Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOK: Gallipoli with context: The Turkish story

About a century ago, Australia declared war on the Caliphate. In response, the Caliph called on all Muslims across the world to take part in a jihad on Australia. 

Actually, it wasn’t that simple. Nothing about the First World War was. High school modern history teachers tell us it started with an assassin’s bullet. Britain, France (and their current and former colonial possessions) and Russia then joined forces and fought Germany, an entity called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Russia then dragged the Ottoman Caliphate/Empire, previously neutral in all this mess. Finally the Ottomans joined the Germans.

And so Australia, a very young uber White nation with no standing professional army, entered a war to support the British Empire on the other side of the world. Joining Australia was New Zealand. Their joint rag tag volunteer army, the ANZAC Corp, found itself sailing from the Dardanelles Strait into small boats and onto the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Australia had only recently ceased being a colony, a part of the British Empire. When the Empire was at war, its enemies naturally became Australia’s enemies.

But what of the Ottomans? In Australian history classes and popular media, they are referred to as “the Turks”. Turkey as a nation and a republic did not exist at that time. The Ottoman population included not only Turks but also Armenians, Syrians, Bosnians, Jews and other groups. The founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, spent much of his time in the Ottoman city of Thessaloniki, a city he described as “a Jewish city that has no equal in the world”. When the First World War broke out, Ben-Gurion established a Jewish militia that would fight in the Ottoman army. 

We don’t know enough about the Ottoman Empire. Australians know little about the Ottoman forces. Harvey Broadbent is an Australian historian and broadcaster who has sought to overcome this deficiency. Broadbent is no stranger to Turkey. He taught English in Turkey during 1967-69, after which he studied Ottoman history and language at Manchester University. I spoke to Broadbent recently at the Sydney Writers Festival on 22 May 2015.

His most recent book, Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story, is the result of extensive research of Ottoman military archives all of which are written in Osmanli Arabic script.

Not all the Ottoman troops were Turks. I’m not sure if any of them were Ben-Gurion’s Jewish militiamen. The 72nd and 77th Regiment were conscripts from Aleppo in Syria. If alive today, these men would have called themselves Syrian or Lebanese. They were known to have difficulties communicating with their Turkish commanding officers and fellow troops.

Indeed the Syrian soldiers were often the subject of suspicion. Much of this dates back to rioting in Beirut and other cities which were violently suppressed by Ottoman leaders. Arab troops were accused of retreating during the first week of the Gallipoli defence. In those days, retreating soldiers (including Ottoman and British troops but not Australian volunteers) were typically executed. 

Broadbent told me: “I have seen no documentation that indicates Arab troops were shot for retreating”.

Did any Muslims fight against the Caliph at Gallipoli? Yes they did. Some 15,000 Indians fought as part of the Indian Mule Corp. Most were Hindus and Sikhs. But at least 3 Muslim graves can be found at Gallipoli on the Allied side.

First published in the Australasian Muslim Times on 03 June 2015.

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