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

Appendix A

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.