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Istanbul’s Darkest Hour

Forgotten History

David Barchard on the momentous events one hundred years ago when one devastating Balkan War led to a second, threatening the very existence of Istanbul

  • Turkish refugees flee to Istanbul: 240,000 Muslim civilians died in the Balkans in 1912

On the morning of January 24, 1913, Turkey had a new government, one that had come to power through a violent military coup. The previous day a group of officers had forced Kâmil Pasha, the 79-year-old grand vizier, to write out his resignation at gunpoint. The coup-makers, Enver, Talat and Cemal, would rule Turkey for most of the next six years until defeat in the First World War drove them into exile in 1918. A veteran general, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, hero of the suppression of an Islamist uprising in April 1909, served as grand vizier.

It was a terrible beginning to a terrible period. In a few weeks in October and November the previous year, thanks to an alliance between Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, Turkey had lost about 95 percent of its territory in Europe.

By February 1913 just three Turkish cities in the Balkans had not been conquered – and all three were under siege and weeks away from falling. They were Scutari (today Shkodër), far away on the Adriatic coast, Ioannina (Yannina or Yanya), also in the far west, and Edirne. Scutari and Ioannina were now very distant from the Ottoman frontier and their cause was hopeless. Edirne was the gateway for military control of southeastern Thrace. The future of Istanbul hung upon its fate, for the new Turkish government’s temporary northwest frontier was the Çatalca line, only 55 kilometres from the capital. Regaining Edirne would mean strategic security for eastern Thrace and Istanbul.

An armistice at Çatalca on December 3, 1912 had seen Turkish and Bulgarian troops suspending fire while a peace conference got under way in London. Greece, however, did not sign and remained at war with Turkey. As 1913 started, Bulgaria’s fortunes were at their zenith, its king, Ferdinand, dreaming of being crowned emperor in Constantinople. With their troops both in earshot of Istanbul and besieging Edirne, Bulgaria’s position in southeast Thrace looked assured. It seemed only a matter of time before Istanbul became Bulgarian “Tsargrad”.

But Bulgaria’s early successes made the other Christian nations of the Balkans jealous. Greece, in particular, was determined to prevent either Serbia or Bulgaria reaching the Aegean coast. Two months earlier Greek armies had raced to Thessalonica and plucked it from Ottoman rule before Serbia or Bulgaria could get there. Thessalonica was now Greek forever.

So Bulgaria accepted help from Serbia to besiege Edirne, but did not allow Greek or Serbian forces to join them at Çatalca – thus reducing pressure on the Ottoman army. King George of Greece, nervous of Bulgaria, chose to remain in camp in Thessalonica rather than return to Athens – a decision that cost him his life when he was murdered by one of his new subjects on March 16.

The larger European states, though less than a year-and-a-half away from the First World War, still held the ring and it was they who decided the shape of the eventual peace treaty, led by Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary. But cracks were appearing. Austria and Russia were increasingly antagonistic. On April 1 the German chancellor, von Bethmann Hollveg, declared ominously in the Reichstag that the balance of forces in the Balkans had been upset by the eviction of European Turkey. “I regard a collision between Slaventum and Germanentum as inevitable.” However, this, and his reference to a “European conflagration”, merely provoked giggles among his Socialist opponents.

As 1913 began, the Great Powers envisaged a Turkish frontier running from Tekirdağ (then Rodosto) in the south to Cape Malatra about 15 kilometres south of Kıyıköy (then Midye or Midia), leaving Turkey only a narrow strip of southeastern Thrace, which would be hard to defend. But who would there be on the other side? Istanbul’s future would be decided by the control of two access points – Gallipoli and Edirne. From a Turkish point of view, the story of the war in 1913 is the story of how that country succeeded in holding these two key places and thus its European territory.

The Dardanelles were the first priority. The Powers had indicated Gallipoli would remain Turkish, but it was already cut off on land by the Bulgarians, who intended to advance further if fighting resumed. They were not the only ones with their eyes on the straits.

On January 18, five days before the Young Turk coup, the Greeks, still at war, struck again, defeating the Ottomans in a two-hour sea battle at Lemnos, outside the Dardanelles. They then landed soldiers in an operation anticipating the famous Anglo-French attack two years later – with the same objective. Greek and Turkish soldiers battled to control the Gallipoli Peninsula while Bulgarian troops waited to the north.

For many years Bulgaria had armed itself heavily in preparation for a war of conquest. Though world public opinion was startled at rapid Bulgarian advances in 1912, the governments of the Powers probably were not. In 1908, a British embassy dispatch had shown that the Bulgarian army was larger and better prepared than the Turks and would probably win in hostilities. The Turks knew this, and military reforms with the support of Germany were in progress, but Bulgaria and its allies had struck too early.

The human cost of the war had been mmense for the losers. Famine, cholera and other sicknesses, hunger and massacres affected local populations regardless of nationality. According to a German estimate in The Manchester Guardian of January 16, 1913, 240,000 Muslim civilians had died so far. Hundreds of thousands more crowded into Istanbul as refugees, permanently altering the ethnic profile of Turkey. But the cost was also high for the victors. Bulgaria was a small country and losses of over 100,000 soldiers had proportionately a much greater impact on its fortunes and fighting capacity, while its finances were also flagging. For King Ferdinand and his armies 1913 would be a year of headlong decline.

On January 17 the Powers sent a note to Turkey urging it to accept the peace terms – including the surrender of Edirne to Bulgaria. Kâmil Pasha’s government held an emergency divan, a gathering of notables that met only at the empire’s direst moments. On January 22 they agreed to accept. This decision to surrender, with all it implied, had triggered the Young Turk coup.

Within six days, despite mutterings from the Powers, the new government had broken off the London peace talks. On February 3 the war started again. But the Turkish position as far as munitions and arms went was improving, with German military help to the arms factory in present-day Bakırköy, though food for the army was running low.

But the new war continued with months of bad news. Enver launched an amphibious operation at Şarköy to reclaim Gallipoli, but it was mismanaged and failed dismally – as predicted by his military critics, Mustafa Kemal and Ali Fethi (Okyar). Of the three strongholds remaining in the Balkans, Ioannina fell to the Greeks on March 6.

Eyes shifted to the siege of Edirne, but on March 26 the city fell to a Serbian-Bulgarian force including 60,000 Serbians. The Ottoman garrison had resisted heroically. “On Shukri [Mehmet Şükrü Pasha] and his comrades shines the last ray of the setting sun of Ottoman glory,” wrote a Russian newspaper. Closer to the capital there was better news: on March 24 the Bulgarians, thinking the way to the Sea of Marmara was open, launched a ten-day offensive, a fresh attempt to break the Çatalca line. It failed.

On April 23 the last major Turkish stronghold in the Balkans, Scutari on the distant Adriatic coast, finally fell to the Montenegrins. By then five centuries of Ottoman rule and military presence in the Western Balkans were only a memory.

The Young Turks, like their predecessors, were forced to sign an armistice and negotiate a partition. The signing took place on April 19 at Bolayır, the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula where Turkish troops still faced the Bulgarians. Negotiations in London were renewed, and the Treaty of London ending the First Balkan War was signed on May 30: Turkey’s frontiers would now run from Enez (as they still do) to Kıyıköy on the Black Sea coast – an arrangement which would not last. The treaty was seen as a triumph for Sir Edward Grey.

But before the First Balkan War was even finished, a second was already getting under way. The Balkan allies had disliked and distrusted each other before the war. Its windfall gains gave them fresh reasons for jealousy. Both Greece and Serbia resented Bulgaria’s gains, Serbia feeling Edirne would not have fallen without its help. Bulgaria, whose nationalists to this day see it as “a land with three seas” rather than just one, had been locked out of the Mediterranean. King Ferdinand now decided to retrieve the situation by striking at his former allies.

On May 22, a week before the end of the peace conference, Bulgarian troops attacked Greek positions in Macedonia, then fired at the Greek fleet near Kavala and Thessalonica. The land fighting was fierce and bloody. Serbia and Greece drifted closer to war with Bulgaria, building up soldiers on the front lines, though hostilities were not formally declared until the end of the month.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul there was a further political convulsion. On June 11 the grand vizier, Mahmut Şevket Pasha, was assassinated when his car was ambushed by terrorists in a Beyoğlu sidestreet. The assassins seem to have been Circassians taking revenge for the killing of Nazım Pasha six months earlier. Twelve conspirators were executed. But the killing was followed by a crackdown on the opposition, more than 350 of whom were exiled to Sinop. The new vizier was the Egyptian prince, Sait Halim Pasha, but the triumvirate now tightened its grip on power.

On June 30 Bulgaria launched a full-scale attack on Greece and Serbia, but in the ensuing battles it was the Greek and Serbian armies who were victorious. Bulgaria was militarily exhausted. Worse still, it now faced two other combatants. Its northern neighbour, Romania, hitherto outside the struggle, declared war on Bulgaria on July 11 and swiftly occupied its northern provinces to within a few miles of Sofia. At the same time, to its south, Turkish armies seized their opportunity to roll forward and revise the new frontiers. The Bulgarians were driven out of villages around Bolayır and Çatalca.

By mid-July The Times was predicting “a very pretty battle” at Alexandropoulis (Dedeağaç) and noted: the Turkish nation has “fixed its eyes on Adrianople”. Luleburgaz was reoccupied, then Kırklareli (Kırkkilise).

These were relatively easy gains. Even Edirne itself, earlier in the year the centre of the Bulgarian army’s high command, now contained only a small garrison. But the thought of Turkey regaining territory was unwelcome in Western Europe. “A breach of faith,” said The Times. “An insult to the Powers,” said an MP. Even Turkey’s few professed friends in Europe were against the retaking of Edirne. Aubrey Herbert, a Conservative MP who, with Talat Pasha, was the founder of the forerunner of today’s Anglo-Turkish Society in London, wrote (under a pseudonym) in The Times that retaking Edirne would be a waste of energy.

“If the Imperial Ottoman Government persists in reoccupying Adrianople, Turkey will at best lose the support of the Concert [ie the Powers], be saddled with fresh internal problems, remain entangled in the perils and chances of a region where international stability will not be regained for many decades… The highest duty of the Ottoman Government is to make certain of the future prosperity and freedom of the Ottoman peoples rather than to expend energy… endeavouring to retain mere symbols of a past that has no correspondence with the future.”

Perhaps it is not surprising after this that Turkish policymakers have repeatedly ignored the advice and wisdom of their European friends and allies on such matters as Cyprus. Edirne and Thrace would prove the most pacific and stable region of Turkey.

By the time Herbert’s letter appeared, Edirne had in fact once more been Turkish for several days, entered by Enver Pasha with no losses, four days before the fifth anniversary of the end of absolute rule by Abdülhamid II in 1908. In Sofia there was consternation; in Istanbul, patriotic rejoicing.

At first Europe believed Turkey would disgorge Edirne. “There is general agreement as to the impossibility of allowing the Turks to remain in possession of Adrianople,” said The Times. Even the Germans thought the reoccupation would only be temporary. A few thought differently. “In the hands of the Turks, it will be a pledge for the peace of Thrace and the security of Constantinople… Great Britain ought to be glad to see them remain there,” wrote Sir Roper Lethbridge, but he was a lone voice.

It had been a principle of the late-19th-century prime minister Lord Salisbury that land taken by Christians from Muslims would never be restored to the latter. But in 1913, to the annoyance of Bulgaria and its sympathisers, the Powers, after protesting, took no action against Turkey: Russia was disposed to intervene but did not, presumably fearing Austrian and German reactions.

On September 29 Turkey and Bulgaria signed a peace treaty under which the Turks retained Edirne and eastern Thrace. It would prove a lasting peace. But other wars loomed. As European war correspondents packed up to leave the Balkans at the end of hostilities, they joked among themselves that they would all be meeting again very soon to cover the coming war between Austria and Russia.

David Barchard is writing a book of Ottoman biographies. He described the First Balkan War in ‘Bloodshed in the Balkans’, Cornucopia 47

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