Archive for September 17th, 2012

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

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?

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