British Self-Defeating Orientalism at Gallipoli

By Marc Martorell Junyent

“When Japan defeated Russia in the war of 1904-05, the world was watching,” notes historian Patrick Porter. British General Ian Hamilton saw every detail, as he followed the war on the ground as a military observer.[1] The Japanese victory over a European power at the Tsushima Straits reverberated throughout Asia, challenging the validity of the West-East binary or, at least, questioning its traditional translation into the powerful versus powerless dichotomy. Little did Hamilton know that a decade later, seeking to gain control of the equally famous Dardanelles Straits, he would lead an army of 80,000 men whose defeat against the Ottomans would resurrect questions about the West’s alleged superiority.[2]

The Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary in October 1914. In the months following the Empire’s entry into the conflict, the Ottomans suffered two considerable defeats in succession, first at Sarikamiş against the Russians and then in the Suez Canal against the British. These military setbacks re-enforced British pre-conceptions of the Ottoman army as an ineffective fighting force, especially considering the poor showing of the Ottoman troops in the Balkan Wars.

Whereas there were objective reasons to believe that the war effort led by the Sublime Porte might not be sustainable in the end, the British assessment of the Ottomans’ military capabilities was also full of misguided condescension. In a letter to his lover Venetia Stanley, British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith summarized the Suez Canal battle with the following remarks: “The Turks have been trying to throw a bridge across the Suez Canal….The poor things and their would-be bridge were blown into smithereens, and they have retired into the desert.”[3] Mark Sykes, who would later give his name to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, was, in 1915, a little-known Unionist MP who had travelled widely in the Middle East.[4] He lobbied Winston Churchill, the Lord of the Admiralty, to swiftly open a new front in Gallipoli based on the argument that the Turks “may be lulled into passivity, and rushed, owing to their natural idleness and proneness to panic, but they are dangerous if gradually put on their guard.”[5]

The Gallipoli campaign for which Mark Sykes had passionately campaigned came into being in the first months of 1915. Its sponsor within the War Cabinet was Churchill himself. The original plan was to force the Dardanelles Straits after a naval operation carried out by the British Navy with the help of some French ships and small landing parties of marines to help silence the forts guarding the Dardanelles. The initial attacks took place in the morning of February 19, 1915.[6] A month later, the naval expedition had failed to inflict serious damage on the Straits’ fortifications. On March 18, an all-out naval attack was staged, but warships fell victim to Ottomans’ fort guns and sea mines. The commander of the fleet, John De Robeck, considered the day “a disaster” and the initial idea to continue the naval attack on the next day was discarded.[7]

After the naval campaign at the Dardanelles proved to be a failure, the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener ordered General Ian Hamilton to prepare for the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, which guarded the Western entrance to the Dardanelles Straits. If the Dardanelles Campaign had been a naval operation, the Gallipoli Campaign would involve an army composed of 80,000 men landing at the shores of the peninsula.[8] The landing forces included troops from the British Islands, India, the Anzacs (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) and a small French contingent.

The landings took place at five different points of the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915. By the first week of May, two beachheads had been established, but the Allies had been unable to capture the high ground on the peninsula.[9] The fighting at Gallipoli soon became reminiscent of the trench warfare in the Western Front, where small shifts of territorial control came at an enormous human cost. The Allied troops were finally evacuated in the first days of January 1916.[10]

Gallipoli has been approached from many different angles. It came to represent, all at once, foundational moments for Australia and New Zealand as sovereign nations, an example of Churchill’s dangerous impetuousness, as well as an occasion for Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) to show his military genius. However, new questions can be raised about Gallipoli, and new answers found, when approaching the British campaign through the lens of Edward Said’s conception of orientalism. Said defined “orientalism” as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”[11] Barkawi and Stansky, in their edited volume Orientalism and War, presciently remark that “war is rarely the central theme in scholarship on orientalism.”[12] This should not necessarily be the case, however. As Porter argues, “war is a potent site of Orientalism. In and through war, people formulate what it means to be Western or non-Western.”[13]

During the planning and execution of the Gallipoli Campaign, British decision-makers under-estimated the strength of the Ottoman Empire. They initially assumed that victory would be easy, and when military success did not materialise, they thought it would come in time despite factual evidence indicating otherwise. There were surely several reasons for this misconception’s emergence and sustainment. Wishful thinking was the rule rather than the exception during the first months of the Great War, when world leaders still believed the conflict would soon be over. Furthermore, the British troops at Gallipoli were not so far away from decisively overriding Ottoman positions and marching north in the days that followed their landings at Turkey’s beaches. However, it is also obvious that British leaders held profound beliefs about the West’s inherent superiority over the Ottomans, who represented “the Oriental Other.” Orientalist stereotypes would importantly contribute to the British troops’ undoing at Gallipoli, because they led to over-confidence stemming from redundant reliance on the superiority of British warfare methods. For Said, Orientalism represents a discourse of domination that is both a result of European subjugation of the Middle East and an instrument that facilitates this process.[14] In this case, Orientalism may have actually backfired, since it obstructed the subjugation of the Ottoman Empire.

The members of the British War Cabinet were clearly influenced by xenophobic visions of
“the Turk,” a figure that reached almost mythical proportions. Asquith wrote to his lover that “both we and France should get a substantial share of the carcase of the Turk.”[15] Meanwhile, Churchill intervened in a War Council to define Turkey as “this inefficient and out-of-date nation, which had long misruled one of the most fertile countries of the world.” In his opinion, it was time “to make a clean sweep.”[16]

“The Turk” could be presented as both threatening and weak. When the War Council met to discuss the Dardanelles naval operation, Prime Minister Asquith, in the only pessimistic note of the meeting, expressed his view that “the Turks and their German masters” would not be defeated quickly.[17] Admiral De Robeck manifested a similar view when he wrote to Churchill that the Turkish army was “dominated by the Germans.”[18] This belief is also reflected in Greenmantle, a novel by John Buchan that became very popular when published in 1916. Richard Hannay, the main character of the story, is tasked with thwarting German plans to agitate the Muslim world against Britain. Historian David S. Katz, in his analysis of Greenmantle, writes, “There is room for only one villain in Buchan’s simple plots, and that villain is Germany, Turkey having been kidnapped for Germany’s evil plans.”[19]

The widespread notion among British leaders that the Ottoman Army, and even the Ottoman Empire as a whole, was dominated by Germany does not stand up to scrutiny. Although the Ottomans had been promised material help upon entering the war, German supplies to its war ally were very limited until Germany’s military occupation of Serbia opened a land bridge between Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire. This only took place in November of 1915, when the British were about to evacuate their troops from Gallipoli.[20] 

Regarding the role of the German military staff deployed in the Ottoman Empire, Erickson writes that German command assistance at Gallipoli was important but only a component in “a larger mosaic of Ottoman military effectiveness.”[21] The German officers at the headquarters of Enver Paşa, the war minister and member of the Turkish wartime ruling triumvirate, had no command authority over Ottoman troops other than that delegated by Enver Paşa himself.[22] The German general Liman von Sanders, who organized the successful defense of Gallipoli, took command of the Ottoman 5th Army after being designated by Enver Paşa.[23]

The portrayal of “the Turk” as indolent, brute, and soon-to-be dominated by European powers came with strings attached, as it raised the stakes of the direct confrontation between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Public opinion in Britain seemed to be aware of this, and The Times warned that “the one thing the Allies dare not risk in a persistent attack on the Dardanelles is failure.”[24] After launching the naval operation at the Dardanelles, Kitchener informed the War Council that “the effect of a defeat in the Orient would be very serious. There could be no going back. The publicity of the announcement had committed us.”[25] When Churchill had proposed the opening a second theater of war, the intention was to find an alternative to “sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders.”[26] Yet by May 1915, the British army was far from Constantinople and chewing barbed wire all the same. According to the Dardanelles Report commissioned by the British parliament, one of the key factors in the decision to proceed with the military operation after the consolidation of trench warfare was the anticipation that “an abandonment of the expedition would have a very bad effect upon British prestige in the East.”[27]  

Self-delusion survived British leaders’ realization that victory was out of reach. Two months before the evacuation of British troops, Lord Kitchener visited the Gallipoli front. He returned to London with a negative report on British prospects to make a breakthrough in the Gallipoli peninsula. However, Kitchener found solace in the belief that until the German move against Serbia in October 1915, “practically the whole Turkish Army had to be held in readiness to defend the capital in case we succeeded on the Peninsula.”[28] This was an exaggeration to say the least, since the Ottomans were committing numerous troops in offensive operations in the Caucasus front in the spring and summer of 1915, even managing to recapture the city of Van for a short period.[29] Less numerous forces were battling the British in Mesopotamia.

Orientalist conceptions of a perennially-subjugated East played a role in the British military failure at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. Porter remarks that “war is the realm of chance and shock….The oriental subject gazed upon repeatedly returns fire and confounds our polished predictions.’[30] The Ottomans returned fire, and held their ground, demonstrating that, as Barkawi and Stanski argue, “War can disrupt, undermine and transform orders of public reason.”[31] This notwithstanding, Orientalist conceptions proved resistant in the face of persistent evidence that the so-called “other” could not be so easily defeated. Self-deception continued to be the rule, rather than the exception. When Constantinople proved to be beyond Britain’s reach, Kitchener assumed this was because the Ottomans were devoting all their forces to the defence of their capital. When the Ottomans proved to be a competent military force in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, the British often ascribed this to the prowess of German military advisors.

A generation of British political leaders and military men saw their prejudices vindicated in the implosion of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in 1918. Subsequent generations of British and other Western nationals have not always been more nuanced in their assessments of what is now known as the Middle East and its peoples. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is only one of the most obvious cases, highlighting the relevance of the study of Orientalism and war for shedding new light on past and current events.

About the Author:
Marc Martorell Junyent graduated with a B.A. in International Relations from Ramon Llull University (Barcelona) and is currently completing a joint Masters in Comparative Middle East Politics and Society at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and the American University in Cairo. His main interests are the politics and history of the Middle East, with area interests in Iran, Turkey, and Yemen. He has studied and worked in Ankara, Istanbul, and Tunis. He tweets at @MarcMartorell3.

Picture retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Barkawi, Tarak, and Keith Stanski, “Introduction: Orientalism and War.” In Orientalism and War, edited by Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski., 1–18. London: Hurst and Co., 2012.

Callahan, Raymond, “What about the Dardanelles?” The American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (1973): 641

Capern, Amanda L, “Winston Churchill, Mark Sykes and the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915.” Historical Research 71, no. 174 (1998): 108–18.

Dardanelles Commission, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission: Part II – Conduct of Operations with Appendix of Documents and Maps. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1916. Accessible at the website of the Australian War Memorial at (Accessed 13 December 2020).

Erickson, Edward J., “One more push: Forcing the Dardanelles in March 1915.” The Journal of Strategic Studies 24, no. 3 (2001): 158-176.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York: Henry Colt and Company, 2009.

Gilbert, Martin. Winston S. Churchill (Volume III 1914-1916). London: Heinemann, 1971.

Halliday, Fred. “‘Orientalism’ and Its Critics.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2 (1993): 145–63.

Katz, David S. The Shaping of Turkey in the British Imagination, 1776-1923. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

Macleod, Jenny. Gallipoli. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Porter, Patrick. “Military Orientalism? British Observers of the Japanese Way of War, 1904–1910.” War & Society 26, no. 1 (2007): 1–25.

Porter, Patrick. Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Porter, Patrick. “Afterword.” In Orientalism and War, edited by Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski., 263-274. London: Hurst and Co., 2012.          

Prior, Robin. Gallipoli: The End of the Myth. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.   

Reynolds, Michael E. Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Trumpener, Ulrich. Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914 – 1918. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

[1] Patrick Porter, “Military Orientalism? British Observers of the Japanese Way of War, 1904–1910.” War & Society 26, no. 1 (2007): 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 7.

[3] Quoted in David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Henry Colt and Company, 2009), p. 122.

[4] Amanda L. Capern, “Winston Churchill, Mark Sykes and the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915,” Historical Research 71, no. 174 (1998): 108–109.

[5] Quoted in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Volume III 1914-1916 (London: Heinemann, 1971), p. 317.

[6] Jenny Macleod, Gallipoli (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 19.

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] Robin Prior, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 74.

[9] Ibid., p. 45.

[10] Ibid., p. 235.

[11] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 2.

[12] Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski, “Introduction: Orientalism and War”, in Orientalism and War, ed. Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski (London: Hurst and Co., 2012), p. 4.

[13] Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 2.

[14] Fred Halliday, “‘Orientalism’ and its Critics,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2 (1993): 59.

[15] Quoted in Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III, p. 332.

[16] Ibid., p. 356.

[17] Ibid., p. 323.

[18] Ibid., p. 376.

[19] David S. Katz, The Shaping of Turkey in the British Imagination, 1776-1923 (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), p. 213.

[20] Trumpener, Ulrich. Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914 – 1918 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 81.

[21] Erickson, Ottoman Army Effectiveness in World War I, p. 18.

[22] Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire, p. 69.

[23] Ibid., p. 72

[24] Quoted in Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 133.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Quoted in Raymond Callahan, “What about the Dardanelles?,” The American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (1973): 643.

[27] Dardanelles Commission, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission: Part II – Conduct of    Operations with Appendix of Documents and Maps (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1916), p. 22.

[28] Quoted in Dardanelles Commission, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission, p. 56.

[29] Michael E. Reynolds, Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 135.

[30] Patrick Porter, “Afterword,” in Orientalism and War, ed. Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski (London: Hurst and Co., 2012).

[31] Barkawi and Stanki, Introduction: Orientalism and War, p. 8.