Behind the Turkish Barrier
By William T. Ellis
[The Outlook, October 1916]
[*The man here interviewed is not "The Man from Constantinople" whose story Dr. Ellis wrote for The Outlook of December 8, 1915.—THE EDITORS.]
This was the longest professional interview of my friend for Turkey talked steadily on the one subject from ten o'clock at night, with one hour's intermission; and then we resumed the theme for two hours the next morning, when the incomplete discussion was adjourned, to be resumed later. Now to compress into one brief article the high points of the interview.
This autumn my friend is out of Turkey, where he has spent more than a quarter of a century. To tell how he got out—an interesting story in itself—would be to tell whence he came, which would never do, since Turkey has a genius for bitter reprisals. I owe too much to this man to be the means of hurt to him or his. My first clear understanding of the Turkish question came one memorable night in Constantinople when I was a listener in a group comprising my friend, an official of the United States Government, the Constantinople correspondent of Reuter's, and a representative of Great Britain, all of them veteran specialists on the Near Eastern question. Of these four, the man who knew the theme best was my American friend. He seemed to think first in Arabic and then translate into English. He has a trick of illustrating his meaning by the familiar Arabic gestures. He it was who spoke the last word of the talk of the mysterious Bruises and who gave the historical setting to the "Arabian Nights" tale of the Salonika Jews and how they have become, ostensibly, Moslems, until now they are in control of the Young Turk party.
Other and more personal debts I owe to this Yankee in Turkey. When I would have gone into Arabia with only a brace of automatic pistols for defense, he made plain by the story of one of his own narrow escapes why a rifle carried in plain sight on the saddle bow is almost indispensable. From him I learned the trick, which did me good service clear down into the desert of Mesopotamia, of having target practice when making camp, for the benefit of inquisitive natives. What to look for when I went to Petra, and—only the initiated will understand this—what to look for, and where, when I rode a camel, I learned from his book of experience. With him amid the ruins of Phoenicia I discovered that the Crusaders were grave-robbers, and by him I was instructed in the merits of sweet lemons as thirst-quenchers in desert travel. He translated for me the Arabic slogans of the party of liberty and traced their roots clear back to free soil of America.
So, because he really knows, and because he is possibly the last man out of Turkey, I interviewed for The Outlook this American who is the better patriot for being a wise internationalist. our talk swept round the whole circle of Turkish affairs, from the inexplicable defeat of the British in Mesopotamia to their strange failure to enter Constantinople when it was open to them, during the Gallipoli campaign; from the revolt of the Arabs to the anti-Young Turk Movement on Anatolia; from the feud between Djemal Pasha, Governor of Syria, and the Germans, to the manner in which Enver Pasha has "dug himself in" with the Germans. Insults to America and Americans, death for even Moslem leaders, starvation for the people of the Holy Land, plague for soldiers and civilians alike, death in most dreadful forms for the Armenians, exact news a concerning the progress of the Bagdad Railway, and startling forecasts as to the war's outcome, all were crowded into this comprehensive interview.
We talked first, and often, of Constantinople:
"Enver Pasha and Talaat Bey and Bedry Bey and Khalil Bey are the men now in control there. That secret governing group of Young Turks is still hidden far out of sight, but Khalil Bey is supposed to be of them. Enver pasha has dug himself in with the Germans. More and more, as the Turks are showing their resentment toward his conduct of things, he is keeping safety by increasing German support.
"Constantinople is almost a Teutonic city. Germans are everywhere. Although the use of all languages except Turkish on public signs of officially prohibited, the city is placarded with German notices. (Did I tell you that, while the English language is prohibited in Turkey, the American language is permitted?) There are two great wireless stations in the city, one of which, though operated by Germans, is supposedly under the control of the Turkish Government. The other is German absolutely, with no pretense of Ottoman interference. There is a strong German garnizon in Constantinople, which is Enver's measure of self-protection.
"Poverty? It is beyond words. People are literally dying of starvation in Constantinople, as in most other cities of the Empire. Soldiers' widows and orphans fare worst, perhaps; for while a pittance is given to the family of the living soldier, this ceases when he is killed. I have seen the people grow black in their faces from long-continued hunger. The poor have gone to a mission hospital and actually begged for the dish-water, hoping that they might get a few scraps. I have seen them working over the garbage for the bits of orange peel. After that the family served all scraps and placed them in clean paper and left them where the poor could find them, instead of throwing them into the garbage-can. Night after night people would steal into our yard and beg for even a crust. Night after night we saw them in a dying condition, but had nothing with which to help them. We knew of entire families dying of typhus one after another. Some missionaries, in order to avoid the unpleasant notice of unfriendly officials, took women and children into the hospitals as patients and after feeding them up for a week or two had send them away again. The Government buried the dead from disease and starvation at the rate of forty to fifty daily!
"For sixteen months the people have been gathering every possible plant and root that that could be eaten. My native neighbor planted a few potatoes almost under our windows, but the starving people came by night and dug up the seed potatoes and ate them!
"Bread is sold by the Government on tickets—a capital device for getting all metal money into the hands of the authorities; and also for the extortion of baksheesh. Practically the only money in circulation is this paper currency, printed in Germany." My friend then gave me for examination a twenty-piaster note, which almost any printer cold duplicate. "This money has depreciated forty per cent, and is still going down. You can imagine the effect upon an already impoverished.
"The 1915 crop was in good part lost. owing to the deportation of the Armenians at planting time. What was left, together the army. It, too, is below normal, one reason being, in addition to the loss of men, the requisitioning of all the animals of the farmers. Instead of being a great storehouse of food for Germany, Turkey itself is going hungry. When I passed through Germany, the commonest question asked me by the officials who examined my passport was whether Turkey had plenty of food. I told them that the price of flour had increased eight fold, and that the poor people had sold even their cooking utensils in order to buy food.
"There is no commerce whatever, of course. Of sugar there is none; coal is almost entirely lacking. Oil is four dollars a gallon, and hard to get. Medicines are not to be had; one of the reasons for the spread of the plague in Turkey is the lack of medicines and the high mortality among the native physicians."
"Did you see much plague?"
"It is everywhere, both cholera and typhus. Plague camps for the soldiers were within a few feet of us at several halting-places on the journey. One hears in Turkey that half the army has perished from disease. we took all possible precautions, and were very fortunate, finding on us only one Pediculus vestimenti"——only the word he used to describe the busty little traveling salesman of the typhus plague was not Latin.
"Who are hardest hit? It is not easy to say. The Jews in and the American war ships are in a pitiable plight, because they look to the foreign mails for their support, and these have been closed. In all Syria it is estimated that from eighty to one hundred thousand persons have died either from acute starvation or from malnutrition. The situation grows worse daily. There will have to be relief from Merica if the people of the Holy Land are to be saved."
I hasten over the Armenian news; it was more of the same awful tale of deportation, outrage, and death. This summer the atrocities broke out afresh, especially among the Armenians who had secured work under the Germans at road-making and tunnel-digging. These, too, had to move on to the fate of their deported compatriots. My friend said that it is the opinion of himself and other Americans in Turkey that certainly less than twenty per cent of the deported Armenians, and probably not more than ten, have survived to reach their destinations. And over a million were deported" When the native Christians in one place wanted to carry food to an arriving horde of Armenian survivors, they were prevented by the Turks. The matter was carried up to the governor, who brutally answered, "These people were not sent here to live."
An American missionary who resides near one of the colonies of Armenians, and who has been made desperate by the scenes he daily witnesses, said to my friend, "Government of no Government, prison no prison, if I can get hold of food or money, I'm going to feed these people."
"The man who has never experienced the stench of dead bodies in his nostrils, and who has never lying on the roadway, and has never witnessed with his own eyes of heard from the lips of beholders, in all the plainness of Oriental speech, the foul-minded why Americans in Turkey are ready to indorse any measures that will stop these horrors. Nor can we comprehend the indifference of America.
"Perhaps if you had seen a dying woman dig with her own hands a shallow grave and strive to cover herself in it, so that the dogs—who are full fed these days—might not get her body before death came, you would count this matter an urgent one."
At this point my friend let light in upon an interesting diplomatic situation. "Of course you know that Turkey refuses to allow the United States Consuls to send seals pouches of mail to the Embassy at Constantinople, as is the immemorial usage. Consular mail in censored, just like everything else. The immediate reason is that the Turks do not want the stories of local conditions and atrocities to get out of the country through these official channels."
Here I delete certain vigorous observations concerning America's duty to uphold her National Prestige abroad and to protect her nationals. The man ten thousand miles from American soil may be expected to see vividly and state strongly this principle. We have for many years allowed Turkey to take liberties with American dignity and rights which, if generally known, would have aroused our people to the highest pitch of indignation. The deaths of Rogers and Maurer, American missionaries slain at Adana in 1909, go unavenged. Some of us have not forgotten that at the siege of Van, more than a year ago, the American flag was riddled with Turkish bullets and Americans were fired upon by Turkish troops. The destruction of American property, by order of the Ottoman officials, has been on a scale that makes one wonder whether the fact of war justifies the United States in acquiescence in these latest outrages.
Honor is a delicate thing and has curious ramifications. Hear my friend explode: "The seal of the United States Government is supposed to be inviolable. When the consuls of the Allied nations left Turkey, their consulates were turned over to the United States Government. Protection of them became duty of honor. So these consulates were officially sealed and guarded by the authority of the United States of America. They were a trust that could not be violated without shame greater than that involved in an efferent to our Government directly. Nevertheless the Turks broke the seal of the American Government upon the French Consulate at Beirut and ravaged the archives that were under the solemn protection of the United States. out of those files they secured the names of various persons in Syria, especially leaders in the Maronite Church, and straightway executed them as having been in correspondence with an enemy country. The American flag was not big enough to shelter those men, among them the most enlightened and influential citizens of the Lebanon."
There is a kink in the Turk's brain that turns him to reprisals and espionage. In the days of Abdul Hamid his spy system was like a shadow of death over the land. Now the news is that a horde of informers and secret police infest the country, especially at the Centers of population. All mail entering the Empire is opened, and every clue that leads to any critic or enemy of Turkey is vindictively followed out, Both against natives and foreigners. Nobody knows when his hour to become the object of suspicion will strike. This terrorism, amid a people wasted by war and want, is a form of "frightfulness" the now stalk through the land.
Not a scrap of paper was brought out of Turkey by my friend. The border examination looks well to that, with its meticulous examination of travelers, from the hair of their head, where tiny rolls of tissue paper might be concealed, to the soles of their feet, upon which maps may be drawn with invisible ink. "What they do to one reveals their own mind and methods," sententiously remarked this man, in comment upon the indignities he had undergone. No written memoranda were needed, however, for the most significant news of all—the two new "pan"—oply of this war.
"Pan-Turanianism and Pan-Arabia are today real movements in Turkey. There is a clear and formidable effort being made to bind all the Turks together as a unity, independently of Islam. It rather takes one's breath—doesn't it? —to attempt to conceive of a Turkey that is not dependent upon Mohammedanism for its law, its institutions, its standards, its power, its life. The Young Turks, who never were really good Moslems, have cut the Gordian knot of their difficulties over the faith by boldly projecting a nation that will separate Church and State, I stead of the religious tie, they will substitute the racial tie, rallying all Turks to the ancient tribal standards under which they grew unto power. Freed of the fetters of the faith, they aim to subjugate the Arabs and the Christian peoples, and to deal by a strong hand with the old and reactionary Moslems.
"The rebellion of the Arabs, under the Shereef of Mecca, which has cost Turkey the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and also Jiddah, the Red Sea port thereto, has intensified the purpose of these radicals to separate the nation from all connection with the religion of the Prophet. They say nothing, naturally, of what it will mean to deprive the Sultan of all his spiritual offices and titles, as Commander of the Faithful. All of this, to my mind, is purely speculative, for I neither believe nor hope that there will be any Turkish Empire left after the war to become an experiment in Pan-Turanianism or anything else.
"As for the Arab rebellion, that has several causes. For years the Turks have been trying to repress the Arabs and to abolish the use of the Arabic language. Long before the war there was a deep unrest among the peoples of the Arabic-speaking parts of the Empire, including all Syria and Palestin, over the repressive measures of the Young Turks. For their part, the Arabs, who are Semites and fundamentally religious, have regarded with increasing disfavor their progressive rulers, whom they call 'infidels.' To them the religious bond is supreme. So, making an excuse of the hanging of a number of eminent Moslems by the Government, they have declared the independence of Arabia and have set up a separate nation, with the Shereef of Mecca, and kinsman of Mohammed himself, as Caliph.
"This is not small, tribal politics. The fine Italian hand of Britain is behind it. King George rules over more Moslems than any other sovereign, and more Moslems than any other sovereign, and he cannot afford to take chances with another 'holy was.' So long as the caliphate, or headship, of Islam is vested in the Sultan of Turkey there is trouble in prospect for the British Moslem peoples. Therefore the British have fomented the Arabian revolt, less to make trouble for Turkey and for the Turco-Teutonic expeditions to Suez and Mesopotamia (though it will do that also) than to assure the spiritual headship of all Mohammedans to a place and a people that cannot be a manace to the 'Pax Britannica.' Moslem everywhere will recognize the appropriateness of recognizing a Caliph who is seated at the Holy City of Mecca, and who is also, as the Law directs, of the Prophet's own blood."
From this tremendous news, with all its far-reaching consequences, it was an easy step to a discussion of the [action of Turkey after the war. My friend has clear-cut ideas, the summary, I gather, of the view of himself and other internationalists both in the Levant and in Great Britain. "Of course Britain will get Arabia and southern Persia. Only so can she safeguard the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. The Queen of the Weves must guard her waters. Likewise, since really high politics always regards the springs of action of her Moslem peoples. Therefore all the holy places connected with Islam—Mecca, Medina, Kerbela, and Nejef, and possibly also Damascus—will come under British suzerainty, if not direct rule. Incidentally, Great Britain will thus possess beyond all menace the Great oil-fields of southern Persia and of the lower Tigris Valley, as well as the immense agricultural tracts in Mesopotamia which are being opened by the Willcocks irrigation scheme.
"France will get at least upper Syria, and perhaps also Palestine, although the latter's prospects as an autonomous state, under the protection of the Powers, are good; for thus the Jews could fulfill their dream. Russia will have upper and eastern Asia Minor, and free access through the Bosphorus, if not control of Constantinople. Italy will have some of the littoral of Anatolia, as well as opportunity on the Egean shores and some island acquisitions.
"One reason why it will be safe for Russia to hold Constantinople is that Britain is to have the sentinel islands of Mitylene and Lemnos, as well as Salonika. So, with Cyprus, Malta, Port Said, and Gibraltar in addition, she will still control the Mediterranean.
"By the way, General Townshend, the defender of Kut-el-Amara, is now a prisoner on one of the islands on the Sea of Marmora, and his wife has been permitted to join him. The other Kut-el-Amara prisoners are in Asia Minor, and Tokat, where Henry Martyn died, seems to be their objective. There has been considerable sickness among them."
Here we were back again among the fighting men and their doings. "There has been a deal of fine road-making in Turkey under the Germans. Prisoners and Armenians have been used for this. Anew motor road has been laid through the Cilician Gates and around the head of the Mediterranean. There are two big gaps in the Bagdad Railway construction, one of forty-two kilometers at Bozanti, where the Taurus Mountais are being tunneled, and another of seventy-five kilometers at the tunnel through the Amanus Mountais. Army motor lorries supply the missing transportation over fine new roads. Some of these huge motor trucks have gone, loaded, all the way from Essen, in Germany, to Bagdad. What an 'ad' for some German motor manufacturer!
"All the military supplies for the armies in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia and Syria are dependent upon this one line of communication with Germany. If the Allies should break it in the Balkans, the jig would be up with Turkey. The country is absolutely blockaded by sea and land, except where the railway from Europe enters. At present the end of construction on the Bagdad line is at Ras-el-Ain, or a little beyond; the tracks have crossed the Euphrates River, but they have not reached the Tigris. A decisive battle probably will be fought at Ras-el-Ain, where there is a great storehouse of supplies. Great Britain has made all things ready to retrieve this winter her defeat on the Tigris."
Which again brings us into the realm of prophecy, and that is a good place to stop, with the simply reminder that the Allies have an open road to Turkey from nearly all sides, and that they command the sea routes. Whereas Turkey has nothing; she is dependent upon her masterful confederate for every bullet she shoots, and every rifle that shoots it, and every pound of powder that is behind it. She does not manufacture a single steel rail or car or motor truck. Even the uniforms of her soldiers must come from Austria and Germany, from the European shoes to the new cap called the "Enverine," "Enver Pasha's one constructive contribution to the war." Disease has devastated the troops, and their foreign officers are hated and feared. Considering their handicaps the Turkish soldiers have made a wonderful record, but it cannot save their country from paying the price for their ruler's sins.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald