Fighting Under the Same Banner: Memories from the Ottoman Theater of the Great War

06.09. - 08.09.2019, Konferenz, OI Istanbul

Conveners: Richard Wittmann (Orient-Institut Istanbul) & Yaşar Tolga Cora (Boğaziçi University)

What did it mean to individuals of different ethnic and religious backgrounds to participate in World War I under the Ottoman crescent and star banner? By focusing on life narratives left by the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Ottoman soldiers and civilians aiding the war effort, this conference takes this and related fundamental questions as its point of departure in understanding the personal experiences of Ottomans in the Balkan Wars and the Great War. How did these experiences expressed in autobiographical texts such as memoirs, diaries, and written correspondence add to and differ from insights afforded by visual and acoustic testimonies, as well as the accounts of the Ottoman Empire’s military allies?

Personal narratives have recently begun to attract great interest among military and social historians of the Middle East in their work on the wars from 1912 until 1918. Leila Tarazi Fawaz’ A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War (Harvard University Press, 2014); Eyal Ginio’s The Ottoman Culture of Defeat: The Balkan Wars and Their Aftermath (Oxford University Press, 2016); Yiğit Akın’s When the War Came Home: The Ottomans’ Great War and the Devastation of an Empire (Stanford University Press, 2018); and Mehmet Beşikçi’s studies on the memoirs of Turkish reserve officers are just a few such works which utilize personal narrative sources left by Ottoman soldiers to complement the official documents of the belligerent states during these conflicts. Nonetheless, a great number of memoirs and diaries written by soldiers and civilians from the Ottoman fronts of various ethnic and religious backgrounds and produced in a variety of languages still sit on the shelves of libraries in the Balkans and Middle East—or, on private bookshelves—, waiting to be discovered and made accessible for a broader audience. By establishing a dialogue between researchers of different backgrounds and their sources in different languages and forms, this conference will directly contribute to the Orient-Institut’s comprehensive research field on “Self-Narratives as Sources for the History of the Late Ottoman Empire” (

The memoirs of Ottoman soldiers are essential sources not only to understand Ottoman society and its army at times of conflict, but also and above all because they were for the most part produced by the rank and file rather than the military leadership. After the introduction of a mandatory conscription system for all Ottoman males after the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, military service became a part of daily life for both the soldiers and their families on the home front during the ensuing wars. Thus, the autobiographical sources on conscription and the war effort provide a microcosm on the functioning of Ottoman society. They offer rare glimpses into ordinary individuals’ views that also throw light on how the relations between different ethnic groups were shaped and destroyed during these years. More importantly, unlike many archival sources, they reveal to researchers the fears, anxieties, and hopes of the Ottoman population in the last decade of the empire.

Eith this in mind, the conference will bring together some of the foremost experts working on life narratives on the Ottoman theater of the First World War in order to:

  • Scrutinize some of the predominant national(-ist) narrative(s) of the Balkan Wars and the Great War and to elucidate the relation between the official narratives and first-hand observations of historic events; 
  • Examine, discuss, and comprehend the politics of loyalty in a multi-ethnic and religious empire, the impact of the war experience on a multi-ethnic army and its civilian personnel, and its repercussions for the construction of independent nation states after the war; 
  • Highlight the experiences of common soldiers, medical and other civilian staff and their families as opposed to the commanders and elites which used to dominate the scholarship on World War I in the Middle East; 
  • Discuss the practices of remembering and writing of memoirs of the war period, and the impact of the post imperial political and social landscapes on reconstructing the personal experience;
  • Bring in non-textual forms of personal narratives and discuss their potential contributions to the understanding of the war experience;
  • Help reconsider the relations between individual and collective memories and commemorative practices.

Convened by Yaşar Tolga Cora and Richard Wittmann, the conference will be held in Istanbul from 6-8 September 2019. Richard Wittmann (Orient-Institut Istanbul) is in charge of the research field “Self-Narratives as Sources for the History of the Late Ottoman Empire” at the Orient-Institut Istanbul and is editor of the book series Life Narratives of the Ottoman Realm: Individual and Empire in the Near East (Routledge), and Memoria ( Yaşar Tolga Cora (Boğaziçi Üniversitesi) has published on the memoirs of Armenian soldiers and officers in the Ottoman army during the Great War. The Department of History of Boğaziçi University and the Orient-Institut Istanbul will jointly organize the conference with the invaluable support of the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT) and the German Embassy in Ankara, the German Consulate General, Istanbul, and the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT). It will be hosted at different locations in Istanbul, including the German Consulate General in Istanbul and the campus of Boğaziçi University.

For further information on the conference program and the mandatory pre-registration (deadline: 15 August 2019) please visit: for more details.


Richard Wittmann
Orient-Institut Istanbul