The Collapse of the Ottoman Era in the Diaries of Soldiers

Discussions on the final era of the Ottoman Empire, from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
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Peter H
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The Collapse of the Ottoman Era in the Diaries of Soldiers

Post by Peter H » 27 Apr 2007 15:15 ... n-era.html
Salim Tamari, a faculty member of Birzeit University and a visiting professor in the history department here, presented an interesting talk today at Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His talk, "Palestine 1915: The Collapse of the Ottoman Era in the Diaries of Soldiers from the Great War," sought to unsettle both the Turkish as well as the Arab nationalist historiography of World War One using the diaries of a lieutenant and a private serving in the Imperial Fourth Army commanded by Jamal Ahmad Pasha.

The Fourth Army fought in the Levant, at Suez, and in the Hijaz. The informants on whom Tamari relied were initially garrisoned in Jerusalem. Both of these diarists exemplified the complex, situational identities that were the norm in the Ottoman Middle East. According to Tamari, Lieutenant Muhammad al-Fasih, who hailed from Mersin (Iskandarun, which is now in Turkey, near the Syrian border), was a "Turkified Arab." Private Ihsan Hasan al-Turjman, on the other hand, was an "Arabized Turk" from the Old City of Jerusalem. As his last name indicates, members of his family were employed as translators. While the "Arabized Turk" died in 1917 (in murky circumstances on which more later), the "Turkified Arab" went on to become a decorated officer in the Kemalist army after the war. It was indeed only after WWI that their national identities crystallized. Tamari argued that this was the case for many Ottoman subjects in the Levant.

With his talk, Tamari hoped to undermine two dominant narratives in the historiography of the Great War. Both of these histories feature the motif of betrayal. On the one hand, Arab nationalist historians have represented the story as driven by the Turanian (pan-Turkic) betrayal of the Istanbul and Ottoman elite, which had allegedly abandoned the idea of an integrated constitutional regime of citizenship that would include Arabs and grant them a certain amount of cultural autonomy (such as Arab-language instruction in schools). These historians point to the aggressive Turkification campaign waged by the triumvirate of Enver, Tal'at, and Jamal Pasha. The Turkish side, on the other hand, believes that the Arabs betrayed the empire, pointing to the Hashemite alliance with the British and the fact that Egypt never rebelled.

Often occluded by these narratives is the fact that more Arabs fought in the Ottoman army than took part in the Arab Revolt on the side of the Husseinis and the Syrian nationalists. Indeed, alongside Albanians, Bulgarians, Kurds, and Turks, Arabs made up 1/3 of Ottoman forces. Tamari estimated that perhaps half of the 97,000 Ottoman troops who died at Gallipoli were from the Levant, Egypt, or the Hijaz. In the annual commemorations attended by ANZAC and Turkish veterans representatives nowadays, all of the fallen Ottoman soldiers have been retroactively Turkified.

In the Holy Land more specifically, pro-Ottoman affinities were and remained strong among the Arabs. It was hard for many inhabitants of the Jerusalem mutasarrifate to imagine themselves as cut off from a network that included Halab (Aleppo), Beirut, Damascus, and Anatolia. Many supported the idea of a federated Arab-Turkish Ottoman state, an idea that was also contemplated by parts of the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad). Arab nationalists, on the other hand, favored either an independent Greater Syria to be ruled by Prince Faysal from Damascus. There was also the option of an independent Palestine, which has of course received a lot of prominence in the historiography.

One other option that Tamari unearthed using the diaries, which he claims was part of the discourse, was the "decentering of Palestine." Palestine, as he pointed out, of course, was not an Ottoman administrative unit at the time. It probably makes more sense to speak of the Jerusalem district, which the Ottomans imagined as stretching from Jaffa in the north, to the southern part of Nablus, and including all of the Sinai peninsula. Private Ihsan reports that based on this Ottoman conception of the area, many people between 1915-1916 were contemplating a union of this area ("Palestine") with Khedeval Egypt. The reasoning was that the British would not allow the Jerusalem district to unite with Syria, for fear of it falling under French control. The private, as Tamari noted, obviously could not have known that such a union would have contradicted British promises to the Jewish national movement, which became known with the Balfour declaration in 1917.

Obviously, this option became moot when the Egyptians did not rise up against the British, and when Allenby forced the Ottoman army northward as the British and their allies invaded from the south. Nevertheless, according to Tamari, pro-Ottoman forces remained strong in Nablus, Akko, and Haifa.

The other part of Tamari's talk was devoted to the disintegrating effects of the Great War on Ottoman society in the Levant. The conscription of so many young men, combined with a locust attack in the spring of 1915 and the requisitioning of remaining crops by the Fourth Army, led to widespread starvation. The hunger and the breakdown of traditional society led to radical transformations, especially in urban centers. Adult men disappeared from the public sphere and an increasing number of women were forced to earn a living, though their options were extremely limited. Many turned to prostitution. Official bordellos for soldiers were established in Jaffa, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem (which supposedly had 12 such institutions). Private Ihasan noted this collapse of his society with observations of prostitutes walking to the Damascus Gate.

The Great War also meant the end of a certain kind of localism. Tamari pointed to a declaration by Ihsan that he "will even go outside Jerusalem to get married." Such a statement would have been unthinkable before the war, the sociologist explained. But with so many soldiers being garrisoned far away in the empire (it was Ottoman policy to try to station soldiers far away from their homes; hence, Albanians and Bulgarians in Jerusalem, and so many Arabs at Gallipoli), and with the stablishment of railroad lines (aided by German military engineers) and the building of roads, local affinities began to break down. Ottomanist as well as nationalist identities competed to fill the void.

I will add two more notes of interest. Private Ihsan was killed in 1917, most likely by his commanding officer. This commanding officer, an Albanian, had apparently been harassing the private for months - "he had fallen deeply in love with Ihsan, who would have none of it." After Ishan complained to the commander, another Albanian, the would-be lover was demoted. Ihsan's C.O. then threatened him with death several times, coming to his house and seeking him out elsewhere. Until Tamari's discovery, the private's family had claimed that he was shot for deserting.

The actual finding of Ihsan's diary in the first place is also noteworthy. Tamari discovered the manuscript in the Hebrew University library. It did not have a name on it, and only through some sleuthing and a measure of good luck (which involved cross-referencing with another diary of a person who turned out to have been Ihsan's teacher) did Tamari discover the identity of the journal's author. In the Hebrew U. archive, the manuscript is filed under "absentee property." Tamari believes that it was probably found in an abandoned Arab home in East Jerusalem in 1967. He added that it was good that the Israelis found it, because if Ihsan's family members knew that it would come to light, they would probably have destroyed it.

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Peter H
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Arabs in Ottoman service

Post by Peter H » 28 Apr 2007 09:42 ... 50_012.pdf
Not only the Christians were kept separate. As far as I have been able to make out, the units of the Ottoman Army were ethnically uniform up to the level of regiments or even divisions German officers routinely speak of 'Arab divisions' and 'Tuikish divisions'. The Bntish reports do the same. We frequently find Statements such as 'the 51st division is composed of good Anatohan Turks and Kurds' and 'the 141st and 142nd Regiments are Arab and Syrian' This is only to be expected as regiments had their own regulär recruiting areas There were exceptions —we do find evidence of mixed units—but this most probably was due to the fact that in the last phase of the war many units were so far below strength that they had to be broken up and merged with other ones.

Arab troops, of which there were many, were pnmarily used for garnson and lines ol cornmunication duties, but sheer lack of manpower meant that, increasingly during the war, the Ottoman government had to use Arabs from Syria and Iraq in front line fighting units (by the end of the war four out of ten divisions on the Palestine front were Arab), but these were considered inferior to the Turkish troops. This showed for instance when prisoners of war were exchanged. The Ottomans used to insist that they be given 'real Turkish troops, not Arabs' in exchange for British troops and offered only Indian troops in exchange for Arabs. In Liman von Sanders's opinion the Arab troops were not necesarily bad,but needed 'just but strict command'. Kress considered them 'more lively and intelligent, but less reliable' than the Anatolian troops.

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Post by Peter H » 28 Apr 2007 09:46

The forgotten Arabs of Gallipoli
By Jonathan Gorvett in Istanbul

Wednesday 14 January 2004

At a small but moving ceremony on 8 January, hundreds of Turks marked the 88th anniversary of the end of a famous first world war – Gallipoli.

Fought on a peninsula at the mouth of the Dardanelles Straits, this failed attempt by the British and French Empires to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and occupy Istanbul has gone down in history for its savagery and heroism.

The ceremony honoured a Turkish victory, not an Ottoman one, however - a fact some historians are now beginning to question, particularly as this version leaves out the important role of a major part of the Ottoman army – Arab soldiers.

“The Arabs are not mentioned much in the history,” says Selim Meric, a member of the historical society of the town of Eceabat, located close to the old battlefields.

“It is only in diaries of the time that you find reference to them. They have been forgotten.”

Disputed role

During the First World War, Arab troops fought on every front – in what are now Egypt, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, as well as in eastern Turkey and Galatia.

In Ottoman times, the government in Istanbul had a concerted policy of transferring Arab troops away from their native lands, deploying them in Anatolia. Meanwhile, Turks from Anatolia were often deployed in Arabian lands.

Nowadays, many Turks see the Arab role in the First World War only as one of betrayal, referring to the revolt in the Arabian Desert partly assisted by the British officer TE Lawrence.

However, historian Gurcel Goncu dismisses this “stab in the back” theory. “This is a cliché,” he says. “It is not about us being stabbed in the back, but about our shooting ourselves in the foot. The empire was a huge land with many different and varied cultures.”

Having lost the concept of that diversity, the Ottomans lost the loyalty of their subjects, he argues.

Significant battle

With an estimated 300,000 Arabs in the Ottoman forces in 1914, a third of the total men under arms, there were far more Arabs serving in the ranks of the Ottoman army than those who followed the banners of the Arab revolt, Goncu points out.

However, Gallipoli is now claimed as only a Turkish victory. It was there that Colonel Mustafa Kemal twice thwarted Allied attacks, saving an empire that he would then overthrow. Later, he was to become better known as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Yet, historians now point out it was with the help of Arab troops that his reputation was built.

“Two thirds of the troops who made up his 19th Division that faced the first wave of the Allied invasion were Syrian Arabs, comprising the 72nd and 77th regiments of the Ottoman army,” says Turkey-based Australian writer and historian Bill Sellars.

The battle was highly significant for Australians too, as they made up an important part of the British imperial forces at Gallipoli. Their experience during the campaign – alongside New Zealanders, who together became known as the ANZACs – helped forge Australia’s own national identity.

Huge losses

In total, 52,000 men of the invading force were killed during the year-long campaign. An estimated 87,000 Ottoman troops died in the defence of the Gallipoli peninsula and the Dardanelles Strait, the strategic waterway that in part links the Aegean to the Black Sea.

Many of those who fell were Arabs, though as elsewhere, they were often unwilling recruits to the Ottoman colours.

An Australian airforce officer, Captain Thomas White, captured by the Ottomans in Iraq in 1915, wrote in his diary of conscripted Arab troops being brought in for training from the region near Mosul, where he was being held prisoner.

"Roped together by the shoulders and further secured in pairs with wooden handcuffs," he wrote, "strings of footsore Arabs arrived to be trained; food for cannon on some distant front."

They varied in age from mere boys to white-bearded patriarchs, rounded up from villages already depleted of horses, arms and food, and marched great distances by mounted gendarmes who drove them with whips like cattle.

"The survivors of this hard school, when sufficiently tractable, were armed with nondescript weapons, and given a course of recruit training that was as inefficient as it was ludicrous."

No memorials

At least some of these survivors would have found unmarked graves on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The Turkish government recently agreed to the construction of a new series of memorials for the Gallipoli battlefields, with monuments to the separate Allied countries who served in the campaign, as well as adding more commemorative sites for their own troops.

Monuments are planned for the Ottoman’s German allies, along with the other nations that served with the British and French imperial forces such as Canada and Ireland.

However, the remembrance of both the vanquished and the victors will not extend to the Arab soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, lost in the rewriting of history.

Nowadays, walking among the few cemeteries established by the Turkish government on the battlefield, one comes across graves of men from Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and Makka.

They lie in a foreign country, each headstone marked by a flag that is not their own.

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Post by stevebecker » 29 Apr 2007 00:53


Bill mentioned something on the LH Assoc webb site that I feel may be part of this.

There is now a push by the Syrian Govt to get some Tourist dollars like the Turks are getting at places like Gallipoli.

So they are playing up there part and places in that countries that took part in that war.

Of cause allied Intell reports of the arab formations in the Turkish Army are not very good when they mention them compared to what they say about the Anitolian Turkish soldier.

The Arab soldier was more likely to desert his fellows either to the enemy or elsewhere and was the first to give information on them also.

I think you or Tosun have mentioned the desertion rate of Arab Divisions on there way to the front before.

Of cause most arab soldiers were hijacked from the homes so that should be expected.


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Post by Peter H » 29 Apr 2007 02:14

Thanks mate,interesting.

Dr Yigal Sheffy found that the British Army's intelligence assessments of the Ottoman Army in Palestine in the early days of the war characterized Anatolian infantry divisions as "elite" or "crack"...increasingly as the war went on,the Turks came to rely on a hard core of Anatolian etnically Turkish combat divisions.Among the best of the Turkish infantry divisions were the 1st,3rd,5th,7th,8th,9th,10th,19th,51st and 52nd.

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