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By Alan Moorehead
Ballantine BooksCopyright © 1996 Alan Moorehead
All right reserved.
'Essentially the great question remains: Who will hold Constantinople?'
Even as late as August 1914 it was by no means certain that Turkey would come into the first world war on the German side. There was no need for her to go to war, nobody seriously threatened her, and in fact at that time it was the policy of the Allies and the Central Powers alike to keep her neutral if they could. Certainly the country was in no condition to fight. In the five years that had elapsed since the Young Turks had first come to power the Ottoman Empire had very largely disintegrated: Bulgaria was independent, Salonika, Crete and the Aegean islands had gone to Greece, Italy had seized Tripoli and the Dodecanese, and Britain had formally proclaimed the protectorate of Egypt and the annexation of Cyprus.
Since the previous year the German Military Mission had made great improvements in the Turkish army, but the long series of defeats in the Balkan wars had done enormous harm. At many places the soldiers had gone unpaid for months, and morale had sunk almost to the point of mutiny. Except in a few corps d' elite they were ragged, hungry and short of nearly every kind of weapon required for a modern war. The fleet too was hopelessly out of date, and the garrison at the Dardanelles was far too weak, its guns too obsolete, to stand a chance against a determined attack from any one of the great powers.
Politically the situation was chaotic. The Young Turks with their Committee of Union and Progress had begun well enough when they had deposed the Sultan in 1909, and their democratic ideas had had the support of all liberal-minded and progressive people everywhere. But five years of wars and internal troubles had been too much for them. The ramshackle government of the empire had run down too far to be revived in another and a better way, and inevitably the energies of the Young Turks had become swallowed up in the simple and desperate struggle for their own political survival. Now there was no longer any talk of democratic elections and the freedom and equality of all races and creeds under the Crescent. The bloom had long since worn off the Committee: it was revealed as a ruthless party machine which was almost as sinister and a good deal more reckless than anything Abdul the Damned had contrived. Financially the Government was bankrupt. Morally it had reverted to the old system of force and corruption; there were Committee cells in every sizeable town in what was left of the empire in Asia, and no political appointment could be obtained without their support. Local government at the outlying centres like Baghdad and Damascus was in an appalling state, and Constantinople had so little hold over them that it was always possible that some local chieftain might set himself up in yet another independent state.
It was this very helplessness both abroad and at home that made Turkey turn to the outside world for allies, and in effect it came down to a choice between Germany and Britain. The German alliance was, tactically, the obvious one, since the Kaiser was eager for it and was in a position to put the Turkish army back on its feet. But the Germans were not liked. Lewis Einstein, the special minister at the American Embassy in Constantinople, was probably right when he said that the Turks preferred the English to all other foreigners -- and this despite the fact that the British officials in Turkey tended to regard as 'good' Turks only those who prayed five times a day and turned to the English for advice. England had the money, she had command of the seas, and she had France and Russia on her side. The presence of Russia in the alliance was, of course, an embarrassment, since Russia was the traditional enemy of Turkey, yet even this might not have been too much for the Young Turks to have accepted had the English been enthusiastic. But they were not. They did not think at all highly of this government of young revolutionaries, and suspected that it might be put out of office at any moment. When the Young Turks came to London with a proposal for an Anglo-Turkish alliance they were politely turned aside.
And so by August 1914 things had drifted into a compromise that was rather weighted on the German side. The British Naval Mission continued to serve at Constantinople, but it was counter-balanced -- perhaps over-balanced -- by the German Military Mission which was actively filtrating through the Turkish army; and while the British and the French continued to give their tacit support to the older more conservative politicians in Constantinople, the Kaiser firmly nobbled the younger and more aggressive leaders of the Committee. It was, then, very largely a question of which side had backed the right horse: if the Young Turks were turned out the Allies could count on a friendly neutral government in Constantinople and the end of the German threat in the Near East. If on the other hand the Young Turks remained in office then the British and the French would be in the uncomfortable position of having to switch, of being obliged to try and get their money on the winner before the race was over.
It was a situation which had extreme attractions for the oriental mind, and the Young Turks made the most of it. Moreover the setting could hardly have been better for the complicated intrigues that now began: the foreign ambassadors, installed like robber barons in their enormous embassies along the Bosphorus, the Young Turks in the Yildiz Palace and the Sublime Porte, and everywhere through the sprawling decaying beautiful capital itself that hushed and conspiratorial air which seems to overtake all neutral cities on the edge of war. It was the atmosphere of the high table in the gambling casino very late at night when every move takes on a kind of fated self-importance ...
Excerpted from Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead Copyright © 1996 by Alan Moorehead. Excerpted by permission.
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