Aktar, Ayhan: Rewriting the history of Gallipoli: a Turkish perspective

Ayhan Aktar *

Rewriting the history of Gallipoli: a Turkish perspective‘, Honest History, 25 July 2017 updated

The history of the Gallipoli campaign has been contested in Turkey for many decades. The commemorations of the Ottoman naval victory of 18 March point to Staff Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) as ‘the only man, the only commanding officer’. Yet, this official narrative contradicts Atatürk’s own almost contemporary version, where his role was minimal on that day.

On the other hand, Mustafa Kemal later tried, for political and career reasons, to highlight his role in the land operations commencing 25 April. While he was fairly unsuccessful in his efforts to appoint himself to a decision-making position within the Young Turk regime, historians on the Allied side (Bean, Churchill and General Aspinall-Oglander), turned him into ‘the Man of Destiny’. The myth grew in the turbulent international relations of the early 1930s and has been consolidated since.

Parallel, however, to the glorification of Mustafa Kemal have been shifting narratives of the Gallipoli campaign as the army of Muslims defending the House of Islam against the Crusaders, the men wearing crosses. There is evidence that this Islamist narrative is growing in importance in today’s Turkey. Finally, in the background of Gallipoli commemorations there has always been the elephant in the room, that is, the Armenian Genocide. This event commenced on 24 April 1915 and its place in Turkish history is still debated.

Update 9 August 2017: the article refers to the naval operations of March 1915, particularly the work of the Turkish mine-sweeper Nusret and the sinking of the French battleship Bouvet. Professor Aktar’s recent research sheds new light on these events. His article just published in War and Society is here (pdf by courtesy of the author). (Abridged version in World War One Illustrated, Fall 2018.) Aktar concludes that ‘the Turkish military history of Gallipoli naval battles has turned out to be a cheap “mimicry” of the British one’.

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* Ayhan Aktar, Institute of Social Sciences, Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey, is a National Library of Australia Fellow during 2017.

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