Atatürk 1915

10 August 1915 – Father To A Nation

Seen above, Colonel Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is an aggressive and battle-hardened officer long considered a rival to Minister of War Enver Pasha. Promoted in May for his role in propelling the human wave assaults which met allied landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula, he opposed German General Otto Viktor Karl von Sanders’s plan to meet the allies in the hills rather than defend the shore, but has nevertheless followed orders flawlessly. Two days ago, Sanders sent Atatürk to command the counterattack at Chunuk Bair, where the invading force has lapped like a high tide against the mountain peaks dominating the central peninsula, in relief of the procrastinating corps commander on the scene. This appointment is both a high honor and a potential death mission, for officer casualty rates on both sides approach ninety percent in most units.

Behind Atatürk, straggling columns from XVI Corps, 9th Division, and the Willmer Group moved along the trails and tracks which pass for roads on Çanakkale. They are now part of Anafartalar Group, named for the part of the country where they fight, eventually consisting of a full six divisions in two Corps. Atatürk assembles his available men on the high ridgeline this morning before dawn, determined to give his exhausted troops the full benefit of a downhill attack before daylight brings renewed naval gunnery, onshore artillery, and machine gun fire against the exposed slopes. Ordering bayonets fixed, Atatürk wastes no words on flowery inspiration, for he is the kind of man who leads from the front:

Soldiers! There is no doubt we can defeat the enemy opposing us. But don’t you hurry; let me go in front first. When you see the wave of my whip, all of you rush forward together.

At his command, a wave of men tops the crest and charges, sweeping first over Kitchener’s boys from North Lancashire and Wiltshire defending the hard-won position at the crest of the mountain. There are no prisoners taken, and only a handful of the Wiltshire men escape; both battalions are quickly annihilated, and the momentum gathers. Overrunning the plateau known as The Farm, Atatürk’s men scatter the 3,000-man brigade camped there, killing their commander, Brigadier General Baldwin, inflicting more than a thousand casualties and offering no quarter. The rushing wave only stops when the New Zealanders’ machine guns open up on friend and foe alike in the choked draws of Rhododendron Ridge, mowing down all that moves to forestall disaster. By then, the battle has clearly been lost to the Turk, and along with it all British hope of a quick, decisive end to the Great War.

Tradition holds that upon winning his victory, Atatürk discovers his pocket-watch has absorbed a bullet during his deathless charge. But this may be an apocryphal story meant to evoke a time of birth for modern Turkey, since Atatürk has done much more than win a battle today.

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The opening of a German-supplied shell factory in Constantinople. From the September 1915 Illustrated War News

Memoirs from the Turkish side of the Gallipoli Campaign are too rare, but in Geliboludan Kafkaslara (‘From Gallipoli to the Caucusus’), Ismail Hakki Sunata, a reserve officer with the 35th Infantry Regiment, recounts stopping a group of soldiers in the act of bayoneting British soldiers who are trying to surrender.

These British are either really stupid or unprepared. In a strange country, in a streambed, they had sat down to have breakfast. Jam, biscuits, sugar, chocolate, butter, cheese, forks and napkins. The napkins are pure cotton. They had been surprised at breakfast. They could not escape. Or did not. Several of them are dying. How terrible. I did not think of killing and dying any more. We have to take them prisoner. Several blows to the soldiers who have lost control of themselves. I stopped the killing. They had already taken the weapons of the others. I sent the three survivors back with two of the soldiers with me, and a note saying “Prisoners”. In the midst of all this terror I also came by a weapon this way. Luck. I had the dead ones searched. I found some maps. Four maps. A diary. A photograph. I was very saddened by the photograph. A picture of a young man and a young British girl. What a pity.

The dead men’s faces have turned yellow. Some are dying. I would not have imagined I could be this unmoved by death. If I had managed to get here a few minutes earlier, we might have been able to capture this entire outpost. Now some of them lie dead. Some are about to die. Probably a short while ago they were enjoying their morning tea, and now they lie lifeless in the midst of it.

Our soldiers are so unmoved, they immediately give me a handful of biscuits and chocolate. I could not eat even one of them. And I did not take any of their things. Some of the soldiers are trying to exchange their old, work shoes for those taken from one of the dead.

Three points stand out in the passage. First, that the soldiers themselves are so keyed up from endless days of anxiety, wartime indoctrination, and hard marching that their blood-lust is hard to control today. Second, Sunata’s evident sense of humanity defies the conventional stereotypes that the ongoing genocide of Armenians tends to feed. And third, despite extraordinary measures, the Ottomans have been unable to supply their army with enough good shoes. Indeed, the attrition of British attacks on Turkish communications has left the average soldier hungry and limited to 160 rounds of ammunition; a surplus of grenades is just about the only material advantage they enjoy.

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Turkish officers posed in front of a field gun, which is elevated, signifying a professional understanding of ballistics

Like all the combatants, Turkey has seen its share of civilian mobilization in an effort to meet these production challenges. Echoing scenes from more modern Arab wars of liberation, women and children take part in procuring the weapons and equipment, doing their part to preserve the nation. As surely as the sun rises, the old imperialism is being supplanted by a new nationalism. It will take years yet for Atatürk to rise as strongman and eventually eject the ossified caliphate, finally ending the Ottoman Empire to create modern Turkey in its place, but a modern nation is already rising from the ruins of Islamic civilization to lift him up as its savior and founding father.