Why were we at war with Turkey?

It’s now more than 100 years since Australian troops landed on a Turkish beach to take part in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, which ended with nearly 30 000 Australians dead or wounded, among a total of up to half a million on both sides. For many of those years, I’ve been observing Anzac Day and mourning those losses. But in all that time, it’s never occurred to me ask why we were at war with Turkey, or rather why Turkey had chosen to join the German side in the Great War.

The answer is that the Ottoman government wanted an alliance with Britain and France, but was turned down. Russia, also allied with Britain and France, offered terms that amounted to a protectorate (it was the desire to keep Russia in the alliance that motivated the French rejection).

So, Germany was the only possible ally if Turkey went to war. While many in the government still sought neutrality, the pro-war faction, led by Enver Pasha, won out. Enver Pasha was also the main planner of the Armenian genocide which began at the same time as the Dardanelles campaign, and which Australia still does not recognise.

Once the war started, the Allies made secret plans to divide up the Ottoman empire among themselves (the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Constantinople Agreement). The Constantinople Agreement signed in March 1915, assured the Russian government that it would be given the Ottoman capital after an Allied victory.

There have been increasing attempts to recast the Great War as a fight for freedom rather than the pointless slaughter it actually was. The pro-war apologists have demonstrated clearly enough that the Central Powers were aggressive militarists. But the conduct of the Allies with respect to the Ottoman Empire, the only area where they stood to make any real territorial gains, shows that they were little better.

The heroism and the sacrifice of the Anzacs, and of the Turkish defenders they fought against, should never be forgotten. But neither should it be forgotten that they died in a brutal and pointless war in which they could equally well have been allies, if not for the vagaries of imperialist politics.

69 thoughts on “Why were we at war with Turkey?

  1. @Peter T

    As regards the option of neutrality, it’s discussed in the OP, so why mention it in the context of a claim that the post doesn’t match the historical record.

    On the Ottoman approaches, I was referring to the formal approach made to Britain by the Ottoman Ambassador in 1913, which was rejected. That’s a matter of historical record, supported by the article to which I linked.

    The counterfactual question of whether the Ottomans would have been a reliable ally for Britain is presumably, the kind of speculation that bloggers engage in and historians avoid.

    On Dangerfield, I would have assumed that you had read him, except that you seemed to think it notable that the Turkish state was not a unitary actor. That implied (to me, at any rate) that the British state (the relevant counterparty) was such an actor.

  2. John

    I did not say “unitary”. I said “continuous”. There’s a difference between a government which is a settled set of institutions (as Britain had and and a revolving bunch of cabals. The Ottoman Empire 1908-1918 was definitely in the latter class.

    You say that “many in the government still sought neutrality”. The article you link to makes no such claim. In fact, it states the opposite – that Turkish leaders thought neutrality was not an option. The Turkish government at the time consisted of a small group. I looked at what was easily available on the main players: none advocated neutrality. As I noted above, the Entente did not seek war with Turkey. It was Turkey that initiated hostilities.

  3. “There have been increasing attempts to recast the Great War as a fight for freedom rather than the pointless slaughter it actually was. The pro-war apologists have demonstrated clearly enough that the Central Powers were aggressive militarists. But the conduct of the Allies with respect to the Ottoman Empire, the only area where they stood to make any real territorial gains, shows that they were little better.”

    The post-war book Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow casts both world wars as the result of democracy: basically once the vote was extended in Allied countries first to working class men and then to women, people voted for war. The book links this directly to the post-war welfare state policies that were then in their infancy, with one of the authors working in Canberra at the time, so I presume it was a view that had more than a few adherents in the immediate post-war period in Australia. The book is similar to 1984 envisioning the development of a totalitarian State after WW2, although it goes for 400 years rather than the 40 years of 1984. Well worth a read for anyone interested in interpretations of the wars in the period of their aftermath.

    Of course the recent wars in the Middle East were different, with Kim Beazley writing in an essay that he committed Australia to them in the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, saying he didn’t know exactly what he committed Australia to. It all happened in a telephone call during the Tanker War of 1984-1988 in Operation Sandglass https://www.regionalsecurity.org.au/Resources/Documents/vol4no3Beazley.pdf

    I don’t know if voters in the mid-1980s exactly wanted Australia to commit to these wars.

  4. We’re getting down to pretty trivial quibbles here, given your strong claims of “bad history”. I never claimed that the Turkish government was continuous or unitary, and it makes no different to my argument. As regards support for neutrality, it seems clear that the Sultan favored it and one of the Pashas opposed the German alliance until fairly late in the piece.

    In any case, these trivial distinctions don’t change the basic fact. In 1913, the Turkish Ambassador, the official representative of the Turkish government, made a formal offer of alliance to the British government which was refused. That was the point of the post, which you haven’t challenged.

    As far as I can see, your comments, here, and on almost every topic, amount to “things were much more complicated than that”. In future, maybe you can take that as read, and stick to substantive errors on central points.

  5. My earlier comment was a bit of a riff on the issue of war generally rather than addressing the central claims of the post, as most have. Regardless of whether it’s precisely relevant in this case though, I would really like to see more people thinking deeply about how we can stop having wars, and about the links between war and patriarchy, rather than revisiting strategic issues from previous wars.

  6. http://www.manorhouse.clara.net/book2/chapter21.htm

    By September, German hopes that Turkey would participate actively in the war rested with Enver Pasha, the Minister for War, whose position was not strong enough to allow him to take unilateral action. Enver’s first attempt to force the issue – his authorization to Souchon on 14 September to patrol in the Black Sea in an endeavour to manufacture an incident – soon fell foul of the anti-interventionists in the Turkish Cabinet. This rebuff was viewed so alarmingly by the Germans that von Usedom admitted that the various German technical missions existed ‘only through Enver, and depend on him for results’. Von Usedom further believed that if the anti-interventionists gained the upper hand ‘the prospect of working with the Turks will have passed.’

    At thirty-five minutes past midnight that night (30/31 October) a warning telegram was sent by the Admiralty to all Mediterranean commands informing them of the twelve hour time limit.[21] The countdown to war now appeared a formality. Yet Mallet, encouraged by what he believed to be credible internal opposition on the 30th, still held out a last lingering hope. The shock of Souchon’s fait accompli had reverberated throughout the Porte that day in a series of confused and emotional meetings convened by the Turks. At the first of these the vote was 17-10 in favour of intervention upon which Said Halim, Djavid and three other ministers promptly resigned […]

    So even in late October there were still “many in the government” who remained anti-interventionist.

  7. Out of historical interest, Admiral Souchon, who bombed the Russian coast to force Turkey to become active in the war, was later commander of Kiel naval base when the Kiel Mutiny occurred. He was also the uncle of Rosa Luxemburg’s murderer.

  8. @Ikonoclast
    Thanks ikon, I read the article. What do you see as the relevance to this discussion?

    It’s interesting at the descriptive level but it’s not clear to me how it would shed light on debates over war. I think in a sense the article it exemplifies some of the problems I see in this discussion – there’s a lot of analysis at the level of detail but not much at the system level (not that the authors are specifically addressing war in their article of course but their analysis is focused on detail and only talks about system issues – in this case the interaction between species and the environment that supposedly selects – in very vague terms).

  9. @Val

    Maybe “links between war and patriarchy”? If evolution took men further in a direction of better eusociality then their aggression against other humans might be reduced. However, if eusocial ants are anything to go by, eusocial species fight very organised wars against other species. In our case, we’ve already done that. There are no other extant species in our genus. I could speculate more but it is speculation and too far off-topic.

  10. @Ikonoclast
    Well perhaps it is off the specific topic of Turkey’s involvement in World War 1, but on the broader topic of Anzac Day and war, it’s relevant, so unless JQ requests otherwise I’ll continue here. I guess it’s what I suspected – focusing on detail (genetics, hormonal factors) but not looking at broader factors (social organisation, human agency). I suggest what men, particularly educated middle or ruling class men, need to ask themselves are questions such as:
    – do I believe there is such a thing as patriarchy?
    – is war associated with patriarchy?
    – if so, what should I and other men do about this?

  11. @Hugo
    Nonsense, Gonzo. The little rocket man had a well thought out plan (basically get himself out of dependence on China for protection and then negotiate from a position of strength) which you have to admit he has carried out well. None of this says he’s a NICE guy – but he (or his adviser) has proved much more rational and cunning than the propaganda we get would intimate.

    You greatly overrate the importance of US policy to that plan – Kim always had his eyes much more closely fixed on his frenemy China.

  12. @Val

    How to break up the patriarchy? I would advocate women’s strikes on the model of the Icelandic Women’s Strike.

    “On October 24, 1975, Icelandic women went on strike for the day to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and to “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices.” Participants, led by women’s organizations, did not go to their paid jobs and did not do any housework or child-rearing for the whole day. Ninety percent of Iceland’s female population participated in the strike.” – Wikipedia.

    However, these strikes would need to continue as rolling strikes until full equality was achieved. I would be in favor of continuing these into general strikes and mass disobedience by women and men until patriarchal capitalism (a tautology in current praxis) was overthrown.

  13. “I suggest what men, particularly educated middle or ruling class men, need to ask themselves are questions such as:
    – do I believe there is such a thing as patriarchy?
    – is war associated with patriarchy?
    – if so, what should I and other men do about this…”

    Its not about patriarchy. Its about oligarchy. This patriarchy ideology is the oligarchy hiding behind its little finger.

    Actually I suggest outright that Gallipoli was a deliberate culling. Supposing you try to storm a beach? One law of war is to always capture the high ground. So you can only storm a beach, where people are up on the cliffs shooting at you, if you have

    1. overwhelmingly massive superiority in firepower or

    2. Stealth. Which amounts to the same thing as number 1. Because Stealth gives you the firepower advantage when no-one is where you are except for a single Turk walking his dog on the beach at 3.00am in the morning.

    So supposing you or I launched the same attack on the same beach? Within three minutes we ought to have known that we didn’t have the element of surprise and within half an hour we ought to have figured out that our firepower was insufficient to be able to ensure that nearly everyone was sent home to Momma.

    You see if you are allergic to conspiracy, and you don’t believe in a genocidal oligarchy, you are going to have a very hard time explaining the data on any level at all.

  14. It strikes me as interesting that Val posed a question about what men might do and that Ikonoclast responded with a description of women doing something.

  15. The pro-war apologists have demonstrated clearly enough that the Central Powers were aggressive militarists.

    That’s the winner’s perspective edited to remove coarse language.

  16. sdfc :
    The pro-war apologists have demonstrated clearly enough that the Central Powers were aggressive militarists.
    That’s the winner’s perspective edited to remove coarse language.

    No doubt, but so what? The fact that a view is held by a winner does not make it false any more than it makes it true. If the only argument against a view is that it is held by a winner, and there is nothing else to say against it, then there is nothing of substance to say against it and it’s probably correct.

  17. @Graeme Bird

    It seems you’re suggesting half an hour after the plan went into action it should have been obvious that it was a catastrophically stupid blunder, which seems highly plausible. But it seems you’re not considering how difficult people in power (or perhaps anybody, but certainly people in power) find it to admit to a catastrophically blunder. When the plan goes badly and irretrievably wrong, which do you expect them to give higher priority to: protecting the chances of eventual success (by dropping the plan completely and at once and trying to come up with something better); or protecting the way they are perceived (by themselves as well as by others) by proceeding as if the plan still has reasonable chances of success so long as appropriate steps are taken to remedy initial difficulties?

    I find I have an easy time explaining a lot of data (not all of it, or even close, but a lot) on the assumption of conceited pigheadedness, particularly at high levels.

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