The Allies, feeling empowered by military victory, wanted an end to the Ottoman Empire — which had dared join the Germans in war. The British, French, Italians and Greeks maneuvered for advantage in the dissolution of the empire. The British occupied Constantinople and were maneuvering to hold on to authority in Palestine and Iraq. In late March, 1919, the Italians landed a force at Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast in southwestern Turkey, and Italian detachments moved 100 miles northeast to Konya and over 150 miles westward to the coastal town of Bodrum on the Aegean Sea. The French landed in the extreme southeast of Turkey, along the Mediterranean in the region of Cilicia. There they supported the Christian Armenians who were taking revenge upon the Muslim Turks, while educated Turks were mysteriously disappearing. The French were advocating the closure of all Turkish primary schools, the revival of old mosque schools, and colleges establishing instruction in French. And the French were maneuvering to take over Syria and Lebanon.
In Constantinople, the Sultan, Mehmed VI, and government ministers submitted to Allied authority, while some Turks, inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, were opposed to what the Allies were doing and were still looking with hope to the United States. They were especially inspired by Wilson’s 12th point, which read:
The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.
The greatest irritant to the Turks was the move by Greeks to take over what they saw as their territory. During the Great War the British had promised the Greeks land in Turkey in exchange for entering the war on the British-French side. In 1917 the Greeks took up the British offer while looking forward to a Greater Greece after the war. The Ottoman Empire had ruled the Greeks for more than 300 years, and Turks tended to feel superior to the Greeks, while the Greeks wanted the area around Edirne, western Asia Minor and Pontus by the Black Sea — areas with sizeable Greek populations since ancient times. And Greeks looked forward to taking control of Constantinople, the former seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity.
At the Paris Peace Conference, the British advocated giving the city of Smyrna and its hinterland to the Greeks. The U.S. and French delegations agreed, seeing such a move as protecting the Christian (Greek) minority in this region against the “murderous” Turks.
The Greeks landed near Smyrna in mid-May, 1919, and bloody fighting erupted between them and local Turks. The Greeks sent the Turkish majority fleeing, leaving the area predominately Greek. The Greeks were now joined with the French and Italians in occupying a portion of Asia Minor.
On March 20, 1920 the official occupation of Turkey began with the arrival of British troops at Constantinople. British soldiers killed any Turks who resisted militarily, as one would expect of any military operation. But they also raided and closed Turkey’s parliament and arrested and deported parliament deputies.
The Sultan and his ministers continued their submission to the Allies, and the Turkish government in Constantinople began persecuting those they perceived to be troublemakers, including those calling for the application of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Sultan’s government cooperated with Britain in the shipping of parliament’s deputies and others to a prison on the British controlled island of Malta.
Opposition to the moves of the Allies, and the Sultan and his government in Constantinople, began to form around the Turkish military leader, Mustafa Kemal. He had been a victor at Gallipoli during the Great War. Since 1905 he had been a critic of rule by the Sultans and of Islam. He had been a member of the military conspiracy that took power in 1908 but had been outside the inner circle and a thorn in the side of the Enver government during the war — Kemal not having favored entering the war on Germany’s side or fighting and dying for German interests. Now he was the foremost defender of Turkish nationalism and foremost Turkish opponent of the Sultan’s government in Constantinople. Kemal was not a man easily intimidated or ready to surrender to the authority of the Islamic caliph.
Kemal was an aggressive organizer, and patriotic Turks rallied around him. In unoccupied Turkey a National People’s Congress was formed, which on April 23, 1920, elected their great hope, Mustafa Kemal, as president. The new regime was in the town of Ankara. In Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed followed British pressure and denounced the nationalist movement, and, with the Sultan, Muslim authority in the person of Sheik ul-Islam denounced it as contrary to Islam.
What mattered more than Sheik ul-Islam’s pronouncements was the military strength that the upstart regime under Kemal was organizing. Turkey’s military had been shattered by the war. Here and there outside the capital, units were still intact but under strength. Civilians had taken up arms to defend their homes from the Greeks, and, on May 16, 1920, Kemal began organizing all irregulars into a force under his command, and he had the prestige to succeed in this. Some other generals joined their units to Kemal’s forces. Turks were willing to pay what was needed to equip their military with adequate supplies, and soldiers under Kemal’s command acquired a new hope and spirit. They believed in what they were fighting for.
On August 10, 1920, the Allies imposed upon the Sultan’s regime the Treaty of Sèvres, which limited Turkey to a military force of 50,000 — a force that was to be subject to “advice” from the Allied powers. The treaty gave Britain, France and Italy control over Turkey’s financial affairs and granted to France and Italy their zones of control and influence. The treaty also granted autonomy to the Kurds. But the regime in Ankara refused to recognize the treaty.
The Greek army, meanwhile, had been spreading out from Smyrna, and the Allies saw the Greek forces as an instrument to enforce the Treaty of Sèvres. Kemal let the Greeks advance, giving the preservation of his troops priority over holding territory. He was still building up the strength of his forces, while the Greeks were spreading themselves thin and extending their supply lines.
The first check to the Greek advance was at the Battle of Sakarya, between August 24 and September 16, 1921. The morale of the Turkish nation soared at Kemal’s victory, adding to Kemal’s strength.
In August, 1922, with the Greeks as close as forty miles to Ankara, Kemal began a counter offensive that sent the Greeks reeling back. Within two weeks the Greeks had their backs against the Aegean Sea. The British were unwilling to make war against Kemal and the Turkish drive for national self-determination. The British had had enough of war in recent years. The issue of war against the Turks helped to drive from power the champion of the Greek cause, Lloyd-George. The Greek dream of a Greater Greece was shattered. The remnants of the Greek army had to be evacuated by sea, and much of the Greek population — who spoke Turkish — left with them, ending a Greek presence that stretched back thousands of years. These Greeks were leaving an underpopulated Turkey and moving to an overpopulated Greece, where many would suffer more perhaps than they would have if Greece had left Turkey alone after the Great War.
Facing the military power of a united Turkish nation, the British evacuated Sultan Mehmed VI, on October 7, taking him and his entourage by warship to Malta. The Sultan, in his sixties, and still the moral leader of Muslims, took with him his eighteen-year-old bride. The girl had been engaged to a navy captain. She was the daughter of the Sultan’s gardener, and the Sultan had pressured the father into giving him the girl, against her will.
On November 2, 1922, the National Assembly, in Ankara, declared the old Sultanate abolished. Gone too were the leaders of the military coup of 1908 and the wartime leaders, Enver Pasha and his two colleagues. Enver had asked Kemal permission to return, which Kemal had denied, and Enver had died in August, in what is now Tajikistan, in a fight against a Bolshevik army. Enver’s two colleagues, Talat and Cemal, had been killed in 1921 by Armenians seeking revenge for wartime atrocities, Talat in Berlin and Cemal in Tiflis.
In July 1923, at Lausanne, the British, French, Italians, Romanians and Greeks signed an agreement with Kemal’s government that recognized Turkey’s independence and its permanent borders. Turkey agreed that the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas would be demilitarized, and they agreed to a temporary ban against an increase in custom duties. The British won from the Turks an agreement that non-Muslim children would have available to them instruction in their own language. And the Turks agreed that non-Muslims would receive an equitable share in benefits provided by Turkey’s national and local governments for education, religion and charity.
Turkey was now, in the eyes of the Turks at least, a republic. The new Turkish republic was proclaimed on October 29, 1923, and the nation rejoiced. Mustafa Kemal had led the Turks from occupation by the hated Allies and the ashes of the old Ottoman Empire to a new nation.
Mehmed VI, Islam’s 100th caliph and the empire’s last Sultan. Turkish nationalists disliked his acceptance of the peace treaty and submission to Allied authority.