LESS THAN four years after the carnage of World War I, Britain called on Australia to join it in a major new war. The victorious allies must stop the Ottoman army of Mustafa Kemal taking control of the Black Sea-Aegean shipping route and reoccupying the defeated empire’s European territory, including Constantinople, Australia was told.
With Gallipoli and Western Front bloodshed still vivid in people’s minds, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill sent telegrams to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada on 15 September 1922, seeking troops to help Britain defend “freedom of the seas” and to prevent the Kemalist forces from attempting “aggression on Europe”.
Churchill had persuaded the British Cabinet a week earlier that “If the Turks take the Gallipoli Peninsula and Constantinople (now Istanbul), we shall have lost the whole fruits of our victory (over the Ottoman empire), and another Balkan war would be inevitable”.
An eminent Ottoman history expert, Professor Stanford J. Shaw (pictured), writes that South Africa did not bother to reply to Churchill. Australia and Canada declared they had no interest in joining a new, potentially big conflict as they did not see how their interests, or freedom of the seas, were involved.
They also, Shaw writes, “felt very strongly that the British army had sacrificed Dominion soldiers in place of its own during the World War I campaigns, and appropriately enough, in particular at Gallipoli”.
New Zealand offered to send a battalion – a token force in view of the size of the war machine that would have been needed to combat the onrushing army of Kemal, hero of Gallipoli, later known as Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”, and guard the waterway from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, which Britain called the Straits.
The British Cabinet made repeated efforts to provoke the new war with the forces of Kemal, who was leading a new regime to liberate the dying Ottoman empire from its occupation by the victorious allies – Britain, France and Italy – and to repel the Greek army that had invaded Western Anatolia in May 1919, its troops carried to Izmir on French and British ships. Sultan Mehmed VI Vahdettin was effectively a prisoner of the allies, a puppet ruler with virtually no authority outside Constantinople and little inside it.
Kemal ordered his army to avoid actions that might lead to a new conflict. Britain’s senior occupying general, Allied Commander-in-Chief Sir Charles Harington, [rpt Harington] also worked desperately to avoid war, despite his Government’s policy, and instructions from London which, Shaw writes, suggested Cabinet assumed that the presence of even a single British soldier “would frighten the Turks into easy submission”.
Churchill’s aim was total defeat of Kemal’s forces which, to the allies’ amazement and immense chagrin, had rallied and fought ferociously after the Ottoman army was defeated. He planned to impose on them terms decided entirely by the allies. The Ottomans, it had been decided, would be given Constantinople with strict conditions attached, and part of Asia Minor – modern Turkey. The rest of the empire was to be carved up among the victors and their supporters.
Before telegramming the Dominions, Churchill had convinced the British Cabinet that possible loss of control of the Straits was a crisis for the British Empire – despite the Kemalists’ assurances that the crucial shipping route would remain open and despite the fact Britain had no vital interests in the region. Churchill was backed by his Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (below), who told Cabinet that Britain could not retreat in the face of Kemal.
Kemal’s unexpected military successes had thwarted allied plans to divide the Ottoman empire between Greece – whose army Kemal’s forces had by September 1922 driven out of the Ottoman heartland in Asia Minor – the Armenians and possibly the Kurds, and to retain effective control of Constantinople and the Straits through an international group Britain intended to dominate.
Churchill told Britons on September 16 that allowing Kemal’s army to take control of Constantinople and the Straits would “involve nothing less than the entire loss of the whole results of the victory over Turkey in the late war”.
He continued: “Adequate force must be available to guard the freedom of the Straits and defend the deep water line between Europe and Asia against a violent and hostile Turkish aggression.
“HM Government have also communicated with the Dominions” (as well as Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Rumania) “… inviting them to be represented by contingents in defence of the interests for which they have already made enormous sacrifices and of soil which is hallowed by immortal memories of the Anzacs.”
Churchill concluded: “It is the intention of HM Government to reinforce immediately, and if necessary to a considerable extent, the troops of Sir Charles Harington … and orders have been given to the British Fleet in the Mediterranean to oppose by every means any infraction of the neutral zones by the Turks or any attempt by them to cross to the European shore.”
Churchill’s “neutral zones” were not recognised by Kemal and his Government, the Grand National Assembly. The zones, some 140 kilometres wide on both sides of the Straits, “really did not exist”. They were “a political invention with military ramifications”, Shaw writes in his monumental six-volume study ‘From Empire to Republic, The Turkish War of National Liberation’ *.
Churchill’s threat of war was backed by Lloyd George, who issued orders that “no Kemalist forces must be allowed to cross salt-water. The moment a Kemalist gets afloat, he must be dealt with.” The Admiralty ordered that all ships in Constantinople be destroyed to prevent Kemal’s troops crossing into Europe – an absurd order, ignored by British officials in the city, which teemed with watercraft vital to its running, crossing from Asia to Europe across the as-yet unbridged Bosphorus.
The stage was set for a bloody confrontation. Australia, an independent nation for just 21 summers, could well have been dragged in out of loyalty to Britain if fighting had started, along with other former British colonies. The possible violent reaction of the millions of Indian Muslims loyal to the Ottoman sultan – who was also caliph, Servant of the Two Holy Places and thus spiritual leader of the world’s Muslims – was well appreciated in London. The Kaiser had set out to foment trouble in Britain’s Muslim colonies before the Great War.
Map of Megali Hellas (Great Greece) as proposed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 by Greek PM Eleftherios Venizelos, the leading major proponent of the Megali Idea at the time.
The British public’s response to Churchill’s warning of a possible major new conflict was decidedly chilly, Shaw writes. The war-ravaged economy was barely starting to recover, Ireland was in chaos, demobbed soldiers had created a labour glut that led to plunging wages while prices rose and, to complete the misery, an influenza epidemic had ravaged the nation.
The Trades Union Congress warned Lloyd George it would oppose any war over the Straits. A ‘Daily Mail’ article described Churchill’s policy as “bordering on insanity”. ‘The Times’ said British ministers “had made mistake after mistake” in dealing with the Kemalists.
Kemal acted with his usual bold decisiveness to Churchill’s war warning. He told allied leaders in Constantinople his army would not suspend operations but he welcomed allied moves for talks to avoid conflict. Then he ordered preparations for his army to cross into Eastern Thrace, the Ottoman territory in Europe then still occupied by Greece.
The French responded to Kemal by ordering its troops out of the “neutral zone”, mainly on the Gallipoli peninsula opposite British troops at Canakkale, a town near the mouth of the Dardanelles. Italian troops were withdrawn to Constantinople. Kemal’s troops moved up to face the British.
Churchill told an emergency Cabinet meeting in London that “there could be no greater blow to British prestige than the hurried evacuation of Chanak in face of Turkish threats”. It was, he said, “most desirable that Chanak should be held, even at the expense of British evacuation of (a nearby region) and Constantinople … a very grave warning should be addressed to the Kemalists telling them that Great Britain could not in any circumstances allow the violation of the Chanak zone, and that bodies of troops approaching that zone … would be stopped by Naval fire.”
The crisis intensified. France told Britain its army would not try to stop any Kemalist advance. Kemal’s troops moved closer to the British forces at Canakkale, to the great alarm of the British. The British commander warned the Turks that if they did not move out of the “neutral zone” British ships would open fire on them. The Kemalist commander replied he had no authority to withdraw and then, to British annoyance, sent out light reconnaissance patrols across the area.
Days later more of Kemal’s troops entered the disputed zone and, when asked to leave, refused “but in a very friendly way and without making any move to fire their weapons”, according to Shaw. It was the vastly outnumbered British who pulled back, destroying two bridges as they retreated and later firing practice cannon rounds towards the Kemalist positions.
The local commander reported to Harington: “Situation was quite unanticipated. Peaceful penetration by armed men who did not wish to fight, and yet refused either to withdraw or to halt, had not been foreseen.”
Churchill did not abandon his plan to involve Dominion troops. Empire governments were kept informed as the Kemalists slowly tightened the noose around the British. Kemal’s cavalry rode right up to British barbed wire, creating considerable nervousness among British soldiers lying in trenches on the other side. A British general reported to the War Office: “The situation in Chanak is most difficult, as the Turkish cavalry ride up to our wire and make faces at our men.”
Britain’s senior intelligence officer in the Middle East, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, wrote that Cabinet, “unable to make up their minds to a definite policy (on how to react to Kemal), went so far as to recommend operations which would have meant war. I am told that Winston is at the back of this crazy policy and really wished to fight the Turk,” adding that Harington’s position could be summarised thus: “If (Cabinet) want war, I can give it them in five minutes. We are all trying to avert war, but they appear to be encouraging us to bring it about.”
Indeed, writes Shaw, war was precisely what was wanted by a group of powerful British Cabinet members, including Churchill and Lloyd George.
War Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey recalled: “We talked late into the night (of September 27, 1922). Winston, hitherto a strong Turkophile, had swung around at the threat to his beloved Dardanelles … All the talk was of war … In Thrace the Turks would come up, not against (former Greek king) Constantine’s tired, ill-commanded and dispirited army, but against a national resistance … invigorated by having the British Empire at its back …
“By the time Mustapha Kemal is beaten and held (in Thrace) we shall be strong enough … with a relatively small force to … cut his communications and compel a humiliating surrender…
“What Lloyd George, Churchill and Birkenhead dread is that Mustpaha Kemal will accept the (peace) conference, and we shall have to implement the condition of handing over Eastern Thrace to the Turk with all that implies for the future…”
Next day, Shaw writes, Harington was ordered not to come to an agreement with the Kemalists but to send an ultimatum that unless all Kemalist troops were withdrawn from the “neutral zone” Britain would attack with all its firepower and war would result.
Cabinet’s extremists expected Kemal to refuse, and they would get their war. They were saved from this massive folly by Harington and Kemal’s officials; Harington was told the Grand National Assembly had decided not to attack at Canakkale but to agree to the peace talks the allies had proposed. A pact was signed just a few days later, permitting Kemalist forces to land in Thrace and allowing the allies to remain in Constantinople until a peace treaty was signed.
What were British motives for seeking the new war?
It was an empire at the zenith of its global power, run by arch-imperialists like Churchill, and was not prepared to be humiliated, especially at the hands of a now-defunct imperial rival, the Ottomans.
And there were other factors.
Lloyd George, a fanatical supporter of Greece, like many Englishmen of his generation, aimed to help Athens reclaim ancient Hellenic lands, helping Greece fulfil the long dreamed-of the Megali (“Great”) Idea – re-creating its ancient empire including Constantinople, western Asia Minor, Cyprus, the Aegean islands and a large slice of the Turkish Black Sea coast. Lloyd George planned that Greece and its new empire would be Britain’s client in the eastern Mediterranean.
Churchill, obsessed by the strategic position of the Straits, and smarting over the tragic fiasco of his Gallipoli campaign, which began with heavy losses in a naval attempt to force the Dardanelles, was intent on stopping Kemal controlling the vital Mediterranean-Black Sea waterway.
Both men, and many others in the British Cabinet, grossly underestimated the fighting quality and determination of Kemal’s forces, regarding them as belonging to an inferior race incapable of matching it with the British fighting man. Empire fighting men knew better: they had tangled with the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915.
Greece gained huge swathes of Ottoman territory in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, but lost much of it later, when the Treaty of Lausanne recognised the new Republic of Turkey. The map above celebrated the Greek gains from Sevres. Pictured is Mr Venizelos
Underlining the blindly arrogant imperial approach Britain took to Turks, Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon wrote that he regarded as “insolence” the Kemalist rejection of his proposed terms at the peace conference held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1923 and described Kemal’s distinguished peace negotiator Ismet Pasha as, “like all other Turks … doubtless at bottom a true-born son of the bazaars”.
Curzon’s peace plan, highly prejudicial to the Turks, was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it document. He was furious when they refused it. According to the memoirs of a senior British official, the more realistic and less prejudiced French and Italians made Curzon “almost hysterical” by treating Kemal’s delegates at Lausanne as equals.
The official, Shaw relates, found Curzon (pictured) alone in an anteroom during an adjournment in the talks “crying uncontrollably while screaming his mortification at having been frustrated by ‘that little Turk’,” Ismet. Curzon later raged: “Like a true Turk he thought he could still catch me before I turned the corner of the street in order to have a final transaction over the price of a carpet.”
Curzon did not attend the final session of the treaty, which proceeded smoothly to a conclusion in his absence.
War was thus finally averted, after the long and agonising negotiations, with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923. As it was signed, the reinvigorated Greek army was massed on its border with Turkey, ready for the order to march on Istanbul – an order that, fortunately for the region and possibly the world, never came.
Ismet Pasha (Inonu), general and statesman, second President of Turkey.
The last allied troops left Constantinople on October 2, 1923. On the night of October 19-20 the great metropolis, once known as “the Queen of Cities” and “the City of the World’s Desire”, shook to the thunder of a 101-gun salute celebrating the birth of the modern Turkish republic. It also marked the end of the city’s 1593 years as an imperial capital, first of the Byzantine empire then of the Ottoman. No city has been an imperial capital for longer. Several years later its name was changed to Istanbul, second city of the republic to the new capital, Ankara.
The Middle East borders drawn after World War I by Britain and its allies continue to cause conflict, the two Iraq wars and the Syrian conflict being the latest – but likely not the last – in a long, tragic series of regional eruptions. Australia, more obedient now to its new colonial masters in Washington than it was to Churchill in 1922 and again in World War II, was an eager and unquestioning participant in George W. Bush’s military debacles, toed the American line in Afghanistan and is a loyal ally in Syria.
* Professor Stanford J. Shaw, who died in December 2006, was Professor of Turkish History at the University of California Los Angeles and at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He wrote many works on Turkish history. ‘From Empire to Republic’ was the product of 40 years’ research and writing.