Pursuit of an 'Unparalleled Opportunity'
The American YMCA and Prisoner of War Diplomacy among the Central Power Nations
during World War I, 1914-1923.
by Kenneth Steuer

Prison Camps


Turkish Prison Camps

Turkey Prison Camps Allied prisoners incarcerated in the Ottoman Empire during World War I experienced a wide range of treatment. Post-war investigations revealed abysmal conditions which Entente soldiers faced due to neglect and abuse by their Turkish captors. After the British Army surrendered at Kut-al-Amara in April 1916, the Turks marched British and Indian prisoners across the Syrian Desert without food, water, and access to shelter. Thousands of POW's died as a result of inadequate medical care. The British government attempted to ransom their troops, but Ottoman authorities saw greater propaganda value in having British prisoners imprisoned in their empire. Allied prisoners also experienced a remarkably liberal POW policy in which prisoners had relatively free access and even held supervisory positions in railroad construction projects.

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I in November 1914 after a series of negotiations with the Central Powers. The Turks fought four major campaigns during the war. On the Caucasian Front, the Turkish Army fought against the Russians and struggled for control of Armenia. While the Russian Army gradually advanced south into Turkish territory, the Bolshevik Revolution resulted in the collapse of the Russian forces. The Ottomans took the offensive and drove deep into Russian Caucasia in the Fall of 1918. The Turks acquired a considerable number of Russian prisoners of war throughout this campaign. The second front focused on control of the Turkish Straits and the Allied goal of establishing a secure supply route to the Russian Black Sea ports. In February 1915, Allied naval units bombarded the Gallipoli peninsula and British, Australian, and New Zealand troops landed in April. The Allied troops locked in combat with the Turks, making no appreciable advances. By January 1916, the British decided to evacuate the Dardenelles and evacuated their forces. Despite the heavy fighting, the Turks took relatively very few prisoners during the campaign. The Palestinian Front was the third major area of combat operations for the Turks. In January 1915, the Ottomans launched an attack across the Sinai Peninsula to gain control of the Suez Canal. The British forced the Turks to withdraw and immediately bolstered their defenses in this strategic region. Supported by the Arab revolt, which began in June 1916, the British slowly moved east and captured Gaza in November 1917. The British, under General Sir Edmund Allenby, then struck north capturing Jerusalem in December. The British and Arabs advanced north reaching Aleppo in Syria in October 1918, when the Turks signed their armistice. The fourth campaign involving the Ottomans was fought in Mesopotamia. The British landed forces from India at the head of the Persian Gulf in November 1914 to protect their oil interests in Abadan. Persia and marched north to capture Basra within a month. An Anglo-Indian army, under General Charles Townsend, began their advance along the Tigris River from Basra in May 1915. By November, they had reached Ctesiphon, just outside of Baghdad, and encountered stiff Turkish resistance. Suffering 8,500 casualties at Ctesiphon, the British retreated to Kut-al-Amara, where more than 30,000 Turks surrounded the city and began a siege. Facing starvation, General Townsend surrendered in April 1916 and the Ottomans achieved a major victory, including the capture of a large number of British and Indian prisoners. The British launched a second offensive in Mesopotamia, under General F.S. Maude, recapturing Kut-al-Amara in February 1917 and seizing Baghdad in March. The British continued to advance up the Tigris River and reached oil-rich Mosul in northern Mesopotamia in November 1918, when fighting in the Near East ended.

Unlike the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, the Turks did not establish many large concentration-style prison camps. They chose instead to house their prisoners of war in houses and buildings in Turkish towns. They often incarcerated Entente POW's in the Armenian Quarters of towns, where they were vacancies due to the Turkish genocide program (see below). The Turks did take advantage of Allied POW labor during the war. The Ottomans established working camps and detailed Entente prisoners to railroad construction projects, especially through the Cilician Mountains and in eastern Syria. These railroad lines were strategic lines of communications which supported Turkish military operations on the Mesopotamian and Palestinian Fronts. The Turks did not place the same emphasis on sanitation in prison camps as their Teutonic allies and outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, and typhus raged through Ottoman prison camps.

In regard to enemy aliens, the Turks interned Allied civilians in the Ottoman Empire late in 1914. When Allied warships threatened to bombard coastal Turkish towns, the Ottomans replied by threatening to deploy Entente civilians in these areas as hostages. The Turks issued a similar warning during the Gallipoli campaign. The greatest abuse of civilians began in the Spring of 1915, when the Turks began the systematic annihilation of Armenians within the empire. After Turkish losses to the Russians in eastern Anatolia in December 1914, the Ottomans accused the Armenians of assisting the Russians. In April 1915, the Turks rounded up tens of thousands of Armenian men and shot them. While approximately 250,000 Armenians escaped to Russian Caucasia, the Ottomans killed between 500,000 to one million Armenians (estimates place the actual number close to 800,000). While the Turks killed many civilians outright, their policy was to march Armenians south through waste lands without access to food, water, or shelter towards Syria and Mesopotamia. Most of the Armenians died of starvation, exhaustion, exposure, or disease. German missionaries and Italian, Vatican, and Greek consular officials reported on the atrocities and Britain, Russia, and France issued a joint declaration on 24 May 1915 condemning the Armenian massacre. Even the German ambassador, Baron von Wangenheim, issued a formal protest to the Sultan's government in August 1915, condemning the policy. The Turks finally ended their Armenian campaign in the Summer of 1915, but Turkish soldiers continued to kill Armenians with impunity for the rest of the war.

Turkish Army Organization1

In August 1914, the Turkish Army was in the process of a major military reorganization as a result of the Ottoman defeat by the Balkan League in the First Balkan War of 1912-1913.  While the Turks succeeded in regaining small amounts of lost territory in Thrace from Bulgaria as a result of the Second Balkan War in 1913, the Ottoman Army remained in serious disarray after suffering from a string of defeats in European Turkey during the first conflict.

The Turkish government requested that Germany enlarge its military mission to the Ottoman Empire after the debacle of the Balkan Wars to restore Turkish military capabilities.  In response, Major General Otto Liman von Sanders and twenty highly-trained German staff officers arrived in Constantinople in mid-December 1913 to turn around the Turkish Army.  Originally posted to command the Turkish First Army (which was responsible for the defense of the Ottoman capital), Russian protests forced Sultan Mohammad V to reassign Liman von Sanders as the Inspector General of the Turkish Army.  The reassignment of duties did not hinder the German efforts to prepare the Turkish Army for World War I.  On 3 January 1914, the Ottoman government replaced the former Minister of War, Ahmet Izzet, with a newly promoted staff colonel, Enver Bey, the "Conqueror of Adrianople" in the Second Balkan War.  Enver Bey became a member of the Young Turk triumvirate and commanded Turkish forces when the Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers.  The resulting German reorganization and revised military doctrine strengthened the Turkish Army and, despite Allied expectations of a quick victory over the Ottomans early in the First World War, the Turks remained in the field until October 1918 with significant victories achieved over the British and the Russians.

By August 1914, the Ottoman Army consisted of four armies, which was further divided into thirteen army corps composed of thirty-eight divisions scattered across the empire.  The Turkish Army numbered over half a million men, but had to defend a huge empire across Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian coastline.  During peacetime, Turkish divisions stood at half strength; with mobilization, reservists swelled the ranks of the divisions to establish full complements.  The First Army had its headquarters in Constantinople and was responsible for the defense of European Thrace.  The I Army Corps, II Army Corps, and III Army Corps, composed of a total of nine infantry divisions, defended the capital and what remained of European Turkey.  The Second Army was based in Damascus and commanded the VI Army Corps and the VIII Army Corps, with a total of four infantry divisions.  The Second Army defended Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.  When the war began, the Turkish High Command reassigned the VI Army Corps to Adrianople (North) under the First Army command.  The Third Army maintained its staff headquarters in Erzingen (Erzinican) and was responsible for defending Turkish Armenia from a Russian invasion in the Caucasus region.  The Third Army consisted of three army corps, including the IX Army Corps, the X Army Corps, and the XI Corps, which included seven infantry divisions and three cavalry brigades.  The Fourth Army was responsible for defending Mesopotamia from a potential British attack through the Persian Gulf region in August 1914.  The Fourth Army consisted of four infantry divisions, which formed the basis of the XII Army Corps and the XIII Army Corps.  After the war began, the Turkish General Staff reorganized the Fourth Army and the new army took over command of the Sinai-Palestinian Front against the British in Egypt and the Arab Army in Arabia, the latter a new threat that emerged in 1916.   Three Turkish army corps remained unassigned to specific army commands at the beginning of the war.  The IV Army Corps consisted of three infantry divisions and was based in Symrna, with its primary responsibility of defending Asia Minor in the Aegean Sea region.  The V Army Corps had its headquarters in Constantinople (East) and was responsible for the defense of Anatolia with its two infantry divisions.  The remaining corps, the VII Army Corps, operated out of San'a in Southern Arabia and consisted of three infantry divisions.  This corps had to defend Yemen and Arabia against British threats in the Red Sea region.


Note 1:

Sources: Girard Lindsley McEntee, Military History of the World War: A Complete Account of the Campaigns on All Fronts, New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, 146-147.  Edward J. Erickson, Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, 340-343. back