Introduction

When the Ottoman Empire entered the war by the naval bombardment of Russian Black Sea ports on 29 October 1914, its army had already undergone a hasty reorganization and a series of reforms following its catastrophic defeat in the First Balkan War. Along with the officers who were deemed opponents of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), elderly officers who were held responsible for the “Balkan Disaster”, had been forced into retirement and a rejuvenated but less experienced officer corps had emerged.[1] General mobilization, which was declared on 2 August 1914, had not been properly planned or coordinated. This caused massive delays in units reaching their full strength before the hostilities began.[2]

The army initially fielded thirteen army corps and two independent divisions. These units were organized into four field armies. The 1st and 2nd Armies were deployed on both sides of the Bosphorus to protect the capital, its vicinity, Thrace, and the Aegean Coast; the 3rd Army was deployed in Eastern Anatolia, on the Russian border, and the 4th Army was deployed along the coast of Syria and Palestine. In Mesopotamia, the Iraq Area Command was created with an understaffed and ill-equipped infantry division supported with gendarmerie and tribal forces. It was entrusted with the defence of a vast area stretching from the Persian Gulf to Mosul.[3]

The Ottoman High Command, lacking any kind of clear war goals other than enjoying the potential benefits of a Great Power alliance at the end of the war, had relied almost completely on German military planners for its strategic and operational-level planning. The Ottoman campaign and concentration plans were drawn up in accordance with German strategic needs on the Western Front.[4] As the war progressed, it became apparent that the Ottoman Empire would be fighting for its own survival. The major engagements took place in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, and Palestine, but the army also saw action in secondary fronts such as Yemen, Asir, Hejaz, Iran, Galicia, Romania, and Macedonia.

The Caucasus Campaign

Shortly after the hostilities began, the Ottoman General Staff decided to launch a large-scale winter offensive that would encircle and annihilate the Russian Army in the Caucasus. For the operation, Minister of War Enver Pasha (1881-1922) personally arrived at the front and assumed command of the 3rd Army himself. The plan, devised by Enver Pasha himself, was to conduct a single envelopment of the Russian right flank and strike the main body of the Russian Army in Sarikamis. During the planning of the operation, however, weather conditions, rough terrain, potential logistical problems, and the lack of heavy artillery support had been widely ignored. Enver Pasha, though an able staff officer and a proven expert in irregular warfare, had no practical experience in commanding an army, let alone in leading such a large-scale operation.[5] These factors, all combined, would decide the fate of the campaign. The offensive started on 22 December, catching the Russians off guard, but in a little more than two weeks, it came to a halt and was eventually pushed back by Russian counterattacks. The 3rd Army suffered terribly due to uncoordinated assaults caused by poor leadership and forced marches in extreme weather conditions. At the end of the operation, the 3rd Army’s manpower had been reduced from 118,174 to 42,000.[6] To make things worse for the Ottomans, the spring of 1915 saw the Armenian Uprising in Van, which spread like wildfire and compromised the army’s rear area security. This led to Istanbul’s controversial decision to forcibly relocate the Armenian population of Anatolia.[7]

The Russians, after regaining their strength and receiving reinforcements, launched a series of offensives throughout 1915, capturing Van, Malazgirt, and finally the fortress city of Erzurum in early 1916.[8] By spring 1916, the situation got extremely critical as the Russians captured the Black Sea ports of Rize and Trabzon. The 2nd Army in Thrace was reorganized and hastily deployed on the 3rd Army’s right flank. The two armies failed to coordinate their operations during the Russian offensive targeting the 3rd Army front in July 1916 which led to the fall of Erzincan. When it was the 2nd Army’s turn to launch a large-scale offensive, which was to be the Ottoman Army’s very last major offensive in the war, on 2 August 1916, it received no support from the 3rd Army and suffered terrible casualties. Later, the 2nd and 3rd Armies were assigned under the command of the newly created Caucasian Army Group, thus ending the coordination problem of those two armies.[9]

From 1917 on, because of the political turmoil in Russia, combat in Eastern Anatolia calmed down and in late 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians asked for a truce. Exploiting this strategic pause, in early 1918, the 3rd Army began an offensive to capture Eastern Anatolian territories under Russian occupation and reach the Russo-Ottoman border of 1877. Apart from weak resistance from Armenian units, the Russians simply moved out of the 3rd Army’s way.[10] The ease and swiftness of the 3rd Army’s success encouraged Enver Pasha to commit more units to the Caucasus Campaign to invade the entire Caucasus and Iran.[11] In the summer of 1918, the 9th Army was activated to move into Iran while the 3rd Army operated in Georgia and Azerbaijan. These two armies were united under the command of the Eastern Army Group. In September 1918, the 3rd Army reached the Caspian Sea and captured Baku. Meanwhile, the 9th Army moved into Iran, captured Tabriz, and reached as far as the north of Sulaymaniyah. These two armies would occupy those territories until the armistice.[12]

The Mesopotamian Campaign

The landing of an infantry brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division at Fao, on 5 November 1914, started the campaign in Mesopotamia. Meeting no serious resistance, the British reinforced their troops with an additional brigade and moved inland, capturing Basra and Qurna before the end of the year. The irregular tribal units, of which the Ottoman High Command had extremely high hopes in defence of Iraq, proved to be completely unreliable. By spring 1915, the General Staff, abandoning its strategy to defend Mesopotamia by irregular forces, sent two infantry divisions under the command of Iraq Area Command. Later in autumn 1915, two more Anatolian infantry divisions arrived in Iraq.[13]

The British 6th Division’s offensive that started on 21 November 1915 was stopped at Selman-i Pak (Ctesiphon). The British retreated back to Kut al-Amara, pursued by the Ottoman forces which immediately besieged the city. After several assaults on the city, which proved to be extremely costly for the Ottomans, it was decided to continue the siege and wait for the British to surrender. Two major British relief efforts took place in January and March 1916, but both were stopped before reaching the town. After holding on for five months, Kut fell on 29 April 1916. With a total of 13,000 men taken prisoner, Kut was a major victory for the Ottoman Empire and widely used for propaganda both by the Germans and the Ottomans for the rest of the war.[14] In strategic terms, it did not change the ultimate fate of the campaign in Mesopotamia, delaying it only for a few months. The British would renew their offensive towards Baghdad in December 1916 and capture the city on 11 March 1917. After the fall of Baghdad, the steady advance of the British couldn’t be stopped until the armistice.[15] When the armistice was signed, the British had already reached 40 kilometers south of Mosul, which was still occupied by the Ottoman 6thArmy.[16]

The Campaign in Palestine

Shortly after the Ottoman Empire’s entry in the war, Ottoman General Staff ordered the VIII Corps in Syria to prepare for an offensive on the Suez Canal. The objective of the operation was to pose a material threat on the Suez Canal, thus forcing British Army to keep a considerable force in Egypt and away from the Western Front. After preparations were complete, the corps-sized Canal Expeditionary Force arrived at the east bank of the canal on 3 February 1915 and the cross-canal assault by pontoons started immediately. The assault failed against strong British resistance on the opposite bank. The expeditionary force retreated under the cover of darkness. Ottoman casualties totalled 52 officers and 1,358 enlisted men. Though the channel couldn’t be seized, the intended objective was certainly achieved. The British were forced to increase their military presence in Egypt until the spring of 1917.[17]

After nearly two years of relative silence in Palestine, in March 1917, the British finally decided to act to capture Gaza with a swift blow. The assault on the Gaza-Beersheba Line started on 26 March 1917 but failed to break through. The Ottoman 4th Army reinforced their defences before the British renewed their assault on 19 April, this time with tanks and gas attacks. This second assault also failed.[18] After holding their front against two consecutive British attacks, in summer 1917, the Ottoman forces in Syria and Palestine underwent an organizational change. The 7th and 8th Armies were activated and, along with the 4th Army, were assigned under the command of a new army group: Heeresgruppe F. More widely known as Army Group Yildirim, this new army group HQ consisted almost entirely of German officers. Fieldmarshall Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) arrived from Germany to take command. This new enterprise immediately caused a crisis among the Ottoman Army commanders who felt their authority was challenged or simply couldn’t get along with von Falkenhayn.[19] Amid this crisis, on 31 October, the British launched another offensive and managed to capture the towns of Beersheba and Gaza in what came to be known as the Third Battle of Gaza. After a short pause, the British resumed their offensive and captured Jerusalem on 8 December. Following this huge blow, von Falkenhayn was immediately dismissed and Field Marshall Liman von Sanders (1855-1929) took over the command of Yildirim.[20]

After the fall of Jerusalem, calm reigned on the Palestine Front for a little more than nine months. On 19 September 1918, after meticulous planning and preparation, the final British offensive in Palestine began. The British broke through Ottoman defences easily and routed the entire 8th Army. The 7th Army was still defending its positions but since their right flank was now vulnerable due to the 8th Army’s retreat, it was forced to pull back by nightfall. In only two days, the 8th Army was completely annihilated. The Battle of Megiddo, a great disaster for the Ottomans, was followed by the fall of Damascus on 1 October. The 7th Army, under the command of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (1881-1938), who also took the remaining units of the 4th Army under his command, was ordered to retreat north, towards Aleppo. After more than a 400 kilometers-long fighting retreat, the 7th Army managed to take defensive positions north of Aleppo only a couple of days before the armistice, thus preventing a British incursion into Anatolia before the war ended.[21]

The Gallipoli Campaign

The greatest danger that the Ottoman Empire ever faced throughout the war came when an Allied armada entered the Strait of Dardanelles with hopes of capturing Istanbul and forcing the Ottoman Empire to capitulate. The naval offensive started at 8:30 AM on 18 March 1915 and lasted until 5 PM. Heavy fire from Dardanelles fortifications and undetected sea mines destroyed three Allied warships and two torpedo boats and forced them to retreat. Turkish casualties numbered 79 dead and wounded.[22]

When the naval offensive failed, the Allies, convinced that forcing the Dardanelles by sea would be futile and costly, devised an amphibious assault plan to capture the Ottoman fortifications by land. The Allied landings started in the early hours of 25 April, with the British 29th Division landing at Seddulbahir (Cape Helles) and ANZAC landing at Ariburnu (Anzac Cove). The 9th Division put up a fierce resistance against the landings at Ariburnu and Seddulbahir, until Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal Bey, whose 19th Division was the army reserve, used initiative to launch a counterattack on ANZAC, which stopped the enemy advance. Because of this crucial decision on the first day, the situation in the Ariburnu sector would remain more or less the same until the end of the campaign. In Seddulbahir, the 9th Division had managed to prevent the British from reaching their objectives. In the following days, the Ottoman Army reinforced the peninsula with fresh troops, thus reducing the nature of the campaign to static trench warfare.[23] The deadlock was almost broken on 6 August 1915, when the British launched a major offensive after landing fresh troops at Suvla Bay and Ariburnu, capturing the critical high ground before finally being stopped on 8 August. Mustafa Kemal Bey, now a colonel, appointed as the commander of the newly-created Anafartalar Group, which was an army-size unit that included all the Ottoman units in the region under its command, was tasked with launching a counterattack to push the enemy back. He launched his counterattack at dawn on 10 August and pushed back the enemy. Still hopeful, the British brought fresh troops from Seddulbahir and renewed their offensive on 21 August but achieved only limited gains after six days of fighting.[24] After the failed August Offensive, the Allies, seeing that their initial campaign objectives were now impossible to achieve, started to plan for evacuation. The Allies evacuated the peninsula, with a relative ease, by 9 January 1916.[25] For the Ottoman Army, it was a hard-won victory, which cost greatly in terms of manpower. The Ottoman casualties in Gallipoli Campaign numbered as high as 250,000, of which at least 55,000 were killed in action.[26]

Secondary Campaigns

One of the biggest internal problems of the Ottoman Empire during the war, apart from the Armenian Uprising, was the Arab Revolt that resulted in the end of Ottoman rule in Hejaz. When the revolt began in the summer of 1916, the Ottoman Army had only a single division stationed in Mecca and Ta’if which held out for a little more than three months before surrendering to the rebels.[27] The Ottoman forces in Medina, Asir, and Yemen held out until long after the end of war. In the summer of 1916, the Ottoman forces in Medina repulsed the initial rebel attacks on the city. Shortly after the revolt began, the Hejaz Expeditionary Force was created in Medina, under the command of Fakhreddin Pasha (1868-1948). While the troops in Medina held out against rebel attacks, the Ottoman General Staff made plans to evacuate the city, though this was later found too difficult to undertake. Medina held out, under extremely harsh conditions, until Fakhreddin Pasha finally agreed to surrender to the Arab rebels on 6 January 1919.[28] The XXIII Corps in Asir and the VII Corps in Yemen, isolated on distant fronts, mostly fought against local rebellions and occasional British attacks. Both units surrendered to the British after the armistice.[29]

The Ottoman Army sent three expeditionary corps to help its allies in Europe. When the Austro-Hungarians were overwhelmed by the Brusilov Offensive which began in June 1916, the Ottoman XV Corps was dispatched to Galicia to contribute to defensive operations against the Russian Army. Supplied by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, Ottoman troops performed quite well for about a year before finally returning home in September 1917. Shortly after the XV Corps was sent to Galicia, the Ottoman VI Corps was dispatched to Romania to take part in operations against the Romanian Army. The Romanian Campaign ended in February 1917, but the VI Corps remained in Romania until April 1918 and took part in the military occupation. In late 1916, the XX Corps was sent to the Macedonian Front to help the Bulgarian Army. Ottoman troops remained in Macedonia until March 1917 without seeing any serious action. During the height of the Ottoman Army’s manpower crisis, when the units in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia were in dire need of reinforcements, six divisions and a reinforced infantry regiment, 115,000 men in total, were sent to fight in Europe. The decision was deemed a serious mistake by Liman von Sanders. From the German High Command’s perspective, moving fresh Ottoman divisions that were already concentrated in Gallipoli, Thrace, and Istanbul into the Balkans by a well-established rail network and putting them into action in a short time was a more desirable option than having them travel under harsh conditions through Anatolia into the Caucasus and Mesopotamia, given the Ottomans’ abysmal lines of communication.[30]

Conclusion

The Ottoman Army fought four major campaigns throughout the war and managed to come out victorious in only one of them. The campaigns in Mesopotamia and Palestine, despite the victories at Kut and the First and Second Battles of Gaza, ended with the Ottoman Army retreating all the way back to Anatolia. In the Caucasus Campaign, things did not go well from the start and steadily evolved into a disaster. However, the tide turned in favour of the Ottomans when Russia dropped out of the war in 1917. Only in Gallipoli, did the Ottoman Army manage to win a remarkable victory that had important strategic consequences. The isolated units on the Arabian Peninsula held out until the end, only to give up when the armistice was signed. While fighting for their very survival, the Ottomans managed to send help to their allies. Ottoman troops contributed to stopping the Russian onslaught in Galicia and knocking Romania quickly out of the war. Despite high casualty numbers and almost an equally high number of deserters, the final defeat of the Ottoman Army, unlike its allies, did not bring a total disintegration of its fighting formations as a whole. Most frontline units, though seriously thinned in ranks, managed to preserve their discipline and cohesion to a certain extent. This especially proved vital during the Turkish War of Independence, when former Ottoman officers and their units took up arms against the invasion of Anatolia.


Mehmet Fatih Baş, National Defense University


Section Editors: Melanie Schulze-Tanielian; Yiğit Akin