218: Turkish War of Independence Pt. 1


The Armistice of Mudros ended the war for the Ottoman Empire, but fighting in the remnants of the Empire was far from over.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 218. This week a big shoutout goes out to everybody that had left a review for the podcast on iTunes or anywhere else that allows for reviews. It is still the best way to help the podcast reach new listeners, due to the magic power of algorithms, so if you have a moment, are enjoying the show, and your podcast platform of choice supports reviews, think about dropping one for the show, you would have my thanks. Also, and I will mention this a few times before November, the first week of November I will be in Kansas City to attend my fourth annual symposium held at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial. It is the first week of November, so if you are going to be in attendance let me know, as always the first beer, or any other beverage, is on me. In this episode we turn our eyes, for the first time in over 4 months, away from Russia and its surrounding successor states. The Russian Empire would be one of many that would be destroyed by the First World war, it would join a lengthy list including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. In this episode we will be discussing the fate of the final empire on that list, and specifically what happened to the area that we know today at Turkey. This area had been the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, and empire that after four years of war had been almost completely dismantled by the Allies. Large areas of the Middle East would be pulled away from the Empire and into their own states, whose future we will discuss in episode 221. Within the bounds of modern day Turkey there would be several groups that would try to lead the new country, all of which had complicated relations with the Western Allies, Italy, and Greece. These relations would eventually deteriorate to the point of open conflict, specifically with the Greeks. There would be fighting in heart of Anatolia, on the coasts, and around the capital as Turkish nationalist forces sought to push foreign forces out of territory that they believed belonged to them. This nationalist movement would eventually be led by Mustafa Kemal who throughout the 2 years after 1918 would slowly coalesce the nationalist support around his leadership. At the age of just 37 he would put himself at the head of the revolutionary government whose entire goal was the removal of the Western Allies and their influence from Turkish affairs. He would then go on to lead a new government in 1923, which he would then lead until his death in 1938. Near the end of his life, in 1934, he would be given the name that is most closely associated with him today, Ataturk, father of the Turks. Over the next three episodes we will track the creation of modern day Turkey from its beginnings as an oppositional government in Ankara, through the Greco-Turkish War, and up to the creation of the new Turkish nation in 1923.

This story starts, as most of these stories have, with an armistice. In this case it was the Armistice of Mudros which was signed by the Ottoman Empire with the Allies on October 30th, 1918. This treaty gave the Allies the rights to occupy several areas of the Ottoman Empire, including areas around the capital of Istanbul. It also gave them the right to use military force to keep the peace anywhere in those areas of Anatolia which were still under Turkish control. Mudros would then be the basis for the Treaty of Sevres which would be signed in 1920. This treaty expanded allied control, giving the British, French, Italians, and Greeks their own areas of influence. The signing of this second treaty would represent the height of Allied involvement in the region. This treaty codified some of the agreements made at the Paris Peace conference, most importantly the agreements made with the Italians the Greeks around their desires to gain territory in Anatolia. Eventually this desire would wane in Italy as governments changed, but it would take much longer for the feelings to dissipate in Greece. The British would be the key drivers of some of these Greek desires, with Lloyd George being the most influential Western leaders in the actions of the Allies in Anatolia during this period. Lloyd George was almost obsessive about the events in this region, and it would eventually be a key reason cited in his removal as Prime Minister in 1922.

Mustafa Kemal would be born in 1881 to a middle class family in Salonika, modern day Thessaloniki in Greece. He was apparently a pretty good student during his early years, although any information about his early life has to be taken with some reserve, since all accounts of his early life come from his own recollections, which are always a bit suspect. He would then to go to join the military, in which he would serve until 1919. He would then be active in many of the Empire’s wars of the early 20th century. This included the Balkan Wars. In 193 he would be posted as the military attache in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. After the First World War began he would stay in Sofia for a few months before being posted to command the 19th division in January 1915. Over the next two years he would go from commanded that division at Gallipoli, to then being given command of the 7th Army in Palestine. He would later resign from this command, spending a few years working closely with the future Sultan, then in the last months of the war he was once again given command of the 7th Army. During the three months of this command he would be in charge of the defense of the southern border of Anatolia which was under threat from British and Arab advances. One thing to take away from his service during this time is that he was not a particularly successful commander during the war, he had some high points, some low points, and was not the best general, but was also not even close to the worst.

While the actions of the Allies, and their occupation of the capital, were important catalysts for action among Turkish nationalists, a far larger role would be played by the Greeks. The actions of the Greeks and British caused concerns among many Ottoman military leaders that with the end of the war the country would be helpless to prevent encroachment from outside states, and possibly the loss of territory in Anatolia to Greek occupation. To try and prevent this many of these leaders would take actions to try and conserve resources for a possible future conflict, this meant making military resources disappear and the resistance to demobilization of the Ottoman military. These actions were at odds with both the agreements with the Allies and the desires of the troops themselves, who really wanted the Ottoman military to demobilize as quickly as possible. At this point Mustafa Kemal was just one of many generals that saw that the path the country was taking and began to plan for ways to change its possible future. He would later call this period the ‘dark days of the armistice’ and he would claim that this period marked the beginning of his belief that the country had to fight back against outside influence. There were many nationalist military leaders scattered throughout Anatolia in command of various units. However, since demobilization could not be entirely halted, many generals, many of which were strongly connected together both in beliefs and social status, were left without a command, with a lot of time on their hands, and were now residing in the capital. At this point Mustafa Kemal was one of these military leaders, left without a war to fight or a government they believed they should serve. Many became distinctly politically active, advocating for a strong nationalist government that would fight back against outside influence, regardless of the consequences. The leaders of the official Turkish government were instead trying to work with the Allies, and because of this the nationalist leaders began to cause problems.

Even with his general distaste for the path that the government in Istanbul had chosen to taken, Kemal still had good connections within that government and so he would use those to get an assignment as Inspector of the 9th Army. This position took him months to arrange, but it would provide him with several advantages. Most importantly it would allow him to freely travel around central and eastern Anatolia, and the specific boundaries of the position both in geography and in powers were, fuzzy, at best. His stated purpose, as permitted by the Allies, was to re-establish order in the region, prevent any banditry, and also to make sure that no Soviets were formed in the ranks of the Turkish military. This last requirement was added due to this time period being the height of concern among the Allies of Communist expansion into the West. These tasks would prove to be perfect for Kemal’s plans because they would give him a lot of autonomy and also the ability to control most of the activities in Eastern Anatolia. Kemal would arrive in Sumsun, a port on the Black Sea on May 19th. This date was important because it is today seen as the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence. It was also just 4 days after the Greeks landed their troops at Smyrna, an event we will discuss more next episode. This landing by the Greeks crystallized and strengthened nationalist support, like foreign invasions often do, and they would also kick off a round of protests all over the country. Although May 19th is regarded as the beginning of the War of independence, most of Kemal’s early actions would revolve around trying to unite all of the pre-existing nationalist movements around the country. Kemal did not need to create the nationalist movement that he would use to catapult himself to the eventual leader of Turkey, but he did need to find a way to amplify, unify, and control it. There were small nationalist groups all over the country, many only present in small geographical areas, Kemal hoped to be able to bring them together under the leadership of one person, himself of course. On May 21st Mustafa Kemal would notify the British officers in Samsun that he was departing for a tour of central Anatolia, as part of his official duties, but really it would be at this point that his actions against the Allies and the government in Istanbul began.

The two most important tasks in front of Mustafa Kemal were to create a military force out of the scattered bits of nationalist troops and to create some kind of political assembly that could claim to be legitimate leaders of the country. To create a military Kemal would work with a bunch of left over units from the old Ottoman Army, generally just whatever was left which were then augmented by groups of volunteers. This second group could be broadly categorized as irregular troops, maybe militia might be a good term as well, they were mostly just groups of ideologically motivated men who chose to fight for the nationalist idea. Kemal would work with other military leaders around him to form these units into something resembling an army. News of these actions and the formation of new military units would trickle out of Anatolia, with British officers quickly becoming concerned. They were the closest, and in greatest danger, but there was little that the British could do to help. Lloyd George would have to turn to the Greeks who agreed to provide more troops for security of the capital and for northern Anatolia. In exchange for this assistance they wanted Allied permission to move out of Smyrna and to take over a larger piece of territory.

With the military side of the nationalist movement growing in strength Kemal would turn to the political side of the problem. Kemal’s views for the future of the political leadership of the country were captured and distributed in what would be called the Amasya Tamimi, which would be signed and distributed on June 21st. This document laid out Kemal’s plans to create a national assembly which, instead of meeting in the Western controlled capital would meet, at least initially, in Sivas in eastern Anatolia. He invited every administrative district to send three delegates to this assembly. The delegates from the eastern territories would be elected at a congress to be held in Erzurum on July 10th, a congress that would be attended, and if he had his way led by Mustafa Kemal himself. While there were some attempts to keep the Sivas assembly a secret, news of it would quickly reach the leaders in Istanbul. The response was, well it was not exactly forceful. A telegram would arrive for Mustafa Kemal, from the Sultan. The contents were conciliatory, it suggested that Mustafa Kemal take a few months of leave, spend it wherever he wanted. It suggested that he not return to the capital out of concern that foreign groups may arrest him. Importantly it did not even threaten to dismiss him from the Army or as the Inspector of the 9th Army. The telegram did not even directly criticize his actions up to this point, stating that the Sultan understood that Mustafa Kemal believed he was working for the best future of the country, but the leaders in Istanbul did ot believe that his actions were helping to make that best future a reality. It requested that he allow the situation to be managed by Istanbul.

While the telegram from the Sultan was far less harsh than feared, Mustafa Kemal’s failure to act in accord with it prompted further actions. The plan was to officially recall Kemal to the capital, however, he would learn of these plans before the official notification arrived. He then quickly resigned form the army. This resignation was a big step, and a risky one for Kemal. Up to this point, even though he had not been working with the leaders in Istanbul, he was still their official representative as a leader of the military. He was also the highest military commander in the region, and this gave him powers to command troops and resources. By resigning his position he just reverted back to Mustafa Kemal, citizen of the state, and all of those around him were no longer required to follow him. Kemal was genuinely concerned about his position, but he was greatly assisted by the actions of Kazim Karabekir. Karabekir was the Inspector of the 3rd Army, and an officer held in high esteem both by those around him and by the British officers who he had been in contact with. The British believed him to be a ‘first class officer.’ At the time that his resignation became public Mustafa Kemal was staying with Karabekir, and when the announcement was made he would address Mustafa Kemal and say “I’ve come to pay my respects on behalf of all the officers and men under my command. You remain our respected commander, just as you’ve been until now. I’ve brought a car and an escort of cavalry as befits a corps commander. Pasha, we’re all at your service.” Karabekir and Kemal would have different views on many topics, and their relationship would be heated at times during the fighting, but Karabekir remained loyal until after the fighting was over.

With his official resignation out of the way his focus shifted to the Congress in Erzurum. This was a critical moment for the nationalist movement because among those attending the congress were leaders of a large number of small local nationalist groups from all over the eastern territories. If the nationalists wanted to succeed it was important to get the support of these groups and then to unite them in common purpose. Mustafa Kemal saw it as the perfect way to grow his own power and prestige and to clearly assert himself as one of the leaders of the nationalists. When the Congress started he would arrive in full military regalia, even though he was no longer a member of the military. He would then be elected to chair the congress, via a secret vote in which he received the majority of the votes. After this election to the chair Kemal would move to create a Representative Committee. This smaller group would be held responsible to lead the Congress and then to represent its interests when the Congress was not in session. Kemal was able to use his considerable influence to bring precisely the people that he wanted onto the Committee which would provide him with a legitimacy that he had not had before. While Kemal was making these arrangements the Congress was putting together a declaration. This was a document that stated that the eastern provinces were united in their desire to see a new government that was free of outside influence, and that they were committed to maintaining all of the territory granted to the country in the armistice that had been signed in October 1918. They also stated that if they did not feel that the government in Istanbul was sufficiently representing the interests of the Eastern territories then they would be forced to create a provisional government that would do so. The congress gave the Representative Committee the power to form and lead this provisional government if they deemed it necessary and the congress was not in session. After this declaration was finalized, the Congress was dismissed.

The dismissal of the congress put Mustafa Kemal, as head of the Representative Committee, in charge of the nationalist movement in the eastern half of the country. The government in Istanbul saw this new development as a threat to their legitimacy, and its leader Damat Ferit wanted to send in loyal troops to take control. However, to do so he needed the permission of the Allies who had to okay any Turkish military actions. Ferit wanted to send 2,000 troops to the city of Eskisehir, a city to the south and east of the capital, but this request was refused. The Allies did not feel that this was a large enough force, but also did not want a larger force to be sent either. Their fear was that a larger force would simply ignite a civil war, which the Allies did not want to happen. With his position entirely compromised, Damait Ferit resigned on September 28th. This resignation triggered elections, which is where things got interesting. The general consensus was that the elections would go heavily in favor of the nationalists, which is exactly what Mustafa Kemal wanted, but there were some complications. There was a risk that enough of the representatives that were elected to the new government would not be beholden to Mustafa Kemal, which would derail his plans to become head of the government. The biggest problem was that Kemal was not in the capital, where many other leading nationalists were still residing, but he did manage to get the personal agreement of Salih Pasa, who would oversee the elections, that he would move the assembly to Ankara. This would move it out of the area of the capital, and instead directly into the middle of Anatolia. With this promise in mind, Mustafa Kemal moved onto his next task, which was to try and maintain the unity of the nationalist movement. The nationalists that were present in Turkey at this time came from many different former parties, one of which was called the CUP. The CUP were seen as some of the more extreme nationalists, and it had been CUP leaders that had brought the Ottoman Empire into the First World War. Many of the more moderate nationalists, many of which were in the capital, wanted a formal renunciation of the group by all nationalist leaders. Mustafa Kemal was very hesitant to do this, because many of his supporters had formerly been members of the CUP. Instead he wanted to advocate for keeping the nationalists together, in the name of staying united and fighting against foreign influence and invasion. He was successful in this, at least partially, and the nationalists would win a majority of the votes in the election. Mustafa Kemal would use his influence around the country to make sure the elections were favorable to his faction of the nationalists, and he would also get himself elected as the representative from Erzurum. With this step achieved, he next hoped to be elected as president of the new assembly in its first session.

However, at this point the plan got derailed a bit. To start with, even though Salih Pasa had told Mustafa Kemal that he would try to bring the assembly to Ankara, there was very little support in the capital to actually make this move. All of the elected officials who were not supporters of Kemal were very aware about what he was trying to do, and so they avoided it by refusing to house the assembly anywhere but the capital. With this part of the plan foiled, Mustafa Kemal still refused to attend the assembly meetings and instead he would stay in Ankara. Many of those loyal to him that had been elected would move to the capital, after conferences with Kemal and other representatives as they tried to all come to an agreement on the best course of action. The goal of Mustafa Kemal staying away from the capital was that it would give him the ability to claim that he was a legitimate representative of the legitimate government and if for any reason he could claim that they were not able to act freely he would be able to claim the power to form a new government. If this was to be successful it would still be useful to be elected as president of the assembly, a task given to the representatives of his faction in the assembly. However, they would fail to accomplish this goal, and insetad Resat Hikmet would be elected, and then die a short time later, but then Celetettin Arif would take his place. Arif was a nationalist, but he was a leader of a rival faction. With both of his plans foiled, Mustafa Kemal was in an awkward position, he would not go to the capital, but all of his plans to influence events from afar seemed to be falling apart.

In the capital the newly elected government was having serious problems. They were in a situation very similar to what had happened to the leaders that they had replaced. They had poor relations with the Allies, mostly due continued territorial demands beyond what the Allies wanted to accomodate. At the same time they were trying to do the balancing act between working with the Allies and keeping enough of the nationalist coalition happy. This put them on a course of conflict with Mustafa Kemal and those loyal to him in Ankara. This ideological conflict, the Allied interactions with it, and then the galvanizing role of the Greek invasions will be our topic for next episode.