Official Commemorations of the Battles of Gallipoli, Kut, and Sarıkamış

The centennial of the First World War triggered a large wave of commemorative events worldwide and inspired new trends in international academic debates. However, while the historiography had begun to engage in systematic translocal and comparative perspectives, commemorations still mostly took place within nation-state frameworks. The commemorative events in Turkey focused either on Ottoman victories during the war or on martyrdom.[1]

Despite being on the losing side in the war, Turkish nationalist historiography and memory regards the Battle of Gallipoli (1915)[2] as a victory and one that was a pivotal precursor to the War of Independence and the creation of the modern state of Turkey in 1923.[3] The exaltation of the “Turkish victory” in Gallipoli was used not only to obscure the Ottoman’s eventual defeat in the war, but also to stress the “anti-imperialist character” of the prospective nation-state.[4] Even though the battle has always been part of the Kemalist canon of memory, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, commemorated the Gallipoli campaign as part of a “struggle of Muslim martyrs against Christian invaders.”[5]

The centenary commemorations started on 14 March 2015 with the visit of President Erdoğan to the seaport town of Çanakkale. Following a public opening ceremony in the Governorship, the president went to the Gallipoli Peninsula with a helicopter to place a wreath on the Martyrs’ Memorial and to pray upon the graves of martyrs.[6] On “18 March Martyrs’ Day” 2015, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu led a series of commemorative events “to mark the sacrifice made by Ottoman soldiers” and highlight the debt of the country to the “quarter of a million” Ottoman soldiers “who sacrificed themselves.”[7] In the opening ceremony, held in 18 March Stadium, a gold medal bearing the words “Çanakkale Impassable” was buckled onto the Turkish flag. Then, the flag was raised, representing the “253,000 martyrs”.[8] The next stop of the “100th anniversary celebrations” took place at the Martyrs’ Memorial on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The chief of the general staff and other force commanders attended the ceremony, while naval ships, submarines, and air force helicopters took part in the ceremony.[9] The minister for culture and tourism, Ömer Çelik, noted that an extensive ceremony would “make the world hear our [Turkey’s] voice.”[10]

Within the scope of the 100th anniversary of the “Çanakkale Victory,” the prime minister's office ordered all the public institutions (ministries, universities, schools, hospitals) to offer a lunch menu on 18 March 2015 with the dishes supposedly eaten by the soldiers at the front a hundred years ago. The menu included a rich wheat soup with grape compote and bread. The printed menus noted that these were eaten “to commemorate our sacred martyrs with mercy and gratitude.”[11] The menu was not very popular among students in schools and universities. Moreover, the veracity of the menu has been challenged by a few historians. However, the practice did not remain limited to the centenary and continued to be followed.

In his speech at the 18 March ceremony, Prime Minister Davutoğlu reminded the audience of the upcoming international Gallipoli commemoration. He said that the “nations fighting both on the side of Turkey and against it” would meet in April 2015. Referring, without a doubt, to the efforts for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, he noted that some people were “trying to create a culture of hatred through 1915,” while he would prefer “to leave aside the feelings of hatred, grudge and vengeance.”[12] The Gallipoli commemorations, on 24-25 April, were among the biggest centenary events of 2015, since the campaign played a crucial role in shaping national identities, not only for Turkey, but also for Australia and New Zealand.[13]

The ceremony took place on 24 April 2015 at the Martyrs' Memorial. President Erdoğan and numerous guest leaders entered the ceremony area through a corridor formed by soldiers wearing the “historical uniforms” of “Turkish soldiers” at Gallipoli. First, President Erdoğan laid a wreath on the memorial, followed by Charles, Prince of Wales, who was dressed in his military uniform. The ceremony continued with a minute of silence, the raising of the Turkish flag, and the singing of the Turkish national anthem.[14] The ceremony was attended by sixteen heads of state, as well as other state representatives, such as presidents of parliament, vice-presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and ambassadors. The countries represented included the United Kingdom, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Djibouti, South Sudan, Ireland, Montenegro, Qatar, Macedonia, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Australia, New Zealand, Moldova, Romania, and Syria.[15]

In 2016, the AKP government discovered and commemorated another victory of World War I. During a talk on 28 April 2016, President Erdoğan noted that there had been attempts to erase the victory of Kut al-Amara from the “nation's memory” and from the pages of history. He announced that on its centenary the following day (29 April), the victory would be “officially commemorated” under the auspices of himself, the prime minister, and the chief of the general staff with a pompous ceremony “to commemorate the glory and to honor the martyrs and heroes.”[16] On 29 April 2016, the official news agency of Turkey (Anadolu Ajansı) published a series of news items (including an infographic) wherein it presented the siege of British-occupied Kut (al-Amara)[17] in Mesopotamia in the winter of 1916 as a “forgotten” victory and the “second most important Ottoman victory after the battle of Çanakkale [Gallipoli].”[18] Government and pro-ruling party publications circulated a conspiracy theory to explain this “conscious neglect” of the siege, especially by comparing it with the great importance attributed to the Battle of Gallipoli. In order to make up for a hundred years of oblivion, the centenary was to be commemorated in an extravagant manner.[19] The ministry of culture and tourism was charged with the organization of numerous events for the centenary of Kut, including the publication of expensive books with images, maps, and comics, organizing exhibitions and symposiums, preparing websites and staging theater plays.

The commemoration ceremony for the centenary, organized “under the auspices of the Presidency” at Lütfi Kırdar International Convention and Exhibition Center, mainly featured a “theater play.” Along with President Erdogan, the guests included high-ranking politicians, members of the military, and bureaucrats. Several community leaders from southern Iraq and the present-day governor of the city of Kut, Malik Halef, also attended the ceremony.[20] Curiously named “Kut’ül Amare Dramatic Staging with Documents” (Kut’ül Amare Belgeli Dramatik Gösterimi), the performance featured thirty-eight janissary musicians (mehteran) and seventy-two actors on stage. After the performance, President Erdoğan, the governor of Kut, and the minister of culture and tourism took the stage. President Erdoğan was presented the flag of the 6th Army which “won the victory” at Kut. The governor of Kut then made a short speech and subsequently presented the president with the “soil of Kut, watered with martyr’s blood.”[21] Erdoğan made a long speech at the ceremony referring to the main tenets of the government’s commemorative centenary politics. The program ended when Iraqi community leaders, whose “grandfathers were martyred in Kut,” presented a flag with a crescent and star symbolizing the Turkish flag to Erdoğan.

Prime Minister Davutoğlu also spoke and promised that they would “keep the spirit of Kut'ül Amare until the doomsday” and that Kut al-Amara would not be “forgotten again until the doomsday.”[22] It is apparent that the Kut “fever” has passed beyond its centennial in 2016. The office of the presidency, the government with its various ministries, and the ruling party’s municipalities organized numerous meetings and panels, and published several special issues and books about the campaign in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, the “victory” was added to the Turkish history curriculum (8th grade) under the chapter “National Revival: Steps to Independence” and the anniversary of the victory was inserted into national education calendars.[23] A TV series named Mehmetçik, Kut’ül-Amare, which became quite popular, was also produced by the state channel in the aftermath of the centenary.[24]

The official commemoration of the Battle of Sarıkamış was another novelty of the AKP government, initiated for the first time in 2013.[25] Through a project of the ministry of youth and sports, “Youth on the Trail of Martyrs” (Gençlik Şühedanın İzinde), tens of thousands of young people were brought to Sarıkamış, Çanakkale, Malazgirt, and Dumlupınar to commemorate the martyrs (of different battles) in 2013.[26] On the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Battle of Sarıkamış (January 2014), the ministry organized a memorial march for the fallen soldiers for the second time, entitled “Turkey is Walking with its Martyrs.”[27] During the centennial anniversary of Sarıkamış, in difficult weather conditions (ten degrees below zero), thirty thousand people reportedly met in Kızılçubuk village, Kars to commemorate the fallen of the Sarıkamış.[28] The commemoration entailed an eight-and-a-half kilometer long walk in the Allahuekber mountains, which took two hours. During their march, the crowds used the slogans suggested by the ministry: “Asım’s generation[29] at the March of the Century” (Asımın Nesli Asrın Yürüyüşünde), “Sky Allahuekber, Earth Allahuekber” (Gök Allahuekber, Yer Allahuekber).[30] The procession then reached the newly built 15,000 square meter ceremonial area and a ceremony was held in front of the Sarıkamış Martyrs’ Memorial. Important political figures, such as the parliament speaker, minister of the interior, and minister of youth and sports, were present at the commemoration, which was purportedly followed by 100,000 people. The ministry of youth and sports declared that they wanted “all the members of the society” to appreciate the “spirit of Sarıkamış.” The commemorative march, the minister announced, was a “meaningful journey” to connect Turks with their national history and their ancestors. This commemoration, too, is now part of the national commemorative calendar.[31]

Muslim Martyrdom and Neo-Ottoman Themes in Official Commemorations

Commemoration of the First World War in Turkey was subject to the current political dynamics, which at times overshadowed the actual experiences and aftermath of the the war. Remembrance of devastating defeats or Ottoman failures have not been part of Kemalist memory politics.[32] Sarıkamış presents an important exception. Since 2002, AKP rule has provided a strong Islamic setting to the commemoration of the war, and Sarıkamış, framed in terms of sacrifice and martyrdom, became particularly useful for an Islamist re-imagination of late Ottoman history. In this sacralized recasting of history, martyrdom had a more important emotive value than victory itself.[33] A shift toward religious meaning is visible, as well, in the recasting of the victory at Gallipoli. In the 2000s, the historical meaning of Gallipoli has been somehow shifted from a “Turkish nationalist victory” towards “an Ottoman victory based on religious faith.”[34] As part of the centenary events, the office of religious affairs (Diyanet) organized commemoration of the martyrs in mosques in eighty-one cities and 957 districts. During the morning prayer at Bursa Ulu Camii, 253,000 hatim prayers – full recitations of the Quran – were made for the “253,000 martyrs.”[35] During the 24 April 2015 Gallipoli ceremonies, the president of religious affairs, Mehmet Görmez, was the first speaker. He even took the floor before Prince Charles and President Erdoğan. After reciting the Quran, he said a long prayer for the martyrs of Çanakkale.[36] Likewise, the commemoration of the Siege of Kut was filled with Islamic references. The government recommended that “1,001” hatim prayers be said for the martyrs of Kut in the religious vocational schools across the country. The students were also expected to lead Islamic memorial services (mevlid) in mosques. [37]

The commemoration of the First World War may also be seen as part of the AKP’s larger “Neo-Ottomanist” aspirations.[38] As we have seen, the new narratives stress Turkey’s religious ties with the Muslim world. Both Gallipoli and Kut are presented as heroic Muslim victories against a great Christian power. Moreover, the “leading role” of the Turks or the “historical legacy” of leadership in the Middle East is constantly highlighted. This neo-Ottomanist perspective seeks to privilege Turkish leadership and paternalistic position over “other Muslims” under their rule. Erdoğan noted in his speech at the centenary of “the forgotten victory of Kut” that the name Turk “did not refer to a certain people (kavim), but referred to all Muslims.”[39] The commemoration of Kut, therefore, purposefully highlighted Muslim solidarity and unity under the Ottomans, by focusing on the support of local Muslim Arabs, together with the sympathetic position of Indian Muslims in the British army.[40] The new official interpretation of Kut marginalized the rise of Arab nationalism – which Kemalists interpreted as treachery and betrayal of the motherland in the past[41] – as a plot by Christian Western powers against the unity of Muslims.[42] Erdoğan claimed that remembrance of Kut al-Amara corrected “an important defect [arıza] of the official [Kemalist] history discourse,” which relied on the lie that “Arabs stabbed us in the back.” Whereas, during the siege, “the people of Kut acted like a part of the Ottoman army, giving martyrs for the cause.”[43]

Official Commemorations and Genocide Denialism

The primary concern of the denialist state apparatus of Turkey during the centenary of World War I was to silence and obscure the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.[44] As early as 2010, the minister of foreign affairs, Davutoğlu, noted that 1915 might mean “genocide” to Armenians, but for the Turks, “it meant Gallipoli.”[45] As was to be expected, denialist calculations determined Turkey’s 2015 international commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, which has always been observed on 18 March.[46] In 2015, the Turkish government used the Gallipoli centennial to distract domestic and global attention away from the genocide centennial by changing its date. Pushing the international observance forward to 24-25 April, the goal was to thwart the commemorative events organized worldwide for the centenary of Genocide Remembrance Day on 24 April 2015, the day in 1915 when Armenian notables were rounded up in Istanbul for deportation.[47] The decision was an attempt to overwrite Armenian suffering with an emphasis on the suffering of Ottoman cum Turkish soldiers at Gallipoli.[48] This was a deliberate attempt to undermine the genocide centenary and a denialist strategy.[49]

While side-lining genocide commemorations in 2015 with events at Gallipoli, the government propagated another “victory” in 2016 – that of the siege of Kut – to be commemorated on 23 April 2016. Here the aim was to overshadow not only the national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the Grand National Assembly in 1920 but also the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Around the same time, the ministry of foreign affairs organized an exhibition entitled “In Lieu of a Pomegranate. Time to Remember, Not to Forget in Turkish-Armenian Relations” (7-29 April 2016) at the Tophane‑i Amire exhibition hall of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. In direct opposition to its title, the event was aimed at forgetting and denying the genocide through methods of silencing, trivialization, and euphemism.[50] In her interview with the weekly Armenian newspaper AGOS, the curator Güzin Erkan describes the exhibit’s intention as “the contribution of Armenian people” to this society,” to focus on “co-existence” and “positive stories,” and not “get stuck on 1915.”[51]

The exhibition, which welcomed its visitors with Davutoğlu’s “just memory”[52] and Erdoğan’s “condolence message” from 2014[53], reflected the overall centenary version of denialism by equalizing the perpetrators and the victims as “victims of the same tragedy.”[54] Taner Akçam notes that the concept of “just memory” strengthened the politics of Turkish martyrdom in World War I. In this constellation, Gallipoli and Sarıkamış are shamelessly presented as Turkish “equivalents” to the genocide, whereby “Muslim losses” are put into competition with the victims of the Armenian Genocide.[55] In sum, centenary denialism mainly relied on “the tragedies that befell the Turkish and Muslim peoples who lost their lives in World War I,” as the ministry of foreign affairs stated in its response to Pope Francis.[56]

Unofficial Centenary Events

In April 2014, the Tarih Vakfı (History Foundation) and the Orient-Institute Istanbul, which is affiliated with the Max Weber Foundation, organized an international conference entitled “Not All Quiet on the Ottoman Fronts. Neglected Perspectives on a Global War, 1914-1918.” The four-day conference brought together a large number of historians. It focused largely on non-elite and home front dimensions of the war, together with providing a transnational historiographical perspective. The persecution and annihilation of the Armenians was openly discussed. The History Foundation also organized a talk series from October 2014 to May 2015 in Istanbul, entitled “From 1915 to 2015. Deportation, Massacres, Genocide.” A total of fourteen talks, hosting prominent Ottoman historians such as Fatma Müge Göçek, Fikret Adanır, and Nazan Maksudyan, focused on different dimensions of the Armenian Genocide.

The 4th International Çanakkale Biennial (27 September – 2 November 2014), “Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War,” also had a World War I focus.[57] In their conceptual framework, the curatorial team, Beral Madra, Seyhan Boztepe, and Deniz Erbaş, stressed their intention to focus on the “tragedy” of the First World War and to revaluate the impact of war on the city. Quite a number of the works presented at the biennial held an anti-militarist attitude (e.g. those of Douglas Gordon, Klaus vom Bruch, Songül Boyraz, Akram Zaatari, Ayşe Erkmen, and Sıtkı Kösemen). Furthermore, the works of Tunca Subaşı, Grigor Khachatryan, and Nigol Bezjian made explicit or implicit references to the Armenian Genocide. Making use of buildings and venues of historical importance for the city, such as the Korfmann Library,[58] Armenian Church,[59] and Jewish storehouses (renovated as MAHAL), the biennial reminded its visitors of the lost multi-ethnic character of the city prior to World War I.

A more important international art event was the 14th Istanbul Biennial, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, with the title “Saltwater.” There were a number of works that referred to the Armenian Genocide and the developments that followed it.[60] Michael Rakowitz’s work linked the disappearance of Armenian craftspeople, through the figure of the plaster caster Garabet Cezayirliyan, to the expulsion of an estimated 80,000 stray dogs from Istanbul to the island of Sivriada in 1910, to the genocide of Armenians in 1915. Francis Alÿs had an installation in which the sounds of the birds that once lived in the Ani district of Kars were imitated, to commemorate the Armenians who were forced to leave the region. Aslı Çavuşoğlu also developed a project for the biennial, in which she extracted a particular red dye from an insect – an ancient Armenian technique that is no longer used.

As alternatives to the state efforts, there were also a number of smaller commemorative events. For example, from December 2014 to April 2015, Koç University's Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (RCAC) in Istanbul housed an exhibition, curated by Bahattin Öztuncay, which displayed artefacts and memorabilia of the First World War from the Ömer M. Koç Collection. “Propaganda and War. The Allied Front during the First World War” explored the evolution of the Ottoman Empire's relations with its German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian allies, through posters, ceramics, postcards, flags, awards and documents.[61] An academic conference was also organized by the RCAC, on 10 January 2015, to accompany the exhibition.[62] Another exhibition was opened at the İşbank Museum in Istanbul for the centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign. “Gallipoli. From the Depths to the Trenches” declared that it aimed “to give visitors a real feel of the campaign, and what it was like to be there for those who fought.”[63] Focusing on both naval and land battles of Gallipoli, the exhibition brought together replicas, recreations and big screen documentaries, together with documents from the archives of the Turkish general staff, King's College London and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Most visible, perhaps, was the commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Day on 24 April 2015 in Istanbul. Although many centennial commemorations were planned around the world, this civil society initiative stressed the importance of Istanbul as “the site of the arrests of Armenian leaders and intellectuals on April 24, 1915 that marked the start of the genocide.”[64] “Project 2015,” a non-profit organisation comprised of academics, activists, and writers of Armenian and Turkish descent living in the United States, organized the program for the events, in collaboration with civil society and human rights organizations in Turkey.[65] “A major gathering in Istanbul” was intended to challenge the denialism that “defined successive Turkish governments,” which have both refused to acknowledge the events of 1915 as genocide and to make any reparations or amends to the survivors and their descendants. Another aim was to stimulate a broader discussion about the need to recognize the Armenian Genocide.[66]

The commemorations started with a gathering of about hundred people in front of the Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul. The building was symbolic as it served as the Ottoman police headquarters in 1915 and it was there that the Armenian intellectuals were incarcerated before being deported on 24 April 1915. Police stopped several dozen human rights defenders and lawmakers from reading a statement outside the museum. The protesters then strolled through the district of Sultanahmet, on a silent “Walk to Remember.” They read their statement at a rights association’s office while riot police stood guard outside. The demonstrators were generally silent, there were no slogans or chants during the march, which was accompanied by riot police and led to Eminönü. The group then took the boat to the Haydarpaşa train station, from which Istanbul Armenians were deported and sent to their deaths. There was a public commemoration in front of the station. After 6 pm, Armenians from around the world assembled at the entrance of İstiklal Street, in front of the French consulate. The event began with the hanging of strips of cloth on a wooden “Wishing Tree,” an artwork by Hale Tenger, which was declared to be a symbol of togetherness and remembrance. The commemoration then started with a speech from Heghnar Watenpaugh, a member of “Project 2015.” Entitled “Invitation for a New Beginning,” this was a call to connect the generation of her grandparents with the generation of her children. Nurcan Kaya’s talk after that demanded “recognition and apology.” Then, a chanting group of demonstrators, organized by Nor Zartonk, arrived carrying photos of the intellectuals who lost their lives in 1915, together with more recent victims of genocide denialism, such as Sevag Balık (?-2011) and Maritsa Küçük (?-2012). The commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Istanbul, which first began in 2010 in Taksim Square and grew in size every year, actually reached its zenith with the centennial anniversary.[67]


After the Gezi resistance in May-June 2013, the political climate was progressive and hopeful in Turkey, despite the fact that the resistance had been violently suppressed. The centennial events organized with civil initiatives in 2014 and early 2015 inherited this bravery and hope for political action. It was still a possibility to challenge nationalist taboos and imagine a new societal settlement in the country. In mid-2015, however, the government once again resorted to brutal violence in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east after a three-year peace process with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). In Kurdish-populated towns, there were severe human rights abuses, violence against civilians, and round-the-clock curfews that deprived the population of necessary provisions.[68] The state’s renewed war also led to a crackdown on freedom of speech, the press, and academics critical of the war. Almost total suppression of the freedom of expression from 2016 onwards led to a halt in civil society initiatives interested in the critical apprehension of the centennial of World War I in Turkey. Official centenary events, on the contrary, were all organized around “victories” and “Muslim martyrdom” – consciously avoiding a complete historiography of the war.

Nazan Maksudyan, Freie Universität Berlin and Centre Marc Bloc

Reviewed by external referees on behalf of the General Editors