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F - 34 : French Tanks in Istanbul

From the Ferry Terminals at the Golden Horn, all day long, thousands of commuters and tourists arrive or depart for a trip over the Bosporus. The boats come and go, spill out passengers, motorbikes and cars and take in the next batch. No boat stays longer than a few minutes. The docks are a busy and crowded place. Children grab the hands of their parents for fear of getting lost. Some commuters wear formal suits, many women colourful dresses with head scarves, young people travel in polos and trousers. Occasionally you detect a group of western tourists in shorts and sneakers. Happy chatter dominates the Terminals.

Sirkeci Dock - all day, Ferries over the Bosporus & Pleasure Boats for Day-Trips come and go


102 years ago, another noise dominated the same docks. Cranes heaved dark chunks of steel from freighters to the piers, metal clinked against metal, diesel engines roared, orders were shouted in foreign languages. The French Army unloaded its WW1 Renault Tanks to reinforce the troops occupying Istanbul.

French Renault Tanks being unloaded on the Sirkeci Docks in 1920


From 1919 to 1923, there were more than 50’000 Allied soldiers in town. Half of them British, the rest French or Italian. The first detachments had arrived on 13 November 1918 with heavy artillery and machine guns. It was a force with the mission to fight. But it did not have to. Troops were supported by a sizeable naval fleet.

Parts of the Allied Fleet in the Golden Horn in 1919

The Battleships HMS Ajax and HMS Ramilles with 3 Destroyers anchoring in the Bosporus


Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire and home to more than one million people, was now an occupied city and would remain so for the next five years. Suddenly, everybody realised that Turkey indeed had lost the war.

A Contingent of Royal Navy Sailors in Istanbul in 1919


On 30 October 1918, the Ottoman Government had signed an armistice which gave the Allied Powers the right to occupy any part of the country. It was the beginning of the end. France, England and Italy sent flag officers to govern the town as High Commissioners.

The Allied High Commissioners - Tried to date the Photo but failed thus do not know the Names of the Italian, English and French General - the Italian is definitely the best dressed


Istanbul was divided into three sectors: Old Istanbul was occupied by the French, Galata and Pera by the British and Kadiköy and Scutari by the Italians. Many members of the Ottoman Government and a few high-ranking military people were arrested and interned in Malta. The Ottoman Sultan was allowed to stay in his palace though, guarded by a few Ottoman soldiers. He got the message of who called the shots.

Map of the Allied Occupation Forces on the Nationalities living in Istanbul (1920)


In the beginning of the occupation, most officials and ordinary citizens cooperated with the Allied Force, hoping to preserve the Empire and get a favorable peace treaty. But the mood soured in 1919 when the economy nose dived, many citizens lost their jobs and peace talks made no progress.

Turkish Citizen protest peacefully against the Occupation in 1919


A newly elected Ottoman parliament asked US President Wilson in 1920 to grant Turkey the right of self-determination. But England, France and Italy had other plans. They wanted to carve up the Ottoman Empire. England wanted the oil from Mosul (Iraq) for the Royal Navy; France claimed Syria, the Lebanon and Cilicia in Southern Anatolia; Italy lusted after the coastal lands opposite the Dodecanese Islands and Greece after western Anatolia and Constantinople.

The Treaty of Sèvres (1920) was never implemented. The occupied Zone of the Straits in Red

When Turkey received the Treaty terms, they met spontaneous resistance. They were far harsher than anyone had expected. The Allied Occupation Force was forced to disband the new parliament, disarm the small Turkish garrison and quell popular unrest. Under immense pressure, the Sultan eventually accepted the peace terms. He did not survive it politically. His Sultanate was abolished in October 1922 by the Nationalist Parliament in Ankara

Mehmet VI, the last Ottoman Sultan, had to abdicate in 1922 and was exiled to San Remo


After the parliament was dissolved, many members escaped to Ankara where they organised the resistance against the treaty. There they teamed up with Kemal Ataturk, the commander of the new Turkish Army. For a good two years, the future of Turkey hang in the balance. But by fall 1922, Ataturk routed the Greek Army and forced it to retreat from Anatolia. Turkish troops marched into Izmir. It became clear that a new peace treaty had to be negotiated.


The Treaty of Lausanne was signed on 23 April 1923. A few months later, the last foreign troops left Istanbul. The occupation was over. But it had caused lasting damage. The occupiers' open sympathy for the Greek and Armenian minority made them a target of popular anger. In the big “population exchange” – I’d rather call it ethnic cleansing – 300'000 Orthodox Christians were forced to leave Istanbul and move to Greece. The Armenians emigrated to Europe and the United States.

Turkey's New Borders under the Treaty of Lausanne from 1923


Little reminds us today of the five years of occupation. Except of the tribute that everybody pays to Kemal Ataturk. He was not only the victor of Gallipoli and defeated the invading Greeks in 1922, he founded a new, independent Turkish Nation which could determine its own fate without foreign interference. To this day, Turkish people are ever so grateful.




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