Turkey, Maginot Line of the East

"We have made no mistake in allying ourselves with the undefeatable Turk"


Turkey, Maginot Line of the East

"We have made no mistake in allying ourselves with the undefeatable Turk"


Turkey, Maginot Line of the East



"We have made no mistake in allying ourselves with the undefeatable Turk"

A FEW YEARS ago, at the united request of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and his Court Minister, the Shah of Persia received me at his summer palace outside Teheran. We talked about the last war.

“You British made one major mistake right at the beginning, and it cost you dear,” said the soldier who had seized and restored the Peacock Throne with no other right than the will of his fighting Cossacks and his own undoubted merits.

“What was it?” I asked.

“You let Turkey go into the war against you. That you can never again afford to do. For Turkey is Britain’s Maginot Line in the Middle East.”

The Shah was right. Turkey is an essential ally to empires like the British and the French, which rule or influence, between them, over two hundred million Moslems. It is true that what was formerly Constantinople is no longer the seat of the Caliphate—that spiritual leadership of Islam abolished or put into abeyance by Mustapha Kemal, first President of the new Turkish Republic. The Caliphate used to be the Papacy of the Mohammedan world, and while it was vested in the sultans of Turkey, they could declare a holy war throughout Africa and Asia. Kemal, perhaps the greatest man of our generation, was a nationalist. He wanted no spiritual links with countries which he suspected of clinging to the old religious slogan, ‘All change is sin.” He wanted no minorities within his borders.

When he completed the defeat of the Greek armies, backed by Clemenceau and Lloyd George, in 1921, he could have demanded whatever he chose from the startled allied statesmen who knew that Europe could not and would not stand another war. But Kemal was wiser than those Balkan kings and ministers who destroyed the unity of their countries by including within their newly stretdfed frontiers hostile minorities whose one desire for twenty years has been autonomy or return to their original national governments.

In the year of his triumph (1922) Kemal said to me, “I want only Turks inside my own Turkey.” He added that a village of his own people on the frontier was worth more to him than a whole principality of foreigners fifty miles away.

This is the strength of Turkey today. Within natural and easily defended frontiers, safe from European interference, she is as nearly as it is humanly possible to be of one race, one creed and one language. The Armenians have been driven out or have voluntarily emigrated into Syria and Persia. The Kurds of Mount Ararat, after fearful struggles, have thrown in their lot with the Turks. So, astride the Bosphorus and commanding the invaluable passage of the Dardanelles, we have as allies the only wholly united people in the Middle East.

The Turks are among the best soldiers in the world. There is a proverb in Arabia: “You can’t defeat a Turk. You can only kill him.” And one of the finest compliments I heard paid to Canada by a German who had been at Vimy Ridge was “The Canadians fought like Turks. We could not convince them they were dead unless we buried them, and we hadn’t time to do that. We were retreating too fast.”

Turkish influence extends across the path of Russia far south into India. For there is a three-power pact between Persia, Iraq and Turkey. If the Red Army chose to drive into Persian territory, or the Red air force struck for the valuable oil fields in Iraq, the best trained and best equipped army in the Middle East, under Kemal’s successor. President Ismet Inönü—veteran of the 1914-18 war and victor against the Greeks three years later—would come to the rescue of her allies.

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Turkey is also the strongest factor in the Balkan Alliance. During recent years relations between Athens and Ankara have so far improved that Greece now follows where her great neighbor leads. There is a large Moslem population in Jugoslavia and a smaller one in Bulgaria. These look to Turkey for a lead. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which a Balkan country would willingly come into the present war against the only first-class army east of Hitler’s arbitrarily extended frontiers.

On the other hand, Russia was (he first great power to make overtures of friendship to Turkey after the last war. The Soviet leaders, to my personal knowledge, have a great respect for (he republic centred round its still new capital of Ankara. Kemal once said to me that there could be no human link between anyone who had ever been a Moslem, and “an honest Bolshevik;” but. he was immensely interested in the Russian experiment.

He told me: “It will probably fail because it is on too iarge a scale and concerned with too many different peoples. It is hard enough to put the clock on a hundred years for one race, as 1 am doing. But when it comes to hustling a whole continent through a century of development crushed into Five Year Plans, there is little chance of success.” He added that the Turks were workers and fighters, while the Russians were talkers or dreamers. Pie said, “Stalin is experimenting with about the most unsatisfactory human material— the Slav in the raw.”

“What about the Slavonic Serbs?” I asked.

“They have been tried in every form* of war.” said Kemal. “You can’t compare them to the Russians. They are natural fighters, the hardiest people in the Balkans. They treat death with respect. They have a saying, ‘He is too worthy an enemy to be laughed at.’ ”

Turkey and Russia

PRESIDENT Inönü, taking his name from the decisive battle which completed the Greek rout, is as different as possible from his great leader, Mustapha Kemal. But he shares his predecessor’s appreciation of Russian friendship. I doubt if the re-created Turkey of today would ever agree to an invasion of Russian territory by way of the Black Sea. By recent treaty, Turkey won the right to fortify the Dardanelles. This she has done at great cost. The contract went to a British engineering firm, which is significant in view of lower tenders from such German interests as Messrs. Krupp.

Turkey now has the right to shut the Dardanelles to any foreign warships should she feel that her “national security is threatened.” If war spreads into the Mediterranean, the Black Sea would be

closed to any enemy power. Turkey has specifically retained the right to choosf for herself whether she will or will not fight Russia. But should Germany achieve a military offensive and defensive pact with that country, resulting in a joint invasion of the Balkans, Turkey is not likely to agree to an extension of Soviet power beyond Bessarabia—the northern province of Roumania, which is already Russian in tongue, dress, custom and method of living. It was ceded, unfortunately, to Roumania at the end of the last war and ever since has been one of the multiple causes of unrest in the Middle East.

When President Inönü was still Ismet Pasha, Prime Minister of Turkey, the only diplomatist, it is said, who outwitted Lord Curzon at Lausanne, I asked him if he thought Russian and Turkish interests were ever likely to clash. He pointed to an enormous map hanging on his study wall. “Neither of us have wasted time or money on fortifying our frontiers,” he said.

Invasion of Persia and possibly of Afghanistan by the Soviet might, 1 repeat, bring Turkey into a war against Russia. But the Turks have never broken a treaty in all their history. And the first pact they made after 1922, which year saw them established as a great power controlling the destinies of the Middle East, was with Moscow. Therefore, so long as we are not militarily at war with Russia, our position with regard to the Turks, and theirs with us, is easier to define. We have the same aims—peace in the Middle East and the maintenance of existing conditions in the Mediterranean. We have other tilings in common. Neither of us wants another acre of land. Neither wants to extend a sphere of influence. Our trade interests do not clash. The ordinary Turk—slow-thinking, honest, stupid in some ways, averse to change, loving the land, thrifty, obstinate, immensely stalwart, unconscious of fear, taking everything as it comes along, capable of living on very little, chary of speech and jealous of his family life—is not unlike the Lincolnshire farmer or the Hebridean crofter.

The ordinary Turk away from the towns where Kemal sought to make atheism fashionable, has kept his religion for his own private use, although he has been forced to give up his cherished fez for a howler hat. Consequently, the peasant and the cultivator of vines, who rarely goes to Ankara and doesn’t understand politics or the new European lettering, would not he at all averse to fighting the irreligious Soviet. An Ottoman farmer whose land bordered Russia, assured me, “Just across that hill there, they’ve abolished God (Allah). I pray nightly to the Prophet of God that I may live to see His vengeance.”

It is strange that while Turkish ministers, industrialists and financiers, painstaking over their new jobs—which used under

the sultans to be done by Greeks, Armenians and French—look ahead farther than anyone else has dared to do in the Europe of my generation, saying, “Come back in ten years, or twenty, and you will see what we have achieved,” the Turkish peasants are happier with rifles than with spades. In their eyes “No son is full grown until he has killed a man and sired a man.”

In Ankara last year President Inönü said, “My country needs a hundred years of peace. Our plans are made, not for four or five years hut for a century. We do not want to imitate Europe. We want to go ahead in our own way, without interference. We need peace more than any other nation so that we can put all our energies into our growing industry, trade and agriculture.”

We talked about the exchange of Turkish and Greek populations, by which Kemal’s new republic had lost hundreds of experienced vine and tobacco growers.

“We had to go back to the very beginning,” said Kemal’s successor. “Turkey’s army is always assured. It will consist of every man knowing how to shoot, which means every able-bodied male. But we shall have to train farmers and artisans. For that we need peace.”

Me is the exact antithesis of the Ghazi, with whom he constantly argued. He is cool and cautious where Kemal was tempestuous. He is an excellent bridgeplayer, and no dancer. Shrewd, calculating and farsighted, he is also as foot-loose as any American tourist. For a disturbance on his farthest frontier means that he will set out at once to see what is happening. He is capable of intense patience and he can see both sides of a question. He once said to me, “There is perhaps only one good quality in your contemporary England, but maybe it is enough to weight the scale. You will give up a great deal for I)eace—even, illogical as it seems, your lives.”

Allied Strength In the East

TT IS, of course, this desire for peace which has brought the Turkey of Inönü into an alliance with us. For Ismet Pasha of other years was a staunch admirer of Germany. Like Kemal, he fought under German generals in the last war. Both men admired the success, organization and efficiency of Nazi Germany. Neither was a democrat. They were soldiers, with an appreciation of strategy. Kemal often used to express to me his horror of our continual diplomatic blunders. “Your Ministers,” he once said, “seem intent on making unnecessary enemies all over the world. It has become a game at which you are altogether too proficient.” With intense seriousness, he said, “You have thrown away everything you won in the war. You are the best to have beside one in battle, and in peace you are to be avoided at all costs. For you haggle with everything except your lives.”

Inönü put it more wittily when he said, ■“Your polities are a trade, but in war you recover a religion.”

To maintain peace or, if that is imjios-

sible in the last analysis—with Italian guns planted on two of the twelve Dodecanese Islands within range of her coasts— to restore peace on a reasonable basis, Turkey has become our ally. It is no sinecure. At this moment she is building a strategic railway into Persia. Her frontier with Russia is no longer undefended. It may also be significant that since last September, with the help of German engineers, the Soviet are building strong fortifications along the heights of the Caucasus between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Here they have metalled roads, but the pass at Ordzhonikidze is closed by snow for some months of the year. Then communication between the Ukraine and Armenia, both Soviet republics with large though ineffective national organizations opjxised to the Moscow regime, are separated by the snowline.

Behind Turkey, now fully prepared for intervention westward in the Balkans, or eastward on behalf of her co-religionists in Iraq, Persia, possibly Afghanistan, lies the growing military strength of the Allies in Syria. It has been recently stated in Paris that General Weygand, who certainly knows his own mind and is afraid of nobody, refuses to consider an allied offensive in the Middle East with less than a million men at his dis[x>sal. In this he is wise, because the Balkans are distraught by personal ambitions, enmities and prejudices. Farther East, the defense would always have the advantage because of the exceedingly difficult ground. But the Allied forces are growing monthly. Australians, Indians, French and French colonial troops, British cavalry, tanks and Air Force have turned the whole of Syria into a camp.

General Weygand is Commander-inChief. He is ably supported by Lieut.General Sir Archibald W’avell who represented Britain at the last Soviet general manoeuvres. This particular soldier probably knows more about the Russian army, its equipment, reserves human and material, and its capabilities, than anyone else outside the Kremlin. He does not at all underestimate its strength and fighting powers were it assured of adequate leadership. Our Air Chief in this Maginot Line of the Middle East is “Ginger Mitchell” — Air Marshal Sir William Mitchell—of whom it is said, “He can get any man to do anything for him, anywhere, at any time.” It was this short, stocky, strongly built airman, chary of speech with no poses or mannerisms of any kind, who replied to a doubtful and dangerous last-resort suggestion of superior officers in conference during the 1918 spring retreat: “It is necessary, so of course it is possible.” The combination of these three men should be good, but it is the alliance with Turkey which makes us masters of the Middle East. While the Government of Ismet Inönü, heirs of the heroic Kemal, support the Allies, Italy can hope for no disaffection among the Arabs of French North Africa. On the contrary, she may find the Senussi sect and the Zouia tribes of her new Saharan colony with long and

bitter memories of persecution following her conquests of 1931.

Turkish influence spreads ás far as Morocco. It permeates most Arab and even some Bedouin and Berber households. Egypt eats the food, reads the literature, copies the domestic manners, listens to the music, and affects the architecture of Turkey.

Palestine, that altogether too much promised land, distraught now by the conflict between the Book of Genesis represented by Arab peasant life, and the Book of Revelation in the form of Jewish industrialization, looks with nostalgic recollection to the days of peace under Turkey.

Daughters of the royal Ottoman House, closely connected with the last Turkish Caliph, have married a son and a nephew of the premier Indian prince, the Nizam of

Hyderabad. While Turkey is with us, that Maginot Line, described by the Shah of Persia as invaluable to the democracies at war, stretches east to India, where the Moslem rulers of the great princely states have issued proclamations to their subject millions. “If the Empires of Britain and France fail, every individual Indian is in jeopardy.”

It has always been said about the British that we lose every battle but the last. Hitler once told me that we had “a genius for making every mistake except those expected and irreparable.” We have at least made no mistake in allying ourselves with the undefeatable Turk who holds the key to Germany’s doubtful Eastern frontiers.

Editor's Note: A third article by Mrs. Forces will appear in an early issue of Maclean’s.