New Great War Episode: The Franco-Turkish War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s October 1921, and bitter fighting between Franco-Armenian forces and Turkish nationalists has been going on for two years: it’s the Franco-Turkish War.

The lands of the Ottoman Empire had been mostly occupied by the Allies in 1918 and 1919 in the anticipation of a peace treaty that would create a new order in the Middle East. The British, French, Italians, and eventually Greeks all sent troops to different parts of the region, and all fought against the rising forces of the Turkish Nationalist movement under Mustafa Kemal over the next several years. In the southern province of Cilicia, French and Armenian troops clashed with the Turks in a messy campaign that came to an end with the Treaty of Ankara in October 1921. So today we’ll take a look at the Franco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1921, also known as the Cilicia Campaign or the Southern Front of the Turkish War of Liberation - and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.

After the armistice of 1918, the French occupied Cilicia, Syria and Lebanon on the basis of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which planned to divide up the Middle East between France and Britain. The powerless Ottoman government in Constantinople agreed to the occupations, but the Turkish nationalist movement in central Anatolia was prepared to resist by force of arms. When French troops arrived, they were accompanied by the French-led 4000-strong Legion d’Orient, made up of Armenians and some other Christians from the Middle East. Cilicia had a large Armenian minority before 1915, and thousands who had fled the Armenian genocide during the First World War now returned home under French protection. British and French authorities pushed for a quick resettlement and in the first half of 1919 alone, about 110,000 Armenian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Syria arrived in Cilicia. Many found their former homes occupied or destroyed.

Trouble began in Cilicia almost as soon as the first two French divisions arrived. These forces were too small to control the region and secure the border of the French zone of occupation, which soon expanded to include south-eastern Anatolia. Many Turks resented the presence of the French and Armenians, especially since the French used the Armenian Legion as a police force. Some Legionnaires committed revenge killings and treated the Turkish population harshly, to the point where the French eventually disbanded the Legion in 1920. At the same time, armed Turkish groups in the countryside targeted Armenian villages.
The situation got even trickier for the French to handle when Turkish Nationalist forces began to engage in fully organized resistance under the orders of Mustafa Kemal at the end of 1919. Kemal saw the southern front as a critical part of the War of Liberation:
“[…] in the National Pact program that we adopted, [the French-occupied areas] fall within the borders we have drawn, and these areas also need to be cleared of the enemy. […] But for us it is not just a question of Cilicia. This is a matter of preserving our entire existence.” (Cetintas 5, 7)
The French were soon hard-pressed to maintain their supply lines through the countryside, as inter-ethnic violence and partisan activities of Turkish irregulars increased. French Lieutenant Colonel Goudot reported on the difficult situation:
“[The Turks] compared our occupation in Cilicia to that of the Greeks in Smyrna. The nationalists saw it as the dismemberment of their empire they would not accept for any price. On the other hand, it would have been better politics for us not to rely on the Armenian Legion, but this was imposed upon us by the speed of our occupation before reinforcements arrived. This justified the fears of the Muslims, who considered the presence of the Armenians as a provocation.” (Goudot 79)
Once Turkish guerillas were reinforced with regular troops and artillery, they surrounded the city of Maras in January 1920. After a three-week siege, on February 10 the French withdrew and Maras became the first major city in the French zone to fall to the nationalist Turks. Turkish irregulars had already been raiding Armenian villages in the area, and now that the French garrison had left Maras, they put the city’s Armenian quarter to the torch and killed many Armenian residents. Abraham Hartunian described the aftermath:
“After twenty-three days of war and imprisonment, this was my first walk in the streets. But oh! What a horrible scene! Corpses, large and small, corpses of men, women, children, soldiers, littered the snow-covered ground. Even carcasses of animals were scattered all over. The snow was red. Another Armenian section was in flames.” (Hartunian 113)
As the Franco-Armenian force and Armenian refugees withdrew towards Syria, Armenian legionaries exacted revenge with deadly attacks on Turkish villagers along the way.
The Turkish nationalists soon began to bottle up French garrisons and outposts, including the cities of Urfa and Antep. French troops were so overstretched that they simply couldn’t be everywhere they were needed at once. Urfa’s 500-man garrison capitulated on April 10, and as they withdrew toward friendly territory the Turks attacked and killed most of them.
Antep, where Armenians made up about ¼ of the 60,000 residents, fell to Turkish insurgents on April 9, 1920. This was the first of a series of sieges of the city that caused Antep to be nicknamed the Turkish Verdun. About 2000 French troops soon recaptured the town but some 6 to 9000 Turks besieged them again in May, and launched repeat attacks before a two-week local truce was agreed on May 30.
Fighting resumed at Antep in July, when the Turks began to bombard the reduced French garrison. On August 8 a telegram reached the hard-pressed French telling them that a relief column under Lt Col Andrea was on the way. The French and Armenian garrison forced their way out of the city to link up with Andrea, and the Turks entered Antep. The combined French force, now 12,000 strong with 16 guns and a few tanks, then besieged the 9000 Turkish troops in Antep in August. The Turks desperately tried to break the French positions around the city, but on February 9, 1921 local Turkish forces capitulated after a siege of more than 6 months. To honor the stubborn defence of the city, the Turkish government renamed it to Gaziantep, or Warrior Antep, a name it retains to this day.

The French had managed a hard-fought victory at Antep, but France was under pressure from Turkish attacks, and had other troops tied up in Syria and Lebanon. So the government decided to negotiate.

French Prime Minister Aristide Briand decided to end the war with Turkish nationalists in Cilicia, and began talks with Kemal’s representative Bekir Sami Bey in early 1921.
The French had previously been strong advocates of the Armenian cause, but Briand’s government changed course because it felt its position in the Middle East was in danger. French troops were facing Arab resistance in the new mandates in Syria and Lebanon, and the campaign in Cilicia was straining the budget and costing French lives. France’s Armenian ally had also been defeated by the Turks in Armenia proper in late 1920.

On March 12, unbeknownst to the British, the French and Turkish nationalists agreed to end hostilities, but this deal fell apart. Even so, when news of a possible French withdrawal reached Cilicia in March, some French soldiers like Lt Col Abadie feared their sacrifices had been in vain:
“The news caused great surprise, even among many Turks. After the enormous sacrifices accepted by the French at Antep, the efforts of an entire year which were needed for victory, the cession of Antep to the Turks is not understood.” (Abadie 117)

Franco-Turkish negotiations continued between French diplomat Henri Franklin-Bouillon and Yusuf Kemal, and eventually led to the Treaty of Ankara being signed on October 20, 1921. The French gave up their claims on Ottoman territory and agreed to withdraw their 80,000 men from Cilicia and Southern Anatolia by January 4, 1922. In exchange, the Turkish Nationalists granted France some economic concessions and recognized French control over Syria and Lebanon. The fate of the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which was also under French control, was to be determined later.

These terms unofficially opened the possibility for a potential renegotiation of the Treaty of Sevres, which was to give large territories to Armenia and Greece. This treaty had been signed by the Ottoman government and the Allies in August 1920, but hadn’t yet been implemented because of the resistance of Kemal’s nationalists. Kemal saw the treaty with the French as the defeat of Sevres: “[The Treaty of Ankara] proved to the whole world [that the Treaty of Sevres was] merely a rag.” (Fromkin 536)

The Treaty of Ankara might have removed some of the strain on France in the Middle East, but it was a serious blow to Anglo-French relations. In the eyes of the British government, France had gone behind its back and made a separate peace with an enemy. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill did not mince words when he heard rumours of the Franco-Turkish deal:
“If true, [the treaty] would unquestionably convict the French government of what in the most diplomatic application of the phrase could only be deemed as an ‘unfriendly act.’ […Such] a treaty [is] designed not merely to safeguard French interests in Turkey, but to secure those interests wherever necessary at the expense of Great Britain.” (Fromkin 537)

The British also feared that the French withdrawal might embolden the Turks to attack the British-controlled former Ottoman territory of Iraq. Franklin-Bouillon, though, felt French policy was justified:
“In Cilicia, France was expending 5 million francs a year and had buried some 5,000 of its sons… France had incurred these losses in defense of the Armenians… France could make such sacrifices no longer and there was no need, in view of these facts, to defend the decision to arrange a peace with the government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.” (Güçlü 144)
The Treaty also had serious consequences for the Armenians living in the French zone, who feared that without French protection, the Nationalist Turks would repeat the genocidal policies of the Ottomans in the Great War. French and Turkish Nationalist authorities tried to convince the Armenians that they wouldn’t be in danger and should stay in Cilicia, but most Armenians and other Christians in the region simply fled on ships provided by the Allies. Some Turkish historians have argued they fled out of guilt for atrocities committed against Turks, but most Armenians left because they were afraid for their lives. Armenian Vahan Portukalian described the city of Adana in November 1921:
“With the execution of the [Ankara] Accord of October 20 the evacuation of Cilicia has effectively begun. As soon as the news spread, the exodus of Christians began in proportions that no one could have imagined. […] It’s useless to tell you about the crowding at the station […] the Armenian quarters, so populated, even overpopulated, even two weeks ago, look like deserts. […] Does anyone in France have an idea of the suffering of these past fifteen years?” (Kevorkian 345)

With the signing of the Treaty of Ankara in October 1921, the Turkish Nationalist movement had achieved victory in the Franco-Turkish War. The Treaty legitimized Kemal’s government, cleared the way for further Allied concessions to the Turks on the Treaty of Sevres, and allowed the Turkish army to concentrate against the Greek forces in central Anatolia. It also meant the virtual end of the centuries-old Armenian and Eastern Christian communities in Cilicia and southern Anatolia. French Colonel Edouard Brémont commented on the trauma he witnessed:
“After all the atrocities that have occurred in this country, fear has become a mental illness that will take generations to heal.” (Kevonian)
But the Treaty of Ankara did not end the Turkish War of Liberation, and on other fronts there was more fighting to come.

Primary Sources:

  • Abadie, Maurice : Les quatre Sièges d’Aïntab. Opérations au Levant. “Onze mois dans le Verdun turc.” Paris 1922.
  • Cetintaş, Cengiz: Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, Sanlıurfa Savunmaları ve Ankara Antlaşması: TBMM Tutanaklarında Kurtuluş Savaşı. (Parliamentary Notes from 1920-21.)
  • Goudot: Haut-commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban, La Syrie et le Liban en 1921. La Foire-Exposition de Beyrouth. Conférences. Liste des récompenses, Paris 1922.
  • Hartunian, Abraham: Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep: An Odyssey of Faith, A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, Belmont 1999.
  • Cmd. 1570, Turkey No. 1 (1922), Correspondence Between his Majesty’s Government and the French Government and the French Government Respecting the Angora Agreement of October 20, 1921.
  • Kerr, Stanley: The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, Albany 1973.
  • Kevorkian, Raymond : “L’évacuation française de la Cilicie en 1921 vue par officier Vahan Portoukalian.”

Secondary Sources:

  • Duclerc, Vincent: La France face au Génocide des Arméniens.
  • Durand, Bernard: « Le mandat sur l’Arménie n’aura pas lieu? » Un drame au coeur de Turquie, de la Cilicie et de la Syrie (1915-1920; Revue historique du droit français (1922-), vol. 95, 3, p. 493-510.
  • Fromkin, David: A Peace to End All Peace (1990)
  • Gotikian, Guévork: « La Légion d’Orient et le mandat français en Cilicie (1916-1921) », Revue d'histoire arménienne contemporaine, vol. III: La Cilicie (1909-1921),‎ 1999.
  • Güçlü, Yücel: Armenians and the Allies in Cilicia 1914-1923 (2010).
  • Kévonian, Dzovinar: Réfugiés et diplomatie humanitaire (Paris, 2003).
  • Moumdjian, Garabet: Cilicia under French administration: Armenian Aspirations, Turkish Resistance, and French Stratagems, 2007.
  • White, Benjamin Thomas: A Grudging Rescue; France, the Armenians of Cilicia and the History of Humanitarian Evacuations; Humanity: An international Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development, Vol. 10, 1, p. 1-27.
  • Zarifian, Julien, « La montée du kémalisme en Cilicie. 1919-1920: l'administration française du Sandjak de Kozan face au nationalisme turc », CEMOTI, Cahiers d'Études sur la Méditerranée Orientale et le monde Turco-Iranien, vol. 38, no 38,‎ 2004, p. 235-260.
1921 The Great War

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