The decision of the Ottoman authorities to participate in the first world war (WW1) is considered by most to constitute the final nail in the coffin of Ottoman Caliphate. This disastrous decision formed the pretext that the triple entente powers – Britain, France and Russia used to carve up and occupy what remained of the Ottoman Caliphate. Paradoxically, even though the Ottoman state was only an auxiliary in the conflict, the conditions that the entente powers subjected the Ottoman state to in the Treaty of Sèvres were considerably harsher than those applied to Germany, the main architect of the war.
In the prelude to war, the Caliph Mehmed V and the majority of his administration, clearly understood that after almost a decade of continuous war, including the disastrous Balkan and Turko-Italian war (1911) the Ottoman caliphate was exhausted and could ill afford involvement in another protracted conflict. Hence the Caliph and the majority of his entourage favoured a policy of neutrality in the inevitable conflict between the great powers of the time. This was believed, would give the Ottoman Caliphate time to recover and modernise its economy, military and administration.
But after the Young Turk’s revolution of 1908, the powers of the Caliph were severely curtailed and the triumvirate of the secular nationalist Pashas, Mehmed Talaat Pasha, Ismail Enver Pasha, and Ahmed Djemal Pasha, were the effective rulers of the Ottoman Caliphate -the Caliph having little or no say in important matters of state.
The previous decades had seen an enormous reversal in the fortunes of the Ottoman Caliphate. It had lost almost all its territorial holdings in Europe and North Africa and its control over the Middle East was fragile, militarily and economically it was no match for the European powers. To forestall the imminent dissolution of the state, the Ottoman administration sought alliances with European powers, which in their somewhat naïve opinion would have prevented those very nations from dismembering the caliphate.
The British and French made it clear from the onset that they weren’t interested in any alliance or pact with the Ottoman Caliphate and although Imperial Russia showed some interest, the conditions they suggested reduced the Ottoman Caliphate to a vassal state. Germany, on the other hand, made positive overtures and concluded several treaties and pacts, with the struggling Ottoman state. These included helping the caliphate modernise its army and navy and building the Berlin – Baghdad railway which effectively linked the two ends of the Germany with the Middle East.
But there was a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of Ottoman policy which was aptly pointed out by Rifat Pasha, the then Ottoman ambassador to Paris, who advised that neither side, the central powers or triple entente would hesitate to dismantle the Caliphate and that Germany considered Turkey as merely a pawn in a much greater game and that the Ottoman Caliphate should avoid an alliance with either side. What the Caliphate should have understood was the European powers were colonial in nature and their colonial interests are paramount. No treaty, pact or moral code will ever be allowed to interfere in the pursuit of their economic and strategic interests, so despite assurances, each one of the European powers and even its allies had designs on Ottoman territories. Especially since the upcoming strategic resource – oil, was believed to be in abundance in the region.
The Russians had long converted control of the Bosphorus straits which formed a natural strangle hold on Russian trade and military, whereas its northern ports centred around St Petersburg, froze over during the winter rendering them inoperable. Its warm water ports centred on Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula remained operational all year round, but could easily be choked at the Bosphorus straits.
The French had designs on the Ottoman territories in North Africa, Egypt and the Levant, where it sought to hinder British access to its empire in the east especially India. The Suez canal opened in 1869 and was later seized by the British from the French. It formed an important waterway for the British empire, it shortened the journey for British shipping by over 7,000 km and the French were keen to regain control through occupying Ottoman territories in the Levant.
In the estimation of the British Empire, securing the Ottoman territories in the Middle East was of the utmost importance, in addition to the emerging mineral wealth that was being discovered in the region. The Middle East afforded its occupiers easy access to British held territories in Persia and India. Furthermore, occupation of the Middle East by any of its European rivals would complicate British trade routes to India -the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Hence occupying the Middle East to exclude its potential competitors especially the Germans was considered essential by Britain.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire converted Ottoman territories in the Balkans and had seized Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottomans in the recent Balkan war.
The Germans, although nominally the allies of the Ottoman state, in actuality had their own interest at heart, the concepts of Weltpolitik and Mitteleuropa enshrined the creation of a German dominated middle and eastern Europe and a colonial world empire. The German pact with the Ottoman Caliphate was simply a cynical ploy to divert Russian forces from the eastern front and a plan to tempt Bulgaria and Romania into the Central Powers nexus. Its participation in the Berlin to Baghdad railway project, was to open the Middle East to German manufactured goods and to facilitate the movement of the German military to the borders of the British Empire. The wellbeing of the Ottoman Caliphate was not on the German list of priorities.
The Ottoman state found itself at the centre of this colonial intrigue, with all powers having some designs on Ottoman territory. Some commentators have even suggested that the dispute concerning partition of the Ottoman state between the European powers was the actual reason for the outbreak of the first world war.
With the signing of the Anglo-Russian entente in 1907, a combined Anglo-Russian campaign against the Ottomans seemed a likely scenario. The Ottoman state, desperate for an outcome that preserved its territorial integrity, was pushed into the sphere of influence of the Germans. The Caliph and his closest advisors favoured a policy of neutrality. On the other hand, Enver Pasha, one of the three Pashas and a leader of the Young Turks (a man also known for his flamboyance and self-aggrandising) was in favour of forming a pact with the Germans. Despite a warning from Rifat Pasha that the Germans were exaggerating their strength, on 14th August 1914, Enver Pasha concluded a secret pact with Germany, committing the Ottoman state to the German cause. The existence of this pact at one point was only known to five individuals in the Ottoman state.
Although the German-Turkish pact was an agreement of mutual support, there was no requirement for the Ottoman Caliphate to start hostilities with any nation when Germany declared war on the entente powers on 2nd August 1914. The agreement simply called for mutual support and not a declaration of war. It was the ruinous actions of the nationalist Enver Pasha and his German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, that precipitated the entry of the Ottoman state in to the war.
Unbeknown to Kamal Pasha the Naval Minister or anyone else in the Ottoman administration, Enver Pasha ordered Souchon to manoeuvre in the Black Sea and attack the Russian fleet if a suitable opportunity presented itself. On 29th October, Souchon was on his preferred warship, the Goeben. Several destroyers accompanied him. He opened fire on shore batteries on Sevastopol. In response to this attack Russia declared war on the Ottoman state on 1st November 1914, with France and Britain declaring war on the 5th and 6th November respectively.
In reference to this action, Mehmet Cavit Bey, the Finance Minister, was one of four ministers to resign, declaring, “It will be our country’s ruin—even if we win.”
As many will be celebrating the centenary of WW1 and remembering the fallen soldiers the victors of WW1 have written the history of the conflict and this has become the narrative many are taught in schools. WW1 was in reality a conflict between empires, the British Empire was preserving its empire whilst the Germans were looking to expand hers. The Ottomans were caught in between this all and shared between the victors.