October 20

This Day in History

World War I

Oct 20, 1918:

Turks send British officer to negotiate armistice terms

On October 20, 1918, General Charles Townshend travels from Constantinople to the Greek Isles to liaison with the British government over a possible armistice between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Up until mid-September 1918, the ruling Ottoman government, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) or Young Turks, still believed ultimate victory for the Central Powers was possible. After learning evidence to the contrary—that Bulgaria had sought and been granted an armistice in late September and that Germany was on the verge of seeking one as well—the CUP was in shock. They felt they had been deceived by the army’s chief commander, Enver Pasha, who had maintained repeatedly that all was well for Turkey and its allies. The fall of Bulgaria cut the Ottoman Empire off from the overland routes to Austria and Germany, and consequently all its access to fuel, ammunition, other supplies and reinforcements. As the Ottoman finance minister wrote in his diary in October: "If [Enver Pasha] had said five or six months ago that we were in so difficult a situation, naturally we would have… made a favourable separate peace at that time. But he concealed everything, and… he deluded himself and brought the country to this state."

After Mehmed Talaat (Turkey’s foremost political leader since February 1917) called his CUP cabinet together and engineered their collective resignation—including his own—in an attempt to curry favor with the Allies, Sultan Mehmed VI appointed a new cabinet under Field Marshal Ahemt Izzet Pasha, who was determined to be more acceptable to the Allies. In mid-October, the new Ottoman government dispatched Charles Townshend, a British general and prisoner-of-war, to approach the British in Greece. Townshend, who had surrendered to the Ottoman army at the town of Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia in the spring of 1916, had lived since then under house arrest on an island off Constantinople. Despite his prisoner-of-war status, he enjoyed relative freedom and moved in some of the highest Ottoman political circles.

Townshend’s boat arrived early on the morning of October 20 at the Greek island of Mitylene, where it rendezvoused with a British vessel. The Turkish position—as reported by Townshend and wired to the British Foreign Office in London—was that Britain should leave the Ottoman Empire with Syria, Mesopotamia and perhaps the Caucasus as well, provided these territories were allowed autonomy within a revamped empire structure that would more closely resemble a confederation of states. After he had wired this proposal, Townshend traveled by ship to the headquarters of the British naval commander in the Aegean Sea, Admiral Arthur Calthorpe, on the Greek island of Lemnos.

Townshend’s mission was to impress upon London the idea that the Turks were prepared to continue waging war if these generous peace terms were not offered. In fact, the Ottoman government was in a much weaker position, as the Allies occupied nearly all of their Arabian territories; this weakness was exploited in the actual armistice agreement, signed October 30, 1918, which effectively marked the end of Turkish dominance and the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Middle East.

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