Every time I post a story about a Turkish hero kicking ass for the crescent moon, I can generally come into the office Monday expecting a series of emails from my legions of faithful Turkish readers reminding me, "Yes, this guy is very cool, but you're still missing the biggest badass in our country's history so WTF is up with that shit."
"The biggest badass in Turkish history" no small claim for a land that produced a few centuries of uber-powerful, harem-packing sultans who commanded vast amounts of wealth and flexed nuts over even more massive swaths of land, yet it still appears that despite the excellent pedigree of ass-whomping awesomeness going down in Anatolia, one man stands alone as the unequivocal national hero – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. An, asskicking whirlwind of leadership who is almost universally beloved by his people and respected by his enemies. A guy who made a name for himself by crushing his battle opponents' balls with over-the-top displays of hardcore bayonet-to-face destruction on the battlefield, yet still somehow found a way to end up being honored by the United Nations for promoting "world peace, international understanding, and respect for human rights." A man so unapproachably hardcore that it's actually illegal to publicly insult him in his home country, assuming the locals don't kick your ass into a paste and you somehow survive to see your trial.
The Legend of Ataturk starts in 1881, with the birth of a kid named Mustafa. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the future "Father of All Turks" was born in present-day Thessaloniki, Greece, though, in his defense, it was called Salonica at the time, which is a much more Turkish-sounding name. As They Might Be Giants may have previously informed you, the Greeks and the Turks generally preferred to change the names of cities they captured as a way of taunting their defeated enemies and making life difficult for everybody else, and Salonica-Thessaloniki was not exempt from that time-honored tradition of nomenclaturial confusion. Mustafa went to military school in Istanbul (not Constantinople), graduating as a Lieutenant in 1905, and subsequently unsheathed on the enemies of the Ottoman Empire. Everyone knew Mustafa was going to be pretty big-time – the guy was such a baller in school that his instructors nicknamed him Kemal, which is the Turkish word for "perfection". It's not every day you get a bitchin' nickname like that, and the young military officer was obviously cool with it if everybody wanted to go around calling him "Mustafa Perfection" all the time. He joined the Young Turks – a revolutionary progressive political party that became well-known in history for deposing the Ottoman Sultan in 1908, instituting a parliamentarian constitution to Turkey, and lending its name to a top-25 Rod Stewart song from the 80s. His association with the Turks nearly got Kemal dishonorably discharged and summarily executed for treason, but for some reason this didn't happen.
Lookin' pimp in the desert.
Overthrowing an autocratic dictator and replacing him with democratically-elected officials is pretty sweet and all, but it was going to take more than a bi-cameral legislature to dispel the notion that the Ottoman Empire was pretty crappy compared to what it used to be. Lovingly known to the Western powers as "The sick man of Europe" because its military defense capabilities marginally resembled a really bored guy with mononucleosis, the Ottoman Empire found itself continually under attack from powerful outside forces, and it came down to guys like Captain Mustafa Kemal to stand up to powerful modernized armies looking to gank land and wealth away from his rapidly-crumbling empire. Captain Perfect first earned a name for himself as a no-bullshit face-wrecker in Libya in 1911, when he led 200 men on a balls-out charge against 2,000 unprepared Italian soldiers outside Tobruk and not only drove the enemy out of their trenches, but captured a bunch of their shit and made them look like bitches in the process. He later played a supporting role in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, constantly fighting off massively superior forces of Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbians trying to throw the Turks out of Eastern Europe.
The culmination of Ataturk's military career, however, is the incredibly over-the-top display of toughness he demonstrated on the shores of Gallipoli during World War I, when 16 divisions of British, French, ANZAC, and other Allied troops attempted an invasion of the Dardanelles and ran faces-first into Mustafa Kemal's titanium-plated nutsack of destruction. Kemal was just a Colonel of a reserve infantry division at the time, stationed at a critical choke point in the Bosporus that, if it fell into enemy hands, would have single-handedly dealt the Ottoman Empire a ball-punch from which it could not possibly have recovered. With the entire hopes and military capability of the Empire on his shoulders, Ataturk threw down with the most hardcore warriors in the world and demonstrated what a little bit of determination, a defensible set of trenches, and a whole lot of bullets could accomplish.
"I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.
Until we die, we can win the time for the arrival of new troops and commanders".
Kemal was on the front lines when this veritable fuck-ton of Aussies, New Zealanders, and Brits came around looking to cripple Turkey in one fell swoop, and he sure as hell wasn't about to let that shit go down on his watch. Without any authority to do so, Kemal took command of the entire defending force in the region and sent them charging to the front lines with orders to hold their positions from this European Zerg Rush at all costs. Tenaciously digging in to fortified terrain, and personally leading counter-attacks to re-take lost territory, this guy basically personally went up and down the shore stuffing himself into the middle of everything even remotely resembling a gunfight. Sure, he was facing an all-star lineup of hardcore asskickers – Australian, New Zealand, and Gurkha infantry, as well as coastal bombardments by the fearsome British Navy – but Ataturk didn't give a fuck. When the Sari Bair ridge was captured by badass Gurkhas after intense hand-to-kukri fighting, Kemal organized a group of men and re-captured the critical high grounds with a balls-out suicide charge. When he came across a platoon of retreating Turks complaining about not having bullets with which to kill anyone, he told his men to sack up, fix bayonets, hold their position, and shank anything bigger than a swamp rat that came within stabbing range. The actions of this one lowly Colonel almost single-handedly prevented what could have been an overwhelming Allied victory in the opening hours of the amphibious assault, and then, over the next ten months of intense fighting, he tenaciously held the line against a couple hundred thousand determined Allied soldiers. His completely reckless, balls-out attitude towards command (his command HQ was 300 yards from the battlefront) inspired the men to fight for their country, and Gallipoli ended up being a tremendous victory for the Ottomans.
As if that wasn't impressive enough, after Gallipoli, Colonel Kamal was transferred to the Caucasus, where he fought a defensive war against the Russians through the frigid mountains, and then to mix it up he went to Syria and held off Lawrence of Arabia's Arab Revolt among the burning sands. The guy didn't give a crap – you just pointed him in the direction of hard-charging invaders, and he was going to morph his troops into a giant spike wall ready to impale anything that came its way.
Kemal's victories weren't enough to save the declining Empire from defeat, however, and despite Kemal's best efforts to kill everyone in the world, the Istanbul government finally capitulated to the British and French. The Western powers, pissed off about the whole "world war" thing, placed a super-harsh, Treaty of Versailles-style series of punishments on the Turks, forcing them to pay tribute, redrawing country boundaries, and carving up their land among the western powers.
Once again, Kemal had to put his sack down and tell the West to go fuck a donkey. This badass military commander didn't bust people up and down the Gallipoli shores just to sit back and let a bunch of goddamned Europeans take over his peoples' lands, and he immediately rejected the terms of the surrender, left Istanbul in a boat in the middle of the night, crossed the Black Sea, established a new governmental capital at Ankara, and declared open revolt against the foreign powers occupying his homeland. For the next two years, this tenacious, no-bullshit asskicker he battled the combined forces of France, Britain, and Greece, halting their offensive on his new capital, crushing them in battle, throwing them back to the Mediterranean, chasing the reinstated Sultan out of Istanbul for the second time, and finally establishing Turkish independence from foreign rule. Suck on that, trolls.
All this assbeatery won Kemal quite a bit of street cred among the Turks (being your peoples' version of George Washington will do that to a guy), and in 1923 he was elected the first President of a Democratic Turkey. He abolished the Sultanate forever, set up a secular, non-religious-affiliated democracy, and brought 300 years of modernization to his country in the span of about 10 years. He made sweeping legal changes, instituted mandatory education, and abolished laws that denied freedom and equality to women. Fuck, the dude even changed the script to the Latin alphabet and updated the calendar to the shit the rest of the world was using.
Despite wrecking asses in combat at every possible juncture, Kemal was actually totally chill once he came to power. He went out of his way to reach out and establish peace, good relations, and trade with former enemies such as Greece, Australia, and Russia – people he was ordering his men to stab in the eyes with bayonets not ten years earlier were now extending their hands in friendship. He mediated international disputes, worked for peace, established goodwill among his neighbors, and was so fucking bitchin' that they even built a monument to the guy in the capital of Australia, and in 1981 the United Nations declared "The Ataturk Year in the World" to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Despite all this goodwill busting out of every orifice of the world, it's pretty obvious that nobody loved the guy quite as much as the Turks… the government formally bestowed the title "Ataturk" on him, meaning "Father of the Turks", and the Turks loved the dude so much they elected him president 15 years in a row, only failing to elect him a 16th time on account of the fact that he was deceased. From what I understand, even to this day pretty much everything in the country is named after him.
|"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
All About Turkey
Australian War Memorial
Blumberg, Arnold. Great Leaders, Great Tyrants?. Greenwood, 1995.
Goldschmidt, Arthur and Lawrence Davidson. A Concise History of the Middle East. Westview, 2006.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Gallipoli 1915. Osprey, 1991.
Sandler, Stanley. Ground Warfare. ABC-CLIO, 2002.