Gallipoli holds a central place in New Zealand history, yet few Kiwis today know why our troops were fighting there – or much about our enemy, the Ottoman Empire. This feature explores the history of a sophisticated but often forgotten empire whose soldiers fought against New Zealand troops for four years, in the Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine campaigns.
The popular use of terms like 'Turk' and 'Turkey' in reference to Gallipoli, the Middle East and the First World War obscures important differences between the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey. The fact that the first shots fired in anger by New Zealand soldiers in the war were against Ottoman soldiers, rather than German ones, makes a lot more sense when this difference is understood.
The Ottoman Empire was a large multinational empire that had involved itself in the affairs of the European great powers for most of its 600-year history. So it is no surprise that in 1914 it was drawn into a war involving those great powers. The empire had suffered a prolonged period of economic and cultural decline, and faced serious internal unrest. Even so, the Ottoman Empire still controlled all of modern-day Turkey and most of the Middle East, and could still put a million soldiers into the field.
The 'Young Turk' revolutionary movement had taken power in 1908 and tried to bring about social and economic reforms, with mixed success. Some members of the movement, such as Enver Pasha, the Minister for War, supported the idea of pan-Turkic nationalism and dreamed of 'liberating' the ethnic-Turk-related regions of Central Asia from Russian rule. In pursuit of this agenda he championed the Ottoman Empire's entry into the First World War on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in November 1914.
The dream turned into a nightmare. After four long bloody years the war ended in total defeat, with about 700,000 Ottoman soldiers dead and the empire on the brink of collapse. After five more years of regional conflict and social upheaval, the modern Republic of Turkey finally emerged in 1923 under the leadership of Gallipoli veteran Mustafa Kemal – better known to posterity as 'Kemal Atatürk'.
See also: facts and stats about the Ottoman Empire