Early on the morning of 25 April 1915 Lieutenant Mustafa Kemal, commander of one of the six Turkish Divisions on Gallipoli, had to make a vital decision. The British were invading the Peninsula. He tried to reach his German Commander, Otto Liman von Sanders, to receive orders. But he was either asleep or otherwise engaged and could not be contacted. Rather than retreating from the invasion area (later known as Anzac Cove) on the Aegean Sea coast at Gaba Tepe, Kemal ordered a counter attack. The first fifty Australians had attacked on a beach and scaled jagged cliff faces to avoid artillery shelling from a sporadic Turkish defence force. Some Turks ran when the invaders reached a ridge. The Australians pushed on up the steep terrain towards the high ground for several hours until they were close to the crest of Chanuk Bair (Hill). The Turks were in retreat from this high ground, which if secured would give the invaders a dominant position. For reason never entirely explained, the Australians halted their advance on the Western slopes of the hill. It was the vital time when Kemal ordered a counter-attack. He had noted his men running from the position. In addressing his troops and passing down orders, he made it clear that anyone running from the fight would be executed. Regiments were directed to stand and fight. Then they would be commanded to rush the Australians.
Acting on the instincts of a natural battle commander, Kemal proved to be a risk-taker. He had initially taken matters into his own hands. Then he had made the decision not to attack on the point of the invasion on the beach, but to tackle the tiny, less certain force that had reached the high ground. Chunak Bair had to be under Turkish control, he realized, otherwise the size of the invasion force would mean the Peninsula would be taken. Turkey itself would then be vulnerable.
The slopes of the hill in question saw the first clash with the invaders. Australians from 1st Division began pouring into the area to support the successful initial contingent of 50 soldiers. Kemal’s defenders held the line and pushed the Australians back to the beach-head at Anzac Cove.
Kemal’s fierce leadership was the key. His decision-making in a vital moment had stopped the foreign attack. By 26 April, the Turks had the high ground. The German commander was informed and the six divisions were deployed to various positions to hold the Peninsula and attempt to push the Allies back into the Aegean.
Mustafa Kemal’s brilliance as a battle commander and staunch leadership in defence of his nation was recognized even by his German superiors. His actions on Gallipoli made him a legend to the Turks. His efforts would be the springboard for other exploits both military and political, which would make him the most notable Turk of the 20th century. However, at the time he became a concern for von Sanders and others, who saw him as a threat. They refused to give him command of the three Turkish armies fighting the British in the Middle East after Gallipoli. The Germans preferred a policy of keeping the Turks divided and while not conquered, at least under control. Had Kemal been given command, historians believe the outcome of the Middle East conflict 1915 to 1918 would have been different.
After defending successfully against the Allied invasion in 1915 of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula, and defeating the British in Iraq early in 1916, the Turks were confident about marching a big army of 26,000 soldiers across the Sinai desert and taking Egypt, which was then under British control. This force was almost exactly the same as that which fought off the Allies, including 38,000 ANZACs, from April to December 1915. Two differences from Gallipoli led to the Turks being abruptly halted at Romani, a town close to the Mediterranean. First they were not commanded by Kemal; and second, the 1700 Australian troopers that fought the Turks had their horses, a huge military asset they did not have on Gallipoli, where the steep terrain was not suitable for war horses.
The Turks were blunted at the Battle of Romani in the night and morning of 4 August 1916. The moment of inspiration came about 2.30 a.m. when four Tasmanian troopers were stranded in the middle of the battlefield. Major Michael Shanahan rode in on Bill the Bastard, the most formidable war horse of the Great War. He weighed three-quarters of a tonne and stood 17.1 hands. Shanahan ordered the four stranded men to climb on Bill who proceeded to pound his way out of the danger zone. It was a turning point in the battle. Shanahan delivered the four troopers to safety and then took his mighty stallion back into the fray. It led to Shanahan being shot in the leg and fighting on until he collapsed. Bill then gingerly trotted him back to a medical facility, an act that saved Shanahan’s life, although he had to have the injured leg amputated. The Australian Commander Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel ordered this grand horse out of the war, never again to fight in battle. He would see out the conflict as a pack horse. Shanahan was given the DSO for his heroic efforts.
The Shanahan-Bill bravery and stamina over six hours of fighting inspired the rest of troopers and helped lead to the Turks being stopped from taking the wells at Romani. They had under-estimated the Light Horse defence and by dawn were out of water, ammunition, and confidence. They were further dispirited by the brilliant tactics of Chauvel who had held back 500 fresh troopers and their horses. When morning light fell on the battlefield---a succession of mountainous sand dunes---the Turks now saw the troopers trotting in column formation towards them, led by Chauvel himself. The Turks were forced to retreat into Palestine (now Israel). It was a morale booster for the troopers who had suffered on Gallipoli, and it put them in the mood for revenge in the coming encounters.
When the pressure from Chauvel Corps’ push back mounted on the Turks over the next year and well into 1917, they had the added problem of the Arabs’ Revolt and the harassment of the Turkish forts along the Hejaz Railway, which ran from Damascus right through to the Muslim Holy City of Medina. Kemal was appalled to learn that other Turkish and German commanders were thinking of abandoning Medina. It was difficult, Kemal was told, to keep the trains running and supplying the Medina garrison of some 3000 Turks. Troops, equipment and supplies would be better sent to the main Turkish front in Southern Palestine.
He was presented with a compelling logic. If the Turks lost Palestine, they would lose Medina anyway. Better to give away that remote garrison and move the forces to Palestine. But this was a rationale for lesser men; commanders without his great capacity to inspire soldiers. Kemal refused to go south to supervise the dumping of Medina.
He waited until German General von Falkenhayen arrived in Damascus to take command. The German had a complex plan, which seemed at best ambivalent about Medina. Kemal did not think it could work. He resigned and headed back to Constantinople, where he had the sympathetic ear of the Sultan. The Muslim spiritual leader cried at the thought of the Holy City of Medina being lost to his influence.
The ill-disciplined Arab force led by the British major T E Lawrence would have been no match for Kemal mustering his army in the Hejaz. But he would not be there. Nor would he be in Southern Palestine taking on the British and Anzac forces once more. The best Turkish commander was side-lined at a critical time.
Certainly, Kemal could not have done any worse than his German Commanders. He was appointed by the Turkish Sultan, against German wishes, as Commander of the Turkish 7th Army---one of the three about to face a British onslaught. But it was March-1918 and perhaps too late.
Kemal was the only Turkish commander who had not experienced defeat. He had an image of invincibility after his mighty leadership on Gallipoli. Kemal was no great strategist or tactician. He was more than that. He had inspired his troops to defend Turkey and they had succeeded. His late appointment was welcomed by the Turkish troops.
Chauvel, who had learnt through intelligence that Kemal was commanding the 7th Army, was very keen to defeat him after being part of the failed British Campaign on Gallipoli. Without making propaganda through the ranks, he quietly informed his senior officers of Kemal’s appointment, just to add an alertness and dedication to winning.
Chauvel was not aware of the friction between Kemal and von Sanders, the German head of his country’s military mission in Turkey for five years. He often over-ruled the Turks. He did not agree to Kemal’s continued demands to amalgamate the three Turkish Armies in Palestine and Syria. Kemal thought his disparate force was undernourished, listless and ripe for demoralizing and defeat. By coordinating the three armies, he believed he could focus them on winning.
The fact that a Turk put up such a radical development meant it was going to be rejected. *
On 19 September 1918 Chauvel’s Mounted Corps prepared in secret to sweep across Palestine, Jordan and Syria in a bid to crush the Turkish armies, with support from Prince Feisal and his Arab Army.
The day before, a devout Muslim Indian Sergeant went AWOL from Chauvel’s Cavalry Division and reached the Turkish stronghold at Nablus, 55 kilometres from Jaffa, where Chauvel’s Corp and the two infantry divisions had massed in the orange groves without the Turks being aware. The Indian had been tormented by the thought of his brother Muslims being defeated on a massive scale and decided to defect and tell all. He was taken to a Turkish officer saying he wished to inform him of a massive plan of deception. His breathless divulgences brought a skeptical response at first from the experienced Turkish officer, who knew of the ruse with the feint at Gaza and other British tricks. But when the Indian had laid out what he knew, only one senior officer---the wily Kemal---believed the defector was telling the truth. Kemal sent an urgent message to von Sanders 60 kilometres north of Nablus at his HQ in Nazareth. *
The Indian Sergeant’s disappearance and assumed defection was reported to Chauvel. The Australian Commander considered the possible crisis but decided not to change anything in the schedule. Too many wheels of the attack were in motion. As it was, Kemal’s warning fell on sleeping ears. Von Sanders had retired for the night and did not wish to be disturbed, except in an emergency. His staff, unlike Kemal, did not deem it to be a crisis. It was another case of Kemal’s instincts as a man and commander, but this time his communication came to nothing.
Chauvel’s force struck and caught everyone by surprise except for Kemal, who made his escape from his 7th Army base at Jenin and headed for the Jordan Valley. Von Sanders, in fact, was woken at Nazareth by an aide, and had to make a hasty retreat by Mercedes from his Nazareth base.
The Mounted Corps continued to make devastating attacks, backed by the Air Force. The Turk retreated in the hope of reaching and defending Damascus. Kemal felt he was better off alive and leading than dead or captured. He was aware that complete defeat was now a possibility but while there was not wholesale surrender, it was his duty to do what he did best: command.
At the Jordan, he steadied the rump of his rattled army. The British Cavalry and Light Horse were closing. The Turkish and German soldiers wanted to cross the River and keep running. Kemal waited until most of them were over it, especially at the 14th Century Bridge of Jacob’s Daughters. While other commanders urged him to make the dash over the muddy waters, Kemal, cool as ever, realized that if that three-arched, grey Bridge was blown, it would slow their pursuers enough to make Damascus. If the Bridge was left open, there would be a danger that the remainder of his army would be caught and cornered on the stony path to the Syrian capital.
Kemal could see the British 11th Cavalry Brigade in the distance coming at the double from one direction, and closer still the 10th Light Horse from another. The Commander began running, calling for his demolition German crews to set the charges, and for the machine gunners and Turkish soldiers left stranded to halt the Light Horse. He was barely over to the east bank when the first arch collapsed. He was up the slope when second went and out of sight when the 500 year old monument collapsed.
After a bloody fight, involving also French colonial Spahis, who had arrived in support of the Light Horse and British, the Australians sent out two flanking squadrons to look for a place shallow enough to cross the river. It was evening. Darkness was coming fast. Kemal’s brave defiance had held back the tide of Horsemen and cavalry, but not for long. Chauvel’s mounted squadrons were soon galloping down the road to Damascus in hot pursuit.
With the German command on the run, Kemal was effectively in charge on the Eastern Front but was left to collect the remaining pieces of the Turkish forces, and attempt to organize a defence. It was all too late and after the event. But Kemal never gave up. It hurt him to have to run himself from the 20,000 strong contingents in two garrisons in and outside Damascus. Yet he again he calculated it was better for him to depart and fight another day than be captured, a situation that would have led to Turkey’s complete capitulation.
As Chauvel, supported now by Feisal’s Arabs, chased the bedraggled Turks north, Kemal took a last stand at Aleppo, 350 kilometres north of Damascus.
The war on the Eastern Front would not be over while Mustafa Kemal still had the will to fight. He retreated to a top suite at Aleppo’s grand Baron’s Hotel and managed to cobble together a force of two divisions from the remnants of the 4th and 7th Armies.
The Ottomans, which had built Aleppo as a trading city, had always felt more comfortable in this north Syrian town, which was connected more to Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. Aleppo was set on a large, featureless plain where the valley of the Quweiq River entered it. Kemal believed he could defend better in this ancient (8000 year old) place than in Damascus. If he could not, he was closer to home if he was forced retreat further.
Allenby kept the pressure on in pursuit, urging Chauvel to mop up the remains of the Turkish resistance. His Corps was depleted by illness, mainly malaria picked up in and around Damascus. But he sent his 5th Cavalry Division north 320 km to Aleppo supported by an Arab force, with Barrow and the 4th Cavalry as back up at Homs.
The Cavalry arrived 5 kilometres south of Aleppo on 23 October. It was encouraged by the sight of traders and locals coming in and out of the city unhindered. It did not appear like a town under siege. The Cavalry Commander sent a demand for surrender into the Turkish fort. It was passed to Kemal. His (non-) response was:
‘The Commander of the Turkish Garrison does not find it necessary to reply to your note.’
The Commander of the 5th Cavalry Division directed in his weakened (by illness) 15th Cavalry Brigade and his squadron of armoured cars. They were beaten back. The Arabs then attacked the defensive Turkish trenches south of the city on 25 October. The enemy held their entrenched positions once more. But that night, 1500 Bedouin went around them to the east and broke into Aleppo.
Kemal for the third time left a city in haste, bringing his garrison and two divisions with him north.
The next day, the 5th Cavalry’s commanders rode into Aleppo to a positive reception (after having an earlier one on the way at Homs, where 70,000 citizens greeted the conquering Cavalry warmly).
A hot fight ensued in the north. Kemal, just as he did at Gallipoli, oversaw his soldiers’ defence, ordering them to stand and fight. Only at night did he withdraw. Chauvel’s force held Aleppo and was content with that for the moment. He arrived in the city and ordered the Anzac Mounted Division to aid the 5th Cavalry. *
The war was over for the moment for Kemal as he headed for the Turkish border. He reflected on the revenge of Anzac Forces (making 75 per cent of all cavalry and mounted troopers in the Middle East War), which had been humiliated on Gallipoli but had defeated his Armies on almost all occasions over past the three years, beginning with the seminal battle at Romani 26 months earlier. The wheel had turned full circle. He now felt the hurt of a massive defeat.
His force were nearly home when an armistice was signed on 30 October 1918. The war in the Middle East was officially over and the Turks were ordered to concede all the territory of the Middle East.
No ‘peace treaty’ ever left an occupied nation happy. There was always disgruntlement and issues for the occupier. A large force had to sit on the Rhine in Germany to make sure it honored the armistice. There was continuing trouble on the Afghanistan border with north-west India. Civil war in Russia would see Anzacs volunteer to fight with the White Russians against Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Supervising troops were needed in several spots in the Middle East. The British Mandate and interests in Palestine, Iraq and Egypt had to be adhered to and policed. Kemal made Northern Syria on the border with Turkey the worst trouble-spot in the region and it needed Harry Chauvel’s cool management. The Turks were still sabre-rattling north of Aleppo. They were feigning little knowledge of the Armistice’s detail. Kemal had somehow mustered about 6,000 soldiers, who would be loyal to him to the end, as long as he stuck with them. They were fatigued and bruised but still under arms. There was also the withdrawing 6th Army, which had been fighting the British in Mesopotamia (Iraq). It had another 10,000 armed men. A further 16,000 fighters in the 2nd Army, who had not divested themselves of weaponry either, hovered in the north-west at Cilicia. About 32,000 Turkish soldiers therefore were defending their country’s borders as opposed to just 2500 of Chauvel’s Horsemen at Aleppo. The Turks were supposed to be the other side of the border but they were still all in Syria. If Kemal and the other Generals decided to confuse ‘peace’ with taking back a ‘piece’ of Northern Syria, especially as the Ottoman Empire had lost so much, so suddenly, Chauvel would have real trouble.
The Turks were playing dangerous games. They spoke of their armies as ‘Gendarmerie,’ who they wished to leave in Syria. Kemal was less subtle. He told one of Chauvel’s ADCs that he had no intention of following the directives set out in the Armistice.
Chauvel suggested two choices to Allenby in handling this. His first was military. He would need infantry support for his Cavalry/Light Horse to move against Kemal. This was a tricky option, making Chauvel the aggressor when a cease-fire had been agreed to by both sides. But there were ways and means. He could move on the Turks and say they had threatened his men and had not complied with the Armistice.
The other choice was diplomatic/political. Allenby should have Kemal removed and replaced with someone more amenable to the agreement. The Chief moved fast. He sent a cable to the British representative in Constantinople. Soon afterwards, Kemal was removed from the military, leaving him time to lick his wounds and consider his future.
Then trouble began in the towns to Aleppo’s north. The Turks were whipping up anti-British sentiment making life tough for the patrolling troopers. The situation was serious. Chauvel responded by moving his HQ to Aleppo and calling up his 4th Cavalry Division to the city. A British infantry division was also pushed north but the bad weather had destroyed roads and bridges, delaying its arrival.
The disturbances increased in the towns between the Turkish border and Aleppo. Chauvel moved to occupy them, learning that the main culprit was the 6th Army under the troublesome General Ali Ihsan. He was breaking every clause in the Armistice declarations.
Allenby was fed up. He organized meetings in the Turkish Capital and took a French Battleship there, accompanies by Wavell. ‘The Bull’ was in good form. He told the Foreign Minister and key figures in the Turkish Military Administration that they were flouting the Armistice agreements outrageously. They were to dump Ali Ihsan forthwith as Commander of the 2nd Army or Allenby would make other moves to ensure it was done. He did not specify what they would be, but his red face, words, decisive manner and size had an impact.
‘I met the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for War,’ Allenby wrote, ‘I gravely told them why I had come, and refusing to hear any arguments, I left them with the text of my demands in English and Turkish. They were taken quite aback; and I do not think they will forget it while they live.’
The 2nd Army General was recalled before Allenby had even returned to his battleship. (1)
Kemal made his departure from the Army a blessing in disguise. By distancing himself from the Government and its decisions, he was free to make his own political moves in an attempt to control Turkey and make radical changes to it.
Mustafa Kemal, the creator of modern Turkey, was born on the fringes of the Ottoman Empire in the Macedonian seaport of Salonika. His mother was a barely literate peasant; his father was an unsuccessful merchant. Salonika had its own cosmopolitan flavour enriched by a variety of nationalities. The docks had their share with workers speaking more than six languages. Half the city’s population was Jewish. The other half was split between Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Albanians. Western Europeans dominated the trade and commerce, and reflected the domination of the ailing Ottoman Empire.
Kemal was not enamoured with Islam from his early years. He thought it and its leaders were ‘a poisonous dagger which is directed at the heart of my people.’
When a student in Constantinople, he was appalled at the way the Holy Men worked a crowd to hysteria. Kemal saw it as nothing more than primitive fanaticism.
‘I flatly refuse to believe,’ he wrote before the War, ‘in the luminous presence of science, knowledge and civilization in all its aspects, there exists, in the civilised community of Turkey, men so primitive as to seek their material and moral well-being from the guidance of another sheikh.’
He was broadly educated in Mathematics, politics and French literature when at 19 years of age he won a place in the Turkish infantry college in Constantinople. He now found himself in a grander form of cosmopolitanism, which he adapted to easily after Salonika. The Turkish capital was less than half Muslim. The rest were a mix of Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors had escaped from Christian Spain centuries earlier; Polish patriots fleeing Tsarist rule; Orthodox Armenians, Rumanians, Albanians and Greeks. The Greeks, as ever in the city, dominated commerce. Europeans controlled industry. More and more concessions were being given to foreigners, who did not pay taxes, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.
Kemal studied and played hard, frequenting the city’s salubrious brothels. (The foreign influence, good, bad and enjoyed, would later cause him to make Ankara the nation’s capital.) He was typical of the young officers who supported modernizing and the attempted revolution of 1908 (which failed) and to make the Empire stronger. The Ottoman Empire began to be dismembered. In 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bulgaria declared its independence in the same year. In 1911, Italy seized Libya. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, Albania, Macedonia and part of Thrace, including Salonika, were lost. The latter stung the young Kemal more than anything.
By 1914, the European part of the Empire, which at one time stretched into Hungary, was down to Thrace, a tiny enclave on Bulgaria’s southern border. The disappearance of Ottoman influence in Europe had dissolved in six years.
Kemal was having a good time as a diplomat in Bulgaria when war broke out in 1914. He was offered the command of a new division to defend Gallipoli, and it was the handling of this appointment that brought him to national and international prominence. Four years later, after being forced out of the Army, he was chosen president of the National Congress. In 1920, when the British formally occupied Turkey and dissolved the Chamber of deputies, he opened the first Grand National Assembly of Turkey. This body then assumed national sovereignty.
Kemal consolidated his power and in 1922 proclaimed a Republic, which separated religion and state. He was elected its first President and Prime Minister. The peace treaty with Britain, France, Greece and Italy signed at Lausanne in the following year established Turkey’s independence. Kemal introduced a broad range of swift and sweeping reforms in the political, social, legal, economic and cultural spheres at an unparalleled speed. In 1924, the Caliphate was abolished. Turkey in effect did not have an Islamic ‘Pope’ from then on. (Hussein in the Hejaz, as keeper of the Holy Places---Mecca and Medina---tried to fill the void by proclaiming himself ‘Caliph.’ But his efforts failed and he was forced to abdicate by ibn Saud. The position of Caliph remained vacant from then on.)
Kemal proved complicated, brave and determined. He was also ruthless during and after the war. The gaze of those startling blue and narrow eyes that inspired a nation and created fear in enemy hearts, now turned to those who opposed him or stood in his way. After his great political victories, he tried some of his oldest associates for treason. Kemal remained a mass of contradictions, which reflected the turmoil and change in his own life and in the world around him. He had a rational and scientific mind, but later in life was attracted to mysticism. Kemal refused to allow Ankara radio to play traditional Turkish music, but listened to it himself with friends. He espoused the emancipation of Turkish women, and to a degree succeeded in the face of strong opposition. But when he divorced the only woman he ever married, he did so in the traditional Muslim way. He was a dictator and used his power to usher in democracy. In 1930 he created an opposition party and chose its leaders. It could be argued that a free state had to start somewhere. But when it began to challenge him, he shut it down. He was capricious but fair, except when drunk which was a frequent condition. He would issue sometimes irrational and harsh orders in an inebriated state. His wise, sometimes cowering staff, would learn not to carry them out.
In 1933, Kemal was given the name Ataturk---‘father of the Turks’---by the national parliament.
He died in 1938, aged 57.
The Gallipoli experience drew out Mustafa Kemal’s finest qualities of determination and inspirational leadership. They were later factors in defining his nation’s new direction for nearly the next century. Only now is that grand legacy under threat.