Turkey’s War History in the First World War

Turkey’s War History in the First World War

One of the most puzzling aspects of war history for later generations (and sometimes contemporaries) is what sometimes seems to be the arbitrary reasons that countries choose allies and then must honour their agreements in the war that inevitably follows. It would seem at times that the causes of the First World War were secondary to agreed alliances in bringing extras into the conflict. Three seemed to be a favourite number, with the obligations of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente embroiling most of Europe.

Nor were alliances lasting bonds. Thus, in the Crimean War England and Russia were enemies, in the First and Second World War they were allies. In the Second World War, Finland changed sides mid-war, while Italy split in two, the newly-elected government surrendering to the Allies, and some followers of Mussolini pushing on in support of Germany, as before.

It is clear that all manner of political, economic and historical factors influence why a country throws in its lot with one side or other in a conflict – and justice and moral issues don’t always figure. To appreciate the position taken by the leaders of Turkey in 1914, it is necessary to go back to an earlier 19th century conflict, the Crimean War.

The Influence of the Crimean War on Turkish Involvement in World War I

It is generally agreed that the Crimean War was fought for control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s discontented provinces, as the six-hundred-year old rule stagnated and succumbed. Russia, chief contender, became Turkey’s most powerful and aggressive enemy. A horrified Britain and France closed ranks to support the ailing Turkish government, because neither could allow a Russian control of the Dardanelles, the Bosporus or a Russian presence right in the Mediterranean, and this led to the Crimean War against Russia between 1853 and 1856.

The Courtship of Turkey

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Nevertheless, the early 20th century saw shifts of power and alliances, as Germany began to flex its muscles. In 1907, Russia joined England and France in the Triple Entente, which left Turkey bereft of old allies against Russia. All powers saw the failing Ottoman Empire as both valuable and susceptible, so a determined diplomatic courtship began. In 1912 Britain organized a naval misson, ostensibly to help protect the Straits against Russian ambition. Since 1883, by offering friendship and support, including helping to reorganize the Turkish armies along Prussian lines, Germany had also won favour with Turkey, to such an extent that Turkey had allowed them to build and operate a Berlin- Baghdad railway, securing Middle east oil necessary for a military build-up. Nevertheless, with the outbreak of World War One, Turkey was officially a neutral country and could lean either way.

Ottoman Army Entry into World War One

Of course, Turkey had an ongoing interest in protecting herself against her old enemy Russia, so a likely inclination to support Germany in fighting Russia. However, it was through what Harvey Broadbent (Gallipoli – the Fatal Shore) called “an extraordinary piece of diplomatic bungling” by Great Britain that the vacillating Ottoman Empire became an active participant on Germany’s side.

Even though Turkey was neutral, Britain confiscated for her own use two dreadnought warships it had been contracted to build for Turkey. Furthermore, according to Broadbent, Britain did not return the money already paid for the ships. This money had been raised largely by public subscription in Turkey, so the outrageous action of the British government was keenly felt as an insult by the Turkish civilian population.

Germany’s Suit Wins Turkish Hearts

Germany saw a wonderful opportunity to cement its favoured position with Turkey, and offered two old (but serviceable) German battleships at bargain prices. Soon the Ottoman Navy was well under the control of German commanders, just as its Army was in the hands of German officers, and Turkey was persuaded to allow the two ships to be used in a bombardment of Russian ports, implicating Turkey in the conflict. Turkey was finally a declared ally of Germany on 31 October, 1914, and enemy to Britain, France and their allies, resulting in the attack on Turkish homeland at Gallipoli (the Dardanelles), now a pilgrimage tour site for many Australians.

It is clear that Turkey, loosely hanging on to some satellite territory, and in control of some strategic territory and waterways, would not be allowed to remain neutral. It was necessary for her to declare herself and attach to one of the factions. The Kaiser seemed to offer the best security, so Turkey ended up backing the losing side in the war.

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