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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Friday 8 January 2021

Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation

 On a visit before Christmas, my daughter took a rare interest in my bookshelves (she is a microbiologist). The question followed, 'do you have any books on Turkey?', with my response 'is the Pope a Catholic!' and a brief (well not too brief) tour of how my several thousand books are organised. The mystery was resolved on Christmas Day when one of my presents was Lord Kinross's classic biography of Kemal Atatürk. I had actually read it in the library many years ago but never owned a copy.

The founder of The Republic of Turkey was born in Greece, albeit Salonika when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was middle class upbringing, which despite some opposition from his mother, led to a military education and career. After service in the Middle East and the against Italy in Libya, he arrived back in Europe too late to fight in the First Balkan War, which saw the loss of his Macedonian home. This was a loss he felt deeply with his mother and sister having to flee the family home, "how could you surrender that beautiful Salonika to the enemy", he said to brother officers. 

Mustafa Kemal, as he was known in the days before Turks adopted surnames, made his name in the Gallipoli campaign of WW1. As the British official historian puts it, "Seldom in history, can the exertions of a single divisional commander have exercised, on three separate occasions, so profound an influence not only on the course of a battle but, perhaps, on the fate of a campaign and even the destiny of a nation". As a modern visitor to the battlefield I could see the importance of the positions he held and also his gracious commentary.

He went on to command on the eastern fronts where his eventual successor as President, Ismet (later Inönü) was his chief of staff. Military comrades from this time would form an important group in supporting him later. He ended the war in Syria and also visited Germany, where he met Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

He actually sounded out the British for a role during the occupation of Constantinople. Then broke with the rump Ottoman government by going to Ankara with others to form the Grand National Assembly and after a short civil war, the resistance to the division of Anatolia by the wartime Allies. His command during the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-23 is given a relatively short treatment in this book, although the outline of the extended Greek advance and Turkish counterattack is explained. If you want more on this, there is a very recent book worth reading.     

The end of the Sultanate and the creation of the Republic of Turkey is explained in detail. The way the British sneaked the last Sultan out of Istanbul is an entertaining story that I hadn't recalled. The eunuchs came before the wives in the evacuation priorities, achieved in the back of an ambulance! Kemal was elected the first President of the Republic, which was based in Ankara rather than Istanbul. The rest of the book deals primarily with his internal reforms and the treaties that secured the boundaries of the new state.  Military matters are not entirely absent, as there were a number of revolts, primarily in the Kurdish areas. 

Ataturk (Father of the Nation) as he became known in 1935, showed extraordinary insight into world affairs in the 1930s. Despite significant pro-German sympathies amongst the Turkish leadership, he described Hitler as a 'tin-peddler' and expressed his horror at his language and thoughts. He promoted counterweights to Italian and German imperialism through the creation of the Balkan Pact in 1934. This was followed by the Saadabad Pact with the countries on the eastern border. In discussion with General Douglas MacArthur, he predicted the outbreak of war between 1940-45, the German advances and defeat once the USA entered the war. But the real victors he predicted would be the Soviet Union. I had read this before but didn't know he also compared the Maginot Line to a tomb that anyone could go around the edge of it.

I enjoyed this traditional biography and learned some new details about his life and times. My one criticism would be the way the author ascribes almost mystical characteristics to Ataturk, the 'extra dimension' as he puts it. There is no doubt that Ataturk was a remarkable leader, certainly in military terms if perhaps less so politically. But his character and physical bearing is possibly given too much weight, and modern readers might find this approach a bit grating at times. 

That said, it's well worth a read, and thanks to my daughter for the addition to my library. Her mother was less impressed by her adding to it! 

It also inspired me to get on with some related painting in the form of another squad of 28mm WW2 Turkish infantry. These are converted from the Crusader Miniatures French Dragon Portes. Better equipped Turkish regiments had French style helmets and a similar tunic. These are sans the greatcoat that so many French wargame figures have, so work well for my purpose. They are also very nice models, which I have painted in the winter uniform, unlike my 15mm armies in the summer kit. More to come from this range.


  1. It’s a fascinating story. Almost Napoleonic.

    I was saddened to read that the beautiful words on that ANZAC Bay monument are of doubtful provenance when I googled it just now.


    Still nice sentiments though.

    1. Yes that is disappointing. I was quite touched when I took that photo. He was opposed to allying with Germany in WW1, so it seemed all the more credible. The rest of the article is fair comment, he certainly should not be romanticised.

  2. Thanks for the pic of the Crusader Dragons Portes - I am intending to use them as the Latvian Rifles in RCW - they also wore the Adrian helmet and I wanted figures minus the (very distinctive) French style greatcoat!

  3. I find Mango's biography much better. Also those Dragons Portes would work well for front-line Greek infantry in 1919-1922. You can use the Balkan War guys for rear units

    1. Glancing at the Osprey I thought they were just for cavalry. But you're right, the text says they were used much wider including from Serbian stocks. Also some from the Royal Thai Army. Lord knows how they got to Greece! I wonder if the Greek ones found their way into the later Turkish use. Some photos in British WW2 publications show Turkish infantry with proper Adrian helmets with the ridge, but I have also seen what look like cruder copies without, and the crescent stencilled on the side.

    2. What!No no, the Greek Army was well supplied with Adrian helmets. The infantry of the front-line divisions sport it in many picture. After March 1921 with the large mobilization some of the reservists might not have access, but the majority of front line units had it. The Turkish army used them in the interwar period after the war. Bought from France and Italy.