On The Defeat of England At Lausanne by Ataturk

The current Turkish President recently made a comment on the Treaty of Lausanne.

The present writer makes a point of not intervening in Turkish politics. But since this is a historical matter some comment should be made, particularly as it is of interest how the Treaty of Lausanne was seen at the other end of Europe – by the other party who signed it – Britain – and by the people it still ruled in its Empire in Ireland.

The Irish had experience of 8 centuries of British rule and many failed attempts to shake it off. They therefore realised the world-historic thing that Ataturk had achieved and saw in it something that was not only important for the new Turkish nation but something that was a turning point in history.

Having seen its Greek catspaw lose the military confrontation with Ataturk in Anatolia and having backed down at Chanak England determined to recover with a Treaty what it had lost on the battlefield – as it had done in Ireland in 1921.

On the Monday before Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary, left England to win through his diplomacy what had been lost on the battlefield, he made the following speech to businessmen in the City of London “where his declaration that the Government would stand firm against Kemalist aggression was received with loud cheers.”:

“The developments in Turkey he characterised as ‘the most definite menace to the peace of the world… The Nationalists, flushed with victory over the Greeks, have run riot during the past few days. They have deposed the Sultan and abolished the temporal power of the Caliph. I wonder what the Moslems of the world will think of this… The Nationalist Party has assumed the Government of Constantinople and has called upon the Allied Powers to withdraw – the fleet of Great Britain, if you please – to withdraw at their bidding from the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles. They have abolished the capitulations and mixed courts, abolished the national debt, and repudiated the national obligations. These pretensions cannot be tolerated. They have no conceivable justification. They are an affront to the Allies and a challenge to Europe… Turkey must learn that there is a limit even to the concessions which we can make to her, and that we cannot purchase peace at the cost of humiliation or disgrace. Turkey must realise that the strength of Britain and the might of Europe are a rock against which she will hurl herself in vain.” (Irish Independent, 9th November 1922)

And yet Lord Curzon returned empty-handed having himself purchased “peace at the cost of humiliation or disgrace”.

The Lausanne Treaty, unlike the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was negotiated with long and hard deliberation spread over an eight-month period (the Turkish delegation withdrew for a three-month interruption in the middle of the proceedings when it was not happy with what was happening). Turkey refused to have terms imposed upon her that would dilute her sovereignty, even though Britain fought tooth and nail to maximize her Imperial influence over the region. The Turkish delegation also refused to be railroaded into a take it or leave it deal imposed by an arbitrary deadline. When Curzon said his train was standing at the station and it was “now or never” the treaty remained unsigned by the Turks. Curzon, after delaying his train in the expectation they would submit, left empty handed on his train. The British returned a few months later and the Treaty was signed on July 24th 1923.

Lloyd-George recognized, in a debate in the House of Commons on 6th June 1924, what a turnabout Lausanne had been for the British Empire compared with Sèvres and the previous objectives:

“I believe it is a complete reversal of the decisions taken at Paris… In three important parts it is a complete departure from the decisions taken… First of all, with regard to Smyrna and South Eastern Anatolia, that was a reversal. The Straits is another. You… had a demilitarised zone, to be occupied and garrisoned by the Allies. Now, you have a demilitarised zone depending entirely upon Turkish Declarations. What were their declarations worth in the late war? Then there is a guarantee of Turkish neutrality by the British Empire. Surely that is a vital distinction. If there is any attack upon their zone, upon Constantinople, upon the Straits, the British Empire by this Treaty is bound to come in—horse, foot and artillery, with all its resources —to defend them from whatever quarter the attack comes. Is not that a vital difference? What is the third departure? The surrender of the capitulations. You surrendered there British rights which had been enjoyed by the traders of this country for centuries. That was not in the Paris arrangement. That was not in the Treaty of Sevres… It is a, perfect farce… These are three serious departures.” (Irish Independent, 7 June 1924)

The Treaty of Sèvres was a treaty dictated by the victors to the vanquished – or so the victors thought. The Treaty of Lausanne was a treaty negotiated between comparative equals. As Curzon, later remarked – when his bluster to the businessmen of the City had been shown to be without substance – Sèvres was “dictation of terms at the point of the Bayonet … Only when the terms had been drawn up was the beaten enemy admitted, to be told his sentence. … Far otherwise was it at Lausanne. There the Turks sat at the table on a footing of equality with all the other powers.” And he admitted: “Hitherto we have dictated our peace treaties. Now we are negotiating one with the enemy who has an army in being while we have none, an unheard of position.”

Curzon had demanded and threatened and the Turks had said: “You and whose army?” And that was that.

There was still a great potential disparity of power between the two parties to the Treaty (which Britain used to good effect) and there was still the British military occupation, which restricted what it was possible for Turkey to retain of its Ottoman possessions. (The major victory Britain secured in the Treaty was the holding on to the oil-rich Mosul region to the north of Mesopotamia that their forces occupied. This meant that they pushed the local inhabitants, the Kurds and local Turkomen, into the new state of Iraq. And many have paid for that momentous ‘victory’ ever since.)

On the question of the Straits the British Admiralty had desired the ability to “hammer at the gates of Constantinople and force the Turks to open the door into the Black Sea.” (A.L. Macfie, The Straits Question, Middle Eastern Studies, May 1979, p.235) Presumably this was to get at Russia, if the need arose.

Turkey was prepared to agree to the free passage of commercial vessels and a more limited passage of warships. The Turks won back the right to close the Straits to its enemies in the event of war and to stop and search neutral vessels suspected of supplying them. However, Turkey was forced to agree to demilitarise a 15 mile wide zone with an international commission to oversee traffic through the Straits – although the Turkish Army could cross the demilitarized zone as it desired and station forces in Eastern Thrace.

These provisions were superseded by another Treaty signed at Montreux on July 20th 1936, which conceded full sovereignty to Turkey over the area, as the Turks availed of the decline in British power (just before DeValera did).

The Treaty of Lausanne was an immensely successful Treaty compared to the other post-War, dictated, Treaties. It brought stability that has lasted near on a century whilst the others, imposed at Versailles, produced another World War within a generation. The Treaty marked the birth of a new State, created by the struggle of its own citizens rather than the gift of the Imperialists. It set the Turks and the new Turkish State apart from all others in the region by being independent of the Imperial powers. It stood the test of time as a result.

The Catholic Bulletin devoted an enormous amount of coverage to the negotiations at Lausanne and the Treaty that followed (it should be remembered that the Bulletin was primarily a religious periodical). Its reporting amounted to about twenty pages in twelve editions, over a period of a year, in which the Treaty and its significance were commented upon.

In April 1923, to keep its readers well informed, the Catholic Bulletin took the unusual step of publishing the official (British) record of the proceedings at Lausanne. It did so without comment, believing, presumably that no comment was necessary. And the Bulletin, being of an Anti-Treaty mind that went into the making of Fianna Fail, contrasted the performance of the Turkish and Irish plenipotentiaries in their respective settlements with the British.

What The Catholic Bulletin did was very important in establishing independent Ireland when many thought the mere signing of a Treaty would accomplish it. Independent Ireland was not a fact in 1921 – it had to be fought for in various ways for another quarter of a century before it was begun to be achieved.

I think we owe some gratitude to Ataturk because Turkey’s example provided some of the inspiration and will to carry on the struggle that was necessary for such an achievement.

The Catholic Bulletin clearly saw what happened at Chanak and then Lausanne as a turning point that had important implications in world affairs – and for Ireland in its future relations with the Empire. It saw these events as “a great defeat for England” at the hands of a small nation fighting for its freedom. That understanding was acted upon over the coming two decades by DeValera to achieve for Ireland what Ataturk had done for Turkey.

Below are some extracts:


Looking round the world for an instance of brilliant achievement during the year, we see ‘Turkey head of the class.’ After centuries of rule by Mahomedan Caliphs, Mahomedan Kings, Sultans and Princes it was proclaimed in 1923 that Sovereignty belonged absolutely to the Turkish people, while Mustapha Kemal Pasha was then elevated to a dignity never before enjoyed by a ruler in IslamPresident of the Republic of Turkey.” (January 1924)


Readers of the BULLETIN will remember the Supplement published last year describing Lord Curzons final interview with Ismet Pasha and others. The very superior person proved on that occasion the most inferior. Threats and blandishments failed to induce the Turkish plenipotentiaries to agree to Curzons terms. It was Curzons second failure. His first, if we remember rightly, was the partition of Turkey by the Treaty of Sèvres. If this was not Curzons personal failure it was, at any rate, Englands failure. The Treaty, which was eventually signed and agreed to by Turkish patriots, has been described as ‘deplorable’ from the British point of view. This fact, we must grasp, if we are to get to the bottom of all the misunderstandings with regard to the alleged responsibilities and liabilities of his Britannic Majestys Dominions. It should be remembered that the Lausanne Treaty was written and signed in the French languagethe English was merely a translation. Therefore, the official document of a treaty, as the honourable Lloyd George pointed out, had been in both languages. The change, said the Welsh liberator of twentysix counties of Ireland, was more than a mistake; it was significant of the fact that ‘we had gone back in authority and prestige in our dealings with foreign powers.’

 “It had, indeed, been a grave surrender on the part of British representatives.

 “The whole Treaty was a stupendous British surrender. British politicians and the British Press thundered that it was a treaty which might have been signed by a vanquished Power so far as British interests were concerned. Privileges, like Capitulations, which the mighty British had treasured for generations vanished like smoke. These, the only constant protection for the precious life, the honest liberty; the valuable property of every British trader in Turkey was ignominiously surrendered. Then the poor Christian minorities, for whose welfare Englands great heart ever beats, particularly those in Belfast, were thrown to the Turkish dogs. Finally, above all things, England who had incited the Greeks to war against Turkey, finding it opportune, suddenly somersaults and guarantees the defence of the nation she relentlessly sought to destroy. This policy has been excellently described by the author of The Lost Dominion’—a sensational book recently published on India. He says:

It is an old policy of England to sacrifice her friends to her enemies. The idea is that your friend is your friend, and will support you anyhow. Your enemy will be so pleased at being allowed to punish your friend that he will forget his old grudge against you, and perhaps himself become friendly. And the policy is often successful enough, especially when the friend is helpless and the enemy placable.

 “If there he a god of nations how he must despise this treachery, not less treacherous when euphemistically styled opportunism!

 “This policy has failed with the Turks who refused to budge until an essential clause of the Lausanne Treaty had been complied with. Ramsay MacDonald has told part of the story, and when reading Ramsay MacDonald bear in mind his motto. He expressed it quite recently at an insignificant meeting in London: ‘Never,’ advised the Prime Minister of England, ‘say you will do anything, but within reason, always keep people expecting that you are going to do it.” (May 1924)


  1. If Turks beat the English at Lausanne then how come the Turks lost all lands on the Middle East, Cyprus, mousul oil reserves, EGE islands and much more…. it’s seems English defeat to Turks mister writer……


    • I think the reader is confusing the Ottoman Empire with Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Great War and Britain and the other Imperialist Powers took the spoils of victory. They imposed a harsh Treaty at Sevres in 1920 that would have left a small Turkish entity in the Anatolian interior. There would have been a large Armenian state and a Kurdish state possibly if that situation had remained.

      It was from this position of utter defeat that a victory of momentous proportions was achieved by the new Turkey against the most powerful state in the world at the pinnacle of its power. Nowhere else at this time was anything similar achieved – not in Germany, in Austro-Hungary or Ireland. In Ireland Republicans marvelled at this achievement because they had suffered centuries of British rule and really knew the extent of British Power. Britain has fought 4 world wars and won them all (well at least was on the winning side in 1945!). The British are used to winning wars and those that are not won are seen as defeats and not talked about. How many have heard of Chanak in Britain today?

      In the era of nationalism and self-determination the Ottoman Empire would have found it impossible to hold the non-Turkish provinces. Even Britain, the most powerful state, had to take its conquests under disguise by Mandates. It took Palestine and Iraq by military force, held them through Mandates and eventually lost them.

      The ceding of the islands to Greece was a far-seeing act of self-determination for which great praise should be given to Ataturk. He was not an irredentist. Cyprus was a different case because it was a British strategic concern.

      Ataturk wanted to keep Mosul but that was the one British victory. It was decided that Mosul was not worth a war. Given the situation today can that decision be seen as wrong? How much easier would it be to hold much larger numbers of Kurds than currently live in the Turkish Republic?

      Great leaders know most of all the limitations of their power. Leaders who don’t bring their states down with them. Ataturk did not just “talk the talk, he walked the walk” as they say in America. He was respected internationally for what he did. He won what he could, made functional and long lasting settlements which enabled a stable state to develop.

      He is unlikely to be ever surpassed in his achievements and wise men and women who may lead the state he created know well to understand that.


      • It became too expensive. Greeks were overconfident and over extended themselves. Not confining themselves to Izmir and the surrounding areas, they stepped on to the Italian territory, and occupied defenseless towns into the Anatolian hinterland. Their supply lines became too long.


      • The above was a reply to Ozzy. As for your article and comment, it’s such a wonderful perspective, thanks for writing it.


  2. its great article .. We cannot disregard success of turks on the table. But I still wonder why british goverment had stopped supporting greeks during anotolia war?


  3. I read this article with pleasure, i’m glad that there are still some people that know and post the historical facts, i don’t think that there are still many turks left that know what Ataturk has done, it’s true that there won’t be coming a leader like him anymore.
    The turks should be proud to had a leader like him that changed an entire way of living and state…
    Thank you for this great article


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