A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

April 19, 1916: The Death of Von der Goltz (Goltz Pasha): Was He Murdered?

Prussians: Count von Zeppelin, Baron von der Golst, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Helmuth von Moltke

A century ago today, the Prussian officer commanding Ottoman operations against the British in Mesopotamia, Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr (Baron) von der Goltz, died in Baghdad at the age of 72, reputedly of typhus.

We have met von der Goltz before. In 2014 I ran three posts on the siege and surrender of Kut (Part I; Part II; Part III); because I told the story then I have not noted the centennials of each of the failed British attempts to lift the siege. I'll return to the story soon to mark the surrender anniversary.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
Born in East Prussia in 1843, he followed his father into the Prussian Army and fought in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars. After the victory and German unification he served at the military school in Potsdam and the Historical Section of the General Staff. There he wrote a number of works on the history and theory of warfare, some quite influential.

After the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, he was sent to train the Ottoman Army, serving as head of the German Military Mission in Constantinople. He held the position for 12 years, learning Turkish and training a generation of young Ottoman officers, many of whom would form the core of the Young Turk Revolution. Before returning to Germany in 1895 he had achieved the title of Pasha and the Ottoman rank of Müşir (Field Marshal).

He held various commands in the German Army and wrote on Ottoman affairs, welcomed the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, and in 1911 retired from the Army with the rank of Generalfeldmarschal.

Retirement proved short-lived, however. Recalled to active service at the outbreak of war in 1914, he became Military Governor of Belgium, where he became notorious for reprisals against civilians.

He was soon sent to Constantinople as a Military Adviser to the Sultan, a meaningless position. There was personal friction between von der Goltz, the original head of the German Military Mission decades earlier, and the current incumbent of that post, Otto Liman von Sanders. War Minister Enver Pasha also wanted Goltz Pasha out of Constantinople. The friction was resolved by transferring Goltz to the command of the Sixth Army in Mesopotamia, where he took over as the siege of Kut was under way.

Goltz Pasha oversaw the campaign but did not survive to witness the surrender. He took ill and died in Baghdad on April 19, 10 days before Townshend surrendered on April 29.Goltz was replaced as Sixth Army Commander by Baghdad Governor Khalil Pasha (known after the war as Halil Kut), who had been in command at Kut and accepted the surrender.

The official cause of Goltz's death was typhus, though cholera and typhoid were sometimes mentioned. But almost immediately there were rumors that Baron von der Goltz had been poisoned, purportedly by a cabal of Young Turk officers. This rumor seems to have been spread among Germans; no evidence was ever forthcoming, but suspicions persist nonetheless.

The Funeral in Baghdad
Oddly enough, British General Frederick Maude, who eventually took Baghdad in 1917, came down with cholera on a later campaign and died in November 1917, in the very same house in Baghdad where Goltz had died.

The Tomb
A funeral was held in Baghdad (above left), and then von der Goltz was transported with an escort, to Constantinople, where in accordance with his will, he was buried on he grounds of the German consulate in Tarabya, overlooking the Bosporus.

There's a final irony to the Goltz story. When Field Marshal von Schliefen retired as Chief of the German General Staff in 1906, one of the candidates to replace him was von der Goltz, but the job went instead to Helmuth von Moltke (at right in the photo at top). The "Younger Moltke," namesake but not equal in skill to his uncle the "elder Moltke," genius of the Franco-Prussian War. The younger Moltke was replaced after the Battle of the Marne by Erich von Falkenhayn. Given a desk job in Berlin, his health began to deteriorate.  On June 18, 1916, just two months after Goltz's death in Baghdad, Moltke was attending a memorial service for von der Goltz in Potsdam, when the 68-year-old Moltke collapsed and died.

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