On active service in eastern Turkey: 1918-1921

10th, 2014
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On active service in eastern Turkey: 1918-1921

Toby Rawlinson was no ordinary traveller. In 1918, following the defeat of Ottoman Turkey in World War I, this British army colonel was one of the officers tasked by Britain to ensure that the terms of the recently signed armistice were adhered to in the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia.

It was mission impossible. Britain, exhausted by the four-year conflict, lacked both the resources and the will to enforce a largely unwilling population, inhabiting what was then a remote, underdeveloped part of the globe, to submit to its demands. Nonetheless, Rawlinson’s memoir of his post-wartime experiences, “Adventures in the Near East,” paints a vivid picture of a Turkey undergoing the transition from empire to republic.

Across Europe to İstanbultravel02 

Rawlinson left Britain in mid-February, crossing a wintry Europe in a “coupe-lit” train compartment shared with a French medical officer, a Transylvanian bishop and a Russian general. In Salonika (now Thessalonica in northern Greece), where he changed trains, his machine guns and suitcase went missing and were only found with much difficulty. The 61-hour journey onto İstanbul (which he refers to by its old name of Constantinople, or “Constant,” British-forces slang for the imperial capital) was hellish. There was no glass in the windows of the packed compartments; the weather was either cold, snowy, rainy or a mixture of all three. Worse was the indignity of having the contents of a tin of condensed milk “horribly sticky stuff it is too” leak all over him one night from the netting rack above him. The next morning there was a “somewhat animated conversation” between Rawlinson and the fellow-officer who had placed it there.

İstanbul, then under British occupation, impressed Rawlinson when viewed from the Sea of Marmara. “The situation of the city is certainly unique throughout the world … it offers a spectacle of unrivalled splendour … and appears, when the rays of the setting sun strike its countless golden mosques and minarets, to be a veritable city of palaces.” The reality on the ground he found less attractive, though. “On landing … the disillusionment is both sudden and complete. Filth and squalour are to be seen everywhere, and the city of palaces … becomes a collection of hovels and ruins, cropping up from a sea of mud.” Although the old walled quarter of the city disappointed him, Pera (modern Beyoğlu) was more to his taste. “Here are fine, though steep, streets, pavements, electric lights and trams, fine buildings, all the evidence of prosperity and enterprise which distinguish a modern European capital.”

From the Caucasus to Trabzontravel03

In early March he took a steamer from İstanbul to Batumi (in modern Georgia), then a train onto the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The train was guarded by a hundred British infantrymen, as “the country was infested by bands of Bolshevik and other classes of brigands capable of any atrocity.” In Tbilisi, Rawlinson picked up two Ford cars, which he quickly kitted out with the guns he’d brought from Britain, and hand picked 14 men to accompany him on his mission. After a brief foray into the much-disputed and snow-bound province of Kars (now a part of Turkey), Rawlinson returned to Batumi and took a ship to Trebizond (modern Trabzon). His mission now was to cross the Pontic Alps — the lofty mountain range paralleling the eastern Black Sea coast of Turkey — and liaise with his commander-in-chief in the strategically crucial northeastern Anatolian city of Erzerum (Erzurum). The city was the base of the Turkish 9th Army and, under the terms of the 1918 armistice, the British were supposed to oversee the demobilization and disarmament of these (and indeed all Ottoman Turkish) troops. But although Rawlinson was armed with a “firman” issued by the sultan to ensure the Turkish military complied with his requests, the Turkish nationalist revolution was, unofficially, already underway — making his task nigh on impossible given the limited resources at his disposal.

Over the travel01

Although it was by now mid-April, the famous 2,010-meter Zigana Pass was still snow-bound. Today a fine asphalt road and tunnel have tamed the pass, a mere 110 kilometers from Trabzon, but it took Rawlinson and his men a day and a half to cross. He was captivated by the view from the top of Zigana. “We had our first view of Anatolia, and a very marvelous and beautiful one it was. In the bright morning sun range after range of snow-capped mountains appeared on every side. …The impression produced by this remarkable scene was of an incredibly rocky and rugged country, of precipices and narrow, deep valleys.” Descending the far side, Rawlinson’s team bivouacked in Gumuşhane, the next day crossing the Vavok Pass (Vavuk Pass) to Bayburt. Ahead of them lay the most notorious pass of all, the Kop (2,302 meters), where “no winter season ever passes without many lives being lost … from exposure.” New snow, a savage wind and the steep slope made progress up the Kop painstaking. Eventually they unloaded their fleet of six cars and commandeered some local Turkish troops and 40 oxen to help drag them up the slope. At last they summited and “enjoyed a view which is unsurpassable in any country.”

Given the ravages of war, its high, exposed position and the fact that he came down with dysentery here, it is unsurprising that Rawlinson had a somewhat jaundiced view of Erzerum. “It is a particularly uninviting spot, which no one who is familiar with that country would ever voluntarily select as his residence. The wind there blows with terrific force, and piercing cold defies all furs. … No tree or shrub of any sort can be found within over 50 miles, either to afford fuel or shelter of any kind, and the words ‘dismal,’ ‘dreary,’ ‘desolate’ and ‘damnable’ suggest themselves irresistibly as a concise description of the whole locality.” He did, however, get to meet Kazım Karabekir, who would go on to become a hero of the Turkish War of Independence. He described Karabekir as “the most genuine example of a first-class Turkish officer that it has been my good fortune to meet … although it was my fate to be his prisoner for a long time … he has never ceased to command my respect as an individual, and my appreciation as a thoroughly competent Commander.” “Mustapha Kemal Pasha” arrived in Erzerum whilst Rawlinson was there, and if anything he was even more impressed by the man who would eventually carve the Turkish Republic from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, writing, “A man of great strength of character and very definite and practical views as to the rightful position of his people in the comity of nations … no seeker after personal fame or advancement, he is imbued with a deep sense of duty which causes him to place his country’s interests before all others.”

On the border

For the next four months Rawlinson traveled around the unstable frontier zone between the incipient Armenian and Turkish republics. Kars at that time (the spring of 1919) was under Armenian control — a control sanctioned by the terms of the 1918 armistice. The Armenian commanders interviewed by Rawlinson were insistent this permission made it an “absolute necessity that they should disarm the Tartar [Turkish] Moslem population.” This could only by done by force and Rawlinson commented, with a feeling of hopelessness, “This obviously led to fighting; and fighting, as between Moslem and Armenian, of necessity led to massacres and atrocities of all kinds.” Rawlinson also met the local Kurdish tribal chieftains, one of whom made it clear that “if it was decided (by the victorious European powers) to endeavor to put them under Armenian government, and if European troops were to support the Armenians, they would evacuate the country with all their goods and herds, and go bodily over to their kinsmen beyond the Turkish frontier.” Like many Britons of his period and upper-class, military background, Rawlinson was enamored with the tribal Kurds; in the same way that Lawrence of Arabia was with the Bedouin Arabs, calling them “the finest men it has ever been my privilege to meet.” He later, however, conceded “they are brigands by descent as well as by inclination and training.”

Rawlinson was on the Armenian side of the frontier when he heard that “the conference then proceeding at Erzerum, where has assembled representatives of the Young Turkish Party … were organizing a revolution with the eventual object of establishing a Turkish Republic.” He made haste to Erzerum and was received cordially by Karabekir, and later by Kemal himself. He told him the outcome of the conference — that a national “pact” had been formed; aimed at ridding Anatolia of the occupying allied forces and establishing an independent Turkish state. Rawlinson’s task was hopeless, and went to Sarıkamış, then under Armenian occupation, to rejoin his men. He describes this remote East Anatolian town, which now boasts one of Turkey’s best ski resorts, as thus, “This district … much resembles some parts of Switzerland, the mountains being heavily wooded and the valleys green and fertile.” From Sarıkamış he returned to Tbilisi by rail, then took an American destroyer from Batumi to “Constant” — and then, after debriefing, back to Britain.

Go back to Turkey, go straight to jail

Rawlinson, though, was not done with Turkey, nor it with him. An interview with the Foreign Office in London left him with no doubt that they were skeptical about his reports on the strength and determination of the Turkish nationalists. Despite this, he was given a new mission — to return to Anatolia and contact Mustafa Kemal indirectly and find out what his real aims and objectives were. He returned to “Constant” by boat. His return to the east was delayed by inclement weather and he “enjoyed several days of hunting with the army hounds, and several rounds of golf on the links which had been established on the hills to the north-west of Pera.” Re-crossing the passes between Trabzon and Erzerum in freezing winter conditions, Rawlinson and his men reached their goal on Boxing Day and were put up in a house belonging to the 9th Army — a house where “we were destined afterwards to remain so long and suffer so severely.” Victims of political circumstance and diplomatic wrangling between the Allies and the new de facto Turkish Republican government, Rawlinson and his men ended up under house arrest, and then in prison, from March 1920 until October 1921.

In spite of his incarceration, Rawlinson, who had formed such a good impression of fellow military men Kazım Karabekir and Mustafa Kemal, wrote near the end of his memoirs: “I am … of the opinion that the inevitable policy of our country must always be to establish friendly relations with Turkey. … I had no idea of allowing our experiences to be made use of by any anti-Turkish party.” Rawlinson later was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his sterling wartime service.

Resource: Today’s Zaman

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