Safety in Numbers: Atatürk’s Linguistic Reforms in Gewehr 88/05 Rear Sight Ladders

This article originally appeared on the 24th of September 2019 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly. 

The Gewehr 1888 is a 19th century German bolt-action rifle designed by the German Rifle Commission in the late 1880s. The rifle was developed in the wake of the introduction of smokeless powder in an effort to keep pace with European rivals. The German army immediately adopted this rifle for military service under the colloquial name of ‘Reichgewehr’, or commission rifle. Pressured by the French development of the Lebel Model 1886 rifle, firing 8 mm cartridges with a smokeless propellant, the Germans developed a similar type of ammunition to be used with their new commission rifle, resulting in the creation of the M/88 8 mm cartridge, loaded with a round-nose bullet.

A modern cartridge design was introduced by 1903, however, when Mauser developed its famous 7.92 × 57 mm ‘S’ cartridge loaded with a more accurate .323 in. pointed, or ‘spitzer’, projectile. This cartridge used an even more powerful formulation of smokeless powder, increasing both muzzle velocity and muzzle energy. To reap the benefits of this new technology, the German army decided in 1905 to massively overhaul its existing arsenal and replace the M/88 cartridge with the ‘S’ cartridge. The Gewehr 1888 rifles had their chambers reamed out, as a wider chamber throat was required to accept the differently shaped and thicker brass of the new ‘S’ cartridge. Accordingly, the Gewehr 88/05 was born.

Figure 1.1 Gewehr 1888 (source: Armémuseum)

By late 1914, the total war of World War I had begun to ravage Europe with an all-consuming ferocity that would last for four years. Germany was in desperate need of rifles to arm its troops and, during the first year of the war, relied heavily on the older Gewehr 88 and 88/05 as a front-line weapon for the infantry serving on the Western Front. Only in 1914 was the Gewehr 88 and its ‘S’ cartridge variant fully phased out, replaced by improved stocks of Mauser Gewehr 98 models. After this general replacement took place, Germany shipped off many of the remaining 88/05 rifles to its Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman allies, who were both in dire need of more reliable front-line weapons to supply their troops.

Ottoman Empire

Figure 1.2 Bolt markings on a Gewehr 1888 (source: Liberty Tree Collectors)

Tens of thousands of  Gewehr 88/05 model rifles were sent to the Ottoman Empire under the auspices of the German-Ottoman alliance during the war. This number totaled some 130,000 rifles by November 1917. Most of these rifles were subsequently fitted with sights marked with the local Eastern Arabic numerals (as opposed to the Western Arabic numerals used by the Germans). Since the 15th Century, the Ottoman Turks had written their language in the Perso-Arabic alphabet. This necessitated the use of corresponding numbers on the rifle’s sight, as it is estimated that less than 10 percent of the Ottoman population during the early 20th century could adequately read the Latin script and its corresponding Western Arabic numerals.

Fig.1.3 A Turkish Gew. 88/05 rear sight with Eastern Arabic numerals (source: Turkmauser)

It is safe to say that the Gewehr 88/05 was extremely popular among troops of the Ottoman Empire, and it found similar acclaim in the Empire’s successor state, the Turkish Republic. In fact, the 88/05 was still extensively used into the 1930’s and 1940’s. By the 1930s, however, the Turkish Republic realized that a certain degree of military modernization would be required to keep pace with regional rivals. As a result, the huge stockpiles of Gewehr 88/05 were either fitted with modernized .323 in groove barrels, or completely rebuilt to the Mauser 1903 pattern. The rest were kept as service rifles for second-line units and reserves. During this extensive conversion period, however, something else of note took place: the Eastern Arabic numerals on the sights were roughly abraded, and crudely stamped  Western Arabic numbers took their place.

Atatürk’s reforms

Kemal Atatürk—a Turkish field marshal who served as the Republic of Turkey’s first President from 1923 until 1938—had instigated a series of linguistic reforms to modernize Turkish society. These reforms had trickled down to the project of refurbishing the Turkish M88 service rifles of the Republic’s army. Atatürk wanted to dismantle the remaining Ottoman social structures, including ending the hegemony of the Perso-Arabic script. On 1 November 1928, the Turkish Language Commission had introduced the Latin alphabet at the direction of Atatürk himself, effectively immediately replacing in official use the Perso-Arabic script previously used by the Ottomans.

Fig.1.4 Side-by-side comparison between Turkish rear sight with Eastern Arabic numerals (left), and rear sight with Western Arabic numerals (right) (sources: Great War Forum; Milsurps)

A law aimed at formalizing this change entered force on 1 January 1929, making the use of the new alphabet compulsory in all public communications and for all governmental institutions. As such, this edict directly affected the Turkish military. This change, part of what is generally known as Atatürk’s reforms, was executed in such a thorough and comprehensive way that it even affected individual sights on near-obsolete rifles. This perhaps says a lot about the zeal and fervor with which the reforms were implemented. These rifles are the material proof of the literal scrubbing out of the past and overwriting it with the present.

Omer Sayadi

Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.