What Kemal (probably, possibly) did: Ataturk’s letter

The Gallipoli 1915: a century on conference last week heard mentions of the famous ‘Atatürk letter’. We have a number of relevant references on the Honest History website, some of them incorporating research that others may not have done. These references were previously collected here, in a note on an article about Gallipoli by Tim Arango of the New York Times; we thought it would be a good idea to bring them together more accessibly. We welcome comment.

The Arango article concludes with the claim that Atatürk wrote in 1934 ‘to Australian mothers’, assuring them that their sons were safe in Turkish care. This letter, if such it was, has been widely and fondly quoted. On the other hand, Honest History President, Peter Stanley, in the Arango article and elsewhere, casts doubt on stories of battlefield camaraderie between Turks and Australians and of exceptional Turkish solicitude since. The letter or statement itself has an interesting history.

The version of the statement linked to Arango’s article is one provided by the Turkish Embassy in Canberra and commences with the words ‘To The ANZAC’s’ (sic). The version of Atatürk’s words on the memorials at Gallipoli and in Canberra, however, commences, ‘Those heroes that shed their blood’. There is no explicit mention of Anzac. Even in the Turkish Embassy version the salutation is outside the quotation marks; there is no mention of Anzac within the quotation marks. Nor is there any internal evidence in the letter that it was addressed specifically to Australian mothers. Professor Sevinç Özer, Çanakkale University, Turkey, refers to the letter as being ‘to Anzac mothers’ but gives no authority for this.

The only possibly relevant reference in the Australian press in 1934 is an item mentioning a ‘message of greeting’ from Atatürk to the British Ambassador, Sir Percy Loraine, who hosted a dinner on 4 May for 700 ‘pilgrims’ to Gallipoli, including ‘Captain Wetherell from Australia’. At the time, relations between Britain and Turkey were at a crucial point. (Ataturk sent an Anzac Day message to Australia in 1934.)

Stanton Hope described the 1934 pilgrimage in the Sydney Morning Herald; Captain H. Wetherell was a veteran of the 5th Light Horse. There is no mention in this article, though, of any message from Atatürk. In another version, quoting a Turkish book written in 1978, Atatürk wrote the speech for one of his ministers, Şükrü Kaya, who was to give a speech at Gallipoli, presumably during the 1934 pilgrimage. Today, you can press a button in the refurbished World War I galleries at the Australian War Memorial and a BBC-style voice recites Atatürk’s words. Peter Stanley and David Stephens discuss the letter/speech in depth.

If the Atatürk message began as a diplomatic tactic it has taken on new life on monuments and as a pillar of Australia-Turkey relations. Perhaps the last words are best left to Peter Stanley and David Stephens: ‘Atatürk’s words express an admirable sentiment but they are not necessarily good history’. Whether originally letter, speech or political gesture the words ‘[strike] a chord in the people of both nations as a fine statement of reconciliation’.

22 March 2015


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