Honored as Ataturk (Father Turk), Mustafa Kemal successfully fought external and internal enemies to free Turkey from the Ottoman Empire and the victorious World War I Allies. Throughout his military and political career, Kemal, exhibiting personal bravery, determination, and finesse, established Turkey as a regional power and formed a government and defense system to sustain its independence. Without Kemal, it is doubtful if Turkey would have gained its independence or continues to exist today in its present form.
Born Mustafa Rizi to a minor Turkish customs officer in Salonika, Greece, on March 12, 1881, the future Ataturk recognized that a career in the military would be the most advantageous route of advancement for a young man of his origins in the Ottoman society. At age twelve he began his military schooling and in 1904 gained admission to the Harbiye Staff College in Istanbul. In addition to his military skills, Mustafa proved so adept in mathematics that he earned the nickname “Kemal,” meaning perfection. The young officer liked the name and made it part of his own, preferring to be known as Mustafa Kemal and later Kemal Ataturk.
In addition to his schooling in Istanbul, Kemal became enthusiastically involved in the merging Young Turk movement that advocated Turkey’s separation from the autocratic Ottoman Empire. Because of these activities, when Kemal graduated from the staff college as a captain in 1905, he was posted to a remote post in Syria, and from there his military career continued to be fairly routine. In 1911-12 he fought as a major against the Italian invasion of Libya and assisted in the defense of the Dardanelles during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.
During this period, Kemal exhibited bravery and efficiency, but it was not until the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in World War I that he truly distinguished himself. Although he opposed the German influence on the Ottoman army to the point of making a standing enemy of War Minister Enver Pasha, Kemal nevertheless proved to be a brilliant commander in accomplishing Germany’s war aims.
In 1915, Kemal took command of the Nineteenth Division, with the rank of colonel, at Rodosto on the peninsula of Gallipoli. Although in charge only of the area reserves and subordinate to a German general, Kemal took the initiative that established him as a great soldier when a British force, composed primarily of Australian and New Zealander troops, attempted an amphibious landing on April 25, 1915. Kemal personally conducted reconnaissance of the beachhead and the heights overlooking the landing locations. Instead of waiting for orders or German reinforcements, he committed his regiments on a piecemeal basis to combat each of the landings. He then concentrated his defenses on the dominant hills of Chunuk Bair and Sari Bair and personally led counter-attacks to prevent the Allies from moving beyond the narrow beach perimeter.
After months of bitter fighting, Kemal’s defense of Gallipoli concluded when the Allied forces gave up and withdrew. For the remainder of that war and on into the early days of World War II, Kemal’s success in fending off the invasionary forces caused Allied as well as other commanders to doubt the practicality of amphibious operations. Kemal had not only defeated his enemy; he also had temporarily defeated an important offense concept.
The defense of Gallipoli gained Kemal a promotion to general and command of the XVI Corps, where he continued his successes against the Allies in the defense of Anatolia in 1916. However, Kemal’s accomplishments, as well as his chafing at being subordinate to the Germans, so threatened and angered Minister Pasha that he relieved Kemal of command in 1917 and placed him on sick leave. A year later, with the German-Ottoman alliance facing defeat by the Allies, Kemal answered Pasha’s recall to take command of the Seventh Army in Palestine. Outnumber by a better-equipped force commanded by Edmund H. Allenby, the best Kemal could achieve was an orderly retreat to successive defensive positions.
With the Allied victory in World War I came the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, an opportunity Kemal seized to rekindle his dream of Turkish independence. Understanding the problems inherent in the multiethnic, multinational, and multireligious nations such as the Ottoman Empire, he realized that the Turkish people would not support a nation established only on the regional religion of Islam. As a result, Kemal began to unite the Turks into their own nation based on their common heritage.
While the Allies were deciding how to divide the empire, the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul possessed enough power to sustain a limited army. When Allied troops moved into Istanbul and Greek soldiers occupied Ismir in February 1919, the sultan appointed Kemal as the inspector general of his small armed forces to quell the protest against the occupation. Instead, Kemal began to encourage his fellow Turks to repel both internal and external opponents of Turkish independence.
On May 19,1919, ignoring the sultan’s attempt to remove him, Kemal issued orders for all Turks, both military and civilian, to fight for independence. In April 1920, Kemal established a provisional government in Ankara and led military operations during the next two years that expelled the Greek occupiers. With the external threat defeated, Kemal turned toward Istanbul and forced the abolition of the sultanate on November 1, 1922.
Kemal proclaimed the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923, with himself as president. He immediately implemented reforms that limited the influence of Islam and introduced Western laws, dress, and administrative functions. Although an autocrat, Kemal encouraged cooperation between the civil and military branches and based his rule on the concept that all citizens were equal under law. In 1934 the Turkish National Assembly bestowed on Kemal the title of Ataturk. On November 10, 1938, at age fifty-seven, the Father of Turkey finally succumbed to exertion from his years of dedicated service.
Ataturk preserved the honor of his people and established a modern, influential nationalist democracy that remains today a regional power. In his long career he proved to be an intelligent, resourceful commander who inspired the loyalty of his troops and the love and respect of his fellow Turks. His determination and energy in battle, combined with his ability to foster nationalism among his people, produced a strong country that has remained a regional power for more than half a century after his death.