Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Turkish War of Independence begins (1919)

It’s kind of fitting that the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement happened right around the same time on the calendar when the Turkish War of Independence began three years later, because the war was mostly about undoing whatever plans the World War I victor Europeans had for the Turks. The October 1918 Armistice of Mudros, otherwise known as the Ottoman Empire’s WW I surrender to the allies, made no specific mention of partitioning the empire or seizing its territory, but of course we know from arrangements like Sykes-Picot (signed back in 1916) that France and Britain had been preparing to do just that.

Separating the Arab parts of the empire from Anatolia was easy; the Arabs had rebelled against Ottoman rule during WWI, so there now seemed to be a clear dividing line between what was “Ottoman” and what was “Arab.” What was unclear was what would happen to Anatolia. Anatolia was predominantly Turkish, and the Europeans seem to have had a harder time, understandably I suppose, differentiating between what was “Ottoman” and what was “Turkish.” The Ottoman Empire had lost the war, and it looked like its Turkish subjects were in line to suffer most of the punishment. However, Turkish nationalism had begun to overwhelm the previous imperial ideology of “Ottomanism” in the early 20th century, and this rise in national sentiment created a strong feeling among the Turks that their nation, their people, was not identical to the Ottoman Empire. The empire had lost the war, but the Turkish people were not about to take the fall for the empire’s failure.

Once the armistice was signed, French and British forces, though particularly the French, with some help from Greece, began taking control of cities and territories in Anatolia. Then came the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, where it became very clear that the Allies were planning to carve Anatolia up just as they’d carved off the empire’s former Arab domains. Greece was to be given territories in Thrace and along the Aegean coast of Anatolia, along with Crete, to form a Greater Greece. Armenia was to be given a large cut of territory in eastern Anatolia (this area was intended for Russia before the Russians pulled out of the war in 1917). Most of the rest of Anatolia would be divvied up into spheres of influence (Italian in the southwest, French in the south-central, and British in the southeast, with international control around Istanbul), with a small area in central and northern Anatolia, around Ankara, left under Turkish control. This arrangement would be codified in the August 1920 Treaty of Sèvres:

The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), via Wikimedia

These plans didn’t sit well with the Turks, and particularly not with General Mustafa Kemal (“don’t call me Atatürk yet”) Pasha, whose service during WWI, albeit in a losing cause, had been exemplary. He wrangled himself an appointment as Sultan Mehmed VI‘s inspector general in charge of organizing whatever Ottoman forces still remained in Anatolia, intending to use this post to lead a resistance to the Allied plan to chop Anatolia up into pieces. Mustafa Kemal’s arrival in Samsun (see the above map) on May 19 to begin his new assignment is generally considered the start of the Turkish War of Independence, pitting Kemal’s new army against Greece, Italy, France, and Britain. Now, in point of fact fighting had already started on May 15, when a Greek force showed up in the city of İzmir (see the map again, in the blue part) on the Aegean coast to claim it as part of their new Greater Greece. That marked the beginning of the Greco-Turkish War, and even though that war is often treated as one of the theaters of this war, many historians still like to date the Turkish War of Independence to Mustafa Kemal’s arrival in Samsun four days later. I know that doesn’t make complete sense, but just roll with it.

Map - Turkey 1926
The final disposition of former Ottoman lands in Asia, post-Lausanne (c. 1926)

The Turkish War of Independence lasted until July of 1923, though the fighting ended in October 1922. It ended, SPOILER ALERT, with a Turkish military victory–a fairly remarkable outcome considering that the Turkish army had more or less just lost World War I and now had to fight four different enemies to win this new war. The Turkish victory led to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which abrogated the Treaty of Sèvres and created, with international recognition, the Republic of Turkey, including all of Anatolia and the European part of Istanbul and its environs. After the fighting ended in October, Mustafa Kemal, now well on his way to earning the title Atatürk (“father of the Turks”), had the Turkish National Assembly abolish the sultanate. Then once Lausanne was signed, he had the assembly establish a republican government for the new nation of Turkey, with its capital at Ankara and with Atatürk himself as its first president.

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