By Harut Sassounian
The Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany against the alliance of France, United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and several others.
Out of 2.6 million Ottoman soldiers, 250,000 were captured by the Allied Powers as prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of them died during captivity from disease, starvation and harsh weather conditions. The great majority of the Ottoman soldiers were Turks, but there were also a smaller number of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Laz, Circassians, and Arabs. Most Armenian soldiers were disarmed and either killed or forced to work in labor battalions. Around half-a-million Ottoman soldiers deserted the army during World War I.
Dr. Hamid Hussain published in the “Defence Journal” of Pakistan a fascinating account of the fate of Ottoman war prisoners captured by the British army in Iraq and subsequently dispatched to India and Burma (today’s Myanmar). Burma was then part of India before it was separated in 1937.
The largest number of Turkish prisoners of war were captured by the British and held in Cyprus, Egypt, and Malta, in addition to Iraq, India and Burma. Russia, France, Romania and Italy also captured a large number of Turkish war prisoners.
Dr. Hussain wrote that the Turkish POWs (prisoners of war) captured in Iraq by the British were first held in two camps in Basra, an isolation camp “to quarantine prisoners with disease and an observation camp. Usually prisoners stayed for 2-4 weeks at [the] observation camp before transportation to India and Burma. Prisoners were transported by boats to Karachi and Bombay and were then transported by rail to two camps in India. At Bellary, most POWs were ethnic Turks, while [the] majority of [3,336] POWs at Sumerpur were non-Turkish (Arabs, Christians and Jews).”
Interestingly, Dr. Hussain revealed that at the Sumerpur camp “two Armenians fluent in English, French and Arabic acted as interpreters. The Muslims prayed in a small mosque of the camp. A French monk came regularly to camp for mass for Catholic Christians of the camp. Armenian Bishop of Cairo Thorgom Koushagian visited the camp during Christmas of 1916.”
Dr. Hussain also reported that the POW camp at Bellary, India, contained only 137 Ottoman prisoners, almost all officers. Later, more prisoners were brought there. “Turkish officers were [the] product of military reforms and secular in outlook. Many regularly consumed alcohol that was forbidden for Muslims. It needed doctor’s order and an officer could buy three bottles of liquor per month. Whisky and soda were popular among officers. Some POWs who died here were buried outside the camp. Most of the graves disappeared during expansion of the military airport. In 1997, [the] Turkish government erected a memorial at the camp site and restored two remaining graves.”
The camp in Thayetmyo, Burma, “contained 3,591 Ottoman prisoners of which the majority were Turks but there were some Armenians, Syrian Christians and Jews. Muslim, Armenian and Jewish religious communities of Rangoon sent gifts to their co-religionist prisoners,” according to Dr. Hussain.
Interestingly, “the British camp commandant recommended to Turkish officers that a mosque should be built, however, Subhi Bey, who had significant influence among prisoners, opposed the suggestion on religious grounds. He stated that when POWs left, the mosque would be abandoned and that was not permitted in religious texts,” wrote Dr. Hussain.
The camp at Meiktila, Burma, housed around 10,000 Ottoman POWs. “Most prisoners spent the day sitting idly and playing cards or backgammon. Some Ottoman prisoners were used as laborers on tobacco plantations, digging for a dam and on Shan state railways,” according to Dr. Hussain.
Around a thousand Ottoman prisoners died at the two camps in Burma. “In 2012 relations between Myanmar and Turkey improved and the two governments agreed to restore the cemeteries. Thayetmyo cemetery was restored with Turkish funding and work was completed in 2016,” reported Dr. Hussain. However, due to anti-Muslim emotions in Burma, a false rumor was spread that a mosque would be built in addition to restoring the “old and dilapidated cemetery where Ottoman prisoners were buried at Meiktila…. [The] Turkish government had agreed to restore the cemetery, however, there was no plan for building a mosque. This rumor resulted in anti-Muslim violence and the plan to restore the cemetery was shelved…. Gravestones were plundered in the Second World War and seventy years of neglect erased most marks of the past. Over the years, local Muslims retrieved around 200 gravestones and moved them to the courtyard of a local mosque. In 2013, the Turkish government also planned to restore [the] POW cemetery at Sumerpur [India] that had about 149 graves. This area is [the] heartland of proud Rajputs who fought on [the] British side in First and Second World Wars. Some locals protested the restoration project arguing that there is no memorial of Rajputs who fought all over the globe while a memorial was being planned for foreign soldiers.”
It is heartbreaking to learn that Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army were captured and held in India and Burma during the years of the Armenian Genocide. They escaped from one disaster to end up in a horrendous situation in captivity. Many of them died and were buried in those faraway lands.
Armenian, Turkish and soldiers of other ethnic groups suffered tremendously because of the reckless decisions of the Young Turk junta to enter World War I on the side of Germany and give the death warrant to millions of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.