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

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his army rewrite the map after World War I.

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

There’s a kind of symmetry in the fact that the Turkish War of Independence began around three years to the date after Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot agreement on how to divide up the Arab world. Sykes-Picot, for better or worse, has become the symbol for all of the plans the Allies had for the Ottoman Empire once World War I ended, and this war was mostly about undoing those plans. The October 1918 Armistice of Mudros, otherwise known as the Ottoman Empire’s surrender, made no specific mention of partitioning the empire or seizing its territory, but of course we know that the Allies had been preparing to do just that.

As it happens, the biggest partition the Allies made to the former Ottoman Empire was also the easiest to delineate and implement. The Arab Revolt drew a pretty clear dividing line between the parts of the empire that were “Arab” and the parts that weren’t, which made splitting those areas off into their own entity—well, entities—was pretty straightforward. What was much murkier was the question of what would happen to Anatolia. Anatolia, the empire’s heartland, was predominantly Turkish, and partly because of the Arab Revolt (as well as decades of nationalist revolutions in the Balkans) it had become difficult to distinguish between “Ottoman” and “Turkish.”

The rise of Turkish nationalism within the empire, best exemplified by the “Young Turks” movement that had taken over its politics in the early 20th century, complicated the picture further. There was no question that the leaders who took the empire into the war as one of the Central Powers were predominantly Turks. On the other hand, there were an increasing number of Turks who saw themselves first and foremost as Turks rather than “Ottomans” or Ottoman subjects, 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 Ottoman Empire had lost the war, but it looked like its Turkish subjects were in line to suffer most of the punishment. Many Turkish people were not particularly thrilled about taking the fall for the Ottoman Empire’s failure.

Once the armistice was signed, French and British forces (especially 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 up the rest of the empire. 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 that had been promised to 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 Istanbul under international control. A small area in central and northern Anatolia, around Ankara, was to be left fully under Turkish control. This arrangement was codified in the August 1920 Treaty of Sèvres:

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 Allies. Mustafa Kemal’s arrival in Samsun (see the above map) on May 19 to begin this 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) 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 identify the start of the Turkish War of Independence with the events in Samsun four days later. I know that doesn’t make complete sense, but just roll with it.

The Turkish War of Independence lasted until July of 1923, though the fighting ended in October 1922. I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I say that the Turks won, a fairly remarkable outcome considering that the Turkish army had more or less just lost World War I and now had to fight on four different fronts 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, effectively ending the Ottoman Empire. 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.