On April 18, 1909, the Austrian newspaper, Wiener Illustrirte Zeitung, published a story about how Mahmud Muhtar Pasha, Commander of the First Army Corps, was saved from mutineers by one very brave British lady. It very much amused said lady, for though it did not mention her by name, the accompanying illustration showed her in “a stage-heroine’s” pose, with arm extended, ordering the soldiers out of her house. According to the heroine’s account, the soldiers never forced their way into the house, but she did bar the door to protect the famous Turkish general from being dragged away.
Lady Whittall, the former Edith Anna Barker, lived with her husband in the posh neighbourhood of Moda in Constantinople. Their back garden sloped down to the the Bosphorus and had its own pier for small boats. At the time of the escapade, Lady Whittall was alone in the house with her daughter-in-law and some servants. Her husband, Sir William Whittall, recently-retired president of the British Chamber of Commerce, was out on the Sea of Marmora on his yacht.
Mahmud Muhtar Pasha
General Muhtar was a neighbour of Lady Whittall, once house over. He was married to Princess Nimetullah Khanum Effendi, a daughter of Ismail Pasha of Egypt, though her whereabouts on the day in question is not clear. Muhtar Pasha was Commander of the First Army Corps, and in 1909, one of the most influential men in Turkey. His father, Ahmed Muhtar, would become Grand Vizier (Prime Minister), in 1912 for a brief time, and both men were supporters of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and the restoration of the constitution.
Though many Young Turks had been military men, they quickly lost touch with the problems of the lowly soldier in the Ottoman army. Scholar Tachat R. Ravindranathan noted that they were mostly secular Muslims, and often made disparaging remarks “towards the religious beliefs and provincial ways” of the soldiers, which “made the situation worse.” Sultan Abdul Hamid II had rallied his supporters for a coup, and by April 13, factions of the army mutinied against the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (part of the Young Turk revolution). In addition to demanding the dismissal of the Minister of War and the President of the Chamber, they wanted the Sheria (Islamic law) restored, and Muslim women confined to their homes. The Grand Vizier, Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha, tendered the resignation of his cabinet, which the Sultan accepted. General Muhtar resigned, too.
As soon as Muhtar Pasha resigned, his troops sided with the rebels. He was then chased through the streets by an angry mob of sailors and soldiers to his house. He ran through the house to his back garden, and leaped over the fence to his neighbour’s yard. She heard the commotion, and brought him a chair to aid him in climbing over the wall into the Whithall’s yard. From there, Lady Whittall let him into her house. When the rebels learned what had happened, they knocked on the Whittall’s door, demanding the general’s surrender.
The Stand Off
Lady Whittall refused to allow the rebels entry, and refused to release the general to their care. They then surrounded the place. As Sir William Ramsay, Scottish archaeologist, Asian Minor travel writer, New Testament scholar, and friend of the Whittall’s, later recounted, the rebels “declared they would have the General, if they had to blow down the house to get him.” They blockaded the house, allowing no one in or out. They held frequent parleys with Lady Whittall, relaying the various “demands and requests and cajolements from the soldiers, who declared that they would cut the Pasha in pieces, but wished to do no harm to any other person in the house.” She wouldn’t budge.
As the day wore on, the soldiers began to eat her vegetables. Rather than see her garden decimated, she sent food out to them. After several hours, Lady Whittall’s daughter-in-law wanted to go home to her own young family. The soldiers wouldn’t let her pass, and wouldn’t listen to the woman’s pleas that her babies needed her. Lady Whittall pointed to the young woman, and asked them if they were able to see that she was not the Pasha. Chagrinned, they let her pass. But they vowed that even if they had to “blockade the house for days or to fetch guns and blow it down, they would take the general. The Sultan had ordered it, and they would obey.
After more than eight hours, the siege was still underway. Sir William left his yacht in the bay, rowed a small boat to his pier, and was shocked to learn about the blockage of his house. It took some doing, but he was able to arrange for a telegram directly from the Sultan, “couched in … urgent and peremptory tones,” which ordered the soldiers to depart. They obeyed. Still, the Whittalls and Muhtar Pasha waited until the dead of night before disguising the general as a Greek sailor, and rowed him out to the yacht. He later transferred to a vessel owned by the German Embassy, and from there to a German steamer which was sailing next day. He eventually landed at Piraeus, Greece, and made his way to Salonica [Thessaloniki]. Sir William later revealed to Ramsay that the Sultan never knew of the telegram. A high military official, who was a friend of the Whittall, risked his position—and his life—to send it in the Sultan’s name.
“It is well known to every person of every nationality in Constantinople that Sir W. and Lady Whittall’s house has been a refuge through which many fugitives have escaped in Abdul Hamid’s time,” Ramsay wrote, “and that hundreds of Armenians were thus saved from death. … If any person who was under a cloud disappeared from public view for a day or two, speculation arose whether he had been arrested and killed, or had taken refuge under the Whittalls’ protection.”
Note: Ultimately, the coup failed. The government brought in soldiers from Salonica to restore order. Abdul Hamid was deposed, and his brother was declared Sultan Mehmed V on April 27, 1909.
The photo of Lady Whittall was taken from the Barker page on WikiTree. The photo of Mahmud Mukhtar Pasha came from from Wikipedia. The featured image doesn’t look anything like Edith Whittall, but is a nice illustration of barring a door, from George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby (on Project Gutenberg), with alterations by me.