Why the Turks Like Churchill

Why the Turks Like Churchill

How great was Atatürk? The ques­tion came up exam­in­ing Turk­ish atti­tudes to Churchill, which one might expect would be hos­tile. In 1914, Churchill’s Admi­ral­ty denied Turkey two bat­tle­ships being built in Britain as World War I erupt­ed. In 1915, Churchill pushed hard (though did not con­ceive of) the attacks on the Dar­d­anelles and Gal­lipoli. (See also “com­ments” on this post from thought­ful Turks.)


One his­to­ri­an spec­u­lat­ed that Churchill mir­rored the courage and resource­ful­ness of  Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Anoth­er said there “might be a lin­ger­ing impres­sion that Churchill had helped save Turkey from the red men­ace by his resis­tance to Russ­ian demands on the Dar­d­anelles Straits—of course it was Har­ry Tru­man who did the heavy lift­ing there [through the Tru­man Doc­trine]”

Churchill and Inonu, 1943 (Esc­fo­rums, Istanbul)

The Turks have abun­dant rea­sons to feel pos­i­tive toward Churchill, aside from his per­son­al courage, and his post-1945 resis­tance to Sovi­et designs on the Dar­d­anelles (when he was out of office and pow­er­less). Churchill’s lik­ing for Turkey dat­ed back to 1910, when he toured Anatolia—partly on a loco­mo­tive cow-catcher!—and “met many of the brave men who laid the foun­da­tions of mod­ern Turkey” (as he wrote to Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Ismet İnönü in 1943).

Churchill’s Admiration

Churchill under­took sev­er­al risky trips in World War II. His vis­it to İnönü was one of them. He went to Istan­bul after Casablan­ca, in a peri­od when he was away from home four weeks. Nor was the meet­ing entire­ly in vain, as he told Par­lia­ment in May 1944. Despite “an exag­ger­at­ed atti­tude of cau­tion,” İnönü inter­vened to halt chrome exports to Ger­many. This was more impor­tant then than it may seem now.

Turkey erect­ed this noble mon­u­ment and the Turk­ish con­sul-gen­er­al unveiled a sim­i­lar plaque at Anzac House, Syd­ney. Though its author­ship is dis­put­ed, the sen­ti­ments are Lin­col­nesque and Churchillian.

While under­stand­ing that he ruled by dik­tat, Churchill had pro­found admi­ra­tion for Atatürk. He wrote in 1938: “The tears which men and women of all class­es shed upon his bier were a fit­ting trib­ute to the life work of a man at once the hero, the cham­pi­on, and the father of mod­ern Turkey. Dur­ing his long dic­ta­tor­ship a pol­i­cy of admirable restraint and good­will cre­at­ed, for the first time in his­to­ry, most friend­ly rela­tions with Greece.” (Churchill by Him­self, 321).


Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (and his bio­graph­ic vol­ume IV in more detail) record Churchill’s per­for­mance in the 1922 Chanak cri­sis.  This added to his Turk­ish cred­its. Churchill per­sis­tent­ly argued, in telegrams, let­ters and Cab­i­net meet­ings, for a firm stance by Britain and the Domin­ions. But he restrained a bel­li­cose, pro-Greece Lloyd George from act­ing rash­ly when the Turks marched near British-occu­pied Chanak. Even­tu­al­ly there was a nego­ti­at­ed set­tle­ment. With that, the Con­ser­v­a­tives bolt­ed the Lloyd George Coali­tion. This cost Lloyd George his pre­mier­ship and Churchill his seat in Par­lia­ment. Mar­tin Gilbert con­cludes (Churchill: A Life, 454):

Churchill saw the Chanak cri­sis as a suc­cess­ful exam­ple of how to halt aggres­sion, and then embark on suc­cess­ful nego­ti­a­tions, by remain­ing firm. But “Chanak” had become the pre­text not only for the fall of the Gov­ern­ment but for one more, unjus­ti­fied, charge of his own impetuosity.

Meeting İnönü

Gilbert’s Churchill: A Pho­to­graph­ic Por­trait records WSC’s 1943 let­ter above, which he hand­ed İnönü when they met. After remem­ber­ing “the brave men,” Churchill explained:

There is a long sto­ry of the friend­ly rela­tions between Great Britain and Turkey. Across it is a ter­ri­ble slash of the last war, when Ger­man intrigues and British and Turk­ish mis­takes led to our being on oppo­site sides. We fought as brave and hon­ourable oppo­nents. But those days are done, and we and our Amer­i­can Allies are pre­pared to make vig­or­ous exer­tions in order that we shall all be together…to move for­ward into a world arrange­ment in which peace­ful peo­ples will have a right to be let alone and in which all peo­ples will have a chance to help one another.

Not bad for the hoary old impe­ri­al­ist. This rep­re­sents rather an improve­ment on some more recent west­ern over­tures to Turkey. I sus­pect many Turks still feel pret­ty good about Churchill. The Adana, Turkey sid­ing where the İnönü meet­ing occurred has been turned into a park ded­i­cat­ed to peace.

13 thoughts on “Why the Turks Like Churchill

  1. The heart­felt speech attrib­uted to Ataturk about Turks and Aus­tralians in Gal­lipoli is his­tor­i­cal­ly dubi­ous, exten­sive research shows.
    Cor­rect, as I stat­ed in the cap­tion. Thanks. RML

  2. One must sep­a­rate the WW1 and WW2 Churchill. The first came to an end in Gal­lipoli, where Mustafa Kemal played a key if not the most impor­tant role (see Ger­man Com­man­der Liman von Sanders auto­bi­og­ra­phy). Churchill did indeed pay the price with his office and. for a time, his reputation.

    Mustafa Kemal saw the demise of the Ottoman Empire com­ing and envis­aged a mod­ern Turk­ish State. His expe­ri­ence through the late Ottoman Par­lia­ments and the İtt­ih­at and Ter­ra­ki (Progress and Union Par­ty) led him to see how a strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant land like Turkey could be swayed by Great Pow­er pol­i­tics. He saw the need for Turkey to cre­ate a strong foun­da­tion and the insti­tu­tions of democ­ra­cy. The Turk­ish state was in sham­bles when it was formed; edu­ca­tion and reli­gious reform and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment were para­mount. They could not hith­er­to been achieved with Great Pow­er pol­i­tics. Kemal’s dic­ta­tor­ship was unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic but absolute­ly essen­tial in build­ing mod­ern Turkey.
    It is through this lens that we see Churchill’s sec­ond com­ing, where he was the defend­er of lib­er­ty and aggres­sion, had a friend­ly and admirable view of Mustafa Kemal—once a foe, then a dig­ni­tary, even­tu­al­ly an ally.

  3. Judg­ing Atatürk I leave to those more knowl­edge­able than I, but there is an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion on Red­dit. Atatürk was, as one writer notes there, an offi­cer fight­ing on Gal­lipoli dur­ing the Armen­ian mas­sacres. See: http://bit.ly/2siytPR. But to be fair, Atatürk did a lot of anti-Greek eth­nic cleans­ing when he first came to power.

    We can­not change the past, but we can learn from it. We often con­grat­u­late our­selves for admit­ting that a great fig­ure was imper­fect and human. But that is not the main point. It is not even an inter­est­ing point. The unusu­al thing about Churchill (and per­haps Atatürk) is not that he was human: there are bil­lions of humans. It is that he was excel­lent. If great sim­ply means promi­nent, Churchill and Hitler were both great. If great means excel­lent, Churchill qual­i­fies and Hitler doesn’t. If the cri­te­ri­on is excel­lence (on the whole, based on every­thing some­one did), then there is a slid­ing scale and Hitler ranks at the bottom.

    Robert E. Lee, to take an Amer­i­can exam­ple, is high on that scale, even though he wasn’t always right. He was wrong in choos­ing loy­al­ty to Vir­ginia over loy­al­ty to the Union. “The right tone to take with him, after his cause was destroyed,” says a schol­ar and friend of mine, “is one of cour­tesy and accep­tance of those who fol­lowed him. They are fel­low coun­try­men and this is the way to make them bet­ter ones. Lin­coln shows the way at the end of his sec­ond inau­gur­al address.” 

    You may decide whether Lincoln’s advice applies to Atatürk: “With mal­ice toward none, with char­i­ty for all, with firm­ness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to fin­ish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” 

    Lincoln’s words were close­ly repeat­ed by Churchill—and Atatürk (his author­ship is dis­put­ed) on a mon­u­ment to fall­en “John­nies and Mehmets.” I have added this to my post above. Thank-you for your thought­ful message.

  4. I admire your thoughts about Atatürk. He was indeed a great man but he also had his flaws and got his hands dirty. I admire him for the fact that he man­aged to cre­ate a civ­il code and that he final­ly man­aged to push us Turks into the next cen­tu­ry. But I also do believe in free­dom of speech and that the flaws of Atatürk should be debat­ed. He was a dic­ta­tor after all. If we look at the cir­cum­stances and the era, we may con­clude that there was no oth­er option. Or maybe there was, but we will nev­er know because we can­not change the past.

  5. This is a com­pli­cat­ed sub­ject. Churchill’s account is in Chap­ter 19 of “The After­math” where he writes: “…hav­ing done my utmost for three years to pro­cure a friend­ly peace with Mustafa Kemal and the with­draw­al of the Greeks from Asia Minor, and hav­ing con­sis­tent­ly opposed my friend the Prime Min­is­ter upon this issue, I now found myself whole-heart­ed­ly upon his side.” 

    Churchill is refer­ring to Lloyd George’s bel­li­cose atti­tude toward Turkey when Kemal seemed to threat­en British enclaves at Istan­bul and Chanak (Can­nakale), which had been main­tained since vic­to­ry in 1918. 

    In late 1921 Churchill urged Lloyd George to come to terms with Turkey: “The desire you have to retain Mosul, and indeed Mesopotamia, is direct­ly frus­trat­ed by this vendet­ta against the Turks…” But in sum­mer 1922 the Kemal forces, hav­ing defeat­ed the Greeks and were march­ing on Izmir (Smyr­na), and seemed to threat­en (but did not attack) the British gar­risons. Churchill, as he wrote, now found him­self on Lloyd George’s side. 

    The Wikipedia Chanak entry says Churchill “want­ed war,” but this is over­sim­pli­fied. What he want­ed was not to reward the defeat­ed Ottomans with a vic­to­ry they had not won in World War I. There was a broad fear in Britain against giv­ing Turkey back a foothold in Europe. Churchill, who admired Atatürk, ulti­mate­ly sup­port­ed nego­ti­a­tion that did allow this. 

    East­ern Thrace had been award­ed to Greece by the harsh Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and Istan­bul was placed in a so-called “neu­tral zone.” (Atatürk, quite nat­u­ral­ly, want­ed Turkey’s cap­i­tal back.) In nego­ti­a­tions in Octo­ber 1922 it was giv­en back, restor­ing Turkey’s pres­ence in Europe and com­plete com­mand of the Bosporus Straits. This was con­firmed (and the British gar­risons end­ed) by the Lau­sanne Treaty of 1923-24, which super­seded the Sèvres Treaty and estab­lished the bor­ders of mod­ern Turkey.

  6. By encour­ag­ing the Greeks to attack Turkey dur­ing their strug­gle for inde­pen­dence, the British and Allies want­ed to break apart the Ottoman main­land and take Istan­bul. Was Churchill against this? I don’t know.

  7. Sor­ry, I can’t track it. (“But Mus­fafa Kemal”…did what? Destroyed British plans?) Churchill appre­ci­at­ed the qual­i­ties of ene­my com­man­ders. I’m not sure what role Kemal played in the Dar­d­anelles, but Churchill expressed admi­ra­tion for his lat­er actions to repulse the land­ings at Gal­lipoli. In The World Cri­sis Vol 2 (1915) he writes:

    “The two Turk­ish divi­sions who were left with­out help of any sort to face the onslaught of the Allied Army were shrewd­ly disposed….At the head of the 19th Divi­sion there stood in this strange sto­ry a Man of Des­tiny. Mustapha Kemal Bey had on April 24 ordered his best reg­i­ment, the 57th, a field exercise
    for the next morn­ing in the direc­tion of the high moun­tain of Sari Bair….Kemal was ordered mere­ly to detach a sin­gle bat­tal­ion to deal with [the land­ings]. But this Gen­er­al instant­ly divined the pow­er and per­il of the attack. On his own author­i­ty he at once ordered the whole 57th Reg­i­ment, accom­pa­nied by a Bat­tery of Artillery, to march to meet it. He him­self on foot, map in hand, set off across coun­try at the head of the lead­ing company.
    The dis­tance was not great, and in an hour he met the Turk­ish cov­er­ing forces falling back before the impetu­ous Aus­tralian advance. He at once ordered his lead­ing bat­tal­ion to deploy and attack, and him­self per­son­al­ly plant­ed his moun­tain Bat­tery in posi­tion. Forth­with – again with­out seek­ing high­er author­i­ty – he ordered his 77th Reg­i­ment to the scene. By ten o’clock, when the Turk­ish Com­man­der-in-Chief gal­loped on to the field, prac­ti­cal­ly the whole of the Reserves in the South­ern part of the Penin­su­la had been drawn into the bat­tle, and ten bat­tal­ions and all the avail­able artillery were in vio­lent action against the Australians.”

    He also shared Ataturk’s mag­na­nim­i­ty for the fall­en on both sides and admired his peace­time lead­er­ship. Writ­ing in 1937 on the 19th anniver­sary of the Armistice, con­cern­ing the changes since, he said: “…Turkey, no longer the ene­my of Rus­sia or of Greece, is, under the lead­er­ship of Mustapha Kemal – the only Dic­ta­tor with the aure­ole of mar­tial achieve­ment – rec­on­ciled with what used to be called ‘the Allied and Asso­ci­at­ed Powers.'”

  8. There’s been a quote going around in Turk­ish social media, sup­pos­ed­ly said by Win­ston Churchill about Ataturk in 1915. “çanakkale savaşın­da her şeyi göze almıştık, plan­lamıştık… bir tek mustafa kemal dışın­da…” Rough­ly trans­lat­ed as “We envi­sioned and planned every­thing in Canakkale (Chanak)…but Mustafa Kemal” 

    I couldn’t find any source oth­er than Facebook fan pages for this. Is there any valid­i­ty to this quote? Did Churchill say any­thing along these lines or about Ataturk and the WW1?

  9. @SINAN CALISKAN Sinan bey, I’m so incensed by your com­ment: “I hate Win­ston Churchill… because he tried to fin­ish our roots and coun­try” that it has moti­vat­ed me to reply a sec­ond time. The Dar­d­anelles cam­paign was a part of the First World War. In that war, Churchill was very focused on beat­ing the Ger­mans, not intent on destroy­ing Turkey, mere­ly intent pre­vent­ing it from car­ry­ing on as a Ger­man ally. Ataturk had opposed Turkey becom­ing a Ger­man ally. On 16 July 1914, he sent a dis­patch from Sofia to the Min­istry of War in Istan­bul, urg­ing aneu­tral­i­ty in the event of war, but Enver Pasha over­ruled him and the Ottoman Empire came into the war on the side of the Ger­mans (source: p. 60 of “Ataturk: The Re-birth of a Nation” by Lord Kinross).

  10. @SINAN CALISKAN Sinan Bey, You say: “I hate Win­ston Churchill… because he tried to fin­ish our roots and country.”

    You have com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion. He want­ed to remove Turkey, as one of Germany’s allies, from the war. That is not the same as try­ing “to fin­ish our roots and coun­try.” I also don’t under­stand why you loathe the Anzacs. See the quo­ta­tion above by Atatürk, on the Gal­lipoli Bat­tle­field, that starts: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soul of a friend­ly coun­try. There­fore rest in peace. There is no dif­fer­ence between the John­nies and the Mehmets to us.”

  11. Isn’t there enough hate in the world with­out man­u­fac­tur­ing more of it with sweep­ing mis­judg­ments? The 1915 Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli oper­a­tion was an attempt by the WW1 Allies to relieve the Rus­sians on the Black Sea and to force Turkey, fight­ing with the Ger­mans, out of the war, not to “fin­ish” Turkey’s “roots.”

    It is per­haps worth bring­ing to your atten­tion anoth­er quo­ta­tion by the great Atatürk, which is on a plaque on the Gal­lipoli Battlefield:

    “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soul of a friend­ly coun­try. There­fore rest in peace. There is no dif­fer­ence between the John­nies and the Mehmets to us. Where they lie, side by side here in this coun­try of ours…You, the moth­ers who sent their sons from far­away coun­tries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After hav­ing lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

  12. I’m a native Turk and I hate Win­ston Churchill despite our great leader what­ev­er said about him, because he tried to fin­ish our roots and coun­try by using Anzacs [Aus­tralia New Zealand Army Corps which land­ed on the Gal­lipoli Penin­su­la in 1915]. I also don’t like Anzac and any Aus­tralians who rep­re­sent them now for every year cel­e­bra­tions at Dar­d­anelles (Çanakkale). They tried to kill us. I nev­er for­get this.

  13. Aaaaaaw. Turks like Win­ston Churchill because since they won their Inde­pen­dence war and Gal­lipoli they have no prob­lems with his ambi­tions from that time. But lat­er, dur­ing the sec­ond WW he was awe­some, which is why Turks admire him, like the rest of the world mostly.

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