Gallipoli Campaign: A Symbolic Battleground (Özgür Öztürk)





He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

1984, George Orwell



This article argues that there is no static approach to the meaning of Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey. There is a social dimension that shapes the understanding of the battle continually. The understanding of the battle changes when a rival political group champions on the historiography of the battle. In Turkey, political groups, namely Kemalists and Islamists, contend over the meaning of the battle. This rivalry makes the history of Gallipoli Campaign as a symbolic battle ground between the groups. Since the Turks do not constitute a single political group, Gallipoli Campaign is what the groups make of it. In Turkey, Gallipoli Campaign is a historical heritage that is always under construction.

Defending the Straits

In 1915, the allies came to the shores of the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of the Europe”, with the strongest navy in the world to crush the Ottomans[2] to invade the capital of the empire, Istanbul. The naval operation was based on the assumption that the Ottomans were weak and not capable enough to defend the strait of Dardanelles.[3] The allies envisioned that the Ottomans would be intimidated when they saw the weapons of the navy. The Ottomans “were not regarded as a European enemy in the terminology of the time” and the British officers thought that they “could take risks that they would not have attempted against the German army.”[4] Thanks to the presumption of easy success, Winston Churchill planned to hire the Ottomans as mercenary to the British army.[5] During the First Balkan War, lasted from 1912 to 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost most of the part of its European lands. The empire also lost Edirne, the previous capital of the empire. The Ottoman Empire was defeated in less than 60 days.[6] Mustafa Kemal, at a day following 25 April 1915, addressed his solders:

“…we must drive those now in front of us into the sea… There is no need to scheme much to make the enemy run. I do not expect that any of us would not rather die than repeat the shameful story of the Balkan Wars. But if there are any such men among us, we should at once lay hand on them and set them up to the line to be shot.”[7]

Gawrych argues that these words reflect the mindset and feeling of him in those days, but it is safe to say that all of the Ottoman soldiers was feeling the same things at that time. The Balkans was a critical region of the empire and now the enemy was threatening the capital. At that time, the Ottomans were making plan to move the government to Anatolia to secure the throne. After the unsuccessful naval operation, the allies decided to start the amphibious operation. This second phase of the campaign lasted for 9 months but gave no hope for any success and the allies decided to withdraw. Peter Hart questions the reason of the failure. It is worth to quote a long sentence from his book:

It was a campaign that needed hundreds of guns that did not exist, fired by gunners not yet trained, using complex artillery techniques that had not yet been invented, firing hundreds of thousands shells not yet manufactured.[8]

Whether the Ottomans spotted the enemy retreating or not is not known yet, it is known that the Ottomans heartily collected the equipment the enemy left behind. Liman von Sanders says that the soldiers were very happy like children.[9] The European nations jumped into the war with cheers but the Ottomans was the only empire that fought to survive. The Ottomans had fought against the enemy with courage, faith and discipline. Gallipoli Campaign is one of the most important historical heritage that, no matter how old they are, people commemorate the battle and express their gratitude to the ancestors who had fought against the enemy.

One front, many stories

History is the study of the past that it presents a series of lessons that societies learn and make inferences to understand the world they live in today. Studying the past is like turning the light on in a dark corridor wherein societies walk through. Societies also resort to their historical heritages to prove their political cause. The past is studied to perform the politics of the present. Societies perform the politics to prove that the politics they adopt is the only true and legitimate one. Societies exploit the historical facts which help them to legitimize their political preferences. Philosophy of history tells us that history is the study of the past that societies do through their norms and beliefs. Robin George Collingwood, an English philosopher and historian, argues that “the past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present.”[10] Another English historian Edward Hallet Carr argues that “history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts.”[11] It means that there is no historical fact exists objectively from a historian’s accepted judgement. Historian resorts to historical accounts which are “deeply imbued with the attitudes and agendas” of the society he lives in.[12] If the aim of historian is to legitimize the present, when the present changes, the past changes simultaneously.

In Turkey, both Islamists and Kemalists contend with each other to construct their own hegemony over the historiography of Gallipoli Campaign. Being hegemon over the historiography means that only one narrative is the true one and the others are distorted or manufactured. These groups constantly narrate the battle through their own ideologies. Post-modernism argues that societies narrate history not only to understand, but also to constitute events.[13] It is believed that “there is no object or event outside or prior to perspective or narrative” and no historical fact that can exist apart from norms and believes societies adopt.[14] Post-modernism emphasizes the role of narratives as political tools. Narratives perform political functions in contemporary political struggles. It is important to emphasize that contending narratives disclaim others both epistemologically and ontologically. The contending narratives are self-contained. The one thing that contending political groups are trying to do is to being the hegemon.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman implies the presence of distinction between the world inside and outside.[15] Social groups are constituted through common beliefs and norms and these groups are inclined to draw borders between the world they live in and the outside. The outside is full of uncertainty and threats and social groups should be unified in the face of the threats come from the other. Yuval Noah Harari argues that sedentary societies resort to mutual myths to perpetuate their coexistence.[16] It means that sedentary societies live only in imagined orders. The myths which are constituted consistently help these societies to continue their unity and existence within the imagined orders. Collective memories-consisted of myths, narratives, and traditions- are the way groups acquire continuity and identity.[17] Collective memories have decisive long term effects; it shapes the understanding of the world of social groups and it is “hard to shake their long-term effects.”[18]  Gallipoli Campaign is one of the historical heritages that constitutes collective memory of Republic of Turkey.[19] The stories of Corporal Seyit, soldiers who were fighting on an empty stomach, and martyred students are popular myths resorted to ensure the collective identity formation.[20] E. Zeynep Güler argues that Gallipoli Campaign is a place of memory in Turkey.[21] Places of memory create collective identities, consolidate national consciousness and perpetuate the order.[22] Social groups regularly visit places of memory. Tours, monuments and narratives are the key elements that provide unity within the groups.  

Gallipoli Campaign is a historical heritage that it is continually under construction. Both Islamists and Kemalists interpret the battle through their own socially positioned lenses. Islamism views the world divided into two: the house of Islam and the house of unbelief.[23] Islamists believe that their distinct identity embroils them in a dispute with the Christian world. Relations with the West has been maintained in the Hobbesian culture of anarchy. In this culture of anarchy, security of social groups is competitive and based on zero-sum game.[24] Because of that sharp contrasts between the Muslims and the Christians, bilateral relations are inclined to become severe over time. Islamist point of view projects Gallipoli Campaign as another phase of the longstanding conflict between the Muslims and the Christians. According to Islamists, the enemy had tried to extinguish the presence of Islam around the world. The battle was to defend the house of Islam against the enemy. Thus, the Muslims came from the adjacent regions had fought with great vehemence and defeated the enemy. The battle proved that the Crusaders still set theirs eyes on the Islamic territories, therefore the Muslims all around the world should be awake against the enemy at all time. In contrast to Islamists, Kemalists frame the relations with the West in the Kantian culture of anarchy. In this culture of anarchy, friendship among the sides shapes the bilateral relations. The friendship is settled on two simple rules: no war between the friends and collective action against an aggressor.[25] In Turkey, westernization, and as well as modernization, has been in process for a long time. The Ottomans had pondered on the question of why the empire was falling behind the West, while the former had subjugated the latter for years in the past. Kemalists decided to overcome the backwardness by designing the nascent republic in the western-style institutions and laws. The orthodoxies of the both groups on the world-view in general and Gallipoli Campaign in particular do make the two to clash with each other. This article scrutinizes the discordance between Islamists and Kemalists over the meaning of Gallipoli Campaign. It will be argued that Gallipoli Campaign is a world of Islamist and Kemalist making.

Who was the enemy?

Islamists label the enemy as successors of the Crusaders. They argue that the Christianity had motivated the allies to invade Istanbul, the capital of the Muslim world and extinguish the presence of Islam. In 2015, Presidency of Religious Affairs of Republic of Turkey published a book titled “Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi”.[26] This book interprets Gallipoli Campaign as a new phase of the Crusade.[27] Mosques and madrassas, the basic elements of Islam, were the target of the enemy. The battle was the clash of Christianity and Islam.[28] The Crusaders aimed to invade the house of Islam and destroy the presence of Islam.[29] Kemalists have a secular reading of the battle. According to Kemalists, the enemy was the western imperialism, not the West itself. Kemalists have designed the newborn republic to be a member of the western civilization.[30] They argued that the allies attacked at the Gallipoli peninsula on the basis of cold national interest calculations. The Ottoman Empire was not capable any more to resist the dynamics of the modern world, thus the western empires exploited the status. Kemalists pay no attention to the belief system and norms of the western world while Islamists resort to the aforementioned idealist explanations.

How did the Ottomans win the battle?

Gallipoli Campaign is seen as a victory in Turkey. The Ottomans defeated the enemy in the age of many defeats. Although both Islamists and Kemalists embrace the battle as a victory, they are split on the determinants of the victory.

Islamists argues that faith was the primary source of the victory. All the soldiers who had defended the peninsula were Muslim and they fought for the sake of Islam. No matter what were their ethnicities, the Muslim soldiers were aware of the meaning of the battle: the battle between the believers and non-believers.[31] Islamists interpret the battle as a “holy war”.[32] Islamists believe that the God had helped the Muslims and even the enemy knew the assistance of the God to the Muslims. Islamists claim that General Ian Hamilton once confessed that the God was with the Ottomans and the result of the battle is the natural one consequently.[33] Islamists usually downgrade the role of Mustafa Kemal on the course of events and they offer alternative leaders such as Sultan Abdulhamid. According to this point, it is believed that Sultan Abdulhamid strengthened the fortifications during his reign and there was no reason to be concerned.[34]

Kemalists argue that Mustafa Kemal’s role was the decisive one. Although he was a lieutenant colonel at the beginning of the battle, Kemalists represent him as the commander in chief. Thinking the battle counterfactual is popular among Kemalists. They think that if Mustafa Kemal was not on the ground, the Ottomans would be defeated.[35] Kemalists argue that the commander who had lead the soldiers was Mustafa Kemal.[36] Kemalist reading do not put too much emphasis on religion. Rather than the religion, it concentrates on a kind of national sprit. The soldiers had fought for the homeland.

What is the importance of the battle today?

Both Islamists and Kemalists see Gallipoli Campaign as a historical heritage and make inferences from the battle for the present time and future. Islamists think that the battle demonstrates that the interests of the Crusaders over the house of Islam are still alive.[37] Muslims all around the world should be aware of the imminent threat. The ummah came from Yemen, Kosovo, Bosnia, Bagdad, Mecca and Damascus had fought against the crusaders.[38] Islamists argue that the battle proved the power of Islam when the ummah is united.

Kemalists argue that the battle was the preface of the newborn republic[39] while Islamists see the battle as the last stage of resistance of the Ottoman Empire.[40] Kemalists think that the victory give birth to the nationhood to the republic. They underline the fact that the victorious commanders later fought for the independence of the republic.


Gallipoli Campaign has been a symbolic battleground of competing political ideologies. Both groups have competed over the historiography of the battle and have tried to constitute their own hegemony. They narrate the battle with the lexicon of their ideologies. Gallipoli Campaign is also exploited for the foreign policy of Turkey. Last year, the victory was celebrated on 24 April rather than 18 March to encounter the Armenian genocide allegations.[41] The division and contention over Gallipoli Campaign is also polarizing the society in Turkey.[42] Rather than a scientific approach, the battle has been studied with the ideologies of the groups in Turkey. Gallipoli Campaign is a symbolic battleground between Islamists and Kemalists and it is what the groups make of it.




[2]The author intentionally refers those who fight against the allies as the Ottomans rather than Turks since not only Turks had fought, but also Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups also had fought against the enemy.

[3]Peter Hart, Gallipoli, London, Profile Books, 2011, p. 22.

[4]Peter Hart, Ibid. p. 68.

[5]Robin Prior, Gelibolu: Mitin Sonu, çev. Füsun Tayanç-Tunç Tayanç, Ankara, Akılçelen Kitaplar, 2012, p. 91


[6]Edward J. Erickson, Size Ölmeyi Emrediyorum: Birinci Dünya Savaşı’nda Osmanlı Ordusu, İstanbul, Kitap Yayınevi, 2011. 

[7]George W. Gawrych, The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey. I.B.Tauris&Co Ltd. 2013. p.  45

[8]Peter Hart, Ibid. p. 459.

[9]Liman von Sanders, Türkiye’de Beş Yıl, çev. Eşref Bengi Özbilen, İstanbul, Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2015, p. 142


[10]Jan van der Dussen, History as a Science: The Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, Springer, 1981, p. 289.

[11]Edward H. Carr, What is History? Random House, Inc. 1961.

[12]Jenny Macleod, Introduction, Gallipoli: Making History, ed. Jenny Macleod, Frank Cass, p. 1.

[13]Richard Devetak, “Critical Theory”,Scott Burchill [et al.] Theories of International Relations, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 164.

[14]Devetak, Ibid. p. 164

[15]Zygmunt Bauman, Sosyolojik Düşünmek, çev. Abdullah Yılmaz, İstanbul, Ayrıntı Yayınları, 2015, p. 51.


[16]Yuval Noah Harari, Hayvanlardan Tanrılara Sapiens: İnsan Türünün Kısa Bir Tarihi, çev. Ertuğrul Genç, İstanbul, Kolektif Kitap, 2015, s. 113.

[17]Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Relations, Cambridge University Press, p. 163.

[18]Wendt, Ibid. p.  163.

[19]E. Zeynep Güler, ‘’Bir Ulusal Hafıza Mekanı Olarak Gelibolu Yarımadası’’, İnci Özkan Kerestecioğlu ve Güven Gürkan Öztan (der.), İstanbul, İletişim Yayınları, 2012, p. 307.

[20]Bezen Balamir Coşkun, ‘’Çanakkale Savaşı ve Türk ve Avustralya Ulus Kimliklerinin İnşası’’, Bezen Balamir Coşkun [et al.] Uluslararası İlişkiler Tartışmalarında Çanakkale Savaşı, İstanbul, Röle Akademik Yayıncılık, p. 40.

[21]Güler, Ibid. p. 311.

[22]Güler, Ibid. p. 311.

[23]Bernard Lewis, “The Root of Muslim Rage”, 1990.

[24]Wendt, Ibid. p. 265.


[25]Wendt, Ibid. p. 298-299.

[26]Yunus Özdamar [et al.] Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, 2015.

[27]Ahmet Taşgetiren, “Çanakkale Son Kale Hassasiyeti”, Yunus Özdamar [et al.] Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, 2015.

 p. 54

[28]Taşgetiren, Ibid. p. 54

[29]Mustafa İsmet Uzun, “İmanın Zaferi Çanakkale”, Yunus Özdamar [et al.] Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, 2015. p. 95.


[30]Feroz Ahmad, Modern Türkiye’nin Oluşumu, çev. Yavuz Alogan, Kaynak Yayınları, 2012. Erik Jan Zürcher, Modernleşen Türkiye’nin Tarihi, çev. Yasemin Saner, İletişim Yayınları. 2011ç

[31]Mustafa Irmaklı, “Çanakkale Zaferi’nin Hatırlattıkları”, Yunus Özdamar [et al.] Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, 2015. p. 152.

[32]Stephen Starr, “Gallipoli centenary exposes Turkish divisions over history”, April 26, 2015.

[33]Süleyman Dikici, ‘’Çanakkale İşgal Kuvvetleri Komutanı Ian Hamilton’un Rüyası’’, Kemal Erkan ve Adem Fidan (der.), Osmanlı’nın Son Kilidi Çanakkale 1, İstanbul, Çamlıca Basım Yayın, 2011, p. 171.

[34]Hasan Basri Bilgen, “Çanakkale Mektebinden Öğrendiklerimiz”, Yunus Özdamar [et al.] Bir Milletin Yeniden Dirilişi Çanakkale: 100. Yılında Çanakkale Zaferi. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, 2015. p. 139.

[35]Orhan Karaveli, Çanakkale Olmasaydı…O Olmasaydı… İstanbul, Doğan Kitap, 2014, p. 16.

[36]F. Rezzan Ünalp, ‘’Çanakkale Muharebeleri ve Mustafa Kemal’’, Çanakkale Araştırmaları Türk Yıllığı, Cilt 13, No 18, 2015, p. 37-64.


[37]Irmaklı, Ibid. p. 153.

[38]Irmaklı, Ibid. p. 157.

[39]Turgut Özakman, Diriliş: Çanakkale 1915, Ankara, Bilgi Yayınevi, 2008. Karaveli, a.g.e. s. 18.

[40]Süleyman Dikici, ‘’Çanakkale İşgal Kuvvetleri Komutanı Ian Hamilton’un Rüyası’’, Kemal Erkan ve Adem Fidan (et al.) “Osmanlı’nın Son Kilidi Çanakkale 1”, İstanbul, Çamlıca Basım Yayın, 2011, p. 171.

[41]‘’Çanakkale ve Erivan’da 100. yıl anma törenleri’’ April 24, 2015.

[42]Şükrü Hanioğlu, ‘’Tarihler, semboller ve merasimler’’, May 01, 2016.


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