The Ottoman Empire

Page 9 – Collapse of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1920

The armistice of 31 October 1918 ended the fighting between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies but did not bring stability or peace to the region. The British were in control of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq), and British, French and Greek forces stood ready to march across the Bulgarian border and occupy Ottoman Thrace and Constantinople. The Sultan, Mehmed VI, feared he would be deposed. The Allies, however, knew he was a figurehead and hoped that his retention would help ensure post-war stability. 

Stability was badly needed. The Young Turk government led by Enver Pasha had collapsed in the days leading up to the armistice. Enver, Cemal Pasha and Talât Pasha had all fled the country to seek sanctuary in Germany. Across what was left of the empire civil infrastructure, already badly strained by years of war, began to disintegrate. Law and order broke down completely in many places. Simmering ethnic and religious tensions erupted into violence and large numbers of deserters turned to banditry and roamed the countryside. The Allies marched into Constantinople with the intention of taking control of large areas of Anatolia. Their pretext was the restoration of order, but this plan also reflected the terms of the peace settlement they were drafting. It was clear that the post-war Ottoman state would not even cover all of Anatolia. This prospect horrified most Turks, for whom Anatolia was their heartland.

In November 1919, there seemed to be little the interim Ottoman government could do to stop the Allies. The remnants of the two Ottoman armies destroyed by the final British offensive in Palestine and Syria were slowly reassembling under Mustafa Kemal’s command in Cilicia, north of Aleppo. In Mesopotamia the battered but still intact Ottoman Sixth Army regrouped north of Mosul and awaited orders. Far away to the south in Arabia, General Fakhri Pasha and his besieged garrison at Medina continued to hold out, having grimly defied Arab attacks for more than two years. Fakhri would not finally surrender until February 1919. The only Ottoman armies worthy of the name were those that Enver had sent to attack the Caucasus and northern Persia. They would take at least six months to march back to Anatolia and disband.

Treaty of Sèvres 1920

Squabbling among the Allies delayed the signing of the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, which was negotiated at Sèvres in France, until 10 August 1920. The treaty confirmed French and British possession of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, in the guise of League of Nations mandates. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali was rewarded for his leadership of the Arab Revolt with international recognition of the Hejaz as an independent kingdom. The treaty effectively gave the Greeks possession of eastern Thrace and ‘Ionia’ (western Anatolia); the Italians got the Dodecanese Islands and a ‘zone of influence’ in south-western Anatolia. To the east, the Armenians were given an independent state taking in much of eastern Anatolia, while the Kurds were granted an ill-defined autonomous region and promised a referendum on independence. The Ottoman state's army was limited to 50,000 men and its navy to a dozen coastal patrol boats; it could have no air force at all.

It was at this point that Mustafa Kemal – better known as Kemal Atatürk – emerged as a leading figure. His brand of Turkish nationalism was very different from the pan-Turkic ideals of Enver Pasha. Kemal believed that the once-great Ottoman Empire had become a dead weight on the Turkish people, who now needed a homeland of their own. He and his supporters sought to establish a new Turkish state based on Anatolia, where most of the empire’s Turkish population had traditionally lived. To prepare for the struggle ahead, Kemal and other nationalists began hiding weapons from Allied disarmament teams and encouraged the formation of local Turkish civilian militias and political alliances between nationalist groups. They also attempted to divide the Allies through political intrigues. 

The greatest military threat to the Turkish nationalists came from the Greeks, whose claims to western Anatolia, eastern Thrace and Constantinople were reinforced by the large ethnic Greek populations in those areas. On 15 May 1919 Greek troops occupied the ancient port city of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir). More Greek forces arrived in the following months, gradually extending their control deep into the west Anatolian countryside. Clashes with Turkish civilians dogged their movements and greatly increased nationalist sentiment. Meanwhile, the Italians landed troops in south-western Anatolia to reinforce their claim on the area. This also played into the hands of the Turkish nationalists.

As Turkish attitudes began to harden, the interim Ottoman government came under increasing pressure from the Allies to suppress the nationalist groups. In the end they were reluctantly forced to act. In the face of this crackdown, on 23 April 1920 the nationalists convened a Grand National Assembly in Ankara, deep in central Anatolia. They elected Mustafa Kemal as its first president, effectively establishing an alternative government. This triggered a short but brutal civil war, which ended only when the details of the Treaty of Sèvres were publicised in August. The harshness of its terms destroyed what little credibility the interim Ottoman government had left. Turks of all political persuasions began to unite behind the Grand National Assembly, which completely rejected the treaty. A showdown with the Allies seemed unavoidable.

How to cite this page

'Collapse of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1920', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/ottoman-empire/collapse, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2014