Introduction: Ottoman and Entente Prisoners of War

Ottomans fought on four intensive fronts - the Caucasus, Dardanelles (Gallipoli), Sinai-Palestine and Mesopotamia-Iraq -, and several less intensive fronts - Arabia-Yemen, Persia, Azerbaijan, Romania, Galicia and Macedonia. On nearly all of them, Ottomans were captured as prisoners and, in turn, also took Entente soldiers as prisoners themselves. A minimum of 217,746 (see table 1) Ottomans of all ethnicities and religions became prisoners. A minimum of 34,663 Entente soldiers seem to have been captured by the Ottomans. Though the war might have been over for these men, the battle for survival continued in the face of food and water shortages, neglect, intentional mistreatment, disease, harsh elements and psychological breakdown in foreign prison camps.

Ottoman Prisoners of War taken by the Entente Powers

217,746 Ottoman prisoners should be considered the minimum number of captives because much like the Ottomans, the Entente powers did not always keep accurate statistics. The most accurate seem to be those provided by the British but those, too, are suspect as they sometimes separated "Turks" from other ethnic Ottoman peoples and categorized them as "Others" belonging to "friendly nationalities," while at other times they referred to them simply as "Turks" in their reports. The most questionable is the number of those in Russia.[1]

Captor Numbers
United Kingdom(camps in Egypt, India, Burma, Cyprus, Mesopotamia)
Italy (men captured in Libya)

Table 1: Ottoman Prisoners of War[2]

Ottoman Prisoners in Russia

Of between 65,000-90,000 Ottoman prisoners of war held by the Russians, approximately 10,000 are thought to have been captured on the Galician front. On the Middle East and the Caucasus fronts, there was quite the discrepancy in the number of prisoners captured and the number of prisoners who remained alive by the end of the war. Some Ottoman doctors and officers captured by the Russians estimated that about 27 percent of the Ottoman prisoners never even made it to their permanent prison camps, which they shared with prisoners from other Central Powers who had also been captured by the Russians. If this is a reliable assessment, these losses should be added to the 10,000 Ottoman dead in the camps, reported by former Austro-Hungarian prisoners who seemed to have kept good records of mortality in Russian camps. An estimate based upon the total of two numbers - transport and prison camp losses - would suggest a death rate of about 43 percent for Ottoman prisoners during their captivity.[3]

Ottomans captured during the initial fighting were usually sent directly to one of the many prison camps located all over Russia. Sometimes this travel lasted months. As cases of typhus began to spread on the Caucasus front in early 1915, and as Russians captured more prisoners on the European fronts than they could accommodate in the existing camps, they sent thousands of Ottoman prisoners to the Island of Nargin in the Caspian Sea. A desolate piece of rock even today, the intention was that the island would serve double duty as a staging and quarantine area, while the Russian authorities decided where to send the surviving prisoners who did not die from typhus or other diseases while on Nargin.[4]

The types of prison camps in Russia varied significantly in size and functionality. Especially when large numbers of Austro-Hungarian prisoners started to arrive, almost anything served as a prison camp: abandoned factories or distilleries and large military garrisons now sitting empty, drafty artillery barracks in such garrisons, and commandeered or rented large houses in small towns. Most of the prisoners were sent to Siberia to places such as Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Tomsk and others. One of the most notable camps of garrison size was in Krasnoyarsk, which housed tens of thousands of prisoners from all Central Powers. No matter the size or location of the camp, the most common complaint among the prisoners was related to issues of overcrowding. Overcrowding increased the death toll from diseases in the camps. The 1916-typhus outbreak in Russia killed more than 64,000 prisoners of all nationalities. In the winter of 1914-15, the same disease claimed 1,300 casualties in Krasnoyarsk camp alone. The typhus epidemics all over Siberia during the war, coupled with overcrowding guaranteed more deaths. Ottomans seem to have died at a higher rate in comparison to other prisoners. Another frequent complaint concerned the quality and quantity of food, both of which declined considerably after the October revolution.[5]

Much like those in British captivity, officer prisoners in large camps organized various activities for themselves: they learned languages from fellow prisoners, established schools to teach and learn collectively in more formal fashion, and formed sports teams, as well as musical and theatrical groups.[6]

When the war broke out, the Ottoman state employed the services of Spain for its diplomatic functions, as well as affairs of prisoner of war in Russia. It seems that this was a poor choice, however, as Spain had very limited diplomatic presence in the Russian Empire and no consuls in Siberia. A single Ottoman civil servant appointed to the Spanish Embassy for such a task was insufficient. Later, with the assistance of the German government, Swedish and Danish agencies agreed to provide periodic and partial aid to Ottoman prisoners. Occasional additional aid was provided through the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) as well.[7]

Ottoman Prisoners in British Captivity

Ottoman prisoners captured by the British were interned in Egypt, India, Burma (now Myanmar), Cyprus and Mesopotamia. The camps in Mesopotamia may have been temporary staging areas for prisoners captured by the British Indian army before they were moved on to various camps in India-Burma for internment. At least 11,116 Ottomans were interned in Indian and Burmese camps.[8] Those prisoners in Cyprus, India and Burma were eventually transferred to Egypt either before or in 1920-1921. In Egypt, very large camps were constructed to intern the thousands of Ottomans captured during Edmund Allenby’s (1861-1936) final attack in 1918, as the Palestine-Syria front collapsed.

Having settled down in permanent camps in Egypt or India, officers came up with creative ways to pass time, while many of the enlisted men were kept busy with the physical labor they had to perform. The officers produced hand-written newspapers, staged theatrical plays, played sports, and learned languages from fellow prisoners. They also opened "schools" to teach everything from basic literacy to agriculture and religion to the enlisted men, many of whom were almost completely illiterate. This schooling seems to have been more successful in Egypt than in Russia. While enlisted men were kept in separate camps from officers in both locations, the camps in Egypt were located adjacently or relatively close to each other and the British authorities allowed camp-crossings for such purposes.[9]

Even as these cultural activities continued, various diseases killed or maimed the prisoners, particularly in the Egyptian camps. Trachoma, a contagious eye disease acquired during the war at the Palestine and Yemen fronts, spread relatively quickly in the camps, partially or fully blinding as many as 15,000 prisoners. A nutrition deficiency disease, pellagra, killed at least 3,056 Ottoman prisoners in the Egyptian camps. Pellagra was a recognized disease, but its causation was not known at the time. Although the British doctors were adamant at first that the prisoners who came into the camps already had the disease, evidence shows that even if small numbers of them came in already pellagrous, many others developed the disease in the camps due to a "faulty" diet. While the intention clearly was not to make the Ottoman prisoners sick, certain Orientalist and racialist beliefs of the British led them to concoct a "European diet" for the German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners in the Egyptian camps, and a "non-European diet" for the Ottoman prisoners. The "non-European Diet" was high in calories, most of which came from the daily thirty-two ounces of bread, but it lacked the crucial vitamin B3 (niacin). Extended deficiency of niacin resulted in pellagra among more than 9,300 Ottoman prisoners of war, while the vast majority of the Germans who were given their "European diet" remained pellagra-free. And those small numbers of Germans, who eventually succumbed to pellagra, developed it well after the Ottomans did, another indication of both their more nutritious diet and that the disease developed in the camps.[10]

Post-war Repatriation

After the end of the war, repatriation of Ottoman prisoners in British and Russian captivity moved at a slow pace. Even as late as 19 May 1920, 32,968 Ottoman prisoners remained in British captivity. Of these, 16,032 were in Mesopotamia, 10,105 in Egypt, 6,728 in India, and 103 in Malta. British authorities cited a shortage of ships and the "situation in the East",[11] but the concern over repatriated prisoners joining the nationalist forces of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) was an important political factor for the delays. Those in Russia, hopeful of a quick repatriation at first, had their dreams dashed by the civil war and ensuing chaos in Russia. While some were slowly repatriated, others escaped on their own, and some returned as late as mid-1922. As the British had feared, unknown numbers of repatriated prisoners, especially the officers, joined the nationalist forces.[12]

Of course, there were also thousands who needed to be hospitalized due to psychological problems they had suffered during the war and captivity. Many brought back contagious diseases, such as trachoma or amoebic and bacillary dysentery, which was quick to spread among the populace, whether in Anatolia or in one of the newly established mandates in the Arab Middle East.[13]

Entente Prisoners of War in the Ottoman Empire

Given that a comprehensive history on this topic is yet to be written, significant gaps exist in our knowledge about the Entente prisoners of war in the Ottoman Empire. The experience of the British, Indian and Dominion prisoners in Ottoman hands has been the most contested part of this history. Former prisoners in Ottoman captivity left behind memoirs of their experiences. Along with official documents, they are currently being mined by scholars in Turkey, the United Kingdom and Australia to present a larger and more accurate picture of prisoners of war in Ottoman captivity.[14] Such nuance is indeed sorely needed since the few existing yet distinctly uncritical studies in Turkish do not go beyond the "prisoners as the guests of the Sultan" mantra, a phrase that originally comes from Ottoman soldier training manuals. These instructed officers to tell their illiterate enlisted men that the captured prisoners did not belong to them but were the guests of the Sultan. On the occasion of the surrender of the British forces at Kut al-Amara, the Ottoman commander Halil Pasha (1881-1957) famously uttered the same words to British commander General Sir Charles Townshend (1861-1924); he was treated as a guest of the Sultan, but many of his men were not.[15] Later the phrase was often used rather cynically by some former Entente prisoners of war to refer to their experiences in the Ottoman Empire. Many of the works that exist in English, mostly memoirs by former prisoners and those studies that uncritically adopt individual memory as history, tell a story of complete brutalization at the hands of the "unspeakable Turk", characterized by his "innate Asiatic barbarousness and cruelty." Such Orientalist and racist discourse is present in memoirs, official British reports and even modern accounts. Both extremes on some European and Turkish accounts are often ripe with misinformation, prejeudices and assumptions.[16] Since even less has been written on Russian, French and Romanian prisoners in Ottoman captivity, the following section explores the British experience in more detail. Due to the fact that the Ottoman camps were international, and Russians, French, British, Indians and Anzacs shared similar housing, food and workload, their experiences are likely to have been similar as well. However, as the following shows treatment seems to have differed from camp to camp.

From the Ottoman perspective, the Great Powers, including Great Britain, were only interested in carving away the empire (see also article "Ottoman Empire/Middle East"). From the British perspective, however, its pre-1914 foreign policy in the Middle East was largely based on the continuation of the Ottoman rule to avoid a possible scramble for land among the Great Powers. The British attitude and policy towards the Ottomans was a variable mixture of Orientalism and racism, on the one hand, and realpolitik on the other. This approach manifested in a number of ways, ranging from how the British, viewing the Ottoman Empire as weak and degenerate, underestimated what it would take to defeat it, to how Britain dealt with the treatment of British prisoners in Ottoman hands. Public decrying of maltreatment of prisoners was followed by statements of how poorly the Ottoman military had treated its own soldiers thus nothing more could be expected or done. The racialist thinking that "Turks" were "non-European" and "the anti-thesis of civilized Christian Europe," which gained more momentum during the war is likely to be responsible for at least one health problem that developed among Ottoman prisoners in Egypt.[17]

Prisoners Numbers Remarks
As listed in Report on the Treatment
As listed in Çapa
6,512 captured on the Romanian front as listed in Arslan.
As listed in Çapa; likely a rough estimate
217 - 232
As listed by Australian War Memorial. Two sites at the same domain give different numbers.

Table 2: Reported Numbers of Allied Prisoners Captured by the Ottoman Empire[18]

Although British and British Empire soldiers were captured in Gallipoli and on the Sinai-Palestine front, most became prisoners when the General Charles Townshend's Sixth Indian Division (part of the British Indian Army invading Iraq) surrendered at Kut al-Amara in April 1916. In an attempt to negotiate their way out of captivity prior to surrender, the British had offered up to 1 million pounds to Halil Pasha to allow the prisoners to return to India with a promise they would not fight against the Ottomans. Halil, who happened to be the uncle of the Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha (1881-1922), wrote that this money was promised to him personally as a bribe, which he refused. Then the British offer went up to 2 million pounds to be paid to the Ottoman government, an offer which was also rejected.[19] Of the 13,672 prisoners, 1,136 sick and wounded were immediately exchanged for Ottomans in British hands.[20] Thousands of British and Indian soldiers in Kut, having been on a “starvation diet” during the siege, were reduced to "a lot of animated skeletons with great bones sticking out."[21] Many were suffering from beriberi and scurvy, which made it difficult to walk after capture; during the siege, some men had to be given opium to deal with the pain of starvation. 300 prisoners died within days of surrender but before they started their torturous trek to prison camps.[22] Ottomans as well as the British noted the presence of typhus in Kut al-Amara, and also of other illnesses: "men were dying on an average of fifteen a day from dysentery."[23] Short of supplies, the Ottomans claimed that they had requested 1,000 tons of coal from the British commander based in southern Iraq to be used to transport the prisoners to Baghdad by boat, over a distance of 170 kilometers from Kut. The request was denied and the prisoners were forced to march to their destinations.[24] Baghdad was not the final destination, but a stop on a long and difficult trek; the march continued north to Ras al-Ain, the nearest railhead and a prisoner of war working camp, and beyond. Some prisoners were held there, some sent to other camps in Anatolia. An unknown number of prisoners died on this forced march from Kut to points north-west. Some prisoner narratives mention cruel treatment and even beatings by the Ottoman guards who came from various ethnic groups - Turks, Arabs, Kurds and others - when they could not keep up. It appears that the guards abandoned prisoners who could not keep up on the "roadside, or at villages or police posts."[25] Prisoners also complained about the quantity, quality and the kind of rations provided to them. Although what they received was not different than the rations of Ottoman soldiers, Anglo-British soldiers especially found the "Turkish biscuit" (peksimet) to be indigestible. Captured Indian soldiers of various faiths, however, seem to have had little difficulty getting used to Ottoman rations.[26]

Total (believed captured) Repatriated or Escaped Died Untraced (25 October 1918) Still Prisoners (25 October 1918)
All Officers 703 50 21 None 632
British, other ranks 2,680 210 1,306 449 715
Indian, other ranks 10,486 1,177 1,290 1,773 6,246
Total all ranks 16,583 1,506 3,290 2,222 9,565

Table 3: British and Indian Prisoners of War in the Ottoman Empire[27]

Although there are no definite numbers in terms of casualties caused by this "death march", it is documented that of the 2,680 British rank and file taken captive in Kut in April 1916, 1,306 (48 percent) had died by 25 October 1918, and another 449 were untraced therefore believed dead, bringing the likely mortality to 65 percent. Indian mortality rates for the same period, with 1,773 untraced, ranged from 12.3 to 59.5 percent.[28] These are exceedingly high rates of mortality, leaving no doubt that even those prisoners who survived had suffered greatly and in great numbers. However, while acknowledging the Ottoman neglect, mistreatment and abandonment of the prisoners during the forced march, it should be mentioned that many of them already had deplorable health conditions when they passed into Ottoman captivity. Far less prepared for the war than the more industrialized European belligerents, Ottoman soldiers and civilians suffered from logistical problems, and shortages of food and medical personnel throughout the war. Ottoman soldiers on the Caucasus and Palestine-Syria fronts frequently complained of food shortages and extended periods of hunger. During the war, nearly twice as many Ottoman soldiers died of diseases as those killed in action (See article "Ottoman Empire/Middle East"). Ottoman transportation infrastructure was primitive and incomplete; the nearest rail station to Kut was hundreds of miles away to the northwest.[29] To explain the shortcomings of Ottoman Empire's war preparedness, infrastructure and transportation is not to excuse any ill-treatment or sufferings of Kut prisoners, but to place it in the context of a larger problem experienced by Ottoman soldiers, officers and enemy prisoners of war alike.

The above mentioned higher survival rates among Indian prisoners captured in Kut, including a significant number of Muslim Indians, has been a source of controversy. Early during the war, Muslim prisoners from India, North Africa or Russia were interned separately and may have been treated better than others, but this practice seems to have been discontinued later in the war.[30] Nevertheless, from the point of view of Anglo-British prisoners, this initial preferential treatment of Muslim Indians expanded in scope to cover all captive Indians and the entirety of captivity. Yet, the evidence indicates that the perception of better treatment of Indians by Ottoman authorities may have had more to do with the British attitude that they should have been treated better than the Indian prisoners. Some British officers complained that Ottomans paid Indian officers as much as the British, or that Indians were treated "exactly like us," or allowed to "feed with us."[31] Speaking of preferential treatment, it should be mentioned that General Townshend was evacuated comfortably from Kut and treated very well afterward, as he lived in captivity on an island in the Sea of Marmara.[32] The discrepancy between his luxurious life in captivity and that of his men aroused much criticism in Britain.

Once in the various camps, the experience of the prisoners varied significantly from place to place, and during different periods in the same location. A British White Paper, noting the "peculiarities of the Turkish character" stated that depending on when and where they were, prisoners were treated with everything from "theatrical politeness and consideration" to being "driven and tormented like beasts." Afyonkarahisar, where a bull-whip wielding camp commandant replaced a mild-mannered one, seems to have topped the list of the worst places for all Entente prisoners, until early 1917, when he was removed after a government inspection. Thereafter, Afyonkarahisar "became a good camp."[33] Similarly, the Ankara camp also "improved" in time. Ras al-Ain, a working camp in Syria, where British and Indians were kept, was noted for its lack of medical care, facilities and personnel. However, with major shortages of doctors and medicine during the war, Ottoman soldiers themselves suffered from similar problems. In contrast, the British and Indians interned in Bursa seem to have lived a "hotel life," housed in an actual former hotel, as the White Paper described. 184 British prisoners interned in Konya were placed in hotels as of January 1916. Again, as the White Paper noted, the Yozgat camp consisted of a group of "detached houses, picturesquely placed on the steep side of a hill, which is dotted with [...] tall poplars," and with a "Turk of the old school - polite, honest and silent," as its commandant. It suffered from a "scarcity of supplies," but life there was "as good as a prisoner’s life" could be. All this shows that the conditions in the prison camps varied significantly from one location to another. Some prisoners were beaten in Afyon, others suffered from neglect in Ras al-Ain, but those interned in Yozgat seem to have had a much easier time, staging pantomimes at Christmas, play hockey, ski, and being allowed to use local hunting dogs to hunt hare and fox.[34] Ottomans did not use barbed wire camps, but placed the prisoners in houses, school buildings, hotels and other buildings, which allowed the officers especially a significant amount of freedom of movement. Of course, from camp to camp, this could also differ.

Like the other belligerents, Ottomans treated officers differently than the rank and file, no matter the ethnicity or nationality. Officers were assigned orderlies and paid a salary, whereas the other ranks were expected to work in a number of places depending on their ability or the lack thereof. Prisoners always complained about shortages and increasing prices, but Ottomans faced the same problems due to war.[35] As to the rank and file, the state sent men who had some knowledge of mechanics or electricity to Sivas for work, and those with agricultural knowledge were sent to Adapazarı. Many others were put to work in railroad and tunnel construction either in the Taurus or Amanos mountain ranges in southern Anatolia and Antakya.[36] In both locations, the prisoners joined Ottoman labor battalions (see article "Ottoman Empire/Middle East"). Prisoners there complained about extremes of temperature on the mountains and the "unhealthy environment" as many broke down with malaria, dysentery, and gastritis rather than the work itself.[37]

If malaria and dysentery ailed the prisoners in central and southern Anatolia, typhus wreaked havoc among those who were imprisoned in camps in the eastern half of Asia Minor. Once it arrived at the prison camps in Erzincan, Sivas, or other eastern Anatolian towns, the disease quickly spread to all those who were there or would arrive soon afterward. Typhus had killed many Russian prisoners before it disappeared in September 1915: of the 1,930 Russians in Sivas sent mostly from Erzincan, for example, 785 died due to typhus. This camp eventually came to hold a number of British and Indian prisoners from Kut.[38]

Although British and U.S. sources accused Ottomans of not being accommodating enough about the inspection of their prison camps, International Red Cross visits to some of camps occurred during the war. Some camps were inspected more than once by International Red Cross or international representatives. A 1916 International Red Cross visit was followed by representatives of the Danish government, who looked after Russian interests in the Ottoman Empire in October 1917. They visited a number of camps including Afyonkarahisar, Belemedik, Nusaybin, Eskişehir, Balıkesir and Kütahya.[39]

After the Ottoman Empire had lost the war, the repatriation of the British, Dominion, and French prisoners was carried out relatively quickly, with a majority being repatriated in December 1918. The informal model of captivity and "camps" dispersed all over Anatolia slowed down the repatriation efforts in those who were left. By 1919, with the Greek invasion and Turkish War of Independence, it became more difficult to search for the "untraced" or those who were in isolated locations.[40] Repatriation of the Russian prisoners started soon after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), but the civil war in Russia and the problems in Anatolia slowed down the process.

Yücel Yanıkdağ, University of Richmond

Section Editors: Elizabeth Thompson; Mustafa Aksakal