Britain’s Great War on Turkey: An Irish Perspective, by Dr. Pat Walsh

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Britains Great War on Turkey: An Irish Perspective
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
 
Thank you for inviting me here today. It is a very good thing that the links between the common struggles of the Turkish and Irish peoples should be remembered, especially in the week of Republic Day.

I will structure my talk today around ten themes or questions and will stop for any questions after each. These questions are:

    Why did Ireland become involved in the war on Turkey?
    What was the view of Atatrk in Ireland?
    Why did Britain make war on Turkey?
    How did Turkey come to be involved in the war?
    What were Turkeys intentions in 1914?
    What were Britains objectives in relation to the Ottoman Empire?
    Why did Britain produce so much propaganda against the Turk?
    Who was responsible for the Armenian disaster?
    How and why did the British set the Greeks against the Turks?
    What was positive about the Great War on Turkey?

First I should point out that the book I have written was originally called Irelands Great War on Turkey. It was called that to raise interest in Ireland about why Ireland participated in war on Turkey and what the results of that war were. But on the suggestion of Turkish people who read the book the title was replaced by the more accurate one of Britains Great War on Turkey an Irish perspective, which reflects better what the book is actually about.

The battle for Gallipoli is virtually the only thing remembered in Ireland about the Great War on Turkey. For many years in Ireland after the independence struggle it was felt that the Great War should be forgotten as an unfortunate episode in which many Irishmen were duped into fighting, killing and dying for nothing or worse, for the Imperialist ambitions of the British Empire. Gallipoli became an isolated and disconnected event in the Irish memory as the Great War on Turkey became a forgotten event in Irish history. That is despite the fact that it was probably the most significant thing Ireland ever participated in and undoubtedly the most disastrous, in terms of its effects on both the Middle East and Europe.

In recent years in Ireland there has been a movement, in both academia and politics, which seeks to commemorate Irelands participation in the Great War and to give this event equal status with the struggle for Irish independence. Some have even gone to the lengths of trying to discredit Irelands struggle for democracy in this pursuit in order to give the Great War a higher status.

What my book seeks to do is to remember the Great War on Turkey in its full historical context and show why it should never be commemorated as something that could be admired. I believe that is very important, particularly in the light of the experience of recent Western military adventures in the region.

The book also challenges, largely through the use of British and Irish sources, the British version of the Great War that prevails in many parts of the Western world, including Irish academia today.
 
Why did Ireland become involved in the war on Turkey?

I suppose the best place to start in talking about the book is to outline how the Irish came to be involved in the invasion forces at Canakkale or Gallipoli that began our participation in the war against Turkey.

Essentially, what happened was that a few years before the war the Irish Party at Westminster, led by John Redmond, decided to enter into an alliance with the British Liberal Party in order to obtain a local parliament in Dublin. This was known as Irish Home Rule. It was not a demand for independence because Irish nationalists realized that the great power of Britain in those days would never allow such a development. So John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Party at Westminster, departed from the traditional Irish opposition to British imperialism in order that he could achieve this Home Rule Parliament. And in doing so, he and many of his party gradually became imperialists themselves, no longer opposing the British Empire but desiring a share in its mission and benefits.

When Britain decided to declare war on Germany John Redmond pledged his support for the British Empire and its war. This was a significant event because Irish nationalists had traditionally been against Irishmen fighting in the British Army for the British Empire. Now in Ireland, men were recruited to the British Army on the basis that they owed a debt of honour to the Empire and Germany had attacked Little Catholic Belgium and were an evil force which threatened civilization.

However, many of the Irishmen who joined the British Army to fight the Germans, after hearing this message from the recruiting platforms, ended up sailing to Gallipoli to fight the Turks, after England had declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 5th November 1914.

That was the price that was paid to gain Irish Home Rule – which, in fact, Britain refused after the war. Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (who were against Irish Home Rule) began to enter into a competition to prove how loyal they were to the British Empire so that their respective, and conflicting, causes would triumph, after the war was over. Irish nationalists thought that if they helped the Liberal Government to win a quick war against Germany they would be in a very good position to demand the full implementation of Home Rule, having proved suitably loyal to England to be seen to be fit enough to run their own Parliament in Dublin. But at the same time Protestant unionists recruited and fought for Britain for precisely the opposite reason – to prevent Ireland obtaining Home Rule.

The Turkish victory at Gallipoli greatly undermined the Irish supporters of imperialism because it led to the replacement of the Liberal Government in London with a more unionist coalition and Ireland, seeing that it was being cheated out of Home Rule, began to turn toward Republican independence itself particularly after the 1916 rising in Dublin.

In one way the great Turkish resistance at Gallipoli, which prevented a quick British victory in the Great War, had the effect of moving the Irish people more toward a demand for full freedom and independence from the British Empire.

What was the view of Atatrk in Ireland?

Most Irish politicians and newspapers had begun to hold views that were the same as the British understandings of the world. They supported the war, got their news from Britain and therefore saw things in British Imperial terms. They also tended to hold pro-Christian sympathies in favour of the Greeks and Armenians and had prejudices against Islam and the Turks which were absorbed from Gladstonian Liberalism.

There was, however, one notable exception.

One discovery that I made in writing the book was that Irish Republicans knew about and became great admirers of Atatrk. The Catholic Bulletin was a popular religious periodical that supported the Irish Republican cause. Fr. Timothy Corcoran, Professor of Education at University College, Dublin, was the driving force and main contributor to the Bulletin. He had taught and was a close friend of Eamon DeValera, the Republican leader who did most to achieve Irish independence,. The Catholic Bulletin took a great interest in events between the end of the Great War and the successful conclusion of Turkey’s war of independence. It supported Turkey in its struggle against the imperialist powers and also defended the Turkish position in relation to the Greek invasion, when most of the Western Christian press were sympathetic to the Greeks. It also followed the negotiations at Lausanne keenly and published a commentary on events between 1922 and 1924.

The Catholic Bulletin wrote about Atatrks defeat of the British Empire and saw Turkeys achievement as an inspiration to Ireland. It praised Atatrks humiliation of the British at Chanak when the Turks defeated the British Empire at the height of its power, as the world was seemingly at its feet. For the Catholic Bulletin Ataturk proved that the British Empire was not invincible and gave hope to others who were determined to establish freedom. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Turkish victory at Chanak was a pivotal event in the history of the British Empire and imperialism generally although the event is mostly forgotten about today in Ireland and Britain.

The Catholic Bulletin was particularly impressed with the Turkish negotiating skill at Lausanne and contrasted it to, what it saw as, the Irish failure in negotiating with the British in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 that left the country part of the British Empire and divided the national forces against each other. The Turks had successfully beaten the Imperial power and The Catholic Bulletin described Ataturk as the man of the year in 1923 and the greatest cause for optimism in a world that was shattered by the catastrophe of war.

The Irish Republican view of Ataturk contained in the Catholic Bulletin is important because it was written to counter the British view of the Great War on Turkey – which was still being repeated in Ireland and which has today undergone something of a revival.

For instance, it is taken for granted in Ireland that Turkey was involved in the war simply because she was an ally of Germany. There is little appreciation of the fact that Britain had made war against the Ottoman Empire inevitable by entering into the 1907 alliance with Russia. And it is seldom mentioned that the British Empire had her own designs on parts of the Middle East, including Palestine and Mesopotamia that greatly influenced her decision to go to war on the Turks with Russia.

Why did Britain make war on Turkey?

This is one of the central questions of my book and it is very important to understand the British strategic imperatives so that misconceptions can be avoided.

For England the war on Turkey came from a great change of policy. Britain acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War. During this period Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the Great Game in England that the Russians should not have Constantinople and the warm water port that this would have given them. It was for this reason that England fought the Crimean War. Later on in the century the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli negotiated the Treaty of Berlin to help preserve the Ottoman Empire against another attempted Russian expansionism in the region.

However, whilst Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman Empire and was prepared to use force to prevent the Russians having Constantinople its relations with the Sultan were very disadvantageous to the Turks. England, with the French, helped preserve the Ottoman Empire in a weak, dependent state through devices like the Capitulations so that outlying Ottoman territories could be absorbed into the British Empire in a gradual process (for example, Egypt) when a favourable opportunity arose.

At the same time, despite some writers in England calling for a liquidisation of the Ottoman territories and their sharing between the Imperialist powers, it remained British policy to preserve the Ottoman Empire so that it would not fall into the wrong hands and pose a threat to the British Empire in India. In some respects the British acquisition of the Suez Canal altered the commitment to the Ottoman State but it was not the main reason for the great policy change in Britain.

What completely changed British relations with Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the 19th century. Britain had always practiced a Balance of Power policy with regard to Europe. For centuries Britain had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the weaker powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. It had the great advantage of being an island and therefore it could meddle with Europe and then retire from the continental battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained.

During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually decided that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with its traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on Turkey inevitable.

The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But what was it that made this alliance so important to Britain that she overturned her traditional foreign policy of preventing Russia from having Constantinople?

As I have said, Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. Therefore it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was seen to be like a steamroller that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.

The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was Constantinople. That fact should always be therefore borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey.

There were other issues of concern for Britain in relation to Turkey. Germany had begun to show interest in the Ottoman Empire. In 1898 the Kaiser made a celebrated visit to Istanbul to show Germany’s good faith to Turkey. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not a parasitic relationship like the other imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the health of the sick man, and dash their dreams of conquest.

The centrepiece of German involvement in the Ottoman Empire was the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. This was a major cause of the war because Britain looked at it and saw the economic and strategic advantages it would provide to continental Europe and Asia. At this time the Royal Navy controlled the global market by ruling the sea. It was feared that if the Berlin to Baghdad Railway was built trade would go across land and be beyond the guns of the Royal Navy. It was also feared that the Railway would transport goods at a lower cost, giving the Germans a commercial advantage over Britain in the East. And there might even be the development of a great customs union – a kind of early European Community, with Germany at its head – that would prosper outside of the global market that Britain was establishing and which the Royal Navy policed.

One of the first things Britain determined to do about this railway was to stop it achieving a port at the Persian Gulf. It was the British policy to prevent any power establishing a trade route at this point because England was obsessed with the security of the jewel in its crown, India. For this reason, a local tribal leader was encouraged to detach his territory from the Ottoman Empire and establish his own principality called Kuwait, guaranteed by Britain, so that the Baghdad Railway could be prevented from having a terminus and a means of shipping goods further on.

When the Germans saw how important this issue was to Britain they decided to make concessions and offered Britain a stake in the Railway. However, these proved to be too late because anti-German feeling had been built up in England and the process of strategic reorientation and organizing and manoeuvring for the war had already begun.

How did Turkey come to be involved in the war?

I think historians, even those that are sympathetic to Turkey, do not attribute enough responsibility for the war on the British State and tend toward putting some blame on the Turks, and particularly Enver, which, I believe, is unfair. They tend to ignore the wider context of the war and get tied up in the diplomatic detail, which can be very confusing and intentionally so. The British State is expert at diplomacy, at covering its tracks and producing a narrative that, if it does not exonerate, sufficiently confuses people into tacit acceptance of the British position.  

So why did Turkey end up in the Great War? British accounts present a number of arguments. The first one is that the Germans lured the Turks to their doom by political trickery. A second argument centres on Enver and claims that he worked with the Germans so that Ottoman power could be expanded after a successful war. In other words, like the Kaiser, Britain accused him of desiring conquest and world-domination.

As I have said, the Great War on the Ottoman Empire is usually treated as an incident in the war against Germany, with the Ottomans taken as a mere military ally of the Kaiser. But the activity and behaviour of the Turkish Government in the years preceding the Great War suggest that the Ottoman Government did everything possible to establish good relations with England and France, and the alliance with Germany was actually a defensive act of the last resort, when the Ottoman Government was left with no other option.  

The Young Turks, who had overthrown the Sultan, Abdul Hamid, in 1908, were admirers of Britain and France. Many of them had been educated in London and Paris and had got their political ideas from there. They mostly wished to disentangle Ottoman Turkey from the German connection and to establish closer ties with Britain and France and even the Russians to secure the future of the Ottoman state.

Between November 1908 and June 1914 the Young Turk Government made at least six attempts to establish defensive alliances with Britain, Russia and France – but all were rejected.  Some humiliating economic concessions were granted to Britain along with recognition of the British control in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait in an attempt at buying off the aggressors. England was granted a monopoly on navigation of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia. And it was agreed that the Berlin/Baghdad Railway should not terminate at Basra and also have two British directors on its board.  

As part of this conciliating process, and as a token of goodwill, the Young Turks entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. If it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.

The Turkish Government offered England and France extraordinary positions of influence in the Ottoman State – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of their capital – the reorganisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Gamble and Admiral Limpus and a English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkeys centre of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.

It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their long term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. It countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and controlling influence over the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, and how it should be, with all the inside information they had obtained.  

So the last thing on the minds of the Turks was to wage war on Britain – for to have had this intention and to have entrusted England with such expert knowledge of the defences of the Turkish State would have been like the proverbial Turkey voting for Christmas.

The only aspect of Ottoman reorganisation entrusted by the Young Turks to the Germans was the army. Im sure the Turkish Government saw this as a kind of insurance against being betrayed by the English and French and also as a kind of balancing act between the Powers to ensure that everyone was kept happy.

And so the Turkish alliance with Germany was an alliance of last resort forced on the Turks by the gathering of hostile aggressors around the Ottoman territories who refused to be bought off with either goodwill or bribes and determined that Turkey be not allowed to remain neutral in the war.

What were Turkeys intentions in 1914?

In July 1914 the main intention of the Ottoman State was to survive the War. It knew that Britain had its eyes on grabbing the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire and its ally Tsarist Russia wanted Constantinople. To ensure its own survival Turkey remained neutral in the war and played for time by putting Germany off, when it became important for the Kaiser to gain allies, with a number of preconditions for a fully-fledged alliance.

It is sometimes argued by British historians that England desired Turkey to remain neutral in the war. However, there are a number of reasons to doubt this argument. Firstly, whilst Turkey had little to gain in entering the war it was necessary from Britain and Russia’s position that the Ottoman Empire should be engaged in the conflict. How else was Constantinople to be got for the Russians? Secondly, Britain began to engage in highly provocative behaviour towards the Turks. A major example of this was the seizure by Winston Churchill of two Turkish battleships being built by the Royal Navy that were being paid for by popular subscription. These was seized illegally and confiscated without compensation by the British – effectively signalling that the naval alliance with Turkey was over.

It is difficult not to conclude that the manner of their seizure was designed to give the maximum provocation to the Turks and to drive the Ottoman government toward Germany.

Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who had been making the arrangement to hand over Constantinople to the Russians, set down British intentions toward Turkey in early October in an internal memo at the Foreign Office: To delay the outbreak of war as long as we could, to gain as much time as we could, and to make it clear, when war came, that we had done everything to avoid war and that Turkey had forced it.  (A.L. Macfie, The Straits Question In The First World War, Middle Eastern Studies, July 1983, p.49) So all along it was the British aim to make war on Turkey at an opportune time and blame the Ottoman Government for the breakdown in relations – while at the same time denying it all for the historic and diplomatic record.

The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews faced with the prospect of destruction if they re-entered the Aegean handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain.

Churchill laid a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This in itself was an act of war against Turkey. Then he organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to Copenhagen the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before declaration of war. On the last day of October Churchill gave the order to commence hostilities with Turkey without informing the Cabinet or formally declaring war. The Royal Navy began bombarding the Dardanelles on 3rd November even before war was declared on Turkey.

The occasion for the British declaration of war was an obscure incident in the Black Sea where the two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Constantinople to complete the blockade which the British had instituted at the other end of the Straits. The ships then engaged Russian guns at the port of Odessa where a Russian Army was being prepared for invasion of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian operation was designed to prevent the Turks from being able to reinforce their Eastern provinces via the Black Sea – something that was indispensable to Ottoman forces due to the lack of a road network toward Eastern Anatolia.

The Black Sea incident that provided the cause for war is an unusually obscure event and I could not find a detailed account of it published in Britain. This is despite the fact that many detailed accounts exist about the events leading to the war on Germany.

The Turks themselves waited another week to declare war on Britain when they found a British army coming up from Kuwait and heading for Baghdad. Kuwait had supposedly been an independent principality in 1914 but it found itself with a sizeable British Indian army camped inside it and ready to expand the Empire into Mesopotamia.

What were Britains objectives in relation to the Ottoman Empire?

In early 1915 Britain and France began the naval assault on the Straits which was beaten off with great bravery by the Turks. And so a combined naval and military invasion was launched in which Ataturk appeared on the world stage for the first time. When the British invasion was defeated through Turkish resistance at Gallipoli the Entente withdrew their armies to Egypt and to Salonika in neutral Greece.

The armies withdrawn from Gallipoli to Egypt went on to help conquer Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) for the British Empire. The Imperial conquest of these two parts of the Ottoman State was for strategic and economic reasons and involved the disastrous decision to establish a Zionist colony in Palestine to take care of British interests in the area.

What is clear from any reading of ambassadorial correspondence and other material is how many within British ruling circles were concerned at the so-called power of the Jew. This anti-Semitic mindset in the British ruling class was actually useful to Zionists in convincing the British government that the adoption of the Zionist objective would be indispensable to the British war effort.

This was because many in the Imperial ruling elite had formed the notion that the Jews were a dangerous element in international affairs. It was reasoned that because they had no country and no national existence they were internationalists of a disruptive kind. It was noticed that Jews were both prominent in international finance and international socialism. Many British Imperial civil servants and writers saw them as being associated with German commercial success and even as a hidden power behind the Young Turks, many of whom came from the great Jewish city of Salonika. This was a popular view within powerful circles in England even before the war but as the war became a stalemate it became worried about even more.

The solution to the Jewish problem for Britain, therefore, presented itself in the Zionist objective in which Jews could be made into a national people who no longer disrupted the international affairs of the British Empire. I call this Imperial motivation for altering the Jewish destiny the taming of the Jew because that is how it was seen by British experts in geopolitics.
It was no accident that Arthur Balfour, the Prime Minister who introduced the Aliens Act in Britain to reduce Jewish immigration to the country was also the author of the Declaration that proclaimed the Zionist objective as a British war aim.  

The Zionists also proved an important ally for England in its maneuverings against the French who had been promised the territory of Palestine, as part of Syria, in the secret Sykes/Picot Treaty. However, Britain managed to detach Palestine from Syria and, as a consequence, Palestine from the French by championing the cause of Zionism whereby England took special responsibility for the future of the Jews. This had the effect of trumping the French historical claim to Syria through the English moral claim to be the guardians of the new Jewish homeland as indicated in the Balfour declaration of 1917.

In making war on the Ottoman Empire, and in pursuing the Zionist objective, the British Empire not only destroyed the prosperous and content Jewish communities across the Ottoman possessions but also sowed the seeds for generations of conflict with the local inhabitants of Palestine who would find themselves the chief victims of this great act of conquest and ethnic cleansing.

In the book I describe how Britain established the Jewish homeland in a great surge of fundamentalist Christianity brought about the catastrophic effects of the war they launched. But in doing so they underestimated the Jewish colonists they helped plant in Palestine who they thought would remain a loyal and servile part of the Empire but who developed instead into vigourous nationalists inspired by the expansionist impulses of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Both Jew and Arab were used by Britain in the Great War against Turkey. There was some local discontent amongst Arabs at the centralizing of the Young Turk government. However, the Arabs had never been nationalists prior to British attempts to make them rebel against the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the only Arab that can be accurately described as a nationalist, Said Talib of Basra, was actually deported by Britain to India, as a troublemaker, as soon as the British Army occupied southern Iraq.

Some British imperialists came up with the ridiculous idea of making the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein, a new Caliph in order to control the Moslem world. Hussein was flattered by the British and in 1915 the Arab Revolt began when he was promised an independent Arab state up to Syria in return for his help in destabilizing the Ottoman Empire.

The Arabs, as a consequence, found themselves the victims of a great British triple-cross. They were encouraged to rise against the Turks, by Colonel Lawrence, with the promise of a great independent Arab state after the War. And then they found this state had been secretly divided between the British and French, and Palestine declared to be a Jewish homeland all without the wishes of the actual inhabitants being taken into account.

The British conquering of Mesopotamia and establishment of Iraq was another consequence of the Great War on Turkey. In this conquest Britain put together an unstable mix of peoples from the Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Mesopotamia and Mosul in the strategic interests of the Empire, and for the oil of Mosul.

Originally the intention was to just incorporate the Basra region into British India to create a new buffer to replace the Ottoman buffer. Arnold Wilson, who was put in charge of the conquered territories, came with pre-war Imperial understandings and an expectation that British power would be fully utilized to govern Iraq in the firm manner that had been applied to the Indian Empire. When he saw that things had changed and argued against the new approach he was removed.

The system established by Britain in Iraq was the worst of all possible worlds. The old Ottoman system had the virtue of governing the intermingled peoples of Mesopotamia as the other peoples of the Empire, within a large multi-ethnic unit where local rivalries were largely kept in check. The British Indian model may have functioned in a similar fashion given strong and purposeful government. However, the system that emerged after 1918 was neither strong nor purposeful. It put three distinct groups into a pseudo-nation and created a pressure-cooker environment for them to conflict with each other for power. And it was not surprising that afterwards this system could only be made functional by ruthless strongmen.  

Iraq turned out to be a much larger area than was originally intended. The Imperial forces decided to expand the Basra buffer more and more to the North and even tried to push it into northern Persia and the Caucasus, once the Czarist State began to collapse.

However, after the Great War, Britain, whilst it obtained a great amount of territory found it almost impossible to govern this territory in an effective manner. This was because of two reasons. Firstly, there was so much propaganda produced about fighting the war for small nations and democracy that the old naked imperialism was very difficult to justify in the aftermath of the war. Too many people had been affected by this propaganda and also it was impossible to quietly abandon it because by 1917 America had to be encouraged to join the war against Germany to save the Entente. America did not want to sacrifice its soldiers against Germany just so that the French and British could expand their empires in Asia.

The new state of Iraq was born in violence and deception. There the reality of conquest exposed as a fraud the war for small nations. The Iraqis who thought they were being liberated from Ottoman rule found themselves, like the Arabs, under a new Imperial rule and an insurgency began that was crushed by air power a precedent for future Western pacification of the region.

A mandate was set up, like in Palestine, which established British control indirectly under the pretense of nationhood. Sir Percy Cox came from Persia to rig an election by kidnapping the opposition candidate in order to maintain British control over a puppet imported to maintain Imperial hegemony. In doing this a precedent and template for violence and electoral manipulation in Iraqi politics was established by Britain that has persisted to the present.

Why did Britain produce so much propaganda against the Turk?

At this point I should say a bit about Wellington House and its production of propaganda against the Turks. Wellington House was a secret propaganda department set up at the start of the war under Charles Masterman. Masterman was later replaced by John Buchan, the famous author of The 39 Steps. Buchan and other notable literary figures and historians of the time were recruited to the propaganda drive through a covert meeting held just after the outbreak of the war. This was kept a close secret – even though it was the largest single gathering of writers for a state purpose in British history. The intention was to establish a propaganda drive against Germany which would use the talents of all these writers in the construction of a great output of material that would demonize the enemy from all possible angles – accusing them of terrible atrocities, having violent natures and instincts, producing aggressive and expansionist ideas etc. etc.

And when Turkey was enlisted as another enemy the focus moved from Germany to the Turks. The big problem Wellington House was confronted with in creating negative propaganda against the Turks was the notion that existed in England at the time which can be summed up in the phrase the Turk is a gentleman. This came about because the traditional view of the Turk in Britain presented him as a clean fighter and an honorable and honest opponent. The propagandists therefore attempted to overcome this view with a great output of atrocity propaganda.

A classic example was Mark Sykess famous article in The Times called The clean fighting Turk – a spuriously claim. Sykes was the man charged with secretly carving up the Middle East with the French at the same time as Britain was openly promising an Arab state on the same territory to the Arabs.

Another example, amongst dozens of others, was the book called Crescent and Iron Cross by E.F. Benson. Benson was a famous novelist and writer of ghost stories. As far as I know he had little interest in the history of the Ottoman Empire or Turkish affairs before the Great War. Suddenly he produced a book which demonized the Turks and made all sorts of allegations about the Ottomans and particularly about their treatment of the Armenians.

This book illustrates the Wellington House method very well. Information was collected by unknown propagandists and rewritten by the author as if it was his own work. And this approach was applied by numerous other publications which seemed to be written by well-regarded private individuals and published by independent publishing houses but which were really collaborations by secret propagandists who organized the production and distribution of the work on a massive scale and directed it at influential individuals. Much of the information in these publications was common and had a single original source. However, the sheer volume and range of all these publications produced the same effect as poison gas in the trenches – attacking all the senses and creating something that was very difficult to avoid penetrating the mind.

Two and a half million books and pamphlets reached an audience of at least 13,000 contacts in the United States. The United States was a particular target of the Wellington House propaganda because the Americans were very distrustful of Britain’s motives in the Middle East. In order to justify the war on Turkey, which the United States never joined, and the conquest of the Middle East, Britain felt it had to project an image of the Turks as being wholly unfit to govern anybody and to be the enemies of progress everywhere. The idea was to implant in the American mind the view that once Britain had liberated the Arab areas from the Ottoman Empire they would all become Gardens of Eden and that the British Empire only had the noblest of motives and the interests of native peoples in mind in fighting and conquering in the region.

It is notable that although the US committed armies against Germany and Austria-Hungary it never declared war on Turkey. And the consequence of Americans experience in working with British Imperialists in the occupied territories ensured that the US refused to get involved in the mandates established after the war.

Who was responsible for the Armenian disaster?

Initially I tried to stay away from this area seeing it as a matter for debate between historians who have studied it more thoroughly and having greater familiarity with it. However, I found I could not ignore it due to the central role it had in Britains war on Turkey.

This is where the Armenian issue originates from – or the popularity of the idea of an Armenian genocide. The Armenians were used to cultivate and construct a case against Turkey first and foremost. That was the primary interest of Britain in them and not their well-being or that they should be governed well.

It must be remembered that Britain always sought to undermine enemies or states it saw as rivals by destabilizing them through their national minorities (whilst doing everything to repress and subdue minorities within their own Empire, of course, as in Ireland.)

The Armenians were used by England and Russia as a means of destabilizing the Ottoman Empire and disrupting the Turkish resistance to invasion behind their lines. There were, obviously, Armenian nationalists who were both willing and eager to participate in this process but its main effect was to make the ordinary Armenians position impossible within the Ottoman Empire. It was made impossible for them to remain a loyal community and a functional part of the Empire, which they had been for centuries.

There was a lot of hypocrisy about Britain’s condemnation of the Turks because only a decade previously the British had repressed Boer resistance in South Africa with great ruthlessness, putting families in concentration camps, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. Although this was British State policy it was only called methods of barbarism but never genocide. This was not even done in the conditions that confronted the Turks during the Great War – blockade, invasion on three fronts, starvation, the collapse of the infrastructure and many local people in eastern Anatolia with scores to settle with the Armenians in the hinterlands of invasion and war.

The use of the word genocide with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany. However, a much better analogy would be what happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of Russia. Here terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its elements and people struggled to survive in the circumstances.

In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect. The Russians and British raised some people’s expectations so that they were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and in turn those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and therefore all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of Armenians took place and the killing of both Christian and Moslem peoples.

Essentially the responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed relatively peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy this multinational Empire.

Nationalism was a most unsuitable thing to promote in the region covered by the Ottoman Empire where a great patch-work of peoples were inter-mingled and were inter-dependent. Its promotion in the region by the Western powers was as disastrous for the many Moslem communities of the Balkans and the Caucuses, who were driven from their homes of centuries, as it was for Christians caught up in the inevitable consequences of the simplifying process it encouraged. The same forces in Europe unleashed by the Versailles settlement did much to make the position of Jews untenable within societies that they had dwelt in for centuries.

The important point that should be borne in mind is that it was not in the Turkish interest that the Armenians should rebel and resort to war but it was very much in the Russian and British interest that they should do so.

Unfortunately for the Armenians, they, like other peoples in strategically important areas found themselves being used as pawns in a new Great Game. And after being encouraged to rise and form themselves into a national entity, that was never a practicality given their dispersion across Ottoman territories, they were quickly discarded and forgotten when their interests no longer coincided with those of their sponsors.
 
How and why did the British set the Greeks against the Turks?

That brings us to the issue of the Greeks. The political and military assault launched by Britain on neutral Greece and the devastating effect this ultimately had on the Greek people across the Balkans and Asia Minor is almost completely forgotten about in Western Europe. The Greek King Constantine and his government tried to remain neutral in the war but Britain was determined to enlist as many neutrals as possible in their Great War to help fight it. This was necessary for three main reasons.

Firstly, English Liberalism had to turn the war into a great moral crusade of good versus evil in order that their MPs and supporters would support it. This meant that neutrality was almost impossible as countries had to be either for or against the war for civilization against barbarism. This really was an innovation in the conduct of war and gave the Great War its catastrophic character because an accommodation or peace could hardly be made with evil, particularly for non-conformist Protestants, who made up a great deal of the Liberal rank and file. This thwarted all efforts at peace particularly those of Pope Benedict XV, who tried to put a stop to Europe destroying itself.

Secondly, English Liberalism was opposed to military conscription. That made it necessary, once the Germans had not been defeated quickly, to get others to do the fighting for Britain the fighting that the Liberal Party was reluctant to impose on its own citizens for fear of interfering in their freedoms. So it became the norm to bully and bribe other nations to fight to avoid conscription at home.

Thirdly, the Liberal Imperialists, like Churchill, favoured a policy of expansion of the war in a desperate attempt to win it. In France and Belgium the war had got bogged down into a static war of attrition where great casualties were being suffered. The thinking was that if the fringes of Europe, and even Asia, were set ablaze this would let others take the casualties and stretch the forces of the Central Powers wider and wider to weaken their lines.

So England made offers to the Greek Prime Minister, Venizlos, of territory in Anatolia which he found too hard to resist. The Greek King, however, under the constitution had the final say on matters of war and he attempted to defend his neutrality policy. King Constantine was then deposed by the actions of the British Army at Salonika, through a starvation blockade by the Royal Navy and a seizure of the harvest by Allied troops. This had the result of a widespread famine in the neutral nation that forced the abdication of Constantine.

These events led to the Greek tragedy in Anatolia because the puppet government under Venizlos, installed in Athens through Allied bayonets, was enlisted as a catspaw to bring the Turks to heal after the Armistice at Mudros. They were presented with the town of Smyrna first and then the Greeks, encouraged by Lloyd George, advanced across Anatolia toward where the Turkish democracy had re-established, at Ankara, after it had been suppressed in Constantinople. Britain was using the Greeks and their desire for a new Byzantium in Anatolia to get Atatrk and the Turkish national forces to submit to the Treaty of Sèvres, and the destruction of not only the Ottoman State but Turkey itself.

This was because after the war Britain was virtually bankrupt and the promise had been made by Lloyd George to demobilize the troops immediately in order to win a snap election he called just after the armistice. So the Greek Army was needed to do the imposing of the Treaty of Svres which British Imperial forces were unable to undertake.

But the Greek Army perished just short of Ankara after being skillfully maneuvered into a position by Atatrk in which their lines were stretched. And the two thousand year old Greek population of Asia Minor fled on boats from Smyrna, with the remnants of their army after Britain had withdrawn its support, because the Greek democracy had reasserted its will to have back its King.

What was positive about the Great War on Turkey?

Finally I will end with the one great positive development of the Great War on Turkey – the achievement of Atatrks in leading the Turkish nation to independence from the Imperialist Powers and the establishment of the Turkish State. This was an event that Republican Ireland could only marvel at, from the confines of the 1921 Treaty which ended the Irish Republic and created an Irish state within the British Empire again.

However, the British Empires ultimate demise was set in motion by the successful Turkish war of independence and the humiliation of Britain at Chanak. And that had important ramifications for the Irish who wished to overturn the Treaty in the event of a decline in British power.

Irish Republicans were greatly inspired by what Atatrk had achieved. Britain had closed the Turkish parliament in Constantinople as it had done the Irish parliament in Dublin; it had arrested and interned the Turkish deputies as it had the Irish members of Dil ireann. It had attempted to destroy the new Turkish national assembly in Ankara as it also attempted to prevent the Irish democracy from functioning. It had forced a treaty reluctantly on the Turks as it had done on the Irish. But then Atatrk came along. He overthrew the punitive treaty of Svres dictated by the imperialists at the point of a gun. He defeated and humiliated the most powerful empire in the world and its Army at the height of its power, along the other victors of the Great War. He then negotiated a new treaty at Lausanne which turned Turkey into an independent democracy.

What Atatürk achieved became an inspiration to the Republicans in Ireland who did not accept the restrictions of the Treaty imposed upon them by Britain. And in the coming decades they gained power under the leadership of DeValera and Fianna Fail and began to challenge and undermine the Treaty in the knowledge that Britain was no longer the power it once was since it came up against Ataturk and Turkey.

To conclude, I would say that it isnt going too far to say that Ataturk was not just the father of the Turkish State but he had also something to do with the birth of the independent Irish nation as well.

Dr. Pat Walsh
(Author of Britains Great War on Turkey – an Irish perspective)

 
 
Turkish Weekly is an USAK Publication. USAK is the leading Ankara based Turkish think-tank.

 

 

 
 

 

 

http://www.turkishweekly.net/article/399/britains-great-war-on-turkey-an-irish-perspective.html

 

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