January 1915 Battle of Sarikamish was lost, the Ottoman army was in retreat and more territory, including the besieged Armenian city of Van and its environs, were lost.

The picture in the eastern part of the Ottoman land was grim. Russian and Armenian forces occupied large tracts of Ottoman lands, extending from Trabzon on the Black Sea coast to southern shores of Lake Van. The roads towards Mesopotamia were defended by lightly armed units, and the Russian forces were now within striking distance of Mosul and Baghdad.

But Russian forces were also depleted. There would be no real movement on the eastern front until the Russian Revolution and, when the Russian army started to crumble, another false hope emerged for the CUP leadership. A ceasefire agreement was signed on December 5 1917 and by the end of that year Russian forces had withdrawn. In mid-December the Ottoman army started an advance towards the Caucasus. The Black Sea port of Trabzon was regained, and other border areas were wrenched out of the hands of Armenian forces.

On March 3 1918 the Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed, ending the armed conflict between the Ottomans and Russians, and Russia ceded the territories previously captured at the end of 1877-78 war back to Ottoman state. The cities of Batumi, Kars and Ardahan were regained.

However, there remained a state of war between the Ottomans and the Armenians and Georgians. A new peace conference was initiated at Trabzon in March, and yet another in Batum in May. The Ottomans increased their demands to include the territory around Tbilisi and Baku. In the absence of an agreement, the Ottoman army started to advance again, but it was checked in three successive battles in May.

The CUP’s last major force, the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, was formed in July 1918. Utilising the gap left behind by the Russians, the Islamic Army moved towards Baku, which fell in September. This was the scene of the last major massacre of the war: the so-called September Days, where more than 10,000 Armenians and Christians were killed, and a further 20,000 deported.

However, the Ottomans were not able to hold those gains and on October 20 1918 the armistice of Mudros ended the war.


The vacuum left after the war was soon filled by a new outbreak of hostilities. The Turkish-Armenian War started with an Armenian incursion towards the coalfields of Oltu. The Turkish response came in the form of a full-scale attack in September, when Alexandropol was captured, and the Armenian government was obliged to sign an armistice. Facing an attack from Georgia, as well as Bolshevik forces marching towards Yerevan, Armenia agreed terms similar to the Treaty of Sèvres, which was imposed on the Central Powers. However, before the Armenian parliament had the chance to ratify the treaty, it was overthrown, and the newly formed Soviet Armenia accepted the terms and signed a new agreement in Kars in March 1921.

World War I’s lesser known fronts - those of Caucasia and Persia - left the Caucasus, eastern Turkey and western Iran in turmoil. But the principle of national self-determination, accepted wholeheartedly by the Bolsheviks, led to the formation of a multitude of independent states, autonomous regions and federations, although they never resolved the underlying tensions. Even after World War II, the cold war and post-Soviet conflicts there has been no resolution of the underlying problem. Massacres and ethnic cleansing have been the main result of the region’s conflicts. The Caucases, divided into Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, are riven with ethnic rivalries and are often ruled with n iron fist.

The rump state of Turkey has tried and failed to create a Turkish nation from the remnants of the Muslim populations of Ottoman empire - those local to Anatolia, as well as those forced to migrate from other areas. The new ruling class expropriated (or exterminated) old and established, non-Muslim ruling classes. However, the capitalist entrepreneur culture is not a transferable commodity like gold or oil. Just as the CUP and even the sultans were previously unable to create a new Turkish bourgeoisie, so the republican state is equally unsuccessful despite using all the means at its disposal.

In order to do so it had to enable the nascent bourgeoisie to accumulate all the resources it could at the expense of the mass of people. That also required bringing the Kurdish population to heel, and those pressures led to Kurdish uprisings starting from the 1920s through to the present day. And when that people resisted the only means available to the Turkish state was more oppression.

An intellectual and spiritual world created on myths, half -truths and damn lies was not enough to bring about national cohesion in the new republic. Yet the same mix has been fed to generations of schoolchildren - and in mosques through state-controlled religion. Such an outlook, mixed with xenophobia, have produced a suffocating atmosphere.

Like many other states created in the aftermath of World War I Turkey had an authoritarian regime. The first open rebellion of youth and workers shook the foundations of the state in late 60s. The gut reaction of the ruling class was military intervention and rule by decree.

Left voices

The Gallipoli and Mesopotamia campaigns are much more familiar aspects of World War I than the Caucasian and Persian fronts. However, their after-effects were just as grim.

The Mesopotamian campaign partitioned the old Ottoman provinces and with the treaties ending the war, Anglo-French mandates over Iraq, Syria and Palestine were established. There is a trail of blood leading from here to the present day.

Greece was given the role of protecting the Greek Orthodox population in the Aegean Seaboard. Izmir and its hinterland as well as western Thrace were occupied in 1919 and Greece started expanding its territory into Anatolia. The Italians and French also had a role in the dismemberment of the Ottoman state in Anatolia.

The situation led to the Greek-Turkish War, or the ‘War of Liberation’ in the nationalist parlance of Turkey, which ended in 1923 with the Compulsory Population Exchange mentioned earlier. The seeds sown by that war resulted in the never ending enmity between Greece and Turkey, not to mention the partition of Cyprus.

In short, today nobody wants to remember the 100th anniversary of the Great War in Turkey. The political elite are certainly not willing to listen to those who talk about it or give rational answers. The Armenian massacre? No, there was no such massacre - it was the Armenians who attacked us first, and forced deportation was a justifiable war measure! Those are the most likely responses you will get.

Nobody wants to remember the defeat after defeat in that disastrous war that caused ‘us’ to lose a great empire won by ‘our’ ancestors, the Turkish sultans! But everybody will salute the heroism of the defenders of Gallipoli - the only ‘success’ Turkey clutches at from amongst all the debacles.

So it is left to a small minority on the left to argue that, unless we come to terms with our past - the atrocities committed, first and foremost the Armenian and Kurdish massacres - democracy will elude Turkey and remain a mirage appearing and then disappearing in front of our eyes.