A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lost in the Dueling Nationalist Mythologies: The Forgotten Syrians at Gallipoli

When I posted my November 11 post and mentioned Mustafa Kemal's 19th division at Gallipoli, a commenter reminded me that a lot of the fallen on the "Turkish" side were actually Arabs. In fact, two of the three regiments constituting Kemal's famous 19th Infantry Division, the 72nd and 77th Infantry Regiments, were recruited in Syria. The division that would help propel Kemal to great fame and the title of "Father of the Turks" may have been as much as two-thirds Arab and Kurdish. The third of the regiments in Kemal's Division, the 57th, was apparently recruited in European Turkey and may have included minorities of Balkan background. Because Kemal took command of the 19th Division during the battle, it is justly famous, but apparently at least one other regiment on the Gallipoli Peninsula was raised around Aleppo. (Much of the literature, both in print and online, is in Turkish, which I do not, alas, read at all.)

Kemal at Gallipoli
Now, I have deliberately referred to these troops as "Syrian," in the title rather than as Arabs. Many seem to have been Kurds. Since there is reason to believe at least the 77th Regiment and perhaps the 72nd as well were from northern Syria, still an area with Turkish, Turcoman, and Kurdish population as well as Arab. I've seen statements I can't confirm that the 77th included many Yazidis and Nusayris (what we today call ‘Alawites). The latter are Arabic speakers, but most Yazidis speak Kurdish; both are religious minorities. Ottoman Complaints that the 72nd and 77th were hard to train (some from Kemal himself) may relate to the conscripts' poor command of Turkish.

There also appear to be no records detailing the ethnicity of Ottoman conscripts. It is known that the Ottomans, even before the Arab Revolt broke out, preferred to station troops from the Arab provinces in Anatolia, the Caucasus, or European Turkey, and put ethnic Turks in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia, for fairly obvious reasons. (Many were forcibly rounded up and were hardly serving willingly.) Though there were exceptions.

Some modern Turkish historians have begun to take an interest in this subject, but for decades it has been buried under Kemalist mythology: The Turkish Republic glorified the Turkish language and ethnicity, sometimes to ridiculous extremes (the "sun language" idea, claiming all languages descend from Turkish; or insisting on calling Turkey's Kurds "mountain Turks"). Mustafa Kemal began his rise up the high command ladder commanding the 19th Division at Gallipoli: after he became Kemal Atatürk, "Father Turk" himself, it was unthinkable to mention that his own division was two-thirds non-Turkish.

You might think that while Republican Turkey naturally dropped this fact down the memory hole, Arabs would have sought to preserve it. But not so. It did not fit with the mythology of Arab nationalism, either. The Great Arab Revolt was a universal Arab uprising against their Ottoman oppressors which (with maybe just a little help from the British) brought down the Ottoman Empire. Though this originated essentially as a Hashemite version of history, it became pretty general, and nobody was going to glorify Arabs in Ottoman service.

The Ottomans were proud of their multi-ethnic empire which, like Austria-Hungary's, was doomed to fall in that war, though from 1905 the "Young Turks" had been emphasizing Turkish ethnicity. Perhaps as many as a third of the Ottoman Army came from the Empire's Arab provinces, and right up to the Mudros Armistice there were more Arab troops in Ottoman uniform than the Arab Revolt could ever command, but their service fell victim to the dueling nationalisms of Turkish and Arab national myth, and so they were too inconvenient to be remembered.

The Arab role in the Ottoman Army has been a particular interest of Salim Tamari, the Palestinian historian, though his work is not focused on Gallipoli. His book Year of the Locust: A Soldier's Diary and the Erasure of Palestine's Ottoman Past (which I have not read) translates three war diaries, focusing on that of a private from Jerusalem (publisher's page here; Amazon link here; also see an article by Tamari in The Jerusalem Quarterly called "The Short Life of Private Ihsan: Jerusalem 1915"). For articles dealing more directly with Gallipoli, see Al Jazeera English, "The Forgotten Arabs of Gallipoli," and Robert Fisk in The Independent, "Great War Secrets of the Ottoman Arabs."

I intend to do more research on this subject, and will share what I learn.


Josa Karre said...

The Turkish Gallipoli Memorials at least commemorate soldiers from all over the empire. See some photos I too in 2006 here: http://sniffstravels.blogspot.se/2006/08/from-far-corners-of-empire.html

A Mehmet was, if I remember correctly, a private.

mujahid7ia said...

Interesting post, thanks. It seems many of the Syrian troops were sent by Djemal Pasha while he was based near Damascus. Apparently, when asked to send reinforcements to repel the British attack in the Dardanelles, he wanted to rid himself of Arab troops of questionable loyalty and command more divisions of Turks.