Why were the Turks our enemies in 1914? Because Britain refused their offer of alliance in 1913

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.

22 thoughts on “Why were the Turks our enemies in 1914? Because Britain refused their offer of alliance in 1913

  1. Good afternoon John.

    Much is being made in our political circus about jobs in the mining industry, and particularly Adani. Al this hyper ventilating has led to much opinion, but few facts.

    My (fact free) opinion is that with the automations the system will be operated from an air conditioned office in Melbourne, with few (mainly maintenance) bodies on the ground, after construction work is completed.

    Are there any credible estimates available?

    Thank you for helping,

    John Homan

    0408 211 734

    sv “Risque”

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  2. I am staggered we do not recognise the Genocide.

    Imagine what would occur if we put the Holocaust in quotation marks!

  3. Thanks John, I was certainly ingnorant to this history – a very important piece of history that probably should be covered at some point in secondary school history.

  4. Very interesting post. The Russian alliance and abandonment of the Sultan marked a big change in British policy, which throughout the 19th century had been to prop up the decaying Ottoman Empire as a brake on Russian ambitions. The Crimean War was consistent with this. Even earlier, IIRC the destruction of the Turkish fleet at Navarino was unintended by Whitehall, though the British sailors and officers were much more sympathetic to the Greek nationalists and seized on the opportunity.

    “The Turkish defenders ..” The Ottoman Empire was a milticultural one like the Raj, dominated by ethnic Turks. But it was not the Turkish nation-state dreamed of by the Young Turks like Enver and realised by Atatürk. The defenders at Gallipoli he commanded included Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Armenians and a good many other ethnicities.

  5. PS: Do we know that Enver Pasha was the key planner of the Armenian genocide rather than Talat? Neither survived the war long enough to write self-excpatory memoirs. The records are IIRC in court Persian which few can read, and the Turkish government has no interest in shedding light on the original sin of the Republic.

  6. Well, since we want to talk about genocide and original sin, Australia and all nations in the Americas were certainly born in genocide and original sin. “In 1491, about 145 million people lived in the western hemisphere. By 1691, the population of indigenous Americans had declined by 90-95 percent, or by around 130 million people.” – Wikipedia. The theft and colonization of the Americas involved the killing of about 130 million people. That eclipses WW1 by about 6 times.”Of an estimated population in 1788 of over half a million, fewer than 50,000 Australian Aborigines survived by 1900.” – Wikipedia. We (white people of British descent) killed 500,000 aboriginal people to steal Australia. That’s about 9 times Australia’s casualties in WW1.

    We are very selective about which genocides we want to talk about and which genocides we do not want to talk about. Indeed, human civilization itself is born of extensive murders, cruelty, oppression and destruction. The manifold costs of civilization call into question the very worth of civilization itself. This is even truer now as we destroy the biosphere and commit ecocide on a planet wide basis.

  7. The answer is that the Ottoman government wanted an alliance with Britain and France, but was turned down.

    Was the British government wrong to turn down the Ottoman government’s approach?

    The article you linked says

    A formal approach to Britain was made in 1913 when the Ottoman Ambassador in London, Tevfik Pasha, submitted the government’s interest to the British government, only to be turned town politely for a second time. The British government did not see any benefits in forming an alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

    Should the British government have seen benefits in forming an alliance with the Ottoman Empire?

  8. Doris Lessing wrote of her father, who lost a leg in WW1, and his generation who became lost and disillusioned by the failures of their leaders. This was felt on both sides of the battle, ordinary men who did what they thought was their best and were abandoned or betrayed, or both, by their leaders.

    I know my paternal grandfather was gassed then interned and spent his youth in a German POW camp. At the end of the war he lacked the necessary skills to make a living so spent his inheritance until bankruptcy.

    Without the potent mix of nationalism and militarism its doubtful that WW1 would have happened to that scale – Generals are like builders, who see every problem as a nail that needs to be hammered.

  9. A death or a debilatating injury to an individual has a profound effect on the surviving family and community that can be felt for generations. Collectively it must damage the national psyche, restricting the nations growth and maturation risking further bad decisions.

    The only logical alternative is peace.

  10. Wasn’t it also something to do with the British seizing Turkish warships for themselves….?

  11. I cant really seem to get into the spirit of anzac day anymore. now it just seems to be too much of a celebration , it was never intended to be such. Why do we now need to so loudly trumpet that our national essence was borne in war ? That is just one part of our history. We probably wont ever need 100’s of thousands of ground troops again but our military spending needs to be justified so i suppose it helps to have people thinking we are a great military nation.

  12. There is one thing about this story that does not make sense to me. What would the Russians have done if the French and British would have said yes to the Turkish request for an alliance. It does not seem like they would have had any good options at that point. They could have sued for peace with Germany in protest. But I think that the Germans would have demanded a high price at that point. I can only guess what this price would have been. My guess is that Russian would have to ceed Poland and Ukraine to the Germans. At that point, early in the war, I highly doubt if the Russians would have done such a deal.
    That means that the French and British leaders should have been able to guess that by making a deal with Turkey they would not have been taking any risks that they would lose their alliance with Russia.
    That implies that their thinking was that they had (a) bigger long term motive(s) than defeating just the Germans, and Austrians and Hungarians. Which itself implies that the leaders of France and the United Kingdom saw the outbreak of war as more of an opportunity than a threat, which is exactly what the Germans and Austro-Hungarian leadership also thought.

  13. Don’t forget the British also basically stole some warships the Turks had paid for. “A peace to end all peace” by David Fromkin is a great book that covers all this and the post-war Ottaman collapse.

  14. As I’ve said elsewhere, a quite remarkable number of the Middle East’s modern problems stem from the consistently deceitful and greedy behaviour of Britain in the decade from 1912 to 1922. And one of the figures that runs through that behaviour is Winston Churchill, first as First Lord of the Admiralty (stealing those Turkish battleships, Gallipoli) and then as postwar Colonial Secretary.

  15. At the outbreak of the war, Churchill had caused outrage when he “requisitioned” two almost completed Turkish battleships in British shipyards, Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh, which had been financed by public subscription at a cost of £6,000,000. Turkey was offered compensation of £1,000 per day for so long as the war might last, provided she remained neutral. (These ships were commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin respectively.)


    The war broke out during her sea trials before delivery. Even though the Ottoman crew had arrived to collect her, the British Government took over the vessel for incorporation into the Royal Navy. The Turkish captain, waiting with five hundred Turkish sailors aboard a transport in the River Tyne, threatened to board his ships and hoist the Turkish flag; First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill gave orders to resist such an attempt “by armed force if necessary.” At the same time the British also took over a second Ottoman battleship, a King George V class-derived vessel being built by Vickers—Reşadiye—which was renamed HMS Erin. Such an action was allowed for in the contracts, as Churchill did not want to risk the ships being used against the British, but it had consequences.


  16. The Army Museum in Istanbul has a roomful of displays on the Armenian Massacres.
    Armenians massacring Turks, that is. Which was apparently the real atrocity.
    Not that the Australian War Memorial is entirely unbiased, to be sure….

  17. “a potential adversary” Indeed, the logic of hitting your enemies before they even know they are your enemies has proved compelling to imperialists throughout history.

  18. At the time The Ottoman Empire was seen as “The sick man of Europe”, a failing and fading empire of little value as an ally and little threat as an enemy. Switching alliances from Turkey to Russia was about curbing Germany’s expansionist imperial aims which included military subjugation of eastern Europe to create a buffer of vassal states against the much larger Russian Empire. even though Russia was possibly even sicker than Turkey, its size meant that it was seen to be threat to The German Empire sooner or later.

    Seizing ships from your own ship yards on the outbreak of War seems pretty innocuous in the scheme of things but a cooler head than Churchill’s could have offered the ships on easy terms (delay payments, discounts etc) and ongoing Naval assistance in exchange for a promise of neutrality and guaranteed passage through the Dardanelles.

    With hind sight not pursuing an alliance or any agreement with, and then offending, Turkey seems like an own goal. But at the time it was thought the war would be much shorter than it was, that the might of the Royal Navy would guarantee access to Russia via the North Sea and Baltic and that Turkey was a weak nation that would not play a major role in the coming War. On the other hand, the fact that the Germans thought otherwise of Turkey’s potential role raises questions about the judgement of the British.

  19. @campidg As you say, the British decision looked like good imperialist logic at the time, as did half a million dead or wounded at Gallipoli alone. And, of course, as did the judgement of the Central powers in going to war.

  20. If they hadn’t made an alliance with the Russians, they might have fallen to Marxists and the whole course of human history might have changed. But we’ll never know.

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