My name is Charles Robbins, the chief correspondent of the Chicago Daily Tribune in Constantinople. I was sent here in 1919 to cover events in the Near East for my newspaper. My reports focused on the disastrous Greek campaign in Anatolia that resulted in the expulsion of over a million Greeks from their ancestral homeland.
I interviewed the Turkish nationalist leader, Mustapha Kemal Pasha (Ataturk) in Smyrna regarding his views on defeating the Greeks and the future of Turkey for two hours. I let him speak freely and occasionally would interrupt him seeking clarification on some point he raised. His demeanor towards me was friendly – he offered me tea and a cigar, making me feel at home.
Ataturk recounted his experiences as an officer in the Ottoman army at Gallipoli and Middle East theatres during the First World War. At Gallipoli, he established his reputation as a commander exhorting his men to drive the enemy of the peninsula into the sea. “I command you to die for the fatherland”, he said. “I couldn’t stand the arrogant German General, Liman Von Sanders who regarded us Turks as inferiors. As an officer, I was under his command and obeyed his orders under sufferance. There were times we disagreed over strategy but he always had the final word. I deplored our alliance with Germany and preferred us to have been with the Anglo-French. The triumvirate: Enver, Talaat, and Djamel were responsible for backing the wrong horse and got the Empire into all this mess.”
I asked him where he did serve after Gallipoli. “I served shortly in the war office in Constantinople before being assigned to the Syrian campaign and fought against the British, which included Australian and Indian colonial troops. The colonials were damn good soldiers who proved instrumental in our defeat in the Middle East. We lacked the manpower, weapons, clothing, boots, and food rations to prosecute our campaign in Syria,” he stated in a low tone.
After the war, Ataturk returned to Constantinople feeling dejected after the Ottoman defeat. “I learned from contacts in the war ministry that the victorious powers were to carve up the empire into zones of economic influence and leave a small rump for us. I had no idea how we would counteract such action. I was appointed inspector-general to demobilize our eastern army as part of the Mudros armistice. I left Constantinople and landed at Samsoun on May 19, 1919. An earth-shattering event happened four days earlier with the landing of Greek troops in Smyrna. This changed the whole situation for me. I ignored my orders and proceeded inland to start a movement to free our homeland from all foreign occupiers. Our liberation plans were sketched out in Sivas and Erzurum. Initially, the Greek campaign was successful since it had the backing of the Anglo-French”, he uttered.
“What changed for you”, I asked. “The Treaty of Sevres and the return of King Constantine to Greece were two key factors. Firstly, the treaty handed over Smyrna and Thrace to Greece and imposed very harsh conditions on the empire. This was unacceptable. I made it my mission to tear up this mere scrap of paper. Constantine’s return changed the attitude of the Anglo-French-Italians towards us. They distrusted him despite his assurances to the contrary. They decided to open dialogue by inviting us to the London Conference in February/March 1921 to modify the treaty. The proffered changes seemed good on paper but the Greeks wished to crush our movement,” he stated.
“What happened next”, I elicited. “The Greek objective was the occupation of our capital, Angora. In July-August 1921, the Greeks won a series of battles at Eskishehr and Afyon Karahissar forcing, us to retreat close to Angora. Things were bleak. The Grand National Assembly granted me full authority to take command of our army against the Greeks. I stated that if we lost, then I would step down from my position as commander-in-chief. Fortunately, that never happened. Our troops fought courageously against a determined enemy forcing him to retreat to the Eskishehr-Afion Karahissar defensive line. What helped our campaign were military supplies from Russia, France, and Italy, who despised the Greece of Constantine. Their contribution to our war effort was duly acknowledged by the Grand National Assembly. I thought the Greek decision to pursue us deep into Asia Minor was sheer madness. They overstretched their lines of communication which made it easy for us to launch our successful campaign in late August 1922. We defeated them and liberated our nation from the enemy,” he said excitedly.
“How do you see the future of Turkey”, I asked. “With the Greeks gone, we needed to arrange an armistice, negotiate a new peace treaty, and solve the perennial minorities problem. I want a modern Turkey to take its place among civilized nations of the world and eventually become a member of the League of Nations. The latter is a noble goal worth attaining,” and he continued, “the Sultanate should be replaced by the Grand National Assembly as the sole authority in all of Turkey. I consider the Sultan a hindrance to our modernization plans. He can remain in Turkey so long as he becomes a private citizen. If he refuses, then he can leave. We will reveal our plans on the Sultanate at the appropriate time”, he articulated. His plans for the Sultanate were confidential and not for publication. I kept my word and didn’t include it in my article.
“Who started the Smyrna fire?”, I asked. Initially, Ataturk was silent for a few seconds before responding to my question. I found his comments somewhat hollow. “I never gave such an order and any Turk who lit the fire would be severely punished. I am informed from my officers that the Greeks and Armenians started the fire,” he said. “Excellency, I have received reports from neutral sources that your officers and soldiers including citizens were responsible for this terrible act. How do you explain that?”. He responded that it was anti-Turkish propaganda designed to give his nation a bad name.
The two hours passed quickly and I came away with the impression of an individual imbued with western ideas ready to bring his nation into the modern age. However, all non-Muslim minorities would not be permitted to live in the new Turkey.