Both my grandfathers fought in the Great War, one in the Middle East and one in France. They survived (or I wouldn’t be here), but one was badly wounded in a gas attack. I’ve thought about this on Anzac Day for most of my 60+ years, but last year I learned something I hadn’t thought about and, as far as I can tell, hardly anyone else in Australia knows. We were only fighting Turkey because the British government refused their request for an alliance. I wrote about this last year, and I’m reposting it now.
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.
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. Russian aggression was the pretext for the Armenian genocide which began at the same time as the Dardanelles campaign, and which Australia still does not recognise.
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.