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A German General in the Ottoman Empire: Liman von Sanders from Gallipoli to Palestine

The Battles of Çanakkale/Gallipoli hold a distinct place among the fronts of World War I that prepared the end of the Ottoman Empire. This war was won against the greatest powers of the time.

An important figure in this victory was the German commander, Liman von Sanders, who would later be assigned to the Palestine front and witness the defeat there.

Prussian General

During the Battles of Çanakkale, not only Ottoman but also allied German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers served. There is varying information regarding the number of German soldiers at the Çanakkale front. According to German sources, this number goes up to 700, while Turkish sources indicate it ranges from 70 to 300.

Among the Germans in Çanakkale, especially notable was Liman von Sanders Pasha, who served as the commander of the 5th Army at the front. His role in the command echelon and the decisions he made contributed significantly to the victory at Çanakkale.

Pasha, whose full name is “Otto Viktor Carl Liman von Sanders,” is known in Turkey more commonly as Liman Pasha, but in Germany, he is also referred to as “Löwe von Gallipoli (Lion of Gallipoli).” Sanders was born in 1855 in Stolp, then within the borders of Prussia, which after the Russian occupation during World War II, became part of Poland.

The information about Sanders’ family is interesting. It is noted that his great-grandfather, born in Halberstadt, was a Jewish merchant who later converted to Christianity through baptism. Sanders completed his education at Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Berlin and graduated from the War Academy in 1878.

After serving a long time in the German General Staff, Sanders became a General in 1911 and was appointed to the command of the 22nd Division in Kassel. His next assignment would be the presidency of the German military mission in the service of the Ottoman Empire.

Following a significant defeat in the Balkan Wars, the Ottoman army considered reform initiatives, leading to negotiations with the Germans and ultimately the arrival of the German military mission in Istanbul.

The process of benefiting from German officers in the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to the era of Sultan Mahmud II. While Moltke’s name stands out from that period, the most famous German officer during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II was Goltz Pasha. In recent times, this name is undoubtedly Sanders. However, the “Prussianization” of the Ottoman army did not fully penetrate and remained superficial.

After the application by the Unionists, the German Government chose Sanders, a division commander, as the president of the military mission to be sent to Turkey. As expected, Sanders did not speak Turkish and had no knowledge about Turkey.

According to the agreement dated October 27, 1913, Sanders was to lead the German Military Mission for five years. He would also take on the command of the 1st Corps and become a member of the Military Council. For five years, the recruitment, appointment, and dismissal of foreign soldiers in the Ottoman army would be Sanders’ responsibility, coming second in protocol only to the Minister of War.

Initially, the German Military Mission consisted of only 42 members, but its size increased to 15,000 as the war progressed. The amount of German aid during the war reached 3 billion Marks, representing a significant military and economic power under Sanders’ leadership.

Before the war, German Emperor Wilhelm II promoted Sanders to the rank of Generaloberst (Colonel General), and the Ottoman administration, as per the agreement, appointed him “Müşir (Marshal)” and assigned him to the inspectorate of the army.

Commander of the Çanakkale Front

At the onset of the war, it was natural for Sanders, who held a significant position in the Ottoman army, to experience a conflict of authority with Enver Pasha, the Minister of War and the Deputy Commander-in-Chief during the war. This situation continued throughout the war, and the two commanders clashed over German and Turkish interests.

After the unsuccessful attack of the British-French allied fleet on the Çanakkale Straits on March 18, 1915, the formation of an army for the defense of the straits was proposed. Some sources claim this idea was discussed in a meeting between German Admiral Souchon and Enver Pasha, but Sanders, in his memoirs, claimed the idea was his, supported by both Souchon and the German embassy.

This decision was made during a meeting on March 24, 1915. At this meeting, the Germans argued that Esat Pasha (Bülkat), who had spent a long time in Germany and even became a German citizen, was an “excellent” commander for the 3rd Corps in Gallipoli but “lacked sufficient experience.” Initially, “the legendary German commander Goltz Pasha” was considered for the command, but Sanders was chosen instead.

After his appointment, Liman Pasha went to Gallipoli to begin preparations. He would serve as a commander with extensive authority in the Battles of Çanakkale. His Staff included Chief of Staff Major Kazım Bey (İnanç), Cavalry Captains Prigge and Mühlmann.

The army under Sanders was named the 5th Army, consisting of the 3rd and 15th Corps, the 5th Cavalry Division, and the Independent Cavalry Brigade. The “Northern Group” led by Esat Pasha and the “Southern Group-Seddülbahir Group” led by German Weber faced the Allied landings in Gallipoli, followed by intense battles.

Despite the successes, there was a point in July when there was consideration to recall Liman Pasha back to Germany, but this was later abandoned. The reason for wanting to dismiss him was “his inexperience in trench warfare and the high casualty rate.”

Similar criticisms were also made by Turkish officers. For example, Vehip Pasha (Kaçı), the Commander of the Southern Group, complained to Enver Pasha during his visit to the front on July 28, 1915, about Sanders. The complaint was about Sanders’ orders to launch attacks without sufficient preparation, even failing to arrange preparatory artillery fire.

Following complaints from Turkish commanders, Enver Pasha listened to both sides and ordered a focus on defense and to avoid further disputes. Vehip Pasha’s emphasis on the importance of fortifications with the phrase, “a shovel of soil saves a drop of blood,” highlights the significance of defenses.

Fahri Belen wrote that the mistakes made were due to both inexperience and Sanders’ reluctance to lose even a bit of territory. However, Sanders is generally acknowledged for successfully implementing a defensive strategy in Çanakkale.

One of his main goals was to keep a large portion of the allied forces engaged on the peninsula, and indeed, the allies spent eight months and considerable resources in Gallipoli. Ultimately, the allies were unsuccessful and had to withdraw from the peninsula.

Sanders also resolved various issues among Turkish commanders on different fronts, such as jealousy and disagreements, showcasing his ability to position himself well.

While maintaining a balancing role between Turkish and German officers, Sanders managed to avoid offending Turkish commanders despite disagreements and severe criticisms regarding landing points, deployment of units, and tactics.

For instance, he replaced Weber Pasha during a panic at Zığındere and managed to work with Vehip Pasha, a close “Unionist” and the Commander of the 2nd Army. The appointment of Esat and Vehip Pasha as “brother” commanders of two groups was also a success of both Enver and Liman Pasha. His preference for Turkish commanders led to claims by Germans that “German officers were being cleared to make way for Turkish officers.”

Sanders’ decision-making skills even earned the admiration of the British. The official British history acknowledges his critical decisions that influenced the course of the war, demonstrating he was a “born soldier.”

However, the most significant criticism of Sanders could be his ineffective role during the evacuation of Gallipoli by the allies. In his memoirs, he confessed that the evacuation went unnoticed due to its perfect planning and execution by the allies.

And the Frustration…

After the Battles of Çanakkale, Sanders continued to defend the Anatolian shores with the 5th Army. When Enver Pasha wanted to recapture Baghdad, he formed the Yıldırım Army Group and appointed Falkenhayn, who served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1914 to 1916, to its command.

Sanders was appointed to replace Falkenhayn in February 1918, after the fall of Jerusalem and disagreements among commanders led to Falkenhayn’s dismissal from the Palestine front.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha was reappointed to the command of the 7th Army on August 7, 1918, by a direct order from Vahdettin and took command in Nablus on August 28. Thus, the paths of Mustafa Kemal and Sanders crossed again in Palestine after Çanakkale.

In a report sent to the German Embassy on June 20, 1918, Sanders described the poor condition of his troops, including inadequate supplies and clothing, even among officers. He believed that focusing on the Caucasus campaign would lead to the loss of all of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.

As Allenby prepared his forces for an offensive, Sanders’ requests for reinforcements went unmet. Despite the possibility of diverting forces from other fronts, the defeat in the Battles of Nablus led Sanders to order a retreat.

Most of his forces were destroyed or captured, and the remaining soldiers retreated chaotically towards Anatolia. This resulted in the fall of Acre and Haifa on September 23, Amman on September 25, Damascus on October 1, and Beirut on October 6, with the retreat continuing to north of Aleppo.

During this defeat, Sanders and M. Kemal Pasha, who had achieved a great victory in the Battles of Çanakkale three years earlier, shared a fate as the Ottoman Empire withdrew from Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, setting the southern border of today’s Turkey by retreating to the north of Aleppo.

After the Armistice of Mudros, Sanders handed over his command to M. Kemal Pasha on October 31, 1918, upon the request of Grand Vizier A. İzzet Pasha and returned to Istanbul. His last duty was overseeing the return of German officers to their homeland.

Sanders arranged for the majority of German soldiers to return via Ukraine. He and 120 officers and 1,800 enlisted men set sail from Istanbul to Germany on the Etha Rickmers ship. However, when the ship stopped in Malta for coal, the British arrested them as “prisoners of war.”

After six and a half months of captivity, Sanders was released on the grounds that he “played no role in the Armenian events” and returned to his homeland. The Pasha retired as a “cavalry general” in Germany and passed away in Munich in 1929, later being buried in Darmstadt.

Sanders also penned his memoirs, starting in Malta and publishing them in 1920 under the title “Fünf Jahre Türkei.” The work was also translated into Turkish in 1921 (Dersaadet, 1337, Military Printing House), with responses to Sanders’ criticisms added by the Military History Commission.

In conclusion, Liman Pasha played significant roles in the fate of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He was one of the architects of the victory in the Battles of Çanakkale and also bore responsibility for the defeats in Palestine and Syria, witnessing the end of an era.

Sources: Özgüldür, Y. (1993), “From Captain Helmut von Moltke to Marshal Liman von Sanders: German Military Missions,” OTAM, Issue 4, pp. 297-307; Alkan, N. (2016), “The Gallipoli Campaign According to German Sources,” Belleten, Vol. 80, Issue 289, pp. 899-938; Nizamoğlu, Y. (2013), From Heroism to Exile Vehip Pasha, Istanbul, Lost Treasure; Işıldak Kara, H. (), “German Generals Who Participated in the Battles of Çanakkale and Their Activities,” New Turkey, 2015, Issue 65, pp. 667-701;

https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz51440.html (March 16, 2024)

http://www.eslam.de/terms/s/sanders_otto_liman_von.htm (March 16, 2024)

https://www.gallipoli1915.de/die-liman-mission (March 16, 2024).

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing this insightful and informative blog post about the Battles of Çanakkale/Gallipoli. It’s fascinating to learn about the role of German commander Liman von Sanders in this important victory against some of the world’s greatest powers during World War I. It’s also interesting to discover the varied information about the number of German soldiers who served at the Çanakkale front. It’s clear that Sanders’ leadership and decisions played a crucial role in the success of this battle. I had no idea about his background and the influence of German officers in the Ottoman Empire. Thank you for shedding light on this part of history. Looking forward to reading more about it.

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