Turkey: a veteran nation of Gallipoli

Soldiers who died defending the coastline of Gallipoli a century ago are mourned and remembered in Turkey today

The Ottoman troops engaged in fierce trench warfare while defending the Gallipoli coastline from the Allies in World War I.

Updated Mar 23, 2017
Murat Sofuoglu Murat Sofuoglu is a staff writer at TRT World @Readingavenue

CANAKKALE/GALLIPOLI, Turkey —  On November 14, 1914, more than a century ago, Sultan Mehmed Reshad V, the ruler of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, declared Jihad (holy war) against the Allied forces in World War I. Resad, who was considered the Islamic caliph, distributed thumbnail-sized books across the Muslim world that carried a decree in Arabic letters, calling on Muslims to support the Ottomans.

Ali Haydar Efendi, the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, read out the decree from the pulpit of the Fatih Mosque on the same day. He described the military advances of the Allies as "an attack on the Islamic Caliphate".

Resad also dispatched the tiny booklets with letters to military, religious and community leaders in the Balkan states, Iran, India and other Muslim-dominated countries.

A century later, a copy of the booklet is preserved in the office of Ahmet Uslu, a local historian in western Turkey's Canakkale province. "Let me show you something interesting and powerful that many people don't know about," Uslu told TRT World, while reaching toward his cupboard.

He took out the booklet, which was as small as a piece of bubble gum, and ran his fingers over its tin-foiled cover, which had a picture of Sultan Resad engraved on it.  "Even though the book is so small, the letters in it can be easily read. Look how clean the writing is," Uslu said.

Turkish historian Ahmet Uslu has preserved a tiny booklet that carries the Ottoman Caliph Sultan Resad's call for a Jihad against Allied powers during World War I. (Mehmet Imamoglu/TRT World)  

Uslu graduated with a degree in history from Ankara University in 1980. Since then, he has been collecting military souvenirs, chronicling the famous battle of Gallipoli in World War I.  

A tall man in his late fifties with a well-trimmed beard, Uslu also owns a war museum in a nearby village called Seddulbahir, where a variety of battlefield items are showcased: gallantry medals, pocket watches, rusty bullets and swords. The items belonged to soldiers who fought for the Ottoman Empire.

“There is no war like it [Gallipoli] in Ottoman history," Uslu said, "No other war affected the Turkish psyche quite like Canakkale (Gallipoli).”  

In modern day Turkey, the battle of Gallipoli carries a symbolic weight. While it gives the nation a reason to celebrate its most crucial victory — which reshaped the political imagination of Ottoman subjects — it also means an immeasurable loss, a reason to mourn tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers, who gave up their lives fighting the Allied forces.

For the Ottoman military, Gallipoli, or what the Turks call Canakkale, was strategically important. The Allies wanted to force the Ottomans out of World War I by passing through the Dardanelles Strait and capturing its capital, Istanbul. Gruelling naval warfare began on March 18, 1915, as the enemy ships cruised toward the coast of Gallipoli.

The Ottoman military, which comprised Turks, Arabs, Bosnians, Albanians, Kurds and Circassians, launched an artillery attack at the enemy ships and sank three of them by the end of the day. The Royal Navy of Britain took a serious hit, which historians say was the worst one ever since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Though the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, the March 18 victory boosted the morale of the Ottoman army and triggered the first wave of nationalism among the Turks.  

“Canakkale is a victory achieved by an army which had retreated for the last 200 and 250 years. A nation which went through the Balkans defeat resurrected in Canakkale. 1915 is a date when we gained the spirit of Canakkale,” Muhammet Erat, a history professor at the town’s March 18th University, told TRT World.

“Canakkale marked a new age in which the Turkish nation reasserted its own identity and was being resurrected.”

The battle of Gallipoli still evokes strong feelings among the citizens of modern-day Turkey. The current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently referred to it while speaking about the upcoming referendum, in which Turkish people will either vote for or against the move to transform the current parliamentary system into a presidential model.

On March 18, the 102nd anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, Erdogan drew historical parallels what he called the "western intervention" in the upcoming referendum and accused European countries of hampering Turkey’s rise in the region in recent years.

“They [Europeans] know what this kind of [radical constitutional] change means for Turkey," Erdogan said. "A century ago, when they came to [Gallipoli] to offer condolences to the Turks whom they described as 'the sick man [of Europe]', [the same Turks] defeated them soundly and they never forgot this [fact].”

On the 102nd anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign, Turkish people arrived on the coastline of Canakkale to pay homage to the dead soldiers. (AA)

The call to arms

Masterminded by Winston Churchill, who later became the prime minister of Britain during the World War II, the Gallipoli campaign failed miserably on the naval front. To attempt to break the Ottoman defences, the allies launched a land invasion, deploying about 400,000 soldiers in the largest amphibious attack in the history of warfare.

The peninsula of Gallipoli was the first Ottoman and Muslim territory in the European continent conquered by the early Ottomans in the middle of the 14th century. Fatefully, 550 years later, the Ottomans held their last stance against the two most powerful western European states, the British and French, while defending the same peninsula.

The Ottoman leadership called for a military recruitment under the slogan of "To Canakkale!" in all the corners of the empire. As many as one million men, according to war historian Uslu, set out to join the fighting. Even though many of them never made it there, or were deployed elsewhere, for their families they were “in Canakkale,” Uslu said.

The inflow of recruits was overwhelming. The empire sent them to other locations along with the survivors of the Gallipoli, many of whom died saving the battle fronts like Galicia. Yet in the popular Turkish imagination, whoever died in World War I, is viewed as having died “in Canakkale,” according to Uslu, who has recorded hundreds of accounts from WWI Ottoman veterans' families.

The trauma Ottoman soldiers went through was enormous and for many unbearable. Out of 253,000 casualties in Gallipoli, more than 20,000 ended up in mental asylums. At least 57,000 Ottoman soldiers died and over 100,000 were wounded in the campaign. A century later, almost every Turkish town has a story of Gallipoli.

Uslu narrated the story of one veteran named Hasan, who had lost his leg in the battle. When he returned home without a leg, his fiancee left him. He used an iron leg as a replacement, which is now in Uslu’s war museum.

The statute of Corporal Seyit, one of the Gallipoli veterans, in Canakkale. (Resul Simsek/ TRT World)

The battle also brought out the impossible from the Ottoman soldiers. Corporal Seyit, a poor Turkish peasant from Havran in northwestern Anatolia, sank the British battleship named HMS Ocean, on March 18th. His shell crane was hit and destroyed by the enemy artillery, so he famously lifted three cannon shells weighing about 275 kg each and loaded them on his 240/35 mm cannon. He then fired them at the warship.

After the war, when he was asked to lift a similar shell and pose for a photograph, he could not lift it. But he maintained that "If war breaks out again,” he will “lift it again."

The rise of a new leader

The Gallipoli campaign not only evoked a sense of Turkish nationalism, it also gave the country a new leader, Mustafa Kemal.

Mustafa Kemal served as a lieutenant colonel in the Ottoman army. When the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Corps) landed on the Sari Bair range on the midnight of April 25, the Turkish forces were not ready to engage them.

Mustafa Kemal was the commander of the 19th division. He received a late night order from his superiors to send a battalion to counter the Anzac march at 6:30 am. By then, the Anzacs were already climbing the tiny hillside named Chanuk Bair, a crucial landing point for the Allied forces. Military experts believe that if the Anzacs had captured Chanuk Bair, the Allied forces would have gained an upper hand in the Gallipoli campaign.

But Mustafa Kemal's military finesse made it hard for the allied troops to make any geographical gains. Apart from overseeing his battalion, he chose to face the enemy lines by himself — a crucial decision that shaped both his career and the future of modern day Turkey.

A company of Ottoman army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who played a key role during the Gallipoli Campaign. (AA/Archive)

On April 25, when the Anzacs launched a land invasion, he ordered his best troops, the famous 57th regiment, to join the fight. In times of immense difficulty, Mustafa Kemal spoke the words of courage and inspiration: “I don’t order you to attack, I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die other troops and commanders can take our places.”

By the end of the day, most soldiers of the 57th regiment were dead. By the end of the World War I, the regiment had lost all its soldiers. As a mark of respect, the Turkish Armed Forces continues to maintain the 57th regiment, but without any living members.

“From the Allies’ point of view it was one of the cruellest accidents of the campaign that this one junior Turkish commander of genius should have been at this particular spot at this moment, for otherwise the Australians and New Zealanders might very well have taken Chanuk Bair that morning, and the battle might have been decided then and there,” wrote Alan Moorehead, a well-known Australian war correspondent, and the writer of Gallipoli.

With the Ottomans losing most of their territory by the end of the World War I, the empire’s top military leadership left the country, fearing a public backlash. Though the war was disastrous for the empire, many Turks looked up to a new leader in the shape of Mustafa Kemal, who was promoted to the rank of general for his outstanding gallantry during the Gallipoli campaign. He gave the majority of Ottoman subjects the hope necessary to leave behind what was lost and look ahead to build a new future.

The foundation of Republic

In 1919, a few months after the World War I, Mustafa Kemal faced new adversaries: Greece saw an opportunity to take land from the crumbling Ottoman Empire and invaded the western domains of Anatolia.

It took Mustafa Kemal‘s forces four years to defeat the Greek incursion, which was backed by the Allies. In 1923, he led a political movement called Kuvayi Milliye [National Forces] to establish the Republic of Turkey, a modern nation-state.

He took Ataturk, which means the father of the Turks, as his surname. Known for his strong commitment to secular values, Ataturk's political ideas were quite in sync with French laicism, a radical interpretation of secularism that is nowadays seen in the form of the headscarf ban in public schools in France.

Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic on similar principles, dissolving the Muslim caliphate and the Ottoman sultanate. Though he positioned himself as a man who distanced himself from Islamic traditions, he always wanted to have Gazi, which literally means a veteran of Jihad, as his initial title.

One of the reasons for this particular choice could be hidden in the fact he was leading an army which “was the last army of Islam,” in the words of a Turkish poet, Yahya Kemal Beyatli, who dedicated his poem to the definitive Turkish victory against the Greeks on August 26, 1922.


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By Yasmine Ryan

Every year, Turks remember the most significant victory of the Ottoman Empire on March 18, as well at least 57,000 lives that were lost fighting off the Allied invasion at Gallipoli. Its echoes continue to resonate today.READ MORE