Our military involvement with Turkey may have started pretty early, because it was a frequent stopping-off or transit point for Crusaders heading for the Holy Land. However, the Crusades that spent the most time in what is present-day Turkey weren’t the ones that seem to have involved the most Brits.
Having said that, there was definitely some English, or at least Anglo-Norman (this is so early on that English in some ways still means Anglo-Saxon as opposed to Norman), participation in the First Crusade. So, for instance, involved in this Crusade along with their retinues were William Percy, who founded Whitby Priory, and Ralph de Gael, former Earl of Norfolk. People have also claimed that the English Edgar Atheling – an interesting character, the last male member of the house of Wessex – was also involved in the First Crusade, or in the Byzantine Empire, or in the Holy Land in some way. It’s all frankly a bit hazy and confused. There also seems to have been some kind of English fleet operating somewhere in the area too, as a letter exists from Lucca in Italy stating that Bruno, a Crusader from there, travelled with English ships to Antioch in present-day Turkey in 1098.
There have been times the Eastern Med hasn’t been an area of great British activity, but the Napoleonic period saw a big increase. By 1807, it was looking as if we might end up fighting Turkey, so perhaps not entirely tactfully we sent Vice Admiral Duckworth with six ships to sail up the Dardanelles and put a bit of pressure on Istanbul. Duckworth got through the Dardanelles after clashing with Turkish ships and after a Royal Marines landing party had made a raid onto an island to seize guns, but he wasn’t able to achieve anything significant when he finally reached Istanbul. Instead, on his return journey he came under fire from the Dardanelles guns, the oldest of which had been made in 1453 when the Turks were trying to take Constantinople, before it became Istanbul. An 800lb marble shot (that’s a big marble) hit the ship Windsor Castle. Also fighting the Turks at this point were the Russians. They were about to start fighting us as well, but that’s a different story.
By the mid-nineteenth century, we were fighting on the same side as the Turks, while the Russians were, by this time, on the other side. The Crimean War, which broke out in 1853, was fought on many fronts, though, not surprisingly, a lot of it was fought in the Crimea. One front that’s often forgotten nowadays was Turkey’s then eastern border with Russia. This didn’t involve many Brits, but did see heroic action by a small number, led by one Colonel (then General) William Fenwick Williams, who ended up leading the gritty Turkish defenders of Kars in a bitter battle against Russian attacks. Kars fell in the end, but not before the Brits had gained a lot of respect.
With the arrival of the First World War we found ourselves back on the same side as the Russians, and back fighting against the Turks in Turkish waters and on Turkish soil. To begin with, as in the Napoleonic period, the Royal Navy played the main role. As early as November 1914, HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable, along with French warships, shelled fortresses at the entrance to the Dardanelles. Then in early 1915, the navy started seriously probing Turkish defences of the Dardanelles. On 19 February HMS Cornwallis and HMS Vengeance engaged in a duel with Turkish batteries, and later in February Royal Marines’ demolition parties attacked forts. This all led up to the disastrous (from our point of view) battle of 18 March when we and the French mounted a full-scale assault. Our ships came under heavy fire, but mines caused the major damage. We lost a number of ships, forcing us to withdraw. The result of all this was that we decided we needed to attack on land next instead. The Dardanelles campaign has been so well covered elsewhere that I won’t go into depth here. The idea was that a ground offensive in the Dardanelles/Gallipoli area could clear the way to take Constantinople/Istanbul and open a convenient sea route to our Russian allies.
On 25 April 1915, British troops, including the 29th Division, landed at Cape Helles, while Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the Anzac beaches. A French brigade landed across in Anatolia, but later had to be withdrawn. When, after bitter fighting and heavy losses on both sides, the invading troops failed to make a breakthrough from the existing beachheads, a gamble was taken to make another landing, this time at Suvla Bay on 6 August. This attack, too, became bogged down and eventually it was decided to withdraw. The last British troops left Lancashire Landing on 9 January 1916.
After the Gallipoli debacle, our war against Turkey continued on other fronts. By 25 October 1918, Allenby’s forces were advancing rapidly and had taken Aleppo in Syria, less than 50 miles from the current Turkish border. Turkey capitulated on 30 October. After the armistice of Modros, we formed the Army of the Black Sea to supervise the armistice terms. The Allied fleet finally steamed through the straits on 12 November 1918, British occupation troops entered Constantinople/Istanbul the next day, and we also sent troops eastwards towards the Caucasus.
As the situation in Turkey became steadily more tense in the period after the First World War, with resentment of the Allies rising and Greek forces fighting a war against Turkish forces, the position of the occupation troops was not always an easy one. For instance, in June 1920 Turkish Nationalist forces clashed with elements of the 24th Punjabis at Ismid and HMS Ramillies ended up engaging assorted targets with its guns.
Then in September 1922 we almost declared war on Turkey yet again, in the Chanak Crisis, when it looked like Turkish troops might advance on our troops guarding the Dardanelles. Finally, another deal was done and British troops eventually departed from Constantinople/Istanbul in September 1923.