Ottoman Empire In The First World War

In the years leading to World War I, the Ottoman Empire had suffered several crushing defeats especially in the Balkan Wars in which it lost nearly 33 percent of their territory. Russia being the primary enemy of the Ottomans, they entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. As war began, Ottomans offensive against the Russians was a total disaster in which the Empire lost more than 80 percent of its forces deployed for the campaign. The defeat was publicly blamed on Armenians, who were supposedly collaborating with the enemy. This in turn led to the Armenian Genocide, which would involve the persecution of almost 1.5 million Armenians in the Empire in the war years. The only major victory of the Ottoman Empire in WW1 came in 1915 when they successfully thwarted the Allied Gallipoli Campaign. The Allies then planned an uprising in Ottoman’s own territory which is known as the Arab Revolt. The revolt was successful and with the Central Powers losing the war, the Armistice of Mudros was signed on 30 October 1918, ending Ottoman involvement in WW1. Here is a detailed analysis of Ottoman Empire’s participation in World War I including all the major events in which it was involved.

A Disintegrating Empire

At the turn of the 20th century and the years leading up to the Great War, the 600 year old Ottoman Empire was in a state of continuous decline. The weakening of the Empire had its first major outfall when the Balkan Crisis erupted on 8 October 1908, with Austria-Hungary announcing the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, territories formally within the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Three years later Italy expanded its colonial ambitions seizing Libya in North Africa from the Ottomans followed by the islands of Rhodes and Kos.

Balkan states map 1912
Map of Balkan states and surrounding regions in 1912

Emboldened by these events, Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire in October 1912. They were soon joined by Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece in a concerted attack on Ottoman territories throughout the Balkan Peninsula. These Balkan Wars ended in crushing defeats for the Ottomans, ending with the loss of nearly 33 percent of their territory and 16-20 percent of their population, apart from the grave loss of men and military equipment.

Balkan Crisis and Balkan Wars cartoon
A French Journal shows Sultan Abdul Hamid II looking helplessly as Bulgaria declares its independence and Austria-Hungary annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina

By 1914, the Empire was facing revolts of Christians in the north and growing discontent among Arabs. Hundreds of thousands Muslim migrants driven away from the Balkans, were putting economic and social pressures on the Empire. Moreover, other great powers in Europe were developing geo-political strategies based on the demise of the Empire.

Abdulhamid II
Abdulhamid II – The last Emperor to exert effective control over the Ottoman Empire

On the internal front, taking advantage of the growing discontent among the people, a group of nationalist junior army officers had usurped power in 1908. The Young Turks, as they were called, aimed at modernizing and strengthening the Empire. They ended the autocratic rule of the reigning Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II. The humiliating defeat in the Balkan War further led to the beginning of a single party Unionist rule in the Empire which would last until the end of the First World War.

Young Turk Revolution leaders
Declaration of the Young Turk Revolution by its leaders in 1908

Entry Into WW1

Having known the problems related to the lack of allies in the Balkan Wars, the Unionist began looking for the same as war clouds gathered over Europe in July 1914. And although a semi-feudal Ottoman Empire was not in a position to wage war, having suffered several military and economic losses, it found itself in no position to stand aside. Adding to that many Unionist leaders hailed from the Balkans and knowing how the Ottoman refugees were treated by the Balkan victors, they carried a desire for vengeance for their humiliating defeat.

Sultan Mehmed V
Sultan Mehmed V – Emperor of the Ottoman Empire during WW1

Russia had been the primary adversary for the Ottomans and an alliance with them was out of question. France was a close ally of Russia and was thus ruled out. After the 1877 Russo-Turkish War the Ottoman army, more specifically its officers, had built close professional ties with the Germans. A number of them were trained in German military academies and considered the German military machine to be the best in the world. Moreover, powerful Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha was pro-Germany. Thus, though there were rumors of the Ottomans joining the Entente, on 2nd August 1914, Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha decided to sign a secret alliance with the Central Powers. A day later the state issued mobilization orders, declaring a policy of armed neutrality to the world with the aim of buying time to prepare for war. After 3 months of formal neutrality, the Ottomans entered World War I on 29 October 1914, with the launch of a surprise attack against Russian ports known as the Black Sea Raids.

Black Sea Raid
Novorossiysk harbor bombarded by the cruiser Midilli during the Black Sea Raid on 29 October, 1914

Disaster at Sarikamish and Armenian Genocide

In December 1914, the more than 100,000 Ottoman forces under the leadership of Enver Pasha launched an offensive against the Russians in the Caucasus. The Ottomans intended to recapture Batum and Kars along with the oil fields of Baku. The resulting Battle of Sarikamish turned out to be a total disaster for the Ottoman Empire, which lost more than 80 percent of its forces deployed for the campaign. The rough winter conditions played a part taking a heavy toll on the Turkish soldiers, many of them poor peasants.

Battle of Sarikamish
An Ottoman machinegun troop at the earstern front during the Battle of Sarikamish

Humiliated and angry in defeat, Enver Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians, who were supposedly collaborating with the enemy. The Armenian Christians were a small oppressed religious nationality in the Ottoman Empire, often wooed by Russia for its expansionist purposes. Some Armenian volunteer units had supported the Russian forces, a fact that was used by ruling circles in Constantinople to stir up feelings against the Armenian population. The Battle of Sarikamish is thus cited by most historians as the prelude to the Armenian genocide (systematic killing of a population).

Armenian Genocide report
New York Times headline on the Armenian Genocide, 15 December 1915

Soon Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were demobilized; and many were killed by Ottoman troops. On the other hand, irregular forces began mass killings in the villages. Any resistance was used as a pretext for harsher measures and on April 24, 1915 close to 250 Armenian politicians and intellectuals were arrested. Most scholars agree on the date, as the beginning of the Armenian Genocide that would involve the persecution of almost 1.5 million Armenians in the coming years. By the end of the Great War the Ottoman Empire was ethnically cleansed of 90 percent of its Armenian population. Similar pretexts were also used against the Assyrians and Greeks. As of 2018, Turkey still denies genocide as an accurate term for the crimes while 29 countries have officially recognized the mass killings as genocide.

Armenian Genocide skulls
Skulls in ruined Armenian village of Sheyxalan, 1915

Success In Gallipoli

Considering their recent war records against the Italians and in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire was considered the weakest link among the Central Powers by their enemies. Thus with the hope of easily occupying the strategic straits in the Dardanelles region, the British under Lord of Admiralty Winston Churchill, ordered the Royal Navy to launch a campaign against the Ottomans. The plan involved sailing a huge fleet at the 65-mile Dardanelles water strait that linked the Mediterranean and Ottoman capital Constantinople (now Istanbul); then capturing the city and knocking Ottoman Turkey out of the war.

Allied fleet in the Gallipoli Campaign
The Allied fleet in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli Campaign

The naval offensive began in February 1915 and was a disaster, in part due to the outdated Allies’ fleet but also due to the many ships that were sunk by Ottoman cannons and mines. Entente troops were thus assembled to eliminate the Ottoman mobile artillery, which was preventing the Allied minesweepers from clearing the way for the larger vessels. On 25th April 1915, amphibious landings were made on the peninsula, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in an area later dubbed as Anzac cove. Both landing were quickly contained, with the Ottomans not allowing any further advance. The same fate awaited the August landing near Anzac cove and Suvla Bay, forcing the Allies to decide on evacuation by December 1915.

Gallipoli Campaign
British troops advancing at Gallipoli

The Gallipoli Campaign saw close to 300,000 Allied casualties and 250,000 Ottoman casualties. The struggle formed the basis for the Turkish War of Independence with the rise of prominent Gallipoli commander Mustafa Kemal as its leader. It was also the only major success achieved by the Ottoman Empire during the course of World War I.

Arab Revolt

Arab nationalism in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t a new happening but it had never been a mass movement. The nationalists wanted independence from the Ottomans and dreamt of creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. With the Ottoman Turks joining Germany in the First World War and the failure of the Allies in the Gallipoli Campaign, Britain began getting interested in inciting and backing a revolt in Ottoman’s own territory. Hussein bi Ali, a renowned Hashemite Arab leader and the Sharif of Mecca was thus encouraged with promises; and assisted with finances and troops.

Hussein bin Ali
Hussein bin Ali – Leader of the Arab Revolt

The revolt began in June 1916 with 30,000 Bedouins and other tribesmen, which would be later led by Hussein’s own sons Abdullah and Faisal. Mecca was overtaken on the 13 of June and there were initial success at Jeddah, Rabegh and Ta’if. The revolt stuttered but regained momentum as the year ended, continuing to be the vital factor in the allied campaign and ultimate victory in 1918. British and Arab forces cooperated throughout. Baghdad was taken in March 1917, Jerusalem fell in December 1917 and on 3 October 1918, forces of the Arab Revolt entered Damascus accompanied by British troops, ending the Ottoman rule.

Ottoman officers review troops in Jerusalem
Ottoman officers conduct review of troops in Jerusalem before it was captured by the Arabs in late 1917

The revolt saw the development of guerrilla warfare with irregular tribesmen who knew the land intimately. It is remembered as a vital turning point in the politics of modern Middle East in its aftermath. In the secret Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, Britain and France had agreed to divide Middle East among themselves which ignored Britain’s Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which supported Arab independence if they revolted against the Ottomans. The Balfour declaration by the British government in 1917 further confused the issue, promising support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. These manipulative attempts to gain foothold in the region would be the seeds of troubles that would plague the region to this day.

Arab Revolt Flag
Flag of the Arab Revolt in Martyrs’ Memorial, Amman, Jordan

Economic And Social Problems

The Ottoman Empire was largely an agrarian economy and perhaps the least industrialized among the major powers involved in the First World War. The Balkan Wars that preceded WWI, had already put the country under financial stress and, by 1914, the Ottoman Empire already had an external debt of 140 million pounds. Lack of industry also meant a limited railway and transportation network, which created major problems for troop supply and movement; and of food distribution.

Enver Pasha
Enver Pasha – Main leader of the Ottoman Empire in WW1

The outbreak of war created panic in the markets leading to the implementation of special war taxes and reduction in the salaries of civil and military officials. The political leaders created monopolies for importing and distributing scarce commodities, which created conditions for war profiteering and further depleted the economy. As the war progressed, food shortages became an issue with natural disasters depleting the agricultural output. This was obviously a serious problem, especially for the military which had to deal with various hunger and nutrition-related diseases, while fighting with underfed soldiers and animals. The vast relocation of the various ethnic populations; and the Balkan refugees further added to the crisis.

Hunger Map of Europe in 1918
Hunger Map of Europe in December 1918, indicating serious food shortages in the Ottoman Empire

The heavy demand for fighting men in a long war, soon started taking away the sole breadwinners of the families resulting in draining rural areas of manpower. The government brought in new laws and established new agencies and norms to help, but they always seemed dwarfed in front of the challenges brought forth by a war of such scale ad magnitude. The grave situation may be estimated by the fact that four years of war had increased the cost-of-living by eighteen times. Though war had adversely affected most countries in WWI, cost of living in Britain and France had doubled while in Germany it had almost tripled in the same period.

Armistice of Mudros

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the country exiting the war by signing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk of March 1918, was favorable news for the Ottoman Empire. The creation of an independent Ukraine promised to cripple Russia, and the recovery of Kars, Ardahan and Batum had given the Unionist in power a tangible prize. However most was not well with the Ottomans by 1918. Their economy was in shambles, their soldiers were exhausted and the Arab mutineers along with the Allies were a growing concern.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
The first two pages of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia’s participation in World War I

The early summer of 1918 saw Ottoman Empire’s strongest ally Germany retreat on the Western Front and in September 1918 on his visit to both Berlin and Sofia, Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha realized that the war was no longer winnable. In the same month, Allied forces under the command of Louis d’Espèrey mounted a sudden offensive at the Macedonian Front, which proved quite successful. There were more defeats in Palestine and Syria and with the collapse of the Bulgarians at Salonica, the enemy now threatened the Ottoman Capital of Constantinople. Thus the Ottomans agreed for an armistice. On 30 October 1918, the Armistice of Mudros was signed, ending Ottoman involvement in World War 1.

German Surrender in WW1 report
Report of German Surrender on New York Tribune

Treaty of Severes and Lausanne

By early November 1918, the Allied forces had occupied the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. France and England also directly occupied or controlled the former Ottoman provinces or territories of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Ignoring the promises made to the Arab mutineers, the Arabic lands were divided among the British and the French; and the Ottoman Empire was left to almost a fifth of the size of modern day Turkey via the 1920 Treaty of Severes. This forcible carving out of nations like Iraq, Palestine; and forcible division of Syria along communal lines is thought by many analysts to have been a part of the larger strategy of ensuring infighting in the Middle East.

Treaty of Lausanne map
Borders of Turkey set by the Treaty of Lausanne

The period of 1918-1923 also witnessed to a national revolt under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, against both Ottoman Empire and the Allies. The five year struggle known as the Turkish War of Independence led to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that superseded the Severes Treaty, and established the modern state of Republic of Turkey. The monarchy was abolished and the last Sultan was exiled from Constantinople.

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