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A Military Strategist and Leader

Volumes have been written about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s early life, military experience and accomplishments during the period between the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the early years after World War I.  Although this website is kept brief, please see Books and Articles about Atatürk for more information. 

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (19 May 1881 - 10 November 1938) was born in Salonika (now Thessaloniki, Greece) at the end of the most turbulent era of the declining Ottoman Empire.  In fact, it was soon to be the end or decline of all European empires, including the British Empire, the German Empire, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and France. 

Atatürk graduated from a middle-school military academy in Monastir (modern-day Bitolj, Macedonia), and the Harbiye War College in Istanbul.  He served in the military and rose through the ranks in both Ottoman (1893-1919) and the subsequent Turkish (1919-1923) armies.

While an officer in the Ottoman Army (1893-1919), Atatürk served in Damascus, Syria; Salonika, Greece; and Albania. He also served as a military attaché in Sofia, Bulgaria, an Ottoman military observer in France and in the Ministry of War in the Istanbul headquarters.  Atatürk’s military skill was demonstrated while commanding troops in the Italian-Ottoman War in Libya; the First and Second Balkan Wars; and the Battle of Gallipoli, Syria, and Palestine in World War I.  

Also, while serving in the Ottoman Army, Atatürk participated in covert organizations that worked towards ending the sultanate and installing a democratic government, including: the Motherland and Liberty (Vatan ve Hürriyet), the Committee of Union and Progress, and the Young Turk Revolution.    

Atatürk continued his service after World War I as commander of the Turkish National Army, demonstrating exceptional leadership, strategist, and visionary skills during the War of Independence, including the battle of Smyrna, the Sakarya River, Afyonkarahisar, and Dumlupınar.


Italian-Ottoman War: 1911 - 1912

In 1911, Italy declared war on a weakening Ottoman Empire for purposes of imperial expansion in the African provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica (in modern-day Libya).  Previously, a large number of Ottoman troops had been moved out of the Libyan area to quell increasing unrest in Yemen.  Because the British Empire prevented Ottoman troops from entering the arena, Atatürk and his comrades were left to face an amphibious invasion of 150,000 Italian troops with his 8,000 troops and 20,000 Bedouins near Tobruk, Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli.  In spite of these incredible odds, lack of reinforcements, high casualties, the inhospitable terrain, the hardships, and the serious eye wound he received, Atatürk was able to hold the Libyan province. 

Unable to take the Libyan region, Italy assaulted other Ottoman provinces, but because of a more serious uprising in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire surrendered the Libyan-area province and other territories to the Kingdom of Italy.   


First and Second Balkan Wars: 1912-13

As a simplistic background to the Balkan Wars, European Empires had been grappling with each other to acquire new territories, while their multi-ethnic populations agitated for countries of their own.

The Ottoman Empire was weakening, unable to support many of its provinces, and was progressively losing territory, as seen in the Italian-Ottoman War.  Another example: years earlier, in 1908, the Austria-Hungary Empire took the Ottoman province of Bosnia. However, the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Montenegrins wanted to expand their respective countries in the Balkans. Alliances between European empires triggered hostilities, but war between them was avoided when Russia backed off.  

However, anger still boiled in the area. The First Balkan War broke out after an effort to drive out the Ottoman Empire troops and Turkic people. To defend the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk was sent with Ottoman troops to the Battle of Bulair (on coast of Thrace). The Ottoman troops were outnumbered and repelled by Bulgarian troops, and the Sultan was forced to cede all European territories, which included the Balkans, Thrace and even Cyprus.

In spite of the post-war treaty and because of reluctantly surrendered territory, nobody was happy after the First Balkan War. Hostilities erupted again. During the Second Balkan War, Atatürk was part of the forces sent  to regain Dimetoka and Edirne in eastern Thrace. Edirne was once the Ottoman capital between 1365 and 1453, so reclaiming these eastern Thrace territories from the Bulgarians was deemed essential to the Ottoman Empire.

For his performance in the Second Balkan War, Atatürk was appointed as attaché to the Balkan states, stationed in Sofia, Bulgaria, and received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.


World War I: 1914 - 1918

The causes of World War I are complex and are still being debated today. Briefly, massive European empires were struggling to stay in power as their multi-ethnic people struggled to create nations of their own. The pressure of economic competition between major European powers for national wealth also played a significant role. Complicating the situation were the tangled alliances that the European empires and various countries held with each other to try to counterbalance another more powerful alliance. Any offense to one entity was an offense to many.  The spark of war that ignited this powder keg occurred in 1914 when a Bosnian Serb assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

In retaliation, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the dominoes tipped around the globe. The Ottoman Empire, which was in alliance with the German Empire (which was part of the Central Powers alliance), was brought into war when the Germans declared war on Russia, France and Belgium, who were in a pact as Allies.

The Ottoman Empire was attacked on multiple fronts: the British attacked in the Mesopotamia and Egypt; the Russians attacked from the north; and Allied Armies attacked the Dardanelles straits, in order to secure waterways to the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul, the Bosphorus, and the Black Sea beyond (see Map 1). 


 Map 1.  Ottoman Empire at the Start of World War I

Map Credit:


Atatürk, who was stationed on the Gallipoli Peninsula as Commander of the 19th Division, Fifth Army, was fiercely determined not to let these multi-national armies invade his homeland.

What happened in the Dardanelles on the Gallipoli Peninsula was extraordinary and fully credited to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 

He and his troops were thinly stretched along the most crucial front line to defend their country, but they knew that the very existence of their homeland was at stake. The fighting was ferocious and horrific, but he would demand of his troops: “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our places!”

Because Atatürk astutely predicted the numerous locations where invading British and ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corp) troops would land, he was able to anticipate, hold territory, attack, and launch counter offensives on multiple fronts, ultimately driving the enemies into retreat. 

The Battle of Gallipoli (from February 1915 to January 1916) was a disaster for Winston Churchill and the Allies, who realized that it would be impossible to defeat the Ottoman Empire in this campaign. The losses were horrifying on both sides, though exact numbers are difficult to establish. It is estimated that Turkey suffered 87,000 dead and 165,000 wounded. The Allies, which included British, Indian, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops, suffered an estimated 44,000 dead and 97,000 wounded.  The battlefields of Anzac Cove, Chunuk Bair, Scimitar Hill, and Sari Bair, are hallowed ground and sites of annual pilgrimages to this day.

After the Battle of Gallipoli, Brigadier General Atatürk was transferred to command troops on the eastern front.  Atatürk and his troops were again fighting on the front line, desperately defending their homeland.  In a massive counteroffensive, Atatürk led the recapture of the cities of Erzurum, Bitlis and Muş. Enemy troops retook Muş, but because of the impending Russian Revolution, the Russian armies withdrew. Atatürk then focused on containing the remaining enemy troops but was transferred to yet another battle front in the Sinai and Palestine province.   

Headquartered in Palestine, Atatürk observed a hopelessly failing Ottoman Empire. There was no active government, severe hunger, confusion, foreign propaganda, inhospitable terrain, hatred towards the Ottomans, and British support for an Arab Revolt. The Turkish Army, under the leadership of General Liman von Sanders had lost the Battle of Megiddo, which resulted in 75,000 Turkish POWs on the first day of fighting. Morale was dismal.

Atatürk replaced Liman van Sanders as commander, as Allied armies were preparing for the final attack on the Ottoman Army. Atatürk, with brilliant strategic defensive measures, deployed what remained of his troops and effectively stopped the British advance at Aleppo, Syria.  Following this, a treaty, the Armistice of Mudros, formally ended the aggressions between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Army in the Middle East. As part of this treaty, the Ottomans relinquished territory outside of the Anatolian borders, allowed for the occupation of the Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and any other area deemed a threat to security, including harbors, ports, and railroads. In addition, the Ottoman Army was dismantled. Following the Armistice of Mudros, Istanbul was occupied by France and Britain, and the Ottoman Empire was officially partitioned.

Returning his soldiers home after the Sinai and Palestine campaign was Atatürk’s last service as an Ottoman soldier.



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