4.8 The Eastern Front and the Ottoman Empire

The Great War

Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, long considered the “sick man of Europe” by European politicians, proved a far more resilient enemy than expected. In 1908, well before the war began, a coup of army officers and political leaders known as the Committee of Union and Progress but more often remembered as the “Young Turks” had seized control of the Ottoman state and embarked on a rapid program of western-style reform (including a growing obsession with Turkish “racial” identity at the expense of the Empire’s other ethnicities). With war clouds gathering over Europe in 1914, the Young Turks threw in their lot with Germany, the one European power that had never menaced Ottoman territories and which promised significant territorial gains in the event of a German – Turkish victory.

In 1915 British forces staged a full-scale invasion of Ottoman territory which rapidly turned into an outright disaster. In a poorly-planned assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula near Constantinople, hundreds of thousands of British Imperial troops (including tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders recruited to fight for “their” empire from half a world away) were gunned down by Turkish machine guns. In the months that followed, British forces failed to make headway against the Ottomans, with the Ottoman leadership rightly judging that the very survival of the Ottoman state was at stake in the war.

Lindsay, Norman. "The Trumpet Calls." 1914 – 1918.
Lindsay, Norman. “The Trumpet Calls.” 1914 – 1918. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. April 19, 2008.

In 1916, however, British forces focused their strategy on capturing the eastern stretch of the Ottoman Empire: Mesopotamia, the site of the earliest civilization in human history (and which became the country of Iraq in 1939). The British made steady progress moving west from Mesopotamia while also supporting an Arab nationalist insurgency against the Ottomans from within the Ottoman borders. By 1917 Ottoman forces were in disarray and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire looked all but certain.

Even as British and French politicians began plans to divide up the Ottoman territory into protectorates (dubbed “mandates” after the war) under their control, however, the Young Turk leader Mustafa Kemal launched a major military campaign to preserve not Ottoman but Turkish independence, with the other ethnicities that had lived under Ottoman rule either pushed aside or destroyed. In one of the greatest crimes of the war, Turkish forces drove hundreds of thousands of Armenians from their homes across deserts to die of abuse, exhaustion, hunger, and thirst when they were not slaughtered outright. To this day, the Turkish government (while admitting that many Armenians died) denies what historians have long since recognized: the Armenians were victims of a deliberate campaign of genocide, with over 600,000 killed.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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