Why is Atatürk still so dear to Turks?
The British and French naval forces launched a campaign against the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles on March 18, 1915. They failed. The date has been drilled deep inside my head since childhood. On every March 18, my grandfather Ömer Kemal, may God rest his soul, use to start the day by asking all of us the significance of the date.
Later, perhaps budging to sarcastic remarks around the breakfast table, he would put reading material on the table. It was something like a sheet of paper from the calendar with basic information on the Dardanelles. He was trying to share a part of himself too big to fit into young heads – the immense pain of an empire lost, gratitude for what was salvaged from it.
Why was March 18 so significant for our little family? My grandfather was one of the Turkish soldiers in the Dardanelles in 1915. He was forever proud to have been there. He was born around the turn of the century in Ottoman Silistra, present-day Bulgaria. Remember that the Ottoman Empire was European from the start – Bosnia became part of the empire before the Anatolian town of Kayseri.
My grandfather’s world began to crumble with the Balkan wars in 1910-1912. He was drafted at an early age and fought on the eastern front against the Russians and was later sent to the Dardanelles in 1915. After that, he was stationed in Palestine, where he fought the British and became a prisoner of war in Egypt. He was released and returned to Bursa, my hometown, around the early 1920s. By that time, he had spent more than 10 years fighting and moving around, and for what? The empire he defended fell apart in the end.
Have you read Eugene Rogan’s “The Fall of the Ottomans”? Rogan went to Gallipoli because his granduncle, Lance Corporal John McDonald, was killed there. McDonald was born in Perth, Scotland, and died in Gallipoli on June 28, 1915. At the beginning of the book, Rogan writes, “While my great uncle’s unit had suffered 1,400 casualties and British losses reached 3,800, as many as 14,000 Ottomans fell dead at Gully Ravine… All the books I read … treated the terrible waste of British life on the day my great granduncle died. None of the English sources had mentioned the Turkish war dead. It was sobering to realize that the number of bereaved Turkish families would have surpassed the number of those grieving in Scotland.” That revelation gave us the book.
It must indeed have been very similar for Turkish soldiers. When my grandfather was fighting in the Dardanelles, his uncle was killed right beside him. He was just a kid at the time. A year before, he saw his younger brother, who was being treated for a gunshot wound, on his way to the Eastern front. That was the last time they saw each other. They said their farewells one last time in a long-forgotten place, at a long-forgotten time.
So why is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk so dear to our hearts in Turkey? It’s because he gave us reason to be proud of after a long string of defeat, and people don’t forget that, not for generations. Together with a handful of open-minded officers of the cosmopolitan empire, he led the Turks in building a new homeland.
That pride is felt across formerly Ottoman lands, mind you. It was that same pride that led Amin Malouf’s grandfather to announce that he would be to name his new baby boy, Kemal, as his wife was expecting in 1921. However, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, yet the stubborn Lebanese has not changed his decision and named the baby girl Kemal.
My grandfather was engaged to my grandmother in Bursa (ancient Prusa) around the same time when Malouf’s aunt was born. At that time, Izmir (ancient Smyrna) was still under Greek occupation. All were sons and daughters of the Empire, but they no longer knew what kind of country they would raise their children in. Atatürk led the War of Independence that gave shape to the new nation and recast the Ottoman state in Republican form. He made us proud once again in the community of nations.
It must all have happened with mesmerizing speed. How do you control the dissolution of a vast empire stretched across three continents? Uncounted soldiers moved from one front to the other, trying to hold on to pieces of land.
They were fighting the tides of history, with wave after wave remorselessly crashing down on them. Strangely enough, they did not entirely fail, which I think is the meaning of the First World War to us in Turkey. We were lucky to come away with our own country in the end, thanks to a handful of open-minded officers of the cosmopolitan empire and Atatürk leading them. Ömer Kemal was a lucky man, and so is his grandson.