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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Ottoman Empire (Turkey)


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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 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. With the rise of the Young Turks the old notions of Ottomanism, where all subjects of the Empire were given equal status under the law, were pushed aside in favor of Turkish domination. This new outlook, which favored racial purity would have grave consequences to other ethnicities within the empire. Subsequently the terms Ottoman and Turk were used interchangeably by all sides during the Great War depending on their immediate agenda.

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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 power. As Turkish nationalism grew, it stirred unrest among other ethnicities within the multi-cultural empire, and revolts grew in number and intensity. A modern military was needed to hold the empire together in the face of this challenge. Turkey’s initial overtures to Britain, France, and Russia failed as none of these empires wanted to prop up the sick man of Europe as this declining empire had come to be known. They would have already dismantled it years earlier had they not been fearful of strengthening each others presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Even Germany was hesitant at first but the Kaiser thought that the Turks had the capacity of tying down large amounts of Allied troops if they became a partner in war.

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Germany had already sent Turkey General Otto Liman von Sanders in 1913 to head their military mission over the objections of other European powers. Russia was particularly incensed, seeing this as a move by Germany to control Russian access to the Mediterranean and the West. Modernization was already in progress when a secret treaty was signed between the two empires on August 2nd, 1914. In return for receiving German aid, Turkey agreed to attack Russia. Some in Turkey believed that a victorious war was needed to get over the trauma of their recent losses.




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On September 27, 1914, Turkey 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 Allied nations the next day.

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The naval war on the Black Sea was largely independent of the campaigns on land. It only reached a level of significance due to the presence of two large German warships, the Goeben and Breslau, which took refugee under Turkish guns in the Dardanelles when the War broke out. They were then added to the Turkish fleet under the names Yavuz and Midilli though they continued to be manned by German sailors. The Russians had little ability to counter these powerful ships and they became a real menace as they raided shipping lanes and bombarded Russian ports. Their supremacy was only briefly challenged after the Russians launched the Imperatritsa Maria in July 1915. The German origin of these ships made them an extremely popular subject on German, Austro-Hungarian, and even Turkish postcards to the point that they were two of the most widely reproduced. They are often depicted either fighting in the Black Sea or at anchor at Constantinople.

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In the years of World War One, Turkey held lands, if only nominally, stretching from Tripolitania (Libya) across the Arabian Peninsula and into 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, and they became difficult to defend once the War arrived. Their most immediate concern was the Caucasus front, which the Russians invaded on November 2, 1914. Unhappy with the poor Turkish response, Enver Pasha personally took command in December and began to dream big. He thought he could surprise the Russians with an overwhelming winter offensive aimed at Kars and then move on to Afghanistan then India. His poor planned attack was stopped by the Russians at the Battle of Sarikamish, and his vision of a short war ended. This disaster was largely hidden from the Turkish press, and likewise it does not show up on Turkish postcards.

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Fearing their disloyalty, Armenians and Assyrians serving as soldiers in the Ottoman army were being dismissed and placed into labor battalions as early as 1914. By April the following year they both became 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. In response an Armenian rebellion broke out, and they would fight the Turks for the remainder of the War. Similarly there were massacres of Assyrians by Turks and Kurdish militias, with survivors fleeing to Persia where they regrouped into an army under General Agha Petros. Both were supported by Russia until the revolution in 1917.

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 invaded in November 1914, quickly capturing Basra while the Turks fled to the north. Although their only objective was to protect the oil fields and pipeline at Abadan, their easy victories caused the commanders to become overly ambitious and aim for Bagdad even though it served no military purpose. Though the British-Indian force led by General Charles Townshend was undermanned for the task ahead of them, they managed to moved up the Tigris River as far as Ctesiphon where the Turks forced them to retreat back to Kut. There they were placed under Siege in December 1915, and none of the many attempts to relieve them succeeded. Once Kut fell in April, most survivors would perish on a death march. Both sides would reinforce this front, and the British would press forward to Baghdad again.

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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 them was of great importance to the Turks and they began upgrading their existing defenses in August by setting up the Canakkale Fortified Zone, which included the Gallipoli Peninsular. With movement on the Western Front stalled by the establishment of trench warfare, the Allies decided they would put their energies into opening a supply line to Russia from the Mediterranean. Doing so seemed crucial after the string of defeats the Russians suffered early in the War. In February 1915 a flotilla began their preliminary assault on the Dardanelles, and by March the Allies seemed assured of an easy victory. As the Allied fleet attacked, the Turks began making preparations to abandon and burn Constantinople. Just as the Turk batteries expended the last of their ammunition the Allied fleet ran into a minefield and withdrew. No further attempts to seize the Dardanelles through naval action would be made.

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Unable to clear the minefields in the Dardanelles while under the protection of shore batteries, the Allies opted for a land campaign to seize these defenses. The failed naval campaign gave fair warning to the Turks that the Allies had their sights on this strategic location, and they stepped up preparations for its defense. In April Anzac forces landed on Gallipoli with the British taking its tip as Cape Helles, but they failed to seize the all important high ground before the Turks under Musafa Kemel hemmed them in on a narrow cliffside beachheads. Unable to advance or retreat, both sides entrenched and a war of attrition began. Another Allied landing was made at Sulva Bay in August but this attack also ended in failure. The stalemate continued until January 1916 when all Allied troops were secretly withdrawn.

Even after the Italo-Turkish War ended in 1912, The Ottomans continued to supply Sanusi tribesmen with arms to resist further Italian advances. The Italians would launch an offensive against the Sanusi in April 1915, but 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 fight the Austro-Hungarians. 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. Though pushed back in February 1916, the Sanusi launched another offensive across the Western Desert in which they captured the band of oasis in Upper Egypt.

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The fighting on the Suez front in Egypt would be far more consequential. The Suez Canal was a strategic link in the sea lanes connecting Britain and India. The Ottomans attacked it from the Sinai in January 1915, and again in April 1916 but both assaults were repulsed. Great Britain had begun deploying large numbers of its dominion forces in Egypt in preparation for the Gallipoli campaign, but once it failed many returned to Egypt so that the defensive war along the Suez could be turned into offensive operations.

By January 1917 the British went on the attack pushing through the Sinai. They were finally stopped by the fortified Ottoman line stretching from Gaza on the Mediterranean inland to Beersheba that protected their supply lines to Arabia and Mesopotamia. The British attacked Gaza in March and again in April but were repulsed both times with heavy losses. While this front held minimum strategic value, it was important for propaganda purposes and both the British and the Germans sent in reinforcements by the fall. In late October the British under Allenby launched a two prong attack pining the Turks down in Gaza while making his main thrust against Beersheba. Unable to defend both points at once, the Turks in Bersheba were nearly surrounded by fast moving cavalry and the city fell in early November.

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There had been much unrest in Arabian Peninsula since 1910, and by 1914 both the British and the Turks were both 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 June 1916 the Grand Sherif of Mecca officially proclaimed Arab independence from Ottoman rule, and the Hejaz began their revolt against the Turks. 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 destroy 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 was now a crucial communication and supply link between various Turkish garrisons and was vigorously defended.

British attempts to trap the Turks in Gaza failed, allowing them made a fighting withdrawal to the outskirts of Jerusalem once their defenses crumbled. There the British scored a victory at El-Mughar Ridge but the reinforced Turks held the British back from Jerusalem for a month. Unwilling to risk the destruction of holy sites, the Turks put up scant resistance when the battle reached the gates of Jerusalem and evacuated the city after one day of fighting. Loss of the Holy City was a severe blow to Ottoman morale. After T.E. Lawrence persuaded the Howeitat tribe to switch sides, this enlarged Arab army led a surprise attack against the port city of Aqaba and took it in July. Now with a secure supply line they turned their attention to the campaign in Palestine, and by the end of 1917 they had joined with Allenby’s army in Jerusalem. The Turks holding Medina were now isolated and put under siege.

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Ever since the initial battles of 1914, there was continual back and forth fighting in the Transcaucasus, extending all the way into Persia through 1916. Though momentum was on the side of the Russians, their advances grew to a halt due to desertions after the February revolution of 1917. When the Armistice of Erzincan was signed on December 16th, the Russians began withdrawing their remaining troops. While Russia’s withdrawal from the War relieved a lot of pressure off the Turks, things were not going well elsewhere. In January 1918 the Yavuz and Midilli both left the Black Sea to make a sortie into the Aegean against the Allies at Salonika. There they ran into a minefield and sunk.

After the Russian Army retreated from Persia and the Caucasus, they would officially end the war with the Ottomans in March 1918 with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In it they were forced to concede the Transcaucasus back to the Turks. Their Armenian and Assyrian allies would be left to fight on their own. The Armenians, now cut off from the Allies, had already been encouraged by the British to hold the line against the Turks. In response the Transcaucasian Democratic Republic was formed consisting of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians who combined their military resources in resistance in February. The British would send in reinforcements from Mesopotamia by summer but they could not hold the region against the new Turkish offensive.

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The Germans promised the Russians they would stop the Ottoman advance into the Transcaucasus in exchange for the oil at Baku, but they had lost their influence over the Turks. This was not just another Turkish offensive, it marked the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani War. Enver Pasha had grand visions of a Pan-Turkish empire and was setting out to not only regain all territory lost to the Russians in the War of 1877 but to conquer Central Asia and perhaps India as well. Relatively few Muslims had ever rallied to the Ottoman cause, so he established the jihadist Army of Islam to be led by Nuri Bey in hopes of gaining more support for this new campaign. This caused strains in German relations as they argued with the Turks over spoils in the East. The Turks then demanded the breakup of the Transcaucasian Republic, which caused Germany to send troops to Georgia in May to protect their own interests. This led to open conflict with the Turks when the Germans moved into Tbilisi. After the Turks signed a separate peace with each of the three new republics in June, they recognized the German occupation of Georgia.

The British and Arab irregulars fighting in Palestine continued to slowly push the Turks back through 1918 until they made a major breakthrough at the Battle of Megiddo in September. From there the British rolled up the Turkish line capturing Haifa, Acre, and Nazareth. By the end of the month the British entered Syria. As the Turks continued to fall back, the British and Arabs advanced. TE Lawrence’s forces holding the British right flank raced up to Damascus, setting it up as the capital for a new provisional Arab government under Faisal on October 1st. The British continued their advance into Damascus, followed by their entry into Beirut, Homs, and Allepo. Turkey’s armies were collapsing, and Mustafa Kemel Pasha rallied what troops he could and set up a last defensive position at Iskenderun to protect Anatolia. The surrender of Bulgaria at the end of September 1918 cut the flow of German supplies to Turkey creating a political crisis. The Young Turks resigned and a new government was then formed under Ahmed Izzet Pasha. With no hope of victory, the Armistice of Mudros was signed at the end of October taking the Turks out of the War.

British counterattacks eventually drove the Sanusi out of Egypt and back into Libya. After the armistice was signed with the Ottomans at the end of October 1918, the Turks and Sanusi in Tripolitania refused to stop fighting. They eventually made their way to Tunisia where they surrendered to the French. The French broke the terms of the surrender sending the Turks off to Italian prison camps while most of the Sanusi were executed.

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During the War the Allies had made a number of agreements with each other on how they would divide up the Ottoman Empire between them after its defeat. These secret arrangements then began to be formalized at the Paris Peace Conference that opened in January 1919. Those feeling they were not being allotted the territories they were promised began taking matters into their own hands. Italians and Serbs began fighting with Albanian nationalists, and in May Greece landed troops at Smyrna marking the beginning of their military campaign in Western Anatolia. Mustava Kemel Pasha, who was now in charge of disbanding the Turkish army began gathering military resources instead. By the following year the Armistice would be broken and war resumed, delaying the breakup of the Empire.




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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 the holy sites of Palestine. While established photographers continued to work here during the War years, it was a difficult balance trying to satisfy both the needs religious pilgrims and Ottoman authorities worried about keeping military secrets. Cards in Arabic and Old Ottoman are hard to find; they were usually captioned in a western tongue to cater to the tourist or pilgrim with cash in their pocket. Most of these cards were actually sold in Europe. These trends continued during the Great War with most military cards of the region being made in Germany. They were most often produced by publishers that were attempting to document the entire War, like E.P. & Co. or in the Zum Gloria Victoria series from Austria. The Austrian publisher J. Gertmayer also produced many of these cards. Postcards from the Allies depicting this region tend to come from lesser known publishers based in Egypt, India, and Australia.

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Not all theaters of war within the Ottoman Empire were treated equally on postcards. Most seem to concern the Gallipoli campaign, and were printed by the Allies despite the disaster it turned into. Failure was not yet foreseen when these cards were first began being published, and later it took on the qualities of a heroic myth for the Anzac troops that fought there. Even today it is perhaps the only military action that people know of from this vast arena. Many of these cards also come from France but they concentrate on the early naval phase because of the heavy involvement of French warships.

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Though the Arab Revolt became one of the most romanticized theaters of the entire War, very few postcards were made that represent any aspect of it. Far more common are those that depict the battles for the Suez Canal. It is not that tis front was particularly outstanding, it is because the Suez Canal had widespread recognition, and familiarity leads to more sales. Even so, most of these cards seem to come from Germany. When the British advanced across the Sinai and into Palestine, the campaign took on more significance but less cards were made to represent it. This seems strange for Palestine was one of the most widely represented locations on postcards before the War. Was this perhaps that people did not want to see images of a modern war from the Holy Land?

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Max Fruchterman was a photographer who set up a studio in Constantinople, and he became the first to create postcards depicting the Ottoman Empire. His cards of views and types, printed in Bavaria by Emil Pinkau, were very popular due to continued interest in Orientalism by tourists. During World War One he began covering military subjects but as distribution became difficult and tourist traffic disappeared he went into bankruptcy, and died in 1918.

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Georg Macco was a German landscape painter who produced scenes of Greece, Egypt, and Palestine before World War One began. Once war broke out, he began painting military subjects that were reproduced on postcards by C. Dunnhaupt back in Dessau, Saxony. While battle lines never reached Constantinople, the movement of troops and prisoners through the city became a popular subject for postcards.




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