Turkish POWs in India and Burma: First World War – Part 2

Chrestomather | September 17, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (10)

 

Guest post by Vedica Kant:

 

The Turkish POW camp at Sumerpur was a self-sufficient camp on a large plain bordered by rocky hills and intersected by a river that dried up in the heat, held 3,366 prisoners, mostly Mesopotamian Arabs, and Christians (the Greek Consulate in Calcutta confirmed that the camp had Orthodox Greek prisoners; Armenians were also present.). An International Red Cross report on the camp, talking about the make-up of the camp, notes that the many “nationalities” of the camp were not well disposed to each other. The British allowed the prisoners to dress according to their customs and the camp became a sartorial showcase of the medley that was the Ottoman Empire. On show were military tunics, civilian waistcoats, smocks, long cotton robes, Turkish frock coats, fezzes, turbans, caps, slouch hats, and embroidered skullcaps.

 The Armenian contingent of the camp is of particular interest. Most of the Armenian prisoners were from Mardin (in Turkey’s southeast) and complained to the Red Cross officials that they had not heard from their family members and were sure that they had been massacred by the Turks. Why were these Armenians fighting for the Ottoman army if relations between the two communities had deteriorated so much? Was it just that they were forced? And what did they do when they were given freedom – did they go back to Turkey after the war? In some senses these Armenians were lucky. The official targeting of Armenians crystallised after the failure of the disastrous Turkish campaign of Sarikamish (22 Dec, 1914 – Jan 17, 1915) against the Russians that was led by Enver Pasha, the war minister. Armenian troops fought on the Turkish side, but were singled out for blame after the campaign’s failure. On 25th 1915 February, Enver ordered all Armenians in active Ottoman forces be demobilised and assigned them to labour battalions, an important step in the subsequent genocide.

The British probably understood that co-locating the Turks with the other ethnic groups of the Ottoman Army would be an exercise fraught with trouble and headaches. Turkish soldiers were kept exclusively in separate camps.

 

 

 

Thayetmyo, the largest Turkish POW camp, was located on the right bank of the Irrawady river.

 

 

Turkish Cemetery, Thayetmyo

 

The splendid mango trees, which gave the place its name sheltered pagodas whose white spires rose above the dark foliage. The high banks of the camp commanded the great spread of the river, which at low water exposed some sandy islands. In the distance a chain of blue-tinted mountains bound the horizon[1]. Here the Turkish POWs played backgammon, dice, and drank copious amounts of Turkish coffee.

 

 

 

 

 

The prisoners produced a camp newspaper called the ‘Irawadi’ that discussed topics like religion, literature, science, and history (but not politics, personal matters or any criticisms). It wasn’t all an idyll for the prisoners though. Later, they were also put to work on tobacco plantations and the Pyinama-Minbyin railway line. The National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens in the town of the Pyin U Lwin (earlier Maymyo) was also largely built by Turkish POWs. It is hard to imagine what these Turks felt living a life some ten thousand kilometres away from their lands. The distance seems enormous on the map even today; it must have been a whole world away for them. Fav Kaymakam? Halid Efendi, who was prisoner at Thayetmyo wrote:

“To be rescued from this unending, inexhaustible captivity that has gnawed away at my family’s life for the last year and a half; to return to my country and kiss its ground.”[2]



[1] Anon., 1917. Reports on British Prison Camps in India and Burma. London: Adelphi Terrace

[2] Ta?k?ran, C., 2001. Ana Ben Ölmedim: I Dünya Sava??nda Türk Esirler. Istanbul: Türkiye ?? Bankas? Kültür Yay?nlar?


10 Responses to “Turkish POWs in India and Burma: First World War – Part 2”

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  1. Comment by David Marsh — November 15, 2012 at 5:51 am   Reply

    This, an your earlier post on Turkish prisoners of war in India and Burma, is fascinating uncovering as it does one of the forgotten byways of WW1. I’m currently researching the history of the botanic gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin/Maymyo but I haven’t come across any documentary evidence of the use of Turkish prisoners to help create it [presumably mainly by constructing the lake] Given that Thayetmyo is a considerable distance from Maymyo it must have been a consid erable undertaking if it was the case. Indeed, apart from the Red Cross report I haven’t seen very much about the Turkish prisoners and the camp at all. The few refs in the National Archives are mainly marked “destroyed at the weeding stage pre-1960] . Is there anything [other than the book cited in ref 2] that you have found in Turkish sources? I have someone who is going to the Burmese archives in Yangon for me shortly altho to be honest I don’t expect them to find anything there. I’d be very interested in hearing from you/anyone else about this.

    • Comment by Chrestomather — November 21, 2012 at 4:00 am   Reply

      I’m sure Vedica will have a lot to say about this – I will bring your comment to her attention.
      all best
      Amitav

  2. Comment by Vedica Kant — November 23, 2012 at 10:00 am   Reply

    Dear Mr. Marsh,

    Thank you for your comment. I had a similar problem looking for documents regarding Turkish POWs at the British Library (almost all destroyed), but there is still some material available at the National Archives at Kew. Most of these are related to the camp at Thayetmyo, but some also detail the various infrastructural/ economic activities the prisoners undertook in Burma such as working on tobacco plantations and building railway lines. As a result even though Thayetmyo was the only main camp in Burma, the prisoners probably found themselves in different parts of the country working on such undertakings and the Maymyo gardens are probably such an example. (Another example: this blog in Turkish mentions a small memorial to Turkish soldiers outside Thayetmo http://hariciyepostasi.org/2012/06/22/burma-i-tayamiyonun-gozyaslari/)

    There are some documents at the National Archives in Istanbul. Most of the documents are quite dry bureaucratic lists of prisoners in Burma and details about how to arrange for payments to them. The book I have cited refer to some of these. I recently also found out that the Turkish Red Crescent archive has a fair number of documents on Turkish POWs, including those in Burma, but I have not yet had the chance to check the documents in person.

    Interstingly, recently the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s wife, Emine Erdo?an, visited Burma. High on their agenda was a visit to the restored Turkish POW cemetery. The TV channel NTV is running a documentary this weekend about Turkish POWs in WWI and they do make mention of POWs in Burma in their press release. The same channel had done a small report on the POW connection to Burma in the aftermath of hurricane Nargis and quoted the honorary ambassador of Myanmar to Turkey as saying that some POWs had stayed back there, married and built a family in Burma, but I don’t know the basis of the statement.

    I would be very interested to know if you do have any luck with the archives in Myanmar.

    Best wishes,
    Vedica

  3. Comment by David Marsh — December 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm   Reply

    Apologies for the long delay in replying and thank you for your lengthy and detailed comments. I’m afraid I’ve had no luck with my contact in Yangon, other than a short reference he sent me from a book called “Radio Talks on Myanmar Culture by Prof. Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt from Ministry of Information.which reads “At the time there were some temporary camps on the site of the present mulberry tree plantations in which Turkish POWS from the First World War were quartered. The labour of the POWS’ were utilized in digging dam to contain the spring water. When the war was over, the convicts from prisons through the country continued the digging”. I’ve asked him to see what else he can find out but apparently the archives and national library are not very welcoming! I saw the reports of the Turkish Foreign ministers visits and the comments he made about the cemetary and it would seema fairly possibility that at least a few POWs might have stayed on afterwards, gievn the Red Cross report that they were reasonably treated and had some liberty, even if they did have to work, although that’s not mentioned of course. I’ve also managed to contact one of the ex-superintendnets of the garden, now 85, and asked him if he knows any more about this story, and conatcted the current owners of the garden the Htoo Foundation. I will let you know if anything else interesting turns up.

    Meanwhile thank you again and I’d be interested to hear more about your resaerch as it progresses. Pleas efeel free to email me direct if thats easier

    Vey best wishes

    David

  4. Comment by Sadananda Adiga — January 6, 2013 at 9:42 am   Reply

    Dear Amitav
    I am a resident of Bellary, Karnataka. Here we have a Turkish POW of WW1 cemetery. We are told that about 2000 POW were brought to Alipur jail in Bellary. the writing on the 2 tombs show that of king died here in 1918. Even I am looking for more information. Where can I get?
    I would sent photos of these if you want

  5. Comment by Vedica Kant — February 17, 2013 at 7:45 pm   Reply

    Dear David,

    Thank you for the update and apologies for the delayed response. It would be interesting to know if you do find anything further. (Interestingly the British Library has a few files on POWs in Burma listed in the catalogue, but these seem to have been destroyed before the transfer to microfilm).

    Dear Mr. Adiga,
    It would really be wonderful if you could share the pictures!

    It

  6. Comment by James Song — January 14, 2015 at 10:33 am   Reply

    Dear Vedica,

    I am a collector of Burma Postal history (Philatelists ) and I am writing up my collection with one of the topics on Turkish POW in Burma. I have the POW covers sent from the camps to Istanbul and I am short of photos to make my presentation more interesting. I see there are two photos of Turkish POW in this topic and I would like to ask your permission to use the two photos. I will acknowledge your permission in my collection.

    Looking forward to hear from you.

    Regards,

    James.

  7. Comment by James SHEEHAN — February 27, 2015 at 6:22 pm   Reply

    I have a photo album 2nd Lt South Wales borderers 1917 India that has 6 photos of Turkish Prisoners.

  8. Comment by Bertan Baran — January 1, 2018 at 8:45 am   Reply

    Hi, My grandfather was a Turkish POW at Bhurma in WWW1. Appreciate any documentation photos posted or sent to my email address: bertanbaran76@gmail.com
    His name was Behcet, He was a leutenant.
    Regards Bertan

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