Mustafa Kemal is one of those incredible military commanders that most Americans have never heard of.  While the Ottoman army generally fared badly during World War I (it was an ally of the Central Powers), the one place it did quite well was at Gallipoli, under the leadership of Kemal.  At that battle, he was the only Ottoman (Turkish) leader to correctly predict where the Allies would land, and as the allies approached, he said to his men, “I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die.  In the time it takes us to die, other troops and officers will arrive to take our place.”  The exact quote varies a little between sources, but nonetheless his troops did as they were told and it unfolded just as he said, with most of men becoming casualties but in the process slowing the Allied advance until more Turkish troops could arrive.  He survived the battle, but was nearly killed several times during the course of the war, including the time when a piece of shrapnel hit the stopwatch which was resting over his heart.

When the victorious Allies carved up the Ottoman Empire, and took just a few too many pieces, the Turks rejected the terms of the peace and thus began the War of Independence.  The Turkish Army, led by Kemal, pushed the Greeks (and others) out of what is now western Turkey and and Thrace before signing a new peace treaty.

Kemal needed some new sense of national self to replace the discarded Ottoman Empire, and he looked back to the Turks.  The Seljuk Turks originally were a people in central Asia who moved into Anatolia (which is the central part of modern Turkey) hundreds of years ago (first as immigrants, then as conquerors), displacing the Byzantine Empire.  The Seljuks in turn were displaced by the Ottomans.  With the end of the Ottoman Empire, all things Ottoman were to be replaced, so the country was given the new name Turkey, Kemal adopted the name Atatürk, or Father of Turks, and he became the first President of the Republic of Turkey.

Atatürk instituted many radical changes and worked to modernize and secularize the country.  He died at age 57 in 1938.  A close ally succeeded him in the presidency and ensured Atatürk’s name and legacy would not be forgotten.  It is still illegal to disparage Atatürk in Turkey.

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