100 Years First World War

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    The War of the Ottoman Succession
    The Forgotten Attempts to Seize Istanbul in the First World War

    For Western historians, the Ottoman and other Near Eastern theatres of the First World War have always been something of a sideshow – albeit a very colourful one. Even in books that discuss German strategy, the Ottoman Near East features mostly as a kind of fantasy-land in the First World War as a whole. What is still missing from the literature is a sense of the Ottoman fronts as an active and especially dynamic theatre of the First World War.

    English-language authors (especially Australians) have never tired of telling and re-telling the story of Gallipoli; T. E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ has entered Hollywood film lore; and the Armenian massacres of 1915 continue to provoke passionate scholarly argument. The German literature covers somewhat broader ground. However, whether they agree with him or not most German scholars of the Ottoman side of the war remain under the long shadow of Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht (Germany’s Aims in the First World War, 1961) in his discussion of the Ottoman ‘holy war’ declared on the Entente powers, primarily Great Britain, with the aim of inciting Muslim rebellions in Egypt and British India. Even in books that discuss German strategy, the Ottoman Near East features mostly as a kind of fantasy-land in the First World War as a whole, where the ambitious schemes concocted in Berlin ran aground on the limited capacities of the peoples of the region.

    Russia’s role

    What is still missing from the literature is a sense of the Ottoman fronts as an active and especially dynamic theatre of the First World War. Part of the problem, I would argue, lies in Western ignorance of Russia’s entire role in the war on fronts stretching from Scandinavia and the Baltic coast to Persia and Mesopotamia, which owes much to the deep freeze into which the Russian Revolution cast scholarship on the military side of the conflict. But I think the problem also relates to what we might call outcome bias. Knowing, as we do, that Germany’s efforts to unleash an Ottoman ‘jihad’ to topple the British empire, like Britain’s to relieve Russia and knock the Ottomans out of the war by attacking the Dardanelles, or Russia’s preparations for an amphibious strike on Constantinople – knowing that these strategic gambits all ultimately failed, historians tend to dismiss their importance in the larger war. Books on Gallipoli, for example, are invariably self-contained micro-narratives of the campaign, which wrap up in January 1916 with the withdrawal of the last Allied troops from the peninsula. Discussions of the German ‘holy war’ stratagem, in similar fashion, tend to tell the story on its own merits, while tying it only loosely to actual military campaigning. And Russia’s plans for a massive descent on the Bosphorus, scheduled to take place in summer 1917, remain virtually unknown even today, for the obvious reason that the outbreak of the Russian Revolution rendered them largely moot.

    For German, British and Russian planners at the time, however, these were gambits of colossal strategic importance, on which the outcome of the entire war seemed to hang (the importance of the Ottoman theatre for the Ottomans themselves, of course, goes without saying). And there was nothing preordained about their ultimate failure. To begin with the German ‘jihad’ initiative: the problem lay not necessarily in its conception but in faulty execution. British rule in largely Muslim Egypt and in the Indian subcontinent, with its teeming millions of Muslims, was always based on bluff and prestige more than actual military force on the ground. Had real military threats to the Raj or the Cairo Residency emerged in 1914 or 1915, there is good reason to suspect the British would have had a real struggle on their hands to suppress jihadi-style sedition. The failure of this sedition to materialise did not, contrary to the views of the key German jihad planner, Baron Max von Oppenheim, reflect insufficient devotion to holy war propaganda but rather Germany’s inability to muster sufficient force at key British imperial chokepoints, such as the Suez Canal (India was so far afield as to be impractical – efforts to ignite a holy war there, to my mind, were a needless distraction). As I show in The Berlin-Baghdad Express, owing to the mountain gaps in the Ottoman trunk railway between Anatolia and Syria the Germans were unable to deploy long-range artillery able to reach the railroad that was used to move British reinforcements up and down the canal, nor could they muster warplanes to contest enemy control of the air (this ensured that the British, with uncontested aerial surveillance, knew exactly where and when Turco-German attacks were coming). Matters were not helped by the diversion of German resources into dozens of smaller ‘jihad’ initiatives, targeting everyone from Hussein of Mecca to the Shia clerics of Karbala to the Persian Shah to Emir Habibullah of Afghanistan, none of whom could have struck a blow to British interests a fraction as important as Suez. Had the Turks and Germans ever mustered sufficient force to allow a successful canal crossing threatening Cairo, Egyptian ‘holy war’ propaganda may well have taken care of itself.

    Churchill’s position

    As for the British-led Allied campaigns at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, now bywords for sanguinary strategic futility, our perspective is once again distorted by our knowledge of how they turned out. Until the end of his life, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, believed that the War Cabinet’s notorious decision to break off the naval-only minesweeping campaign after the battle of 18th March 1915 – when, he thought, with ammunition in shore batteries running low, Ottoman-German morale was about to crack – was the biggest mistake of the First World War. Churchill’s position has few defenders left, for the excellent reason that he was wrong about both enemy morale and ammunition levels: in fact the Turco-German batteries had fired off only about 2,250 shells during the seesaw battle of 18th March 1915; they had more than 20,000 in reserve, and morale was hardly poor on shore after the gunners had watched no less than three enemy battleships sink during the day. And yet Churchill had a point, albeit not necessarily about the order of battle on that particular day. His point was that the objective of the campaign – knocking the Ottomans out of the war, opening Allied access to Russia’s warm water Black Sea ports for the dispatch of war materiel, and more broadly putting paid to German ambitions in the Ottoman Near East – was strategically sound. Had Constantinople fallen in 1915, allowing the Entente to open a broad Balkan front from Greece and Thrace against the Central Powers by way of Bulgaria (which wavering power would, in this scenario, likely have joined the winning Entente side, not the Central Powers), it is hard to see how Austria-Hungary, at least, could have fought on for another three years. Certainly Germany could have continued fighting, but with the legs cut out from under its Drang nach Osten, it is difficult to see why it would have.

    The Allies’ real failure at the Dardanelles and then Gallipoli, I would argue, was a diplomatic-strategic one. Churchill himself, although later rueing the breaking off of the naval-only campaign in March 1915, had originally recommended that ground troops be used to knock out the shore batteries – only for Kitchener to inform him that none were then available. Even setting aside the fact that, by the time they waded ashore on 25th April 1915, Allied troops evidently were available for amphibious landings, Britain could still have counted on the support of some 150,000 Greek troops offered by Athens – except that the Russians, jealous of another Orthodox power inheriting the Patriarchate of Constantinople, vetoed Greek participation. Meanwhile, although few know this today, Russia itself promised to land 40,000 troops at the Bosphorus to support the Allied push through the Dardanelles – but the British, despite agreeing in March 1915 to give Russia sovereign control of Constantinople after it was conquered, never held them to it. Considering the strategic importance of the campaign, it is astonishing that the British were unable to coerce either Greece or Russia into providing that diversion of Ottoman resources which alone would have made its success possible.

    The fighting at the Dardanelles and its aftermath

    Post-mortems on the Dardanelles campaign are nothing new: British historians have been mining the so-called ‘Dardanelles Commission’ reports, compiled by an official commission of enquiry in 1916-1917, for years. There remain, however, hidden gems in these documents which pose fascinating ‘what-if’ questions about how the campaign might have succeeded – and explain why it did not. Asked by interrogators what the British High Command had been planning to do if the minesweepers had been able to clear a passage through the Narrows in March, General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the amphibious ground forces already then being assembled, replied that he had intended to land his men on the European shore of the Sea of Marmara and assault the Ottoman Catalca lines defending the capital before the Turco-German command could rush reinforcements in from Thrace. Hamilton was overruled, however, by War Minister Horatio Kitchener, who told him – with some urgency, as this conversation took place in March 1915, just days before the climactic battle at the Narrows – that he should plan to land troops on the Asian shore of Constantinople at Scutari (Üsküdar) instead. Why there? Hamilton asked Kitchener. The answer was revealing: upon landing at Scutari, Hamilton’s troops were instructed to ‘join hands with a Russian corps who were going to cooperate with me and be under my orders’.

    Here is an astonishing historical might-have-been. Rather than a nine-month slog in the mud against heavily-defended positions at Gallipoli, Hamilton and Kitchener apparently had in mind a joint British-Russian landing on the far less fortified Asiatic shoreline of Constantinople (with some French troops participating, too), to convince the Ottoman government that further resistance was useless. Giving credence to this historic conversation, it took place on the very day – 12th March 1915 – that the British Cabinet formally endorsed Russia’s post-war claim on Constantinople and the Ottoman Straits. Now, one might think it would have been sensible for the British to link the two things in question, making Russia’s post-war claim on the war’s ultimate prize conditional on actually landing amphibious forces to occupy it. And yet Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, did nothing of the kind. Lured into the gesture by a clever bit of diplomatic blackmail – Russia’s Foreign Minister, S.D. Sazonov, had darkly hinted a week earlier that, if he did not get his way on the Straits, a Germany-friendly government would come to power in Petersburg and cut a separate peace with Berlin – Grey later explained Britain’s unconditional endorsement with the curious logic that, by promising Constantinople to the Russians, he was depriving a phantom would-be Russian government of the argument that Britain would not give it to it.

    Russia’s reluctance

    And so Russia, given a diplomatic guarantee of future sovereignty over Constantinople and the Straits, was left free not to show up throughout the long and bloody Gallipoli campaign which followed. In a gesture of almost unfathomable cynicism, Russia’s Black Sea squadron did make a brief appearance on the day of the Allied landings, 25th April 1915, firing off about a half-dozen shells at unpopulated stretches of the Black Sea shoreline. (One week later, the squadron returned and fired… 161 shells. The British were not impressed). The failure of the Gallipoli campaign owed much, of course, to Turkish grit (most famously in Mustafa Kemal’s heroics atop Chunuk Bair, both on 25th April and again when the Ottomans recaptured the position on 9th August) and German organisational know-how and discipline. But we should not underestimate the role of Russian greed and sheer British diplomatic incompetence in making it possible.

    As for the Russians, the obvious question is: why they did not show up to claim their prize in spring 1915? Even granting that Britain’s government had done nothing to compel Russia to contribute troops to the Gallipoli campaign, it would still seem logical that it would have done so in its own self-interest, so as to safeguard its post-war claim on Constantinople. And in fact by the end of May 1915 the Russian High Command had indeed mustered 40,000 troops in Odessa for a possible landing at the Bosphorus. If Russia had not got its act together in time to help the British in March or April, there was still ample motivation for it to do so later that spring or summer.

    1915, however, turned out to be an annus horribilis for Russia. On 2nd May 1915, even as Russia’s Black Sea squadron was conducting its half-hearted diversionary strikes on the Bosphorus to aid the British, with ANZAC and French troops pinned down under heavy fire on the European and Asian shorelines of the Dardanelles, the Germans broke through Russian lines at Gorlice-Tarnow, opening a breach onto the northern European plain. That summer would see Russia’s Great Retreat, as most of Russian Poland, including the original Tsarist military headquarters (Stavka) at Baranovichi and Warsaw itself, fell to the Austro-Germans. The retreat caused terrible suffering, producing an exodus of nearly two million civilian refugees, including some 500,000 Jews who had been expelled from frontline areas for fear they would aid the advancing Germans. In its moment of reckoning with the Germans – which nearly brought down the Tsarist regime (Tsar Nicholas II himself took over the army command in September 1915 to restore morale) – Russia was hardly in a position to mount an amphibious strike on Constantinople. In a terrible conjuncture of timing, Ottoman Armenians suffered their own moment of reckoning in May 1915, when the notoriously brutal Ottoman deportation campaign began in eastern Turkey (a campaign that would spread well beyond the frontlines by summer). Russia’s Army of the Caucasus in Tiflis, called on for relief of Russia’s European armies, could no more come to the aid of beleaguered Ottoman Armenians than the Odessa Black Sea command could seriously consider sending 40,000 amphibious troops to the Bosphorus.

    The dramatically unfavourable strategic circumstances facing Russian commanders in 1915 should not, however, blind us to the overriding importance they placed on the Ottoman front and – especially – Constantinople and the Straits. Indeed, as soon as the front lines in Europe stabilised enough in the autumn of 1915 for Stavka to send reinforcements to Tiflis, the Army of the Caucasus promptly went on a rampage, seizing ‘impregnable’ Ottoman Erzurum in February 1916, capturing the Black Sea ports of Rize and Trabzon by April and the critical eastern Turkish stronghold of Erzincan in July (along with Van, Muş, and Bitlis further south). The Ottoman Third Army, previously headquartered at Erzurum, was all but destroyed in 1916, losing 100,000 men and most of its guns. Practically licking their lips in anticipation, the Russians began building a new railway line along the Black Sea coast from Batum to Trabzon, turning the latter into a vital forward base. As soon as the winter snows melted, Russia’s Army of the Caucasus stood poised to march on Sivas, Ankara – and Constantinople itself, connected by railhead to Ankara.

    Constantinople and Tsargrad

    Far from forgetting about Constantinople after the British failure at Gallipoli, Russian plans to seize ‘Tsargrad,’ as they called the Ottoman capital, went into high gear. In fact, the one led directly into the other – Russia launched its Caucasian offensive on 10th January 1916, the day after the last British soldier was evacuated from Cape Helles, the somewhat opportunistic idea being to crush the Ottoman Third Army before reinforcements could arrive from Gallipoli. The critical year in deciding the future of Constantinople and the Straits, it turned out, was not 1915, when Russia was still unready and in danger of being overwhelmed by the Germans, nor 1916, when it began laying the groundwork, but 1917, when all the pieces necessary for an amphibious operation were at last falling into place. The last of these pieces appeared on 30th November 1916 when, after a last-minute hiccup owing to an onboard explosion, Russia’s first operational Black Sea dreadnought was finally launched. This was the Empress Catherine II, ominously named after the legendary Empress who had first conceived the idea of conquering ‘Tsargrad’, the Second Rome, back in Russia’s glory days in the eighteenth century (following its imposition of the diktat peace of Küçük Kaynarca on the Ottomans in 1774). Meanwhile, the scourge of the Russian fleet, the German dreadnought Goeben – which had famously evaded the British screen to reach Constantinople in August 1914, helped bring the Ottomans into the war by shelling Odessa that October, helped scare off the Russian squadron from aiding the British in April 1915 by menacing Odessa, and somehow survived dozens of torpedoes and shells on sorties into the Black Sea – the Goeben was now, finally, out for the count (its main guns had even been stripped and re-mounted on shore batteries).

    If 1915 had been its annus horribilis, 1917 was to be Russia’s annus mirabilis – when it would finally conquer Constantinople, after, as one Russian diplomat wrote, ‘a thousand years of frustration’. Even after the February Revolution erupted, Russian plans for an amphibious strike on the Bosphorus continued uninterrupted – in fact they were accelerated, in part because such a dramatic conquest promised to rally public opinion behind the Provisional Government. Admiral A.V. Kolchak, commander of the Black Sea fleet, even styled the lead landing division the ‘Tsargradskii’, to make sure the operation made the most dramatic political impression. As Pavel Miliukov, founder of the liberal Kadet party and Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government, colourfully put it, ‘it would be absurd and criminal to renounce the biggest prize of the war … in the name of some humanitarian and cosmopolitan idea of international socialism’. To ensure favourable weather conditions on the Black Sea, the amphibious operation was to commence at some point between 14th June and 14th August 1917.

    In April 1917, even as Miliukov famously got into trouble with left-wing opponents of the war by refusing to renounce Russia’s ‘imperialist’ ambitions on the Straits (this crisis would lead to the first, failed Bolshevik putsch in early May, along with the resignations of Miliukov and other moderates in the Provisional Cabinet), Kolchak launched the first major reconnaissance probe to the mouth of the Bosphorus, comprising two battle groups of destroyers and cruisers, and even three primitive aircraft carriers (of an early type, designed to allow seaplanes to be launched at short range). Several Russian seaplanes, launched from onboard carriers which had towed them in from Odessa, bombed Ottoman forts along the Black Sea coast.

    The Russian revolution

    On 26th June 1917, even as final preparations were underway for Russia’s notorious, ill-fated ‘Kerensky offensive’ against Austrian positions in Galicia, Kolchak’s striking group approached the Bosphorus again. This time, the dreadnought Empress Catherine II made her first appearance, accompanied by three aircraft carriers and a flotilla of destroyers – only for this imposing squadron to turn back forty miles from the coastline, for reasons which may have had to do with poor morale (there had been a mutiny in the Black Sea fleet, although Kolchak seemed to have recovered control after executing leading mutineers). In one, final gasp of the old ‘Tsargrad’ spirit, several Russian warplanes, ferried in by carriers, carried out sorties over Constantinople itself on 9 - 10th July 1917, dropping several bombs on quayside installations on the Golden Horn and reaching as far as San Stefano (Yeşilköy, site of today’s Atatürk International Airport) before turning back. The final act in the drama was apposite: on 26th July 1917, as mutinies were sweeping across Russia’s armies and wreaking havoc in the Black Sea fleet, a single Russian motorboat wound its way through the minefield guarding the Bosphorus, whereupon its captain tossed a peace message in a bottle towards the shore (the gist was that Turks and Russians were brothers: Germans were the real enemies of both). In this curious, almost poignant way, Russia’s age-old ambitions to conquer Constantinople and the Straits foundered on the shoals of the Revolution.

    This was not all the Russian Revolution wrought. By snuffing out the efforts of Russia’s victorious armies in places as far-flung as Austrian Galicia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia – as Tsarist occupying troops in all these territories decamped for home, so as not to miss out on the great revolutionary land-grab – the political convulsions of 1917 erased, for much of the Western public, an entire chapter of the First World War, with only a few high-profile episodes from the Near Eastern theatre (Gallipoli, the Armenian massacres, T. E. Lawrence and the British conquest of Palestine and Syria) still widely remembered today. The resulting distortions of historical knowledge are serious, most notably in the endless haggling over the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that partitioned Ottoman Turkey. To tell the story of the Ottoman collapse without reference to Russia’s leading role, as so many historians and popular authors do, is a bit like narrating the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 without reference to the United States. In fact Russia played the leading role in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War – and even in the negotiation of the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was actually hammered out in St. Petersburg in spring 1916, under the aegis of Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov. That Russia, owing to its terrible Revolution of 1917 and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918 in which it agreed to a separate diktat peace with Germany, forfeited its every claim on Ottoman territory in the post-war settlement does not change the fact that it had staked these claims by force of arms, and had very nearly made good on them by 1917.

    When we recall Russia’s long-buried imperial gambits in the First World War, we are able to make sense of otherwise mysterious events, from the bloody sacrifice Allied troops made at Gallipoli (in order to win Constantinople and the Straits for Russia – not that this objective was explained to British or ANZAC grunts), to the Armenian catastrophe of 1915 (Ottoman Armenians were an important pawn in Russia’s ambitions in eastern Turkey), to the struggles the British faced on the Tigris in lower Mesopotamia, where General Townshend famously surrendered an entire garrison at Kut-al-Amara (Britain had requested that a Russian expeditionary force in Persia relieve Townshend by striking at Baghdad – the Russians chose opportunistically, as at Gallipoli, not to help). We are able, above all, to better understand the First World War, which, both in its origins in the Italian-Turkish and Balkan Wars of 1911–1913, and its bitterly contested conclusion in the Near East, could very easily be re-labelled the War of the Ottoman Succession.

    Sean McMeekin
    teaches history at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey. He is the author of, among other works: “The Berlin-Baghdad Express. The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power” (Penguin Allen Lane / Harvard University Press, 2010). He is currently at work on a book tentatively titled “The War of the Ottoman Succession”, to be published by Penguin / Random House in 2015.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2013

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