The land losses experienced after the Balkan Wars virtually transformed Istanbul into a frontier city. It was difficult to defend the city, which was the capital and center of government for the Ottoman State and so was also the first target for all political and military enemy attacks. The front at Dardanelles, which witnessed one of the bloodiest fights during the First World War, was opened with the aim of occupying Istanbul.
Istanbul had not recovered from the shock of the Balkan Wars by the time the First World War began. Healthcare, settlement, food, and transportation issues for tens of thousands of immigrants who were flowing into Istanbul during the First and Second Balkan Wars had yet to be solved. During the First World War, food and healthcare problems continued to increase in Istanbul.1 The situation was so severe that food shortages occurred in the city, which was under the administration of seven different şehreminis (prefects). The closure of the Dardanelles (Çanakkale) and Bosphorus straits made it difficult to procure basic necessities so special commissions were established to supply items like bread, flour, sugar, and oil. During the Battle of the Dardanelles, the city was supplied with flour daily. Wanting to help its allies by blockading the Dardanelles, Russia laid mines at the exit of the Bosphorus and tried to prevent coal—which was essential to the Ottoman Navy—from being transported from Zonguldak.2
The military inadequacy experienced during the Turco-Italian War continued during the Balkan Wars. Political disagreements among military officers, a negative financial situation, a lack of communication among the military forces, and great losses resulting from inadequate education led to disappointment in every sector of society—and particularly in Istanbul. Enver Pasha’s attempts to weed out military officers on 3 January 1914 during his term as minister of war significantly changed the existing structure. The modernization of the navy was entrusted to a British naval committee under the command of British Admiral Limpus while the land forces were left to the Germans and the gendarmerie to the French.3
The leaders of the İttihat ve Terakki (Committee of Union and Progress) tried to come to an agreement with Britain and France that would rein in the ambitions of Russia. The İttihat ve Terakki was also concerned about Germany’s ambitions; they felt Germany was overly interested in the economic benefits. To come to such an agreement, negotiations between the governments were carried out from 1913–1914 while the Ottoman State offered economic concessions.
During negotiations with Britain, the areas of influence in the Persian Gulf and South Arabia were mutually determined. Not only were the concessions for river transportation on the Euphrates and Tigris given to Britain, the Basra local train construction concessions were also granted to them. Also, some of the concession periods that were about to expire were extended and Trabzon and Samsun port constructions were entrusted to the British. More importantly, the British were included in the construction of the Basra-Baghdad section of the Baghdad railway. In return for all these concessions, Britain agreed to give up all economic capitulations if the other countries agreed and to withdraw its objection to the extension of the Baghdad railroad down to Basra.
The minister of finance, Cavid Bey, was active in France—which provided a loan of 35,000,000 gold coins to the Ottoman State—while negotiations with Britain were taking place. In addition to concessions for improving transportation in Syria along with new railroad and port concessions, the French were allowed to install 1,500 km of railway between Sivas and Samsun, and were given Erzincan, Harput, and Diyarbakır. 4
At the beginning of 1914, despite all these concessions, France did not pay attention to the conditions which stated that “the islands next to Anatolia are to be left for Ottoman governance.” At the same time, France required “Russia’s consent” for an alliance that was presented via Cevdet Pasha in the middle of June 1914.
In Crimea in May 1914, Talat Pasha offered an alliance to the Russian Czar. However, Russia, which had already agreed with its allies to seize Istanbul and the straits, refused to cooperate. It used the presence of the German military delegates in Turkey as an excuse.
On 22 July 1914, faced with the Allies’ refusal to cooperate, Ottoman administrators were forced to make an unofficial offer for an alliance to Germany and Austria at the same time. The alliance treaty with Germany was signed on 2 August 1914.5
The Ottoman State declared a general mobilization and a moratorium on the same day, closing parliament. Strict censorship was imposed on the press, but the state did not immediately go to war. While the administrators claimed this was a defensive cooperation treaty, the office of the German general staff wanted Turkey to go to war as soon as possible. However, at this time, Britain confiscated two battle ships—the Reşadiye and Sultan Osman—which had been ordered from British shipyards and paid for in advance.
On August 5, declaring that the Ottoman mobilization was not directed against Russia and that Ottoman State had not yet made an alliance with any state, Enver Pasha offered to cooperate with Russia. This agreement would take their mutual interests into consideration. In accordance with this offer, The Ottoman 9th and 11th army corps in the Caucasus would be withdrawn; if the Balkan state declared a war against Russia, the Ottoman State would send troops to help Russia. The German military delegation was to be expelled from Ottoman land. In return, the Ottoman government asked for the lands up to the meridian line in Thrace and the islands in the Aegean Sea.6 Despite the Russian ambassador’s insistence in Istanbul that the alliance agreement be signed immediately, the Russian government —one—preferred to stall the Ottoman government. Eventually, this offer to cooperate was rejected.
At the same time, on 8 September 1914, the İttihat ve Terakki government unilaterally decided to abolish the capitulations. This decision was announced on September 9. Even though this decision—which took effect on 1 October 1914—disturbed all the colonial powers, Germany and Austria objected most strongly.
TURKEY’S ENTRANCE INTO THE WAR AND ISTANBUL
The leaders of the İttihat ve Terakki were unable to withstand Germany’s pressure for long. The Germans insisted that Turkey meet the financial and military requests as a condition for its entrance into the war. Enver Pasha commanded that “the Turkish army gain the upper hand; look for the Russian fleet and wherever you find it, attack without declaring war.” The Ottoman fleet sailed on 27 October 1914 bombarding the ports and cities of Sevastopol, Odessa, Kefe (Caffa), and Novorossiysk and sinking two Russian ships and one French ship.7 The incident created confusion and surprised the sultan and the head of the government. Said Halim Pasha, the grand vizier and the minister of foreign affairs, immediately informed Russia that the incident occurred because Russia had mined the Bosphorus. He also wanted to establish an investigative committee to maintain the peace. The Allies, however, did not miss this opportunity—one they had long been anticipating. On October 31, Russia passed the border via Doğu Bayezid. The next day, the British bombarded Aqaba. The British landed their troops along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and started their operation. Russia declared war on November 3 while France and Britain declared war on November 5. The Ottoman State responded and declared war on 11 November 1914.
On 17 November 1914, three days after the declaration of war, Sultan Mehmed Reşad V announced a “jihad akbar (Great War).”8 The fatwa for the declaration of war expressed that each and every Muslim was obligated to go to war. If necessary, they must sacrifice their lives and property against an enemy attack on Islam and the Muslim world. The general state of the Muslim world was, however, obvious. Despite circumstances, the few mujahidin from Iran, Turkistan, and Afghanistan who abided the call for war were naturally unable to change the overall result.
For the Ottoman state, 1915 was characterized by fighting on many fronts at the same time. The bombardment of the British and French, who had put the straits under siege after the reciprocal declarations of war, caused great panic in Istanbul. The panic persuaded the sultan, and the decision was made to temporarily move the government to Eskişehir. The officials sent from the palace to Eskişehir started to prepare residences for the sultan and his entourage. Valuable items from the treasury were placed in chests and sent to Konya as a precaution. If the enemy managed to pass the Bosphorus, the sultan would go to Eskişehir along with government officials. Sultan Mehmed Reşad V wanted to take Abdülhamid II with him, but Abdülhamid II not only did not want to go but also asked the sultan not to go. He warned the sultan and said that if the royal household left Istanbul, it would never be able to return.9
Upon the successful defense against the Allied navies in the Dardanelles on March 18 and the infliction of major losses, the above preparations were cancelled. Starting on 25 April 1915, however, enemy submarines started to pass through the straits and arrived at the shores of the Marmara Sea. Their attacks on Istanbul caused significant damage. The enemy submarines inflicted heavy losses on cargo ships used for martial and commercial purposes, which dispirited the public. The shells dropped around Üsküdar caused heavy destruction. These attacks, which were often supported by air forces deployed from Imbros (Gökçeada), aimed to stop any assistance sent from Marmara from reaching the troops fighting in the Dardanelles. The enemy continued to attack and sank some Ottoman ships.10 Airstrikes carried out as attacks or for surveillance purposes in 1916 intensified in 1918. To prevent such attacks, the Ottoman government tried to improve the condition of its air troops—which were deployed from Yeşilköy—as much as it could.
The death of many of Istanbul’s young people in the ground war at the Dardanelles—particularly in the battles of Arıburnu and Anafartalar, which lasted for about a year—created deep sorrow in the city. Together with government officials, Sultan Mehmed Reşad V visited the Edirnekapı Martyrs Cemetery and had the Qur’an recited for the souls of thousands of newly-buried Dardanelle martyrs. Government officials, including the grand vizier, cried during this visit.11
Towards the end of 1915 it became inevitable that the state would have to face the negative results of the Sarıkamış Ccampaign on the Caucasian front. Because the campaign had decimated the Ottoman army’s battle power in the final days of 1914, Russian troops were easily able to advance after March 1915 with the help of Armenian groups in the region. The Ottoman government issued a bill addressing the prominent and intellectual members of the Armenian community in Istanbul that warned those citizens to come to their senses. If they did not, harsh measures would be undertaken. However, Armenian rebels who had made an agreement with the Allies continued to provoke their own people. On 24 April 1915, the government arrested 235 people ranging from administrators of Armenian associations to Armenian rebels in Istanbul. Now the minister of foreign affairs, Enver Pasha sent a telegraph dated May 2 that led Talat Pasha to expedite the temporary relocation of Armenians to places in a non-combat zone on 27 May 27 1915. At this stage, Armenians who were citizens of the Ottoman State—except for Catholic and Protestant Armenians who were under the protection of Britain and France—were relocated to the non-combat zone to the south.
Despite the heavy losses suffered in the battles fought against the British on the Iraqi front, the Battle of Ctesiphon (Selman-ı Pak Muharebesi)—won between 22 and 25 November 1915—created joy in the capital. The Kut al-Amara victory on 29 April 1916—General Townsend surrendered along with the 13,000 men under his command—was met with rejoicing by both the army and the public in the capital and created great hopes. Such victories, however, were neither continuous nor could they be maintained on other fronts.
ISTANBUL AS PART OF THE ALLIES’ PLANS TO DIVIDE THE OTTOMAN STATE
The Treaty of Istanbul (March-April 1915)
With the intention to follow traditional policies for opening the Mediterranean by capturing the straits and Istanbul, Russia sped up its activities after the Ottoman State entered the war. When the British and French navies put their plans to occupy Istanbul into practice via the Dardanelles, Russia asked its ambassadors in London and Paris to prepare the British and French public for the idea that Russia would dominate the straits and Istanbul. This operation was launched with the goal of freeing up international trade through the straits and incorporating Tenedos (Bozcaada) and Imbros (Gökçeada) as well as the islands of the Marmara Sea with Russia. During preliminary negotiations, British Minister of Foreign Affairs Sir E. Grey stated that the objection to Russia’s requests, related to the straits, was coming from France, not Britain. He also stated that the Allies would observe each other’s rights during the war even if they were fighting on different fronts. He also said that British opposition to the idea of giving Istanbul to the Russians was decreasing. In regards to sharing the Turkish lands, Grey stated that the British would not cause any problems about Istanbul because the Persian Gulf and its surroundings were much more important to them. France, on the other hand, stated that it would support the realization of Russia’s historical ambitions in every way. France also stated that it wanted an international commission to control the straits rather than a single state. It highlighted that Russia’s request to control both sides of the straits could be finalized only after the division of Turkey’s lands in Asia.
Aware that the Allies were not going to be able to reject its requests, Russia sent a diplomatic note to these states on 4 March 4 1915. Russia wanted Istanbul, the straits, the western coasts of the Marmara Sea, the southern part of Thrace up to the Midye-Enez line, the eastern side of the Bosphorus, the area between Sakarya and İzmit, and the islands in the Marmara Sea. Russia also planned to have the final say about Tenedos (Bozcaada) and Imbros (Gökçeada). In return, Russia promised to be of greatest assistance to France and Britain in realizing their plans in other places. While Britain had already made up its mind about the future of the Ottoman State, it still attempted to use Greece as an alternative for Russia. On the other hand, France’s situation did not allow it to reject Russia’s requests; it could not afford to be left alone against Germany. Neither Britain nor France wanted to be under such pressure, so they did not object to Russia. They viewed this as the price of serving a common goal in sharing the Ottoman lands. Britain—on 12 March 1915—and France—on 10 April 1915—declared that they accepted Russia’s requests, dated 4 March 2015, “provided that the war continues until victory and, in the end, Britain and France’s requests both regarding the Ottoman State and regarding other places are met.”12 So Russia also accepted the dominance of its allies in the Near and Middle East.
Allied Visits to Istanbul during the War and Political Developments
In 1917, the year when the Bolshevik Revolution started in Russia, the pace of developments in Istanbul accelerated. The leaders of the İttihat ve Terakki (Committee Union of Progress) criticized the foreign policy of Grand Vizier Said Halim Pashaabout being. They asked for his resignation from the ministry of foreign affairs and had Halil (Menteşe) Bey appointed in his place. In time, Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha came into conflict with the leaders of the İttihat ve Terakki on many different issues. This led to his becoming isolated in the party and in the government. He resigned as grand vizier on 3 February 1917. Talat Pasha was then appointed as grand vizier. The Ottoman State now had an İttihat ve Terakki government in which Talat, Enver, and Cemal Pashas had prominent positions. Despite all the negative military and political developments that occurred during this process, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires visited Istanbul to demonstrate their support as allies.
The German Emperor Wilhelm’s third visit to Istanbul in October 1917 was a very colorful one. Together with his sons and government officials, Sultan Mehmed Reşad V met the emperor at the Sirkeci Terminal. The two emperors and their government officials then took part in some very cordial meetings. This visit heartened the public, which was close to losing all hope after so many long years at war.13 Ottoman society was truly paying a great price during a war they had entered with their historic friend, Germany. During the emperor’s five-day visit, enthusiastic welcome and farewell ceremonies were held and both Turks and Germans showed great interest in these ceremonies.
Karl and Zita, the emperor and empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were Sultan Reşad’s final guests as head of state during the war years. They arrived in Istanbul on May 19, 1918 and left on May 21, 1918. High-level military and political contacts were made during this visit, which heartened and offered the public support. Despite all the problems they had experienced, government officials and the population of Istanbul hosted their guests with utmost sincerity and enthusiasm.
While 1918 started well for the Allies, it ended badly. Existing social and economic imbalances in Russia—which had not received help from Britain or France—meant it had been unable to pass through the Dardanelles quickly. Then the Bolsheviks brought down the government and came to power in a revolution on 7 November 1917. The Bolsheviks’ first act was to offer their opponents a truce so they could withdraw from the war. They also revealed to the world all the secret agreements signed by czarist Russia.
The Bolshevik government promised its citizens peace and its earliest actions were made with that goal in mind. In addition to Germany, the Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman states sent representatives to the peace talks that began on 22 December 1918. According to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk—signed on 3 March 1918—Russia withdrew its troops from Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia, leaving these places in the control of the Central Powers. Acknowledging the independence of Ukraine, Russia would withdraw from all Eastern Anatolia and give Kars, Ardahan, and Batum back to the Ottoman State.14 This treaty was one of the most important war successes for both Germany and the Ottoman State.
In the final year of the war, Istanbul witnessed the death of two sultans and the accession of one to the throne. It was striking to see Abdülhamid II, who passed away on 10 February 1918, buried with the ceremony generally reserved for sultans who were still ruling when they died. After the funeral prayer—which was performed under the imamate of the sheikh al-Islam in front of Topkapı Palace’s Babüssaade gate—an extremely magnificent ceremony took place. Diplomatic and military representatives attended in their ceremonial uniforms. About five months after Abdülhamid’s funeral—upon the death of Sultan Mehmed Reşad V on 4 July 4 1918—Vahdeddin Efendi was put on the throne and took the name Mehmed VI. By keeping Talat Pasha as his grand vizier and Musa Efendi as the sheikh al-Islam, Sultan Vahdeddin placed importance on the continuity of the government during that critical period. In the imperial decree he issued the following day, the sultan stated that Ottomans had entered the war for the perpetuity and continuity of the state and it was necessary to combine its’ powers to end the war victorious. The sultan said that to realize this goal it was necessary to work harder to provide justice and order, fulfill the commands of Islam, and make efforts to protect the Ottoman State’s honor.
The sultan also ordered effective and quick measures to solve some of the problems caused by the war. Additionally, he ordered an amnesty for political criminals who had been on good behavior and ordinary criminals who had served a third of their sentences. Martial law was lifted everywhere but in combat zones and efforts were made to increase the country’s revenues and improve economic conditions. Government officials were not dismissed unless due to a legal necessity.
During the official ceremony performed approximately two months after Sultan Mehmed VI Vahdeddin ascended the throne, the Allies started to bombard Istanbul from the air again. The enemy air forces started harassing the city on July 23 with damage first inflicted on August 21. During the bombardments of August 25 and August 27, one child was killed and 11 people were wounded. The Allies also dropped propaganda brochures alongside the bombs.
The most serious enemy air strike on Istanbul was carried out on October 18. Fifty people were killed and 100 were injured by the bombs. This attack, which was carried out during the day, and the resulting destruction demoralized the public. The situation government officials found themselves in was not very positive. With a request of a ceasefire from Bulgaria on October 29, the Ottoman State’s affiliation with Germany and Austria was broken. For the third time, Istanbul was under a French threat. On the other hand, the Ottoman army had lost its discipline and the number of deserters from the Syrian and Iraqi fronts to the south increased. The British navy was getting ready to attack the Dardanelles again.
In the middle of these troubling days, on 8 October 1918, Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha resigned from their posts. After Tevfik Pasha’s efforts—which lasted about a week—to form a new government did not bear any fruit, Ahmed İzzet Pasha, one of the sultan’s aides, formed a government on 14 October 1918. He then started to look at how to achieve an armistice. The first action of the İzzet Pasha’s government was to contact Admiral Calthorpe, the commander of the British Army in the Mediterranean. The government did this through General Townsend, who had been taken prisoner at the battle of Kut al- Amara and who was incarcerated on Prinkipo Island (Büyükada) in Istanbul.
Mehmed VI Vahdeddin wanted to appoint his brother-in-law Damat Ferid Pasha, a man who had been a strong influence on the sultan starting from when things had started to go bad in Istanbul, as the primary representative for the armistice talks. However, Grand Vizier İzzet Pasha strongly opposed this suggestion. The sultan, concerned that the newly-formed government would fall apart, retreated and let the government choose its own representative. However, the sultan stated that they should keep the following points in mind during the negotiations:
1- The rights of the caliphate, sultanate, and dynasty should be completely protected.
2- The right of autonomy could be given to some cities in the east at an administrative level.15
The grand vizier promised to take these issues into consideration. The government selected Minister of Marine Affairs Rauf (Orbay) Bey—undersecretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs Reşad Hikmet and the one of the leading officials of the lieutenant colonel Sadulah Bey—to participate in the armistice talks. This delegation left Istanbul for the Island of Lemnos on October 26. In Lemnos—aboard British battleship Agamennon, anchored at the port of Moudros—they held armistice talks that lasted for three days. The armistice was signed on 30 October 1918 and the delegation returned to Istanbul.
The first four of the 25 articles of the armistice concerned Istanbul:
1- For free entry to the Black Sea, the Dardanelle Straits and the Black Sea Straits (Istanbul/Bosphorus) would be opened. The Dardanelle Straits and the Black Sea Straits (Istanbul/Bosphorus) would be occupied by the Allies.
2- All torpedo fields, shells, or other obstacles in the Ottoman seas must be revealed. When the Allies wanted to remove these obstacles, they would be aided.
3- Information about the locations of the torpedoes in the Black Sea would be shared.
4- Allied prisoners of war and Armenian prisoners would be collected in Istanbul and unconditionally delivered to the Allied governments.16
The Ottoman State emerged from the First World War with this armistice. Not only had the war lasted longer than expected, but it had been more costly and devastating than anticipated. As a result, both sides were exhausted and public opinion on both sides held that there were still many serious problems. The Central Powers sued for peace in accordance with the Fourteen Points, as set out by American President Woodrow Wilson in US Congress in January 1918.
Point XII of the Fourteen Points established: “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.” Point XII was seen as a way to extricate the Ottoman State from the war and an association called “the Society of Wilson Principles” was established in Istanbul to draw the attention of the American public.
At the head of Ottoman representative Rauf Bey’s list of concerns was preventing Greek military forces from entering Istanbul and keeping the Greek navy from passing through the straits and entering the Istanbul harbor. While the sensitivities of the Turkish public were taken into consideration and the Ottoman State was promised by the Allies that Greek forces would not enter Istanbul, these promises were not kept. In terms of order, security, health, politics, and the social aspects of life, Istanbul went through its most difficult times during the Armistice of Moudros.
1 A. Fuad Türkgeldi, Görüp İşittiklerim, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1984, p. 128.
2 Mustafa Selçuk, Hedef Şehir İstanbul: Çanakkale Geçildi mi?, Istanbul: Emre Yayınları, 2005, p. 81.
3 Cemal Paşa, Hatıralar, ed. Alpay Kabacalı, Istanbul: İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2001, p. 88.
4 For details of the expectations of and negotiations by the Ottoman government see: Halil Menteşe, Halil Menteşe’nin Anıları, ed.ited by İsmail Arar, Istanbul: Hürriyet Vakfı, 1986, pp. 182-183.
5 Durmuş Yalçın et al., Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Tarihi, Ankara: Atatürk Araştırma Merkezi, 2000, vol. 1, p. 75.
6 Yusuf Hikmet Bayur, Türk İnkılâbı Tarihi, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1993, vol. 3/1, p. 133.
7 For correspondence and discussions see: Genelkurmay Harp Tarihi Başkanlığı: Birinci Dünya Harbinde Türk Harbi-Osmanlı İmparatorluğunun Siyasi ve Askeri Hazırlıkları ve Harbe Giriş, Ankara: Genelkurmay Harp Tarihi Başkanlığı Resmi Yayınları, 1970, p. 85; Jehuda L. Wallach, Bir Askeri Yardımın Anatomisi, tr. Fahri Çeliker, Ankara: Genelkurmay Askeri Tarih ve Stratejik Etüt Başkanlığı, 1985, p. 150; U. Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914-1918, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 54-55.
8 Bayur, Türk İnkılâbı Tarihi, vol. 3/1, pp. 317-325; Enver Ziya Karal, Osmanlı Tarihi, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1997, vol. 9, p. 490.
9 Türkgeldi, Görüp İşittiklerim, p. 117.
10 Selçuk, Hedef Şehir İstanbul, pp. 136-137.
11 Türkgeldi, Görüp İşittiklerim, p. 124.
12 Yuluğ Tekin Kurat, Osmanlı İmparatorluğunun Paylaşılması, Ankara: Kalite Matbaası, 1976, pp. 11-12.
13 Fatmagül Demirel, Dolmabahçe ve Yıldız Saraylarında Son Ziyaretler, Son Ziyafetler, Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2007, p. 128.
14 For the entire text of the treaty, see: Nihat Erim, Devletlerarası Hukuku ve Siyasî Tarih Metinleri, Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi, 1953, vol. 1, pp. 503-517.
15 Türkgeldi, Görüp İşittiklerim, pp. 154-155.
16 For the entire text of the treaty see, Erim, Siyasî Tarih Metinleri, vol. 1, pp. 519-524; for the expectations during the treaty, also see: Rauf Orbay, Cehennem Değirmeni, II vol., Istanbul: Emre Yayınları, 1993.