Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What About Johnny Turk?

By Roger Lee and Dr. Peter Stanley

The Turkish Army was closely modeled on the German Army, with a well-developed staff system and a sound training system through an extensive school system. Doctrine, staff methods, and tactics were all copied from the Germans. Conscription provided the mass of recruits. Infantry recruits served for two years in active service with a further 23 years in the reserves. Artillery conscripts served an additional year of active service. Discipline was notoriously harsh—some have described it as draconian—but the training standard achieved appeared to observers to be high. The major impediment to military efficiency was a chronic lack of resources. Recruits received only one uniform and fired only 20 to 30 rounds annually in training. But the basic Turkish soldier was tough (he had to be to survive his training), tenacious, and enduring. In defense he was famous for his ability to hold ground. He was supported at the higher levels by a growing cadre of well-trained, capable, and aggressive generals. 

The Turkish Soldier—Tough, Tenacious, and Enduring

If there was clear deficiency in the Turkish Army, it was at the junior leader level. Unlike their German teachers, the Turks lacked that corps of hardened, experienced, professional, long-service NCOs that made the German Army so formidable. This lack would become a major problem for the Turks as the pool of talented young officers were killed with no leaders waiting in the ranks to step up and replace them.

In 1914 the regular Turkish Army comprised 36 field (admittedly small) divisions, divided into corps in the four armies. A standard Turkish corps comprised three infantry divisions, an artillery regiment, and a cavalry regiment. Each infantry division had (in theory) three infantry regiments and an artillery regiment. In peacetime, numbers were small. The average strength of a Turkish infantry division in pre-mobilization 1914 was but 4000. After mobilization, this rose to 10,000 (still about half the strength of a German or British division.) To bring the army up to war strength, the Turks had to mobilize 477,868 men and 12,469 officers. (The Germans believed, erroneously, that the Turks could mobilize more than a million men on the outbreak of war.) 

The Turks may have had manpower, but they suffered from severe material shortages—including artillery and (especially) machine guns. The estimate presumed 280 field guns short of establishment and 200 machine guns short (bearing in mind the machine gun establishment was only four guns a regiment). There were severe shortages of ammunition and shells as well. The Turkish Army was even more under strength in the essential services area. Motorization and aviation were basically nonexistent. Severe shortages of supply wagons and horses to pull them affected every arm of the army. Medical services were chronically short of trained staff, and supplies were likewise almost impossible to obtain. 

One thing the Turkish forces did have was experience. Their unfortunate experiences in the Balkan Wars (where they were soundly beaten) had taught them the benefit of trenches for defensive operations. By the time the Anzacs landed, the Turks had already conducted major operations in the Caucasus (involving 150,000 troops) against the Russians. They had also made one (unsuccessful) attempt against the Suez Canal, and, as is better known, they had already defeated the combined fleets of the strongest naval powers in the world. 

We have very few glimpses into the life of Johnny Turk in the trenches opposite the Anzac line. They, too, were plagued by the stench and the flies, and had no cove in which to swim. Like the Anzacs, they had a nickname for their adversary, "John Kikrik," whom they regarded with the same wary respect. Their Anzac opponents could glean only scraps of intelligence from prisoners. Individual Turks, often Greeks or Kurds, crept out from their lines and deserted. Anzac troops had to be reminded not to shoot single unarmed Turks approaching their lines. As a result, a trickle of intelligence reached Anzac but always from Turks who had a grudge against their Ottoman overlords and who often told their interrogators what they wanted to hear. As a result, the intelligence reports often gave an unduly optimistic gloss on conditions on the Turkish side of the line. 

"Very Game Fellows"

Appalling though conditions were on the Anzac side of no-man's-land, the Turks had the worst of it. Hans Kannengeisser, a German commander of Turkish divisions on Gallipoli, recorded his memories of the campaign. Turkish uniforms were "almost unbelievably bad," their footwear often strips of cloth tied with string. Though unable to bathe like the Anzacs, the Turks' only advantage was that they had more and better drinking water, from springs in the hills. Mostly peasant soldiers, their food was that of the villages they had left—bread, lentils, onions, and beans.

Their officers, however, enjoyed a much higher quality of food and comfort, as did their German advisers, a few hundred of whom served in the campaign. There was little love lost between the Turks and their senior ally: "Who has heard of a German officer being killed at the Dardanelles?" a Turkish officer asked. Even more than their enemies, Turkish soldiers craved tobacco—Tütün—not least to mask the appalling stench of thousands of unburied bodies littering their trenches and rear areas. 

Corpses were neither recorded nor buried individually, and today the gullies of the peninsula on the Turkish side of the line are still littered with drifts of decaying bones. No one knows exactly how many Turks died at Gallipoli—perhaps 85,000—or even how many were wounded or fell ill. The shared ordeal of the spring and summer effaced the glib racism of the earlier months. The Turks, an Anzac remarked in his diary, "strike me as being very game fellows." That did not prevent him from hacking off the noses of bullets to make crude dumdum rounds, ostensibly to slash open sandbags, but if they hit a man the tumbling bullet would smash muscle and bone to bloody pulp. Still, he reflected the growing realization that the Turks were also victims of the war. 

Adapted from the Australian Armed Forces commemorative brochure, "Gallipoli: The 95th Anniversary"

1 comment:

  1. Interesting about not shooting at individual defectors.