A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

November-December 1914: Djemal Pasha Discovers Logistics Problems First Hand, the Hard Way

I've noted that in November 1914 Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha, frustrated that the Commander of the Fourth Army in Syria, Zeki Pasha, was reluctant to plan an attack on the Suez Canal, relieved him and named Djemal, his fellow member of the Young Turk triumvirate and at that time Navy Minister, to take over both the Fourth Army Command and also, essentially, the political administration of Syria. In late November and early December 1914 Djemal set out to make his way to Damascus. Last Friday, in discussing the strategic reasons for the (never implemented) plan for British landings at Alexandretta, I noted that since the Taurus and Amanus tunnels on the Baghdad railway were not yet cut through and the Amanus Pass was impassable by automobile, to travel from Adana to Aleppo one had to take a train on an often washed-out line to Alexandretta, then cross to Aleppo over a highway often impassable as well before rejoining the railroad. Djemal may have been one of the most powerful men in the Ottoman government, but he discovered the transportation problem at first hand and the logistical difficulties it would present to moving troops to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian fronts.

Djemal Pasha
Djemal told the story of his rather harrowing journey in his postwar memoirs, which appeared in English in 1922, the year he was assassinated in Tbilisi by Armenian nationalists) as Memories of a Turkish Statesman 1913-1919, now in the public domain and available at the link from Google Books. The account of his journey quoted below is from pp 141-144 of the 1922 New York edition. (Despite that the spellings and punctuation are all British.)
At that time the Adana-Aleppo railway was only working to the station of Taprak Kaleh. Although the Taprak Kaleh-Alexandretta sector had been finished, the line had been washed away at various points in the neighbourhood of Dort Yol owing to the rains, and communication with Alexandretta was interrupted.
I therefore decided to go by train to Taprak Kaleh or even Mustafa Bey, and if possible to continue my journey from there by car or horse to Alexandretta and Aleppo. Accordingly I left Adana very early next morning. As I had ascertained that the Bozanti-Tarsus sector, the only route which offered secure communication with the army in Anatolia, was in very bad communication in various places, I asked Ismail Hakki Bey, the Governor-General of the province, to have the repair work put in hand as soon as possible. An hour or so after leaving Adana we reached Mustafa Bey, where the horses and cars were detrained. We had barely got a yard or two in our cars before they sank in the mud. As we realised that we should get no further that way, we mounted our horses and I started off, after instructing my aide-de-camp, Captain Selaheddin Effendi, to have the cars towed to Alexandria, whence he was to follow us.
Three or four hours later we came to Dort Yol. This is a large and important village on the shores of the Gulf of Alexandretta, and lies almost equi-distant from five or six other villages, which are inhabited almost exclusively by Armenians, and celebrated for their orange trees.
During the time I was Governor-General of Adana I had had a plan drawn out by German engineers for another colony, to be built on the extensive plot of ground between Dort Yol and the five other villages. But as I had to leave the vilayet this scheme, like so many others, had not been carried out.
In the years 1910 and 1911 I had often visited Dort Yol, and the villagers, whom I had often helped, now came down in crowds to meet me. As I had heard that I could get from Dort Yol station to Alexandretta by an ordinary trolley in two hours, while it would take me six hours to ride there, I preferred to use this method of locomotion and started off with my Chief of Staff.
Never shall I forget this journey by trolley on the slippery track. More than once we went in danger of our lives as in pouring rain we passed along the coast, which was watched by enemy ships. After a violent storm, the moon emerged from the clouds and then disappeared again, after lighting up the sea in a wonderful way, so that in the distance we could see the enemy's ships — a sight which intensified the bitterness in my heart.
I did not conceal from myself that our foes were strong and stubborn. But as there was no other way of preserving our existence, we were compelled to resort to arms for weal or woe. I had sworn to leave no stone unturned to break the power of our adversaries.
Djemal on horseback (Dead Sea)
Clearly the man who until recently had been Navy Minister knew full well the vulnerability of the coastal rail line to the Royal Navy. He continues:
I remembered my oath, and seeing the difficulties which stood in my path, I realised the terrible weight of the burden which rested upon my shoulders. We reached Alexandretta after a journey during which the trolley passed over rails which, in some places, hung suspended over a void for fifteen to twenty metres, and in others were under water. It was four or five hours before the other General Staff officers turned up. We spent the night in Alexandretta.

According to the information we received, the road between Alexandretta and Aleppo was not passable for cars. The road which had thus been allowed to become unusable for motor traffic was the only road connecting Aleppo and the district around, or, to speak more accurately, the whole of Northern Syria, including the regions of Urfa, Diarbekir and Mosul, with so important a Mediterranean depot as Alexandretta. When I returned from Bagdad some years before and passed this road in a car, I had ascertained that repair work had been taken in hand at many different points. It had been undertaken by the General Road Construction Company, and since August, 1912 — two years back — it would have been perfectly possible to finish it. Thanks to the difficulties innumerable which the Roads Department had met with — a department totally incapable of doing anything on its own initiative — the restoration of the road had been neglected. Until we make up our minds to free our administration from the shackles of bureaucracy, neither a Constitutional Government nor the help of God will enable us to carry anything through to a successful conclusion. The most extraordinary thing of all was that, on the excuse of the repair work, those parts of the road which had previously been in good condition had been allowed to get into a wretched state. All the stones had been taken from the crown of the highway, and they were piled up in two long heaps on each side. The holes between these heaps had filled with rainwater, and the result was a perfect canal. Such was the condition of the Alexandretta-Aleppo road in November, 1914.
We were compelled to stop one night in Bilan whether we liked it or not. On the following morning we continued our journey on horseback, after arranging that three strong cars should be sent from Aleppo to the nearest village. From here we reached Katma Station by car. This station is the second from Aleppo on the Bagdad line. As it is also the point of junction of the Aleppo-Alexandretta road and the Bagdad railway a lines-of-communication depot had been established there. The zeal and industry of those concerned
The zeal and industry of those concerned may be well imagined from the fact that, when we were about fifty metres from the station, it was impossible to get the cars any further, and we had to be carried in by soldiers in the inky darkness.
At that moment I remembered the Kirk Kilisse-Adrianople road and the Kirk Kilisse-Bunarhissar- Wiza-Serai road during the Balkan War. Here again the roads had a pile of stones on each side, and as the rain had filled up the centre they looked exactly like ditches.
What a dismal prospect it was for the march of the army I had been appointed to command! Once more I had before my eyes the unforgettable picture of wretched misery presented by our batteries, ammunition wagons and limbers failing to make any further progress along the roads and being compelled to strike across the fields until they stuck in the mud. "And here is the only road which keeps my army in touch with the home country!" I thought.
I think it's telling that he clearly is thinking like the Turkish nationalist he was: Anatolia is "the home country," and Syria is not.
Aleppo was the point of concentration of the 13th Army Corps, which had completed its mobilisation in Mosul and neighbourhood. Colonel Fahri Bey, of the General Staff, was in command. The bulk of this corps consisted of Kurds, and the balance of trained Arabs. One division was at Aleppo, the other at Hama. I stayed two or three days at Aleppo and inspected the troops. In spite of Fahri Bey's extraordinarily hard work, the divisions and the formations independent of the corps were not in a very satis factory condition. The material required for a mobilised army corps had not been completed, and indeed, we could not hope to complete it, for there was no chance of getting the necessary equipment in and around Mosul, which was the mobilisation zone of this corps.
I asked the Vali of Aleppo to take in hand the repair of the Aleppo-Alexandretta road, and also to construct a new road from Islahie to Katma Station via Radjo. Then I went to Hama to inspect the division in garrison there. It was in exactly the same condition as the division at Aleppo. It was my intention, before going to Damascus, to visit Northern Syria, to see for myself the condition of that region.
Even from postwar retrospect I find it interesting to note how candid he was about the poor shape of his new command.
It was my intention, before going to Damascus, to visit Northern Syria, to see for myself the condition of that region. First I went through Horns to Tripolis [Tripoli in modern Lebanon], returning the same day to Horns, where I spent the night. Next morning I continued my journey and went to Damascus through Rayak [now in Lebanon]. In all the towns through which I passed, the people displayed the greatest patriotism and devotion to the Turkish cause. It gave me enormous pleasure to see and feel that the majority of the Arabs would not hesitate to make any sacrifice in this great war for the liberation of the Mussulman Khalifate. It was my duty to make the best use of that frame of mind and to preserve this region, a region in flammable as powder, from the enticements of traitors who had sold themselves to the enemy.

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