Imagine what Turks went through during WWI

On March 18, 1915, British and French naval forces launched a campaign on Turkish positions in the Dardanelles. They failed. The date has been ingrained in my head since childhood. Every March 18, my grandfather Ömer Kemal, may God rest his soul, started the day by asking all of us the significance of the date. Later, perhaps budging to sarcastic remarks around the breakfast table, he just put reading material on the table. It was something like a sheet of paper from the calendar with a short story on the Dardanelles. He was trying to share a part of himself too big to fit into young heads — the immense pain of empire lost, and gratitude for what was left behind.

Why was March 18 so significant for our little family? Ömer Kemal was one of the Turkish soldiers in the Dardanelles in 1915. He was always proud to have been there. He was born around the turn of the century in Silistre, Lower Costanza. That is in Romania now, but back then it was Turkey. Remember that the Ottoman Empire was European from the get-go — Bosnia became part of the empire before the Anatolian town of Kayseri. My grandfather’s world began to crumble with the Balkan wars around 1910 to 1912. He was drafted at an early age and fought on the eastern front against the Russians, then was sent to the Dardanelles in 1915. After that, he was moved to Palestine, where he fought the British and then became a prisoner to them in Egypt. He was released and returned to Bursa, my hometown, around the early 1920s. By that time, he had spent more than 10 years fighting and moving around, and for what? The empire he defended fell apart in the end. When he was engaged to my grandmother, Izmir (ancient Smyrna) was still under Greek occupation. They were sons and daughters of Empire, but they no longer knew what kind of country they would raise their children in.

That is why I can relate to Eugene Rogan’s new book, “The Fall of the Ottomans”. Rogan went to Gallipoli because his grand uncle Lance Corporal John McDonals was killed there. McDonalds was born in Perth, Scotland and died in Gallipoli in 28 June 1915. At the beginning of the book, Rogan writes, “While my great uncle’s unit had suffered 1,400 casualties and British losses reached 3,800, as many as 14,000 Ottomans fell dead at Gully Ravine… All the books I read … treated the terrible waste of British life on the day my great-grand uncle died. None of the English sources had mentioned the Turkish war dead. It was sobering to realize that the number of bereaved Turkish families would have surpassed the number of those grieving in Scotland.” That revelation gave us this book.

It must indeed have been very similar for Turkish soldiers. When my grandfather was fighting in the Dardanelles, his uncle was killed right beside him. He was just a kid at that time. A year before, he saw his younger brother — shot and in treatment — on his way to the Eastern front. That was the last time they saw each other. They said their farewells one last time in a long forgotten place, at a long forgotten time.

It must all have happened with mesmerizing speed. How do you control the dissolution of a vast Empire stretched across three continents? Uncounted soldiers moved from one front to the other, trying to hold on to pieces of land. They were fighting the tides of history, with wave after wave remorselessly crashing down on them. Strangely enough, they did not entirely fail. That I think, is the meaning of the First World War to us Turks. We were lucky to come away with our own country in the end, thanks to a handful of open minded officers of the cosmopolitan empire. Ömer Kemal was a lucky man, and so is his grandson.

This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 21.03.2015

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