The Turks suffer heavy losses in the Caucasus
It is Sunday 27 December 1914. It is the 27th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
The Belgians occupy German trenches east of Lombardsijde and take prisoners of war.
The Germans attack Dunkirk from the air.
Both the Germans and the Austrians have to continue their marching off in Poland and Galicia.
Incited by the Austrians Albanian troops make a futile attack on Montenegran posts.
In Berlin the German commanders Erich von Falkenhayn and Erich Ludendorff and their Austrian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf get together to confer.
The War Council in London is bending over Winston Churchill’s plan to joint the Russians via the Gallipoli peninsula, before Constantinople.
In the English Channel German submarine U-24 sinks British flagship Formidable, killing 547 crew members.
The British create a new decoration, the Military Cross, for officers in the lower ranks.
And the Russians get the upper hand in the battle of Sarikamish, which is a downright failure for the Turkish minister of war, Enver Pasha.
Whoever in present-day Turkey wants to stand up for democracy, civil rights and the separation of State and Mosque, should go to the Monument of Liberty in Istanbul. It was erected three years before the Great War: a gun firing into the sky in memory of the 74 soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to prevent the return of an absolute monarch.
A westerner who wants to lay his bouquet there as a child of the Enlightenment, will hesitate when seeing the names Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Talaat Pasha is the man who is associated with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Enver Pasha was in the same period the minister of war and commander-in-chief, who was also called ‘the little Napoleon’, a title he could rather lay claim to posthumously than when alive. Enver Pasha was anything but a great strategist. But his poor remains could make the return trip to Istanbul, just as Napoleon’s bones were allowed back to Paris from Saint Helena. It was not until 1996 that Enver Pasha was entrusted to the Monument of Liberty.
There is another parallel between Napoleon Bonaparte and Enver Pasha. Both seriously underestimated the deadly combination of the frosty cold and the Russians as enemies. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was frozen to the bone in 1812, just like Enver Pasha’s Third Army around the turn of the year in 1914. Only 12,000 of the 90,000 soldiers that he sent fighting returned home.
The Causasus formed the backdrop for this dreadful battle. Turks and Russians had already met there with each other in 1877. Enver Pasha was the man to see some good in cornering the Russians again in the Caucasus. It was a long way from Saint Petersburg, where the Russians had first and foremost focussed on the battlefields in the east of Europe. The German Liman von Sanders, military advisor of the Ottomans, dissuaded Enver Pasha from attacking in the Caucasus. In vain, however. The Battle of Sarikamish, which lasted from 22 December 1914 till 17 January 1915, was to end in a military tragedy for the Ottomans.
Long before 1914 it became clear that the Ottoman Empire had had its day. Following the track of their first sultan Osman I, the Turks had become a power to be reckoned with in three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottoman Empire staggered on as the ‘sick man of Europe’, a somewhat peevish diagnosis attributed to the Russian Czar Nicholas I. But it was true that both militarily and economically speaking the Turks had only little to add.
In the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had to surrender more of its territory to Europe quickly. In 1908 Austria-Hungary had been able to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina just like that. Three years later young Italy managed to fulfill its colonial ambitions by founding Libia in North Africa at the cost of the Ottomans. Also islands like Rhodes and Kos were passed on from Constantinople to Rome. And another year later a league of Balkan nations chased the Ottomans away fom their last piece of European soil.
So the Turks found themselves hardest hit, yet there was some talk of new panache. The Young Turks had seized power in 1908. They were a mysterious and elusive group of people, who more formally passed off as the Committee of Union and Progress. Originally the Young Turks had believed in leftist liberalism. Their organisation reminded of the freemasonry. They specifically reacted against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had sidelined the Turkish constitution and had started to revamp the Ottoman Empire along the lines of the Islam.
After the revolt of 1908 things looked promising. In ‘young Turkey’ liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to apply. Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Turks became each other’s equals within the parliamentary framework of a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II was traded in for his brother Mehmet V, who was to remain an insignificant sultan until a few months before the end of the First World War. The Young Turks invested considerably in education and public services, but soon they appeared to conduct a nationalistic programme as well.
The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire had to be stopped. Minorities who were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, especially Armenians and Kurds, were now having a hard time. The turkification of the Ottoman Empire was embedded in the romantic ideal of the Turanists who drew a far-fetched connection between Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Hungarians and Finns. These were all peoples that had had their origins in Central Asia long ago.
Enver Pasha was the personification of this Great-Turkish ideal. He was one of three pashas, which translated means ‘gentlemen’. The three had run the show since the coup d’état of 1913. The seizure of power had not taken place without bloodshed. Enver Pasha had been personally involved in the assassination of the minister of war.
The triumvirate of the pashas mainly sought to keep the threat of Russia under control. Relations with the big boys in Europe – France, Great Britain and Germany – all shared that purpose. Of the three pashas minister of war Enver, however, was the most pro-German. After all he had been military attaché in Berlin and as a result had a perfect command of the German language. Behind his desk on the wall hung a portrait of Frederic the Great, the Hohenzollern monarch who was dear to every true Prussian’s heart.
In the two Balkan wars that preceded the Great War Enver Pasha, a hawk of the opportunist kind, had been in command of the military. As we have already seen, the first Balkan war had ended in a Turkish fiasco. In the second Balkan war, however, Enver had succeeded in retaking the Thracian town of Edirne, former Adrianople, from the Bulgarians. His ego grew so big that it nearly burst. He was determined to continue on his path to victory with the help of his German friends. Even in the years before the three pashas something beautiful had blossomed between Berlin and Constantinople.The Bosporus was swarming with German soldiers and businessmen. The BBB plan would be the crowning glory of this friendship: a railway line from Berlin to Bagdad via the Bosporus.
Yet it was not all about Germany. In maritime affairs the Turks would rather take their chances with the British. They had ordered two ultra-modern warships in England. They were virtually ready when the First World War was about to break out. Without batting an eyelid the British government informed the three pashas in Constantinople on 3 August 1914 that they would not get the two battleships. There was outrage, especially among the ordinary Turks, who had raised funds for the two warships on a large scale. After all the vessels were meant to impose the Russians on the Black Sea. The British offered some compensation, but the British decision has not gone into the history books as an example of advanced diplomacy.
It is in a much smarter way that the Germans manage to use the Turkish discontent about the two lost warships. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which have both escaped the allies in the Mediterranean, hurry to the Dardanelles, the straits that lead to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire is then not yet involved in the war. When Goeben and Breslau are allowed through, the Turks de facto choose the German side. Even to Enver Pasha this is all going too fast, after which the German ambassador plays a masterly trick. The Turks can have the two ships. Wearing their fezes the German crew on Goeben and Breslau let themselves be cheered by the people of Contantinople. And the German diplomats snigger ‘Deutschland über Allah’.
On 27 September the Turks decide to close off the Dardanelles for all shipping, which especially affects the Russians. Then German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, in Turkish service, gives the final boost on 29 October. He sails onto the Black Sea with Goeben and Breslau and attacks the Russian ports of Odessa, Sebastopol and Theodosia. Followed by France and Great Britain, Russia declares war to the Ottoman Empire four days later. Sultan Mehmet V declares the jihad, a holy war, hoping that muslims under allied command revolt. But very little or nothing of this will be realized.
After the catastrophic Battle of Sarikamish Enver’s military reputation can no longer be saved. Meanwhile one of his rivals, Mustafa Kemal, becomes the hero of Gallipoli, the peninsula the allied forces will waste their energy on in 1915. As Atatürk Mustafa Kemal starts building a new and modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.
There is no place in the new republic for a man like Enver Pasha. He is even sentenced to death, but together with the two other pashas he manages to escape on board a German submarine. When in 1921 Talaat Pasha is assassinated in Berlin, Enver Pasha will be the first man of the Committee of Union and Progress in exile. In the same year he explains his mission in a letter: ‘Today I am aiming for the same goal as before and during the 1908 Revolution, during the Tripolitanian War, the Balkan Wars and the First World War. And that goal is simply to organize and set in motion the islamic world of four hundred million people … and to save them from the European and American oppression, that keeps them enslaved’.
Meanwhile he has come into contact with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks. The latter considers Enver Pasha a suitable ally to warm the islamic peoples to the Soviet Union. This leads to a military confrontation between the worldly troops of Atatürk and Enver Pasha’s warriors of Allah. Atatürk is the winner and makes peace with the Soviet Union. This is then a reason for Enver Pasha as leader of what has become known as the Basmachi Revolt to take up arms against the communists.
Enver sees himself as caliph, secular leader of all muslims. But in 1922 he is killed in the Caucasus. There are two versions of the exact circumstances of his death, when he was only forty years old. He is said to have been killed in a charge against a soviet brigade by a bullet just above the heart. Or he is supposed to have managed to escape, wounded, to be finished off not much later by the soviet commander himself.
Enver Pasha is laid to rest in 1996 in the town where he was born as the son of an engineer, Constantinople, since 1930 better known as Istanbul. Although Turkish president Süleyman Demirel showed few doubts at the reburial and called Enver Pasha ‘a nationalist, an idealist and an honest soldier’, the Turks still do not seem to know what to make of Enver and his role in the First World War.
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)
Next week: Désiré-Joseph Mercier