- James Houser
August 30, 1922 - Turkish War of Independence & Battle of Dumlupinar
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
August 30, 1922. World War I has blown the Middle East apart, and it’s open season for nations to grab what they can. At Dumlupinar, the Turks have rallied behind Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli who will soon become known as the “Great Turk” – Ataturk. Their enemies are the Greeks, who have staked a claim to their ancient provinces on the western coast of Turkey. The Turkish War of Independence is at the tipping point.
The aftermath of World War I, as I am so fond of reminding you, needs to be a history chapter on its own. After the air went out of four empires (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman) across Europe and the Middle East, everyone previously trapped within those empires began fighting over A.) what new nations should come out of the wreckage of empire, and B.) what those new nations should look like. Every ethnic group from Hamburg to Siberia, from Finland to Arabia grabbed their guns and started the bloody, less-than-fun process of setting the world right. You know, for the children or something.
The Ottoman Empire’s collapse was the end of centuries of decline, as the Turkish Sultans of Constantinople were forced to accept an Allied occupation and a British fleet steamed into the Bosporus to occupy the city. On November 13, 1918, Allied forces entered Constantinople and began securing the railways and entrances into the city. Down in Syria, where the Allies had captured Damascus just before the treaty went into effect, the Arabs were already agitating for their own independent kingdoms. With military defeat on every front and the various ethnic groups of the Middle East rising in revolt, the Ottoman Empire was obviously a corpse – and everyone wanted a piece.
In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference convened to hash out the postwar settlement, and one of the items on the agenda was what would happen to the former territories once known as the Ottoman Empire. Due to a bunch of agreements made in the course of the war, many different European countries had imperial and colonial interests in the region. France had long desired Syria and Lebanon and wanted to carve out more land in southeast Turkey. The Italians had dibs on southern Turkey. But it was the Greeks, most of all, who had a bone to pick with the former Ottoman Empire.
A large Greek population still lived throughout Anatolia along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea coasts and had been constant targets for oppression by local Ottoman elites. The Greeks had fought a long and bitter war of independence against the Ottomans in the 1820s and had not forgotten the ethnic massacres and borderline genocide the Muslims inflicted on their Anatolian brethren in the course of that war. Greece saw an opportunity to reclaim its ancient glory and become a major Mediterranean power, but also to finally unify its peoples in a large nation-state. So Greece staked claims to most of western Turkey, including the large port of Smyrna.
On May 15, 1919, Greek forces landed at Smyrna and got to work. Without actual authority from anyone (par for the course after World War I), they decided that possession is 9/10ths of the law and they were going to take first, ask questions later. The Italians landed in southern Anatolia, the French streamed into Cilicia and upper Syria, and Armenian groups rose across eastern Turkey to reclaim their ancient homelands. The Greeks, though, were the most threatening of all, not least because of the massacres they inflicted on Turkish prisoners and civilians. At least 300-400 Turkish civilians were murdered during the occupation of Smyrna, and the cycle of ethnic violence spread outwards as Greek troops advanced deep into Anatolia.
The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire’s corpse was at hand, and the Sultan himself was a virtual puppet of the British occupiers in Constantinople. In May 1919, the Sultan appointed a former Ottoman officer to oversee the internal security of the former Empire and the demobilization of its military. The man he picked was General Mustafa Kemal, a bona fide war hero who had led the Turkish forces that had beaten the Allies at Gallipoli. Kemal was the man who had fought in the trenches with his soldiers and had given the legendary order “I do not order you to attack, I order you to die.” He had a reputation not unlike that of George Washington amongst the Ottoman military – which was good since he was basically about to become Turkey’s George Washington.
Kemal set up his headquarters in the inland town of Ankara and immediately set about organizing resistance to the invasions of Turkey. He knew that the Ottoman Empire was dead, and there was no arguing with that fact. There was no way any Sultan ruling from Constantinople could govern Turkey, Armenia, Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, especially not in the face of greedy European powers. But Ataturk was not a conservative; he was a nationalist. He believed in a free homeland for the Turkish people, the current majority population of Anatolia. To achieve that, the Turks would have to break away from the old Ottoman imperial structure – but also resist the invasions that threatened on every side.
Kemal and his nationalist movement formally broke away from the old Ottoman government in 1920, claiming that his Ankara government was now the rightful authority in Turkey. While the Sultan hemmed and hawed, there was very little he could do; now the Western Powers were alarmed since Kemal’s government was completely outside of their control and refusing to comply with the Treaty of Versailles. A hollow corpse of the Ottoman government still existed in Constantinople, and British troops rolled through the streets throughout early 1920 suppressing Turkish nationalists, but the tide of public opinion was swimming in Kemal’s favor. The former Ottoman military was flocking to his banner, and the Sultan was now widely seen as a British puppet. The stage was set: Kemal was taking up the leadership of Turkey, and the whole nation had become a battleground for the competing forces. The Turkish War of Independence was fast becoming a reality.
As shooting broke out around Constantinople in April 1920 and nationalist militias were driven back, Kemal began to use diplomatic overtures to shore up his other flanks. If he fought everyone at once, he would be surrounded; best to make deals now and live with them later. The first deal Ataturk cut was with the Bolsheviks, who were currently in the process of winning the Civil War in Russia. Lenin and his communists saw a Turkish republic as a possible ally – and also a drain on Allied resources that would prevent more Western intervention against them in the Russian Civil War. The Turkish Eastern Front was mainly occupied with the Armenians, who had been genocided by the Ottomans in 1915 and were obviously upset about this fact, but the Bolsheviks had overrun Armenia and brought them to heel. A treaty of 1921 established the new Soviet-Turkish border, which still exists today, in exchange for financial and material support. Soon rifles, machine guns, and artillery were flowing into Turkey from the Soviets.
Then there were the French in the south, who had been pushing into Turkish territory where the conflict zone in the Syrian Civil War is now. Kemal anticipated that the French would be satisfied with Syria and would not push very hard into Turkey. He was correct, but with unfortunate consequences, since he left the conflict to local militias. These militias seized on the opportunity to settle old ethnic scores, and soon massacres and counter-massacres were carried out by the local Turkish and Armenian populations. The French forces, understandably bewildered and terrified, withdrew and signed a peace with the Turks in 1921.
The whole “ethnic conflict and genocide out of control” theme is gonna be kind of a big problem throughout this whole affair. Mustafa Kemal was never on board with the whole “ethnic cleansing” thing and had been a political opponent of the ruling Ottoman clique that had instituted the Armenian Genocide back in 1915. Unfortunately, his position was still improvised and insecure. He was powerless to stop the massacres if he wanted to, and (not being gung ho about genocide, but also being something of a cold, ruthless nationalist) he didn’t do a whole lot to stop them. This would be especially apparent as the war finally came around to the Turks’ most committed opponent – the Greeks.
The Greek forces had been steadily expanding their bridgehead around Smyrna since 1919 and were carrying out their own ethnic cleansing against the local Turkish population. This incited widespread guerrilla resistance throughout western Turkey, and the worst stage of the conflict took place here, as Greek Army forces began a brutal campaign of expulsion. The defunct and puppet Ottoman Empire had signed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, granting the Greeks land deep into mainland Turkey. The Greeks advanced even deeper than the treaty specified, though, since the Allies wanted to force pressure on Kemal’s government to sign the treaty. This set the stage for the critical portion of the conflict: the Greco-Turkish War.
In early 1921, the Greeks continued their advance into Turkey, but were halted by Turkish Revolutionary forces in January at the Battles of Inonu. This prompted a new round of treaty talks, with the British and French now pressing the Greeks to stand down, but the Greeks vowed to continue their advance.
Throughout 1921 and 1922, the Greeks and Turks fought a long land campaign across central Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of men on both sides clashed over miles of open, hilly terrain, with large numbers of infantry fighting from trenches with machine guns and artillery. If you stepped out on the field of these battles – Eskisehir, Sakarya, Inonu – you would be forgiven for thinking World War I had not ended. It was still going on here, in 1921, as two young nations slaughtered each other for the land they both believed was theirs. The fighting seesawed back and forth, and by September 1921 the two armies engaged in the decisive battle of the war at the Sakarya River.
Kemal himself commanded the Turks at Sakarya, where they clung to dry hilltops for 21 days as the numerically superior Greeks assaulted with everything they had. For the Turks, it became known as the “Officers’ Battle,” since their officer corps suffered an unusually high casualty rate of almost 80%. It was a thunderous and bloody battle, as bad as anything in World War I, but the Turks had the high ground and the supply advantage. The Greeks had advanced far inland and were running out of ammunition. Back in the capital of Ankara, the citizens heard the thunder of guns at Sakarya as Kemal fought the invaders to a standstill. Greece would go no farther than the Sakarya River, and now they were exposed deep in enemy territory.
With defeat obviously imminent, the Greeks appealed to the Allies for help, but the Western Allies were exhausted from years of World War and quickly realizing that the Treaty of Sevres was unenforceable. The Italians and French had withdrawn from their land claims, and the Bolsheviks were actively supplying the Turks. The Greeks were exposed, alone, and at the mercy of the resurgent Turkish government. Kemal vowed he would not make peace until the last Greek had left Anatolian soil. This is the point where the Greeks really should have cut their losses and withdrawn to a defensive perimeter around Smyrna, which they could have held indefinitely. Still trying to strive for more and more land, they did not take the opportunity – and they paid for it.
It took a full year to prepare the counterattack, but on August 26, 1922, Mustafa Kemal began the Great Offensive with a massive strike at Dumlupinar. It was the greatest battle of the war, with 115,000 Turkish soldiers surging forth against 140,000 Greeks, but the Greeks were exhausted and at the end of their rope. The accurate and devastating Turkish artillery knocked out the Greek guns, and Kemal’s tactics concentrated his force against the enemy flank. By August 30, 1922, the Battle of Dumlupinar was over, with the broken Greek forces streaming back in disarray, pursued by Turkish cavalry. Almost 850 years after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, the light Turkish horsemen remained as deadly against Greek infantry as they had in the Middle Ages. Half the Greek Army was captured or killed at Dumlupinar, and they began their bloody withdrawal.
What followed was a rapid fighting retreat that accelerated to its terrible conclusion. The Turks captured city after city in a rapid advance, and the Greeks fell back in disarray over the land they had taken. As the Turks advanced, the population came out of hiding to make Greek soldiers – and civilians – pay for the massacres and cleansings of 1919. Just as in southern Turkey, the guerrillas began a program of ethnic cleansing against the local Greek population. It would all come to a head when the Turks finally entered Smyrna.
The Greeks had no hope of defending Smyrna after their army’s catastrophe only days earlier at Dumlupinar, and the Turkish vanguard entered Smyrna on September 8, 1922. An entire Greek division surrendered upon the Turkish approach, but behind the vanguard came a horde of angry guerrillas, soldiers, and victims looking for revenge. Even though Kemal put out a proclamation sentencing to death any Turkish soldier caught harming civilians, he could not stop the reckoning.
On September 13, 1922, the Turks started the “Great Fire of Smyrna”, also known as the “Catastrophe of Smyrna.” The Greek and Armenian districts of the city were burned to the ground, as Greek and Armenian refugees from all over Turkey fled to the waterfront to escape the fire. The vast human flood tried desperately to get on any ship they could, seeking to escape the Turks’ wrath. Many women were raped, and large numbers were killed; the estimates run as high as 100,000. The Great Fire of Smyrna was one of the terrible moments of the 20th Century that remain largely forgotten today, though Turkish nationalists maintain that the Greeks themselves started the fire.
With Turkish victory complete, in 1923 the Turks and Greeks signed an armistice that also carried a devastating corollary: the compulsory exchange of Greek and Turkish populations. What could not be fully completed through the war was now accomplished in the peace, as 400,000 Muslims were expelled from Greece and 1,200,000 Greeks were expelled from Turkey and sent to their respective safe havens. Like any large-scale population exchange, the human suffering was enormous, with many families losing everything, thousands perishing, and over a million homeless refugees in the streets of Athens and Constantinople. The ancient Greek culture of Ionia, once a vibrant part of the Classical Greek age and the site of so much cultural heritage, was wiped away with the stroke of a pen. A civilization that had existed for almost two millennia was gone.
The Turkish War of Independence was over, and the Turkish Republic we know today was created in its aftermath. Its President, Mustafa Kemal, was given the new title of “Great Turk,” or “Ataturk,” the name by which he is still remembered today as an almost religious figure in Turkey. Also, they FINALLY renamed Constantinople as Istanbul in 1923. This victory aside, the bad blood between Greece and Turkey remains a century later. One of the great forgotten horrors of history, swept into the dustbin of after the visceral trauma of World War I, the Greco-Turkish War still consumes the minds of the nations that fought it.
Old hatreds die hard.