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Campaigns of World War One:
The Ottoman Front  1914-1916


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In 1908 the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks, overthrew the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II to form a secular constitutional government. Enver Bey a leader of this revolution and a hero of the Balkan War became Enver Pasha after he staged a coup in 1913. He was now part of a triumvirate (the Three Pashas) that then ruled the Ottoman Empire, and he personally held control over its military affairs. Having just fought a number of disastrous wars in the Balkans and North Africa, the new Turkish State was willing to accept help from anyone in order to modernize its military and reestablish itself as a major power. Its initial overtures to Britain, France, and Russia failed as none of these empires had interests in propping up the the sick man of Europe as this declining empire had come to be known. Even Germany was hesitant at first but the Kaiser thought that Turkey had the capacity of tying down large amounts of Allied troops should they ever became a partner in war. Germany had already sent General Otto Liman von Sanders to them in 1913 to head their military mission over the objections of other European powers. A secret treaty was signed between the two empires on August 2nd, 1914. In return for receiving German aid, Turkey agreed to attack its old enemy Russia.

The Great War fought within the Ottoman Empire was as much one of political maneuvering and secret agreements as it was of actual combat. There were so many competing interests that no one group or nation had the complete loyalty of another. Cards of unity were produced by both sides but this in no way represents the reality in which friends were ready to betray each other and enemies secretly negotiated. Campaigns were fought with individual goals at the forefront, but since little of this ever reached the public’s ear, it was not often expressed on military or political postcards.

In 1914 Turkey held lands, if only nominally, stretching from Tripolitania (Libya) across the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia (Iraq). Due to the long distances involved, it was always difficult for the Ottomans ruling in Constantinople to properly control their far off territories. Much of the outlying area of the Ottoman Empire saw few visitors. Even their military were hampered when planning operations by the lack of maps of their own territory. This environment did not encourage many postcard publishers to depict much outside of Constantinople and Palestine. Not only were most of these cards printed in Austria and Germany, they were mostly sold outside of the Ottoman Empire. Cards in Arabic and Old Ottoman are relatively hard to find. While established photographers continued to work here during the War years, it proved a difficult balance in trying to satisfy religious pilgrims with mementos against the security concerns of Ottoman authorities.

The Ottoman Front was not one but several independent fronts in which fighting sometimes overlapped. In the Caucasus the Turks fought with the Russians and Armenians, In Persia with the Russians and British. The Turks also fought the British in Mesopotamia, at the Dardanelles, and in Egypt, a front that eventually migrated into Palestine and Syria. Then there was the Arab Revolt on the Arabian Peninsula, and the long standing conflict with the Italians holding Tripolitania. Each of these sectors will be discussed in a block within each posted year, which unfortunately skews some of the chronology.

A note on Language: With the rise of the Young Turks the old notions of Ottomanism, where the diverse subjects of the Empire were given equal status under the law, were pushed aside in favor of Turkish domination. Subsequently the terms Ottoman and Turk were used interchangeably by all sides during the Great War depending on their immediate agenda. The Allied armies on this Front often consisted of large contingencies of Indian and Anzac troops but are sometimes simply referred to here as British because for the most part they were ultimately under the direction of British commanders.



1914


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The Ottoman Empire was not aligned to any of the belligerents before the start of the Great War but they signed a secret military pact with Germany in the beginning of August. On September 27th they closed the Dardanelles to all Allied shipping, thus cutting off an important supply line to Russia. Then on the 28th of October they formally entered the War by launching surprise raids against Russia’s Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Theodosia. Russia then declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 3rd, which was followed by declarations from the other Allies the next day.

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As soon as the Russian commander in the Caucasus learned of the Ottoman attack in the Black Sea, he sent his army towards the heavily fortified city Erzerum on November 2nd, the day before Russia officially declared war. As the Turks pulled back with little resistance, Germany pressed Turkey to further engage the Russians along this front.

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Enver Pasha personally took command over the army at the Caucasus front in December and launched an offensive aimed at Kars. He had the advantage in numbers and set out to surround and destroy the Russian army. This was to only be the first step of his advance on Afghanistan and then India. While he thought a December attack would surprise the Russians, the mountainous terrain hampered swift movements and the severe weather took a heavy toll on his army that was unprepared for a winter campaign. His advance was stopped by the Russians at the Battle of Sarikamish where the Turks suffered great losses and were forced to retreat to Erzerum. This disaster was largely hidden from the Turkish press, and as a result it does not show up on Turkish postcards.

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Believing Mesopotamia would remain quiet, the Turks withdrew most of their forces stationed there so they could fight on more active fronts. The British supported by their Indian troops stationed in Bahrein seized the Ottoman fort at Fav guarding the mouth of the Tigris River in November. From there they quickly pushed up river capturing Basra while the Turks under Suphi Bey fled further north to Qurna where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. Although their only objective was to protect the oil refinery and pipeline at Abadan, their easy victories caused the British to become too ambitious and aim for Bagdad even though it served no military purpose. With no roads in the region, a British flotilla continued northwards up the Tigris River taking Qurna in December.

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The straits at the Dardanelles did not just provide access to the Ottoman capital at Constantinople; the channel was the only shipping lane between Russia’s Black Sea ports and the outside world. Holding the strait was of great importance to the Turks and they began upgrading their existing defenses in August by setting up the Canakkale Fortified Zone, which also included the Gallipoli Peninsular. These new fortifications were tested by the arrival of an Allied fleet in November, which began bombardment. While the Allies achieved nothing of importance, their attacks warned the Turks of their interest in this area, and that Turkish defenses were less than adequate to hold the Allies off for long.



1915


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Even though Persia was a constitutional monarchy that remained neutral throughout the Great War, it was divided into British and Russian spheres of influence that invited interference by the Central Powers. The Russians had maintained a large force of Cossacks in Persia to support the Shah, but most of these troops were withdrawn at the end of 1914 to reinforce the Caucasus Front. When the Turks invaded Persia in January they faced little opposition and quickly captured Urmia and Tabriz. When the Russians realized they had made a strategic mistake, they sent troops back into Persia who under General Nazarbekov pushed the Turks back. By March 1915 the Turks under Khalil Bey launched a larger offensive toward Dilman. While they had some initial success they had to withdraw their army in April to deal with the rebellions among the Armenians and Assyrians.

The Assyrians, a Christian Semitic people, lived in a semi-autonomous region stretching from southern Turkey to northwest Persia. Many served within the Ottoman armies, but they soon became a target of nationalistic purges. They rose up against the Turks in April 1915 and kept them at bay into the summer, but they were defeated by superior arms before Russian reinforcements could arrive. Turk and Kurdish militias then began to massacre the Assyrian people. Most of the Assyrian fighters that survived fled into northern Persia where they formed an army under General Agha Petros. They would then fight alongside the Russians as a military unit.

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The Khedivate of Egypt had long been a province of the Ottoman Empire but it had fallen under nominal British control in the 1880’s. When Turkey entered the Great War Great Britain formally declared Egypt a protectorate in November 1914. Afterwards the protection of the Suez Canal, a vital sea link, became the main British concern in the region. They had pulled all forward units out of the Sinai to set up a stronger defense line right on the canal. Unable to trust the restless Egyptian population, the British brought in reinforcements from India. In January an Ottoman army led by Djemal Pasha marched secretly from Beersheba across the Sinai Peninsula and attacked British defenses. He managed to established a bridgehead across the Suez Canal by February but it could not be held when the British counterattacked.

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When the Turks could no longer maintain their assault on Egypt, they returned to Beersheba and Gaza. There they began to reorganize their army for another attack, but most of these troops were redeployed to Gallipoli before a new offensive could be launched. The British still fearful of loosing the Canal reinforced their presence in Egypt with Anzac troops. They formed a reserve while defensive lines were extended eight miles beyond the Canal into the Sinai Desert.

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By World War One the Suez Canal was already world famous. Its capture by the Turks would not just have seriously interfered with Allied supply lines, it would have been a great propaganda coup. While its name alone was enough to inspire postcard sales, few cards were published depicting the fighting on that front. Even so they are relatively high in number when compared to cards depicting other outlying areas of the Ottoman Empire. Except for the inclusion of Arab dress and camels, these cards tend to be rather nondescript possibly due to lack of first hand coverage. It is only when warships are present that these cards have some distinction. Warships acted as a floating reserve that constantly patrolled the Canal.

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The presence of German troops on postcards that depict campaigns in Libya, the Sinai, and Mesopotamia may at first seem odd considering these were battlefronts within the Ottoman Empire. These are not German fantasies of capturing the Suez Canal or British India; many German soldiers, especially officers, pilots, and machine gun units fought alongside the Turks. It was all part of the German effort to modernize the Ottoman army and instruct them in superior battlefield tactics.

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With movement on the Western Front stalled by the establishment of trench lines, the Allies decided they would apply their resources to opening a supply line into Russia from the Mediterranean. Doing so seemed especially crucial after the string of defeats the Russians suffered in 1914. In February the Allies began their preliminary assault on the Dardanelles by clearing belts of sea mines and further reducing the outer fortifications of the Canakkale Zone through naval bombardment. In March this flotilla that included 16 dreadnoughts attacked the main fortifications in the narrows. The Turk defenses had just about collapsed when three battleships were sunk and three more were disabled. These sudden unexpected losses caused the Allied fleet to withdraw in a panic. Subsequent use of submarines would inflict losses on both Allied and Ottoman Fleets though the summer, but no further attempts to seize the Dardanelles through naval action would be made. Turkish defenses against amphibious landings would be consolidated under the command of General Otto Liman von Sanders.

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Great Britain put great hopes into the campaign for the Dardanelles. They expected the quick victory here would bring in Italy and the remaining Balkan states into the War on the Allied side. Secret agreements had been made in which Russia would take control over Constantinople and the straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean in exchange for not contesting British and French moves into the Middle-East and Persia as spoils of war. Considering the long standing fear of Russia challenging French domination of the eastern Mediterranean, there was never any guarantee that standing arrangements would hold if victory was achieved. Allied postcard publishers dealt little with the politics of the situation, which they were largely not privy to. Generic cards were often issued insinuating that the Ottoman alliance with the wrong side would bring destruction to their Empire as the Central Powers were defeated.

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Unable to clear the minefields in the Dardanelles while under the protection of heavy shore batteries, the Allies opted for a land campaign to seize them. The French launched the first attack against the fortifications on the eastern shore of the Strait to divert Turkish defenders out of Gallipoli. While the French only played a limited role in the overall land campaign for Gallipoli, it seems that their publishers produced a cards displaying their troops in battle in numbers that rivaled the British.

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After the French assault, British and Anzac forces made landings on the west shore of Gallipoli in April with the aim of capturing the commanding heights of the peninsular. The force that landed at Ari Burnu nearly captured the heights, but their slow advance gave Musafa Kemel time to organize a stronger defense and he pushed them back in a counterattack. While the Turks could not drive them into the sea, they did manage to hemmed in the Anzacs troops on a narrow cliffside beachhead. Unable to advance or retreat, both sides entrenched within very close distance of each other, which would lead to many deadly encounters.

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The British who landed on Cape Helles at the southern end of the Gallipoli Peninsula managed to overwhelm the initial Turkish defenders but they squandered their surprise. Moving too slowly inland they would also be confined to their beachhead after Turkish reinforcements arrived. Anzac forces made a number of attempts to break out from their beachheads through June but each attack was met with a counterattack and failed. Casualties quickly mounted on both sides as the situation turned into a stalemate. The Allies never got close enough to the Turkish shore batteries to subdue them.

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In August another landing was made further up on the Gallipoli Peninsula by the British at Suvla Bay. Its main purpose was to distract the Turks while Anzac forces at Ari Burni launched a major assault to break the stalemate. The Suvla Bay landings ended up on the wrong beaches and the British were unable to concentrate their troops for a determined push. Ground was taken at Anzac Cove but the Turks eventually pushed them back at the cost of great losses. All strategic Allied aims were then given up and the war of attrition in the trenches was resumed until the weather turned bad in November. When General Monro took over the Allied command he saw the Gallipoli campaign for the disaster that it was and began secretly pulling his troops out in December. One last Ottoman attack would be made in January 1916 but it accomplished little. Within two days all the Allies had withdrawn from Gallipoli.

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While the best known campaign fought against the Ottomans is probably Gallipoli, it was captured by relatively few European publishes on postcards. Perhaps the lack of progress in this theater did not inspire them to represent it. Most of the postcards that were produced are real photos issued by studios based in Egypt, India, and Australia. While many of these images tend to be rather matter of fact that often fail to capture the true grittiness of the battleground, they did managed to satisfy the needs of the troops who fought there.

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More commemorative postcards of the campaign seem to have been produced in Australia and New Zealand than actual scenes of Gallipoli. Though considered a military disaster, the campaign resonated loudly among Anzac troops, not for its failure but for their brave sacrifice. Men from Australia and New Zealand responded enthusiastically to requests to fight for the empire, and they took great pride in their tenacity. Even though censorship in Australia was not as severe as that found in Great Britain, Australian publishers do not appear to have needed any coaxing in presenting only positive images. Our current associations with the futility of the operation are much stronger now than it was back then, and most publishers of the day took a positive outlook. It wasn’t that they did not understand what had happened, the casualty lists took care of that; it was that they made a distinction between the failure of British leadership and the bravery of their own men. To this day the words Gallipoli and Australians are so inseparable in many people’s minds that it is often forgotten that most of the troops who fought there were British.

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Fearing their disloyalty, Armenians serving as soldiers in the Ottoman army were dismissed and placed into labor battalions early in the year. By April all Armenians became be the target of massacres at the hands of the Turks. This is often cited as the beginning of the Armenian genocide in which the Turks tried to systematically exterminate the Armenians and other ethnic groups that they suspected of aiding the Russians (Turkey still denies this took place). In response an Armenian rebellion broke out in which they seized the fortress of Van. The Russians in the Caucasus then resumed their offensive at Sarikamish forcing the Turks to retreat but they could not take heavily fortified city of Erzurum. Another Russian offensive was also launched in the southern Caucasus reaching Van in May. The Russians continued to advance on Mus in June, but a counter offensive resulted in a number of seesaw battles with the Turks at Malazgirt and Kara Killisse. The Turkish advance was eventually stopped in August but the Russians were forced to evacuate Van.

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Though Germany did not maintain an army in Persia, their agents were building a large paramilitary force of Persian gendarmerie and arming tribesmen who wanted to be rid of the Allied presence. Under German influence Tangestani tribesmen attacked British held forces at Busehr in July. By November the Russians commanded by General Nikolai Baratov sent two armies southward, one into Persian Azerbaijan en-route for Baghdad, and the other towards Ispahan. The second force made up of Russians and Armenians continued forward until they captured Tehran and expelled the Germans agents and their gendarmerie sympathizers who fled westward into Mesopotamia. In December the Shah was pressured into appointing a new pro-Ally cabinet headed by Prince Firman Firma. The British and Russians had already signed a secret treaty back in March that would allow Britain to dominate both southern and central Persia in exchange for Russian control over Constantinople. Now the British formed the South Persian Rifles to police and secure their interests in Persia.

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Even after the Italo-Turkish War ended in 1912, The Ottomans continued to supply Sanusi tribesmen with arms to resist further Italian advances. In April the Italians in Sirtica launched an offensive against the Senussi but were defeated at Al Ghardabiya. By July the tribesmen had driven most of the Italians in Tripolitania back from the interior to their coastal strongholds. In response to this interference Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire in August. There was little the Italians could do since most occupying troops were withdrawn to Italy to fight the Austrians. In October the Ottomans formally annexed Tripolitania and with German help they began supplying the Sanusi with more military aid. With the Italian threat contained, the Senussi began marching against Alexandria, Egypt in November. This operation was supported by German U-boats that sunk several British ships along the coast.

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As the British reinforced their foothold in Mesopotamia, The Turks began launching a number of attacks on their positions near Basra starting in January, but they had little effect. Not content with seeing that the oil pipeline to Persia was secure, British commanders became restless for something that would advance their careers. While there was no need to capture Baghdad, General Charles Townshend was given the go ahead in April provided he was prepared to hold the city. Though this British-Indian force was undermanned for the task ahead of them, they still managed to moved up the Tigris River defeating the Turks at Nasiriya and Kut. Advancing further in November they met up with the Turks entrenched at Ctesiphon resulting in heavy but indecisive fighting. After Turkish reinforcements arrived the depleted British army was forced to retreat back to Kut. The Turks closely followed and placed Kut under Siege in December. A large percentage of the British army in Mesopotamia consisted of Indian troops, and the direction of affairs was split between multitudes of ambitions that often conflicted. This led to the making of unnecessarily ambitious plans and indecision when carrying them out.



1916


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The British in Mesopotamia were reinforced by more troops from India at the beginning of the year, but the relief expedition toward Townshed’s besieged army in Kut was slow in the making. The British could have probably fought their way out before the Turks tightened their grip, but Townshed thought that such a retreat would be bad for his career. When the relief column finally did leave Basra, it failed to reach the city after months of fighting. Alternative attempts to resupply the British at Kut by riverboat and air also failed.

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The Russian advance through Persia continued through the early part of the year. After pushing resistance by gendarmes and local tribesmen aside, they captured Hamedan in January, Kermanshah in February, and Kharind by March. General Baratov’s Russians, now on the Ottoman frontier decided to push forward into Mesopotamia in April to help take pressure off the British besieged in Kut, but just as this new offensive started, Townshend surrendered after being besieged for 146 days. Most prisoners would die on the death march that followed. The Turks were then able to shift their forces northward to protect Baghdad and repulsed the still advancing Russians at Khanikin. The Ottomans then pushed him back further into Persia capturing Kermanshah then Hamadan by August. Baratov continued to retreat northwards into the mountains without being pursued, but he returned to Hamadan in December.

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In January the Russians commanded by General Yudenich launched a winter offensive in the Caucasus defeating the Turks at Koprukoy. The Turks then retreated to their fortified positions at Erzerum but the Russians quickly followed and unexpectedly took the city in February. This allowed them to then move northward to seize Rize and attack Trebizond in conjunction with a naval squadron on the Black Sea. This important port and oil production center fell in April. The Turks had already expelled the Armenians from the area, and now the Russians took revenge on the Muslim population. Some of the fighting from this front would spill over Persia’s border resulting in small scale indecisive fighting for most of the year.

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In June the Turks attempted to retake the Black Sea ports captured by the Russians but failed. To relive pressure on these towns the Russians launched the Coruh Offensive in July taking Bayburt. The Turks counterattacked in August but despite heavy fighting around Erzincan they had only managed to gain modest territory back by September. A very harsh winter set in early, which prevented further campaigning.

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Despite counterattacks, the Senussi advancing from Tripolitania continued to push the British further back along the coast into Egypt until they reached Matrukh. After being reinforced by troops released from the Gallipoli campaign, the British counterattacked again at Agagia in February, which finally forced the Senussi to retreat. A second Senussi offensive was launched in February across the Western Desert in which they captured the band of oasis in Upper Egypt. In October the British attacked the Senussi at the Dakhia Oasis driving them back to Siwa.

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After hostilities broke out between Darfur and Sudan in March, the British had to divert troops facing the Senussi southward in fear of an invasion of Egypt from this new front. The British then launched a spoiling attack in May defeating the Fur army at Beringia and seized their capital, El Fasher. Sporadic fighting continued until October when the last of the Fur were defeated at Gyuba. Darfur was then formally incorporated into the Sudan. Meanwhile back in Tripolitania, Nuri Bey led renewed Ottoman attempts to drive the Italians from the coast.

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There had been much unrest in Arabian Peninsula since 1910, and by 1914 both the British and the Turks were courting loyalties in the region. By the fall of 1915 the British Arab Bureau had negotiated a treaty with the grand sherif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn-Ali, in which he would enter the war against the Ottoman Empire in exchange for ruling over lands captured from them. In May 1916 skirmishing erupted around Medina, any by June the Grand Sherif of Mecca officially proclaimed Arab independence from Ottoman rule, and the Hejaz began their revolt against the Turks. The Turks were making plans to attack Mecca in September but the offensive was called off due to the lack of manpower.

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Captain T.E. Lawrence arrived in October and convinced Emir Faisal, commander of the irregular Arab troops, to coordinate their efforts with the British. The Turks meanwhile dug in at the Holy city of Medina. Too important to Islam for the Turks to abandon, and now too strong for the Arabs to take, Lawrence began orchestrating raids to destroyed sections of the Hejaz railway supplying Medina. This railway running between Damascus and Medina had been constructed for the purposes of aiding Pilgrims heading for Mecca on the annual hajj. It now served as a crucial communication and supply link between various Turkish garrisons and was vigorously defended.

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In April the Turks launched an offensive against the British holding the Sinai in another effort to seize the Suez Canal. After some skirmishing the offensive was halted when troops were siphoned off to deal with the Arab Revolt. The British who had combined various defensive units into the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under General Archibald Murray in March, now began extending their defenses even further out into the Sinai Desert. The construction of adequate supply lines brought this advance to a crawl, but they would eventually reach Rumani unmolested where they could be supported by warships in the Bay of Tina.

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The collapse of Serbia allowed Germany to redeploy some of its troops to Palestine to aid in launching a new offensive to take the Suez Canal. In August the new British defenses at Rumani were put to the test when attacked by a Turkish-German army. The battle swayed back and forth but the Turks were eventually forced to retreat to El Arish. While the British were in no position to immediately follow up their victory, they managed to push forward to the Turkish defenses by the end of the year.




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