Winston Churchill, Islamic World, Middle East, Turks, Gallipoli and Atatürk – An Exclusive Interview with Cambridge University Historian Dr. Warren Dockter ( Tuncay Yılmazer )

Warren Dockter is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and gained his PhD at the University of Nottingham in July 2012. He has taught at the University of Exeter and the University of  Worcester and was an Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College. His research interest lies in British Imperialism in the Middle East during the late nineteenth and twentieth century, encapsulating orientalism and trans-national historical approaches. His first monograph, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East, places Churchill in the context of colonial discourse and reveals the extent to which orientalism influenced his opinions and policies regarding the Islamic world.


Hello Warren Dockter. Thank you for accepting our interview offer. We are going to talk about famous British statesman Winston Churchill and his views on Islamic World particularly Turkey.


You are a researcher on Winston Churchill and especially his approaching Islamic World and Middle East. Firstly, could you describe his character?

Winston Churchill is one of the most iconic and dynamic figures of the 20th century.  He was a larger than life character whose career became inexorably linked to the Middle East, especially when he was Colonial Secretary in the early 1920s. 



One of the interesting thing That I learned your web site is Churchill  tried to fight for the Ottoman Empire in the Greco -Turkish war of 1897. He met with Ian Hamilton ( Future General of the BEF )  who wanted to join this war on the Greek side! Could you eloborate this?

Churchill was just looking for action and glory which he often did as a young man.  Initially, he was unsure which side to fight for but ultimately decided to fight with the Ottoman Empire against the Greeks. By 28 April 1897, he made up his mind to fight on the side of the Ottomans and asked his mother to send money to the Ottoman bank. However, Churchill feared the Balkan War would be over too soon for him to get involved. According to Churchill biographer Bechhofer Roberts, Churchill met Ian Hamilton (later Sir General Ian Hamilton) on the transfer boat, and while Hamilton had promised his service to Greece, Churchill had promised his to Turkey. While Churchill’s peculiar allegiance to Turkey largely owes to his lust for glory, an additional explanation might be that he inherited a ‘Turkophile’ attitude from his father. However, Roberts dismissed such connections, arguing that ‘subalterns are often Turkophile’ and he noted that the two men shared little love for one another on the boat ride due to their conflicting alliances.  Interestingly, Churchill himself recalled the incident years later, saying that Hamilton was a ‘romantic’ and was thus ‘for the Greeks,’ while Churchill ‘having been brought up a Tory… was for the Turks.’  However, their formal confrontation was not to be, for by the time they reached their port of call at Port Said in Egypt, the war was over. Churchill lamented his lost adventure in a letter to his mother in late May 1897: ‘I have reluctantly had to give up all hopes of Turkey as the war has fizzled out  like a damp firework.’


You say that Churchill’s  curious fascination with Islamic Culture even become obvious to others around him. You give an example his sister in law’s letter. “Please don’t converted to Islam. I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to Orientalism…” Do you think this tendency was temporary?

I think Churchill had a lifelong fascination with ‘the east’ and the orient. This can be seen in his early relations with the Ottoman Empire and the fact that he vacationed in Egypt in the early 1900s. This can be seen in his later life in his frequent visits to Morocco. He often painted market bizarre and the Atlas Mountains and famously called morocco the Paris of Africa. 

However, I don’t think there was any real chance of Churchill converting to Islam. He was already, more or less, an atheist when he sister in law wrote the letter. But I do think the letter highlights a part of Churchill’s persona  which is often over looked today

 Was Churchill’s tendency to İslamic culture used by his political rivals against him ?

Occasionally Churchill did get grief from the press on this topic. There 
are several political cartoons which depict him as an Arab Bedouin or as 
a sultan. In the 1920s some papers were fearful that Churchill would rule the Colonial office
 ‘on an oriental scale.’  They also said his special imaginative gifts made him all the more susceptible to the “seductions of the Orient”


Winston Churchill was well-known figure in Turkey. As the world entered the war, did he consider to open war against Ottoman Empire?

Churchill originally sought to keep the Ottoman Empire as an ally as early as 1911, when he was approached by Djavid Bey to see if an alliance was possible. This was dismissed by Sir Edward Grey. Later as the pieces were falling into place regarding the First World War, Churchill tried to keep the Ottoman Empire neutral, even after he requisitioned the two ships which the Ottomans had bought from the British Empire. However, he was unsuccessful and Enver Pasha and others in the CUP who supported the German alliance had already solidified German/Ottoman relations.



Some Turkish nationalist historians says, In a parlament speech Churchill told deputies that they could use chemical weapon against Turks, because Turks were not human! Can it be true? According to Churchill , Turkish people was major enemy? ( I ask this question to Martin Gilbert in a e-mail corresponce, he wrote that This claim was not true. He respected Turks due to Gallipoli Campaign, even he thought to come to Turkey in 30’s to meet Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Founder of the Modern Turkey. But because of political crisisis in Britain , this visiting did not realise. )

Martin Gilbert is certainly correct in this. Churchill had a long history of support for Turkey and the Turkish people with the exception of the First World War, when a state of war existed. Churchill did advocate using mustard gas against the Turkish armies in a departmental memo but this was a common weapon in those days and as a I said a state of war existed but in any case the gas was not deployed in the end.  

Moreover, As martin Gilbert pointed out Churchill continued on with a very   positive view of Turkey after the war and his views are best summed up in a letter her wrote to president Inonu in 1943. Churchill said:

     There is a long story of the friendly rela­tions between Great Britain and Turkey. Across it is a ter­ri­ble slash of the last war, when Ger­man intrigues and British and Turk­ish mis­takes led to our being on oppo­site sides. We fought as brave and hon­ourable oppo­nents. But those days are done, and we…are pre­pared to make vig­or­ous exer­tions in order that we shall all be together…to move for­ward into a world arrange­ment in which peace­ful peo­ples will have a right to be let alone and in which all peo­ples will have a chance to help one another.


When We look at the process in which British parlament has considered a new campaign, Churchill as a first lord of admirality , strongly supported an attack Turkey. Why he conducted such a tough policy against Turkey?

Churchill believed if he could use the navy to force the straits in the First World War, that the bro-British leaders of the CUP might organize a coup against Enver and the German supporters. Thus effectively taking the Ottoman Empire out of the war and releaving pressure on the Western front for Britain and its allies. HE thought it was worth the risk to try and end the war as quickly as possible.


His main aim was to occupy Istanbul , to topple Sublime Porte. I found quite interesting. It is quite a race diplomatically against Russia and France. Do you agree with this view?

            There has always been an imperial competition between in Asia between Russia and the British Empire. For Churchill’s part, he originally hoped the Ottomans Empire would survive the war and would remain an ally against Russia. This of course changed when Russia collapsed. This competitive spirit certainly remained between France and Britain, especially in the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East.   


Many historians accused Churchill of defeating Gallipoli. They claimed his bad strategy to knock out Turkey did not work and caused enormours casualities .   Do you think that He was the main person who was responsible for failure at Gallipoli?

This is a difficult question. He was certainly a major architect of the Gallipoli and Dardanelles campaign.  However, there were so many other factors such as Kitchener’s promise of troops and then refusal and then ultimately agreeing to send troops, combined with poor intelligence from his admirals at the battle and all the complexities of running an amphibious assault with the British navy and British army who had never really worked in concert together, that it is impossible to comment at which point the plan really broke down.        


What was the importance of Gallipoli in his carrier? Seriously affected him? Also his failure has been used by political rivals?

It was huge moment in his career. He knew incredible failure in a way he had never known. He resigned his position and actually went to fight on the Western Front. It is even more remarkable that he was able to return to politics afterward as this sort of thing would have ended most people’s careers.


What was the Churchill’s suggestions on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Republic of Turkey?

Churchill had pro­found admi­ra­tion for Kemal Atatürk. In 1938 Churcill wrote, that Ataurk was “the only Dic­ta­tor with an aure­ole of mar­tial achieve­ment,” He also said: “The tears which men and women of all classes shed upon his bier were a fit­ting trib­ute to the life work of a man at once the hero, the cham­pion, and the father of mod­ern Turkey. Dur­ing his long dic­ta­tor­ship a pol­icy of admirable restraint and good­will cre­ated, for the first time in his­tory, most friendly rela­tions with Greece.”


Thank you very much for your answers.




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