Centenary of Greek invasion of Ottoman Anatolia (May 1919)

May 2019 marks the Centenary of the invasion of Ottoman Anatolia by the Greek Army, acting as Lloyd George’s cat’s-paw to enforce a punitive settlement on the Turks.

The political and military assault launched by Britain during the Great War on neutral Greece and the devastating effect this ultimately had on the Greek people across the Balkans and Asia Minor is almost completely forgotten about in Western Europe. The Greek King Constantine and his government tried to remain neutral in the War but Britain was determined to enlist as many neutrals as possible to help win it, no matter the consequences.

This was necessary for three main reasons:

Firstly, English Liberalism had to present the Great War as a great moral crusade of good versus evil in order that their M.P.s and base would support it. This meant that neutrality was almost impossible for others, as countries had to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the ‘war for civilization’ against ‘barbarism.’ This really was an innovation in the conduct of war and gave the Great War its catastrophic character because an accommodation or peace could hardly be made with evil, particularly for the Nonconformists, who made up a great deal of the Liberal rank and file. This thwarted all efforts at peace, particularly those of Pope Benedict XV, who tried to put a stop to Europe destroying itself in 1917.

Secondly, English Liberalism was opposed to military conscription. That made it necessary, once the Germans had not been defeated quickly, to get others to do the fighting for Britain – the fighting that the Liberal Party was reluctant to impose on its own citizens for fear of interfering in their freedoms. So, it became the norm to bully and bribe other nations to fight to avoid conscription at home, where liberal values mattered most.

Thirdly, the Liberal Imperialists, like Churchill, favoured a policy of expansion of the War in a desperate attempt to win it. In France and Belgium the war had got bogged down into a static war of attrition where great casualties were being suffered. The thinking was that if the fringes of Europe, and even Asia, were set ablaze this would let others take the casualties and stretch the forces of the Central Powers wider and wider to weaken their lines.

So, England made offers to the Greek Prime Minister, Venizélos, of territory in Anatolia which he found too hard to resist. The Greek War of Independence had had the effect of separating a large section of Greeks from the new Greek State. That presented the possibility of future Greek irredentist claims on parts of Anatolia, which had the effect of creating a natural antagonism with the Ottoman Turks. The Greeks were spread right across the Ottoman Empire; from Greece itself, across the islands in the Aegean, to Constantinople, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.

The Greek contribution to the Ottoman Empire had been substantial and the Greek communities benefited in many areas of commerce, shipping and linguistics as well as enjoying privileged positions with the Porte. But the division between the free Greeks and the large communities of Greeks still inhabiting parts of the Ottoman Empire had great implications for what happened to Greece between 1915 and 1922 since it inspired the dream of a “Greater Greece” taking in territories in Asia Minor at that point belonging to the Turks.

General Metaxas, the Greek Chief of Staff, had opposed such an adventure as madness. The Greek King, under the Constitution, had the final say on matters of war and he attempted to defend his neutrality policy.

The following estimation of the differences between King Constantine and Venizelos is from Greece And The Allies 1914-1922 by G. F. Abbott, who wrote a number of well informed books at this time on the Balkan region:

“King Constantine, a practical soldier, estimated that the European War would be of long duration and doubtful issue: in this battle of giants he saw no profit for pygmies, but only perils. At the same time he did not forget that Greece had in Bulgaria and Turkey two embittered enemies who would most probably try to fish in troubled waters. If they did so he was prepared to fight; but to fight with a definite objective and on a definite military plan which took into account the elements of time, place, and resources. The King’s standpoint was shared by most Greek statesmen and soldiers of note: they all, in varying degrees, stood for neutrality, with possible intervention on the side of the Entente at some favourable moment. But it did not command itself to his Premier. Caution was foreign to M. Venizelos’s ambitious and adventurous temperament. Military considerations had little meaning for his civilian mind. Taking the speedy victory of the Entente as a foregone conclusion, and imbued with a sort of mystical faith in his own prophetic insight and star, he looked upon the European War as an occasion for Imperialist aggrandizement which he felt Greece ought to grasp without an instant’s delay.” (Greece And The Allies 1914-1922, pp.11-12)

But Greek neutrality was unacceptable to Britain, and tantamount to the action of an enemy. The King was described as a German puppet.

On 21st June 1916 the Allies issued an ultimatum to King Constantine. The Allied Governments stated that they were not demanding an end to Greek neutrality but they put forward demands that would establish conditions under which the Greeks could only do the Allies’ bidding. It was demanded of the Greek Government that they immediately and totally demobilize their Army, replace the present Cabinet by a new Coalition Ministry to the satisfaction of the Allies, dissolve the legislative Chamber and hold fresh elections, and replace the senior police in Athens with those acceptable to Britain and France. And it was made clear that if the Greeks did not oblige Athens would be flattened by the Royal Navy and the King and his family dealt with like Louis XVI.

This ultimatum was backed up by a demonstration of force in Allied occupied Greece. The French General Sarrail, in command of the Allied occupation forces at Salonika, had recommended that the Allies “strike at the head, attack frankly and squarely the one enemy – the King.” Britain concurred, and on St. Constantine’s Day, when Salonika was honouring the King with a Te Deum, martial law was proclaimed. Allied detachments with machine guns occupied strategic points,  the Macedonian gendarmerie and police were expelled, and the local press was placed under an Allied censor.

On 6th June a blockade of the Greek coasts was established in pursuance of orders from Paris and London and on the 16th, to back up the ultimatum, a squadron was ordered to be ready to bombard Athens, while a brigade was embarked at Salonica for the same destination. Before the guns opened fire, it was planned that hydroplanes would drop bombs on the royal palace; then troops would land, occupy the town, and proceed to arrest, among others, the royal family that the English and French had formerly put on the Greek throne.

Constantine was then deposed by the actions of the British Army at Salonika, through a starvation blockade by the Royal Navy, an occupation of Thessaly and finally seizure of the harvest by Allied troops. This had the result of a widespread famine in the neutral nation that finally forced the abdication of King Constantine.

In the words of General Sarrail “Venizelist Greece has become a British Dominion.” (Paxton Hibben, Constantine I And The Greek People, pp. xv-xvi) And so the Greeks were forced into the Great War against Germany and the Ottomans.

The Greeks went to the Paris Peace Conference in Paris to claim their reward as part of of the spoils of victory, having abandoned their neutrality for promises of territory in Europe and Asia Minor. Here is what Arnold Toynbee said of the claims the Greeks made at that Conference:

“At the Paris Conference Mr. Venizelos, on behalf of Greece, put forward startling demands. He asked for the whole of Western and Eastern Thrace up to the Black Sea and the Chatalja lines, and for the entire vilayet or province of Aidin, in Western Anatolia, with the exception of the one sanjak or department of Denizli, but with the addition of a corridor to the south coast of the Marmara. The first claim meant interposing a continuous belt of Greek territory between Turkey and other European states and between Bulgaria and the Aegean. The second meant taking from Turkey the richest province and principal port of Anatolia, bringing a large population under Greek rule, and leaving the two nations, with these new seeds of discord sown between them, to face one another along an immense land frontier.” (The Western Question in Greece And Turkey, pp.68-9)

When England was confronted by the claims of its Allies after the War – the things that they had been promised, or led to believe were to be their rewards for joining the Great War for civilization, their demands were seen as “startling.” Did these countries not realise that they had been promised things in the heat of battle, in the hour of crisis, when it was felt that without the addition of another new ally, without a further extension of the War, Germany would never be beaten? Did they not realise that England had made promises it could not or would not keep, promises that conflicted with other promises made to others? Could they not just go home content now that the job had been done and the world was safe for civilisation, and leave Britain to the burden of reordering it in everyone’s interests, as was its duty?

No, these selfish people, who had shed blood, wanted pay-back!

Edward Grey or Lloyd George never told Venizelos in 1915 that his demands were startling.”  And if they did the Greek Premier never let on to the Greek people. So many people in Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Arabia, Greece etc. expected much more for their sacrifices in saving civilization than they were going to get when the victors unrolled the new maps of Europe and Asia.

Arnold Toynbee, of course, knew better. Toynbee had been appointed to the Political Intelligence Department established by the Foreign Office in March 1918. The Political Intelligence Department was set up to give a greater focus to British War aims by employing specialists in certain areas that could be consulted about what to do with captured territories. Toynbee joined Harold Nicolson and Allen Leeper in the Greek Department. All three had been graduates of Balliol and were enthused with the ideas of The New Europe Group  which envisaged a Europe redrawn along lines of national self-determination with arbitration from the League of Nations on minority problems (This was the Group from which the idea for the re-ordering of Europe by the construction of artificial Buffer States between Germany and Russia originated).

Toynbee and his colleagues in the Political Intelligence Department recommended that in the Peace Conference Greece be enlarged by an enclave around Smyrna and the possession of all the Aegean Islands. And they had also suggested that it would be wise to establish an Arabian Caliphate and evict the Turks from Constantinople.

Now England had a different agenda and this demanded the characterising of the Allies (and in particular, Italy) in the War for civilisation as selfish grabbers – or “irredentists” (which now began to take on a derogatory connotation – so that they could be cheated of the fruits of victory.

Basil Thomson of British Intelligence noted that, having participated in the winning of the War, Venizelos was in for a shock at the Peace Conference:

“The Armistice brought a rude awakening to that versatile statesman. King Constantine had stipulated for conditions if his country were to join the Allies: Venizelos had joined them without conditions. In the Peace Conference he was to learn a fact that he ought to have known from past history – that the victors in a great war are realists before all else and have no room for sentimental attachments to their small allies. The Greek army was almost intact; Venizelos believed he could use it for bargaining purposes. He offered an army corps to join the ill-considered Allied expedition against the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine. The Allied expedition failed; the Greek contingent was decimated and the Bolsheviks wreaked vengeance upon the Greek colony in Southern Russia which numbered about 100,000 people.” (The Allied Secret Service In Greece, pp. 234-5)

Perhaps the little Greek adventure in Southern Russia should have taught Venizelos the dangers inherent in a bigger campaign in Anatolia. But no! And I presume that the Bolsheviks remembered what the Greeks had done when the possibility of an alliance with the Turks later emerged.

In May 1919 Venizelos, concerned that Greece was not about to share in the harvest of victory, appeared in Paris and demanded a hearing from the Triumvirate who were dividing up the world – Lloyd George, Clemenceau and President Wilson. There he produced a forged Turkish Proclamation that indicated Christians living around the Smyrna district were about to be massacred by Mohammedans. He sympathised with the Triumvirate in their desire to demobilize their armies and save money and offered them Greek services to prevent the spilling of Christian blood, which they would not like on their consciences. The Triumvirate ceded to the Greek the right to occupy Smyrna on the conditions that the occupation would be temporary, pacific and restricted.

A major concern in 1920 for Britain, along with punishment of the Turks, was how to cheat the Italians out of the spoils of war – the spoils which they had been lured into the war for – Italia Irredenta, and beyond. The Italians had been promised the Smyrna area and a substantial piece of Asia Minor under the Treaty of St. Jean de Maurienne as well as the “unredeemed lands” (which remained largely unredeemed) to the North and East of the Italian State. But they had been trumped by Venizelos. So Lloyd George urged the Greeks to land at Smyrna quickly to head off the Italian claim.

The cheating of Italy by Britain had a large part in the coming to power of Mussolini and Fascism in the country. But the loss of Smyrna can only be looked upon as a blessing for the Italians – and a curse for the Greeks.

Under the new British plan the Smyrna region, which had substantial Greek and Armenian minorities, was to have its own autonomous parliament and was to decide after five years whether to become part of the Greek State. Given that this mixed-population area was to be occupied it was likely that the Turkish population would begin to leave, in one way or another, making a Greek annexation of it a distinct possibility in the future. In 1918 the Greeks had successfully cleared out the Jewish quarters of Salonika and planted Greeks in their place, so Smyrna looked forward to a similar prospect.

And that is how the Greek adventure in Asia Minor began.

Lloyd George was an admirer of the Greeks and with his assistance, he believed, they would become a great people again. As with the Jews, he had, from his schooling, an affection for them and felt compelled to restore them to the former glories he had learned about in the history books. He had the Gladstonian dislike of the unspeakable Turk,” whom he took to be of a much inferior quality than the Greek, as a race, and he had a great regard for their leader, Venizelos, the greatest Greek since Pericles,” whom he believed to be a man after his own image. In fact, Venizelos seems to have captivated most of the Allied leaders with his charm and powers of persuasion.

However, in December 1919, when the French Premier, Clemenceau, met Lloyd George, he urged Britain to respect Turkish integrity and to pull the Greeks out of Smyrna. But Lloyd George, believing the Greeks to be handy in advancing British interests in the area, and a low cost option, refused.

Arnold Toynbee saw Lloyd George’s admiration for Venizelos as a secondary calculation in his courting of the Greeks. The primary consideration was the strategic interests of Britain. Here was the reasoning:

“The British Government cannot keep troops mobilised in the East to enforce eventual terms of peace upon Turkey; Greece can provide the troops and enforce the terms with British diplomatic and naval backing, and she will gladly do so if these terms include her own claims. If Greece makes these claims good through British backing, she will have to follow Britain’s lead. She is a maritime Power, a labyrinth of peninsulas and islands, and territories that she covets in Anatolia are overseas. In short, if Turkey can be dominated by the land-power of Greece, Greece can be dominated by the sea-power of Great Britain, and so the British Government can still carry out their war-aims in the Near and Middle East without spending British money and lives.” (The Western Question in Greece And Turkey, p.74)

So the Greek demands were no longer startling” and England and Greece could do business again, to their mutual benefit.

At the close of the War the British Empire had a million men at arms in the Middle and Near East. But Britain was in financial hock to the United States as a result of its miscalculation of the strength and length of German resistance. The Prime Minister had also made some rash promises in order to win the 1918 General Election. Apart from the hanging of the Kaiser one of these was to demobilise the conscripted men as quickly as possible. The War propaganda that had been used to inspire the recruits had been on the lines of seeing off the Prussian evil, and since that had been done and the Hun defeated, it was only reasonable that the men be released from service, rather than being retained for further Imperial adventures.

As a result of the great territorial gains made by the British Empire’s War on the Ottomans the Imperial forces found themselves overreached and without the possibility of reinforcement. So surrogates were necessary in completing British ambitions in the region. One of the most important considerations was Mesopotamia. England needed to keep the Turks away from the area as Imperial rule bedded down and this could only be accomplished by the distraction of a Greek army in Anatolia. Lloyd George could use the Royal Navy to enforce some of the Imperial will but he had to rely on the Greek Army to do the rest.

Harold Nicolson, the senior British diplomat, wrote:

“Geographically the position of Greece was unique for our purpose: politically she was strong enough to save us expense in peace, and weak enough to be completely subservient in war” (Memorandum on Future Policy toward King Constantine, 20.12.1920, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1st Series, Vol. XII, No.488)

The great thing about the plan was that the Greeks could be cut down to size by the Royal Navy if they ever over-stepped the mark (with regard to Constantinople, for instance). Athens could be flattened at any time by the guns of the battleships of the Mediterranean fleet (and the diaries of C.P. Scott show that Lloyd George did in fact contemplate this.).

The Allies landed Greek forces at Izmir/Smyrna during May 1919, six months after the Armistice with Turkey. Izmir was one of the best harbours in the world and Lloyd George hoped he could occupy it on the cheap, using the Greek Army. The Greek troops were sent to Izmir with a Mandate from the Allied Supreme Council –  although this was in violation of the terms of the Armistice with Turkey. There was provision for dealing with disorder under its terms but the only evidence of this was the forged document that the Allies had been presented with by Venizelos, who himself wished for a Greek colonisation there.

The Greeks were landed off Allied warships under the cover of general troop movements to maintain order. The Turks had been expecting a small British occupation force but they were aghast to find the ancient foe, with their expansionist designs on Anatolia, landing from the British warships. Under the protection of the Ententeforces the occupying Greeks, in front of the world’s press, proceeded to conduct a massacre of around four hundred townspeople from the Turkish districts of the town (after local Turks had supposedly fired a few shots).

Lloyd George acquiesced in the Greek advance into Anatolia, within a few days of their arrival in Izmir, despite the fact that the Greeks were only authorized to occupy the town and its hinterland. And this seemed to mark the start of the development of a new Pontic state in Asia Minor with Smyrna as its nucleus.

An interesting English view of The Treaty of Sèvres that the Greeks were to enforce on the Turks, was presented in an article called The Turkish Treaty by Leland Buxton, in the Problems of Empire Series, published by the Imperial publication Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs magazine was described as Britain’s “Journal of International Understanding” by its publishers. And its view of Sèvres is certainly a much more realistic appraisal of the Treaty’s chances as a going concern than that of those who imposed it. So much so that it is worth reproducing almost in its entirety.

It was written in mid-1920 and it is very perceptive in its assessment of the mistakes Britain was making in seeking to impose this settlement on the region:

“While the creation of a Greek Empire is perhaps the worst feature of the Turkish settlement, there is little cause for satisfaction in any part of the Treaty. If its object is to make our own position in the Middle East secure against Turkish aggression in the future, it is totally ineffective. Turkey will, quite possibly, become a more formidable military power than she was before the war. She is not surrounded, like Bulgaria, by hostile States, and it is quite impossible for the Allies, under present circumstances, to conquer and occupy the whole of Anatolia, where the Nationalists are supremely indifferent to the orders of the Government at Constantinople. We have no means, therefore, of enforcing either the military clauses of the Treaty or those dealing with the protection of minorities…

One of the most important sections of the Treaty is that which creates a ‘Commission of the Straits,’ with its own flag, budget, and police, to control the navigation of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmora, and the Dardanelles… The Commission is to consist, for the present, of representatives of the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Roumania, and of the United States, if that Power is willing to participate…

Whatever advantages we may hope to gain by inflicting further injuries on our Christian enemies, there is little doubt that we shall suffer terribly for the crusading enthusiasm of Mr. Lloyd George…  According to the Peace Treaty, Turkey practically loses her independence and is placed under the tutelage of three Christian Powers; while the conditions under which the Sultan remains at a semi-internationalised Constantinople, almost under the guns of the despised Greeks, will certainly not diminish Moslem resentment… 

The Allied statesmen, however, had the mentality of concession-hunters… France is to have a Protectorate over Syria, and Great Britain over Mesopotamia, Palestine and Arabia. These things outrage the feelings of Moslems throughout the world, but they do not rankle in the minds of the Turks like the Greek annexation of Thrace and Smyrna, especially as the British and French do not habitually persecute those who differ from them in race or religion.

In the case of the Treaty with Turkey, there was no clamour for vengeance from France, and it was open to Great Britain, therefore, either to initiate a policy of conciliation or to insist on that of the Big Stick. Mr. Lloyd George, largely under the influence of M. Venizelos, has chosen the latter course, and the consequences will be disastrous for the British taxpayer. We have driven the Turks into the arms of the Bolsheviks, and have made the Pan-Islamic danger a reality. From Khiva to Cairo, from Adrianople to Delhi, we have fanned the flames of fanaticism and organised the growing animosity against Christians in general and against the British in particular. The menace to our Eastern Empire becomes more formidable month by month. When a great nation allows its foreign policy to be dictated by a Balkan statesman, it must expect to suffer. (Foreign Affairs, Problems of Empire Series No. 2, Special Supplement, July 1920,pp. xii-xiv)

In the same publication there is another interesting article entitled  Self-Determination And The Turkish Treaty by“Q.” It is worth reproducing because it deals very well with the ingenious uses made by Britain of the principle of self-determination – a principle that could have a myriad of interpretations and applications to suit policy:

“Although peace has not yet resumed its sway over mankind and is not likely to do so for many a decade yet if the ‘governing classes’ continue acting as they are acting to-day — how distant seem the days of war when the noblest of principles were being advertised with an eloquence that had all the appearance of sincerity! The most notable of these and the special product of the mentality of the war is the principle of self-determination which, chameleon-like, takes on the hue of political surroundings in various parts of the world.

…when Ireland has so clearly determined what her future shall be, she is told by the Premier that: ‘it is of no use talking about self-determination. If the Rt. Honourable gentleman (Mr. Adamson) supports self-determination, he must go the full length of planting an Irish Republic in Ireland … Self-determination does not mean that every part of a country which has been acting together for hundreds of years shall have a right to say, we mean to set up a separate republic…..There must be that limitation to the application of any principle, otherwise you might carry it to every fragment and every locality in every country throughout the world. When you lay down a principle of that kind, you must lay it down within, the limitations which common sense, which tradition will permit.’

… All these interpretations are ingenious enough in their own way, but even they will not assist the Government in justifying its decision with regard to Thrace and Smyrna, or even with regard to so-called ‘Armenia.’

The Treaty assigns to Greece the whole of the Turkish Vilayet of Adrianople or Eastern Thrace, leaving to Turkey in Europe only a strip of territory near Constantinople up to the Tchataldja lines… According to the official census taken in 1914, the Muslim population of the Vilayet of Adrianople or Eastern Thrace to be ceded to Greece, was 360,000 or 57 per cent of the total, as against 224,000 Greeks or 35 1/2 per cent. Western Thrace had already passed out of Turkish sovereignty in spite of the fact that its Muslim population was 362,000 or 69 per cent as against 86,000 Greeks or 16 1/2. per cent. Taking the two together the total Muslim population of Thrace is 722,000 or 62 1/2 per cent as against 310,000 Greeks or 26 per cent.

The territory now to be ceded to Greece includes the second Muslim city of the Ottoman Empire, Adrianople, dear to Turks on account of its many sacred and historical associations. And yet there is not even a semblance of the exercise of self-determination, for fully knowing what the verdict of the people would be, the principal Allied Powers have taken no plebiscite… 

This was the region covered by Mr. Lloyd George’s pledge given on the 5th January, 1918, when he said: ‘Nor are we fighting . . to deprive Turkey of its capital or of the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace which we predominantly Turkish in race.’

This pledge was emphatically repeated on the 26th February this year…

The case of Thrace is bad enough in all conscience, but that of Smyrna is worse. Here there is no pretence of the people being predominantly Christians. The official census of 1914 shows that as against 1,250,000 Mussulmans there are only 300,000 Greeks, 20,000 Armenians, and 40,000 other elements, but since in the town of Smyrna itself there is quite a large minority of the Greeks averaging 24 per cent. against 42 per cent. Muslims, whom Turkish tolerance allowed not only to live but to prosper, Smyrna and a good deal of adjoining territory — the richest of the ‘rich and renowned homelands of the Turk in Asia Minor’ – are to be lopped off from the Turkish Empire and placed tinder the administration of the Greeks with the ‘option’ to decide five years later in favour of annexation with Greece, but not in favour of reversion to Turkish administration!… Muslims could discover no justification for this action except the desire of Greek capitalists to exploit the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor, which are admittedly the homelands of the Turks. If this state of affairs was allowed to continue he declared that not only would the Turk be driven out ‘bag and baggage’ from Europe, but that he would have no ‘bag and baggage’ left to him even in Asia. He would be paralysed, commercially and industrially, in a land-locked small Emirate in Asia Minor, the speedy bankruptcy of which was certain. The application of the principle of self-determination, he contended, would entirely rule out the Greek claim in this fertile region, which obviously tempts the greed of the capitalist and the exploiter…

But it is forgotten, both in the case of Thrace and of Smyrna, that in 1898 there were 7 million Turks in Turkey in Europe, in Thessaly and in the Islands, but that at the present time there are only 2 million Albanians and Turks in the Balkans. As many as 3 million have disappeared from the world, in the recent wars and the massacres that followed; but even then as many as 1 ½ million emigrated to Thrace and Turkey in Asia. And yet, if M. Venizelos is to be believed, they swelled the figures of Turkish population neither in Thrace nor in Smyrna. Five years hence, that is, if Mustafa Kemal and the Nationalists permit the Treaty to be enforced, M. Venizelos would have the satisfaction of announcing to the world a unanimous decision in favour of the annexation of Smyrna and the surrounding territory to Greece. We know what happened to the Muslim population of Crete; and we also knew what happened to the peaceful and prosperous Turkish community in Thessaly. In the latter there are to-day villages bearing Turkish names such as Sakaalar, Maimounlar, Inebeilar, etc. But as a Turk has put it, they are all empty of Turks.

This is what Venizelist Hellenism and Lloyd Georgian self-determination mean, and if Turkey submits to this treaty, Smyrna will have self-determination with a vengeance. Only other people spell it differently. They call it extermination.” (Foreign Affairs, Problems of Empire Series No. 2, Special Supplement, July 1920, pp. xvi -xix)

Lloyd George, having imposed a Treaty on the captive Turkish Government in Istanbul, found he could not then impose it on the Turkish nation. So he agreed to the Greeks providing the military muscle to impose the Treaty of Sèvres on the Turks in parallel to the efforts of the Sultan.

Finance and support was provided to Venizelos and the Greek Army through Sir Basil Zaharoff, who owned most of the shares in the shipbuilding yards of Vickers and Co. and who, with a huge fortune he made in business, subsidised several organs of the British Press. Zaharoff had also been a confidential adviser of M. Venizelos, and had an influence over Lloyd George, owing to services rendered to the Prime Minister in election time.

According to Venizelos’ scheme the Turkish Nationalist army, which was concentrated in the Izmir/Smyrna area, could be routed by a quick advance of the Greek forces, numbering 90,000 men, who would capture an important railway junction on the railroad from Izmir/Smyrna and Adana-Ismid. This was the only line of communication Mustapha Kemal possessed, and it was calculated that cutting this off would force the Nationalists to withdraw towards the interior of Anatolia and break the Turkish resistance.

At first, all went well for the Greeks as they quickly began to advance deep into Anatolia toward their objective. The other Greek Army occupied Thrace and captured Adrianople in July 1920.

On August 10th1920 the Sultan capitulated to the Treaty of Sèvres and signed up to all the Allied demands. Greece was granted a five year administrative mandate in the Smyrna zone with the possibility of annexation, after a plebiscite. It was also granted the whole of Eastern Thrace up to the Constantinople Peninsula. All of this, of course, was currently under the possession of the Greek Army, along with the whole north-west of Anatolia. Venizelos returned to Athens in triumph with thoughts on obtaining Constantinople in time.

The British calculation was that Mustapha Kemal would bow to the reality of force and accept the Treaty – or risk greater partition of Turkey, harsher treaty terms and the loss of Constantinople for good. They viewed the Greek Army as a useful weapon to be employed against him if he did not concede to the Imperial requirements.

That is the background to the Greek tragedy that was to enfold in Asia Minor, upon the prompting of Lloyd George. Self-determination was recognized as a “war of extermination”by “Q” and that is what it proved to be.

The Megali or ‘great idea’ of a Hellenic Empire encircling the Aegean had been born with the Greek independence movement in 1821. The centre of this dream of a Greater Greece was, of course, the acquisition of Constantinople. The former Byzantine capital was in the possession of the Allies in 1918 but it would not have been ridiculous for Greece to calculate that if the Greek Army conquered in Asia Minor, on behalf of themselves and the British interest, a new Greek State on both sides of the Aegean might prove an acceptable guardian of the Straits and the City.

The Greeks, like the “hard-nosed” businessmen of the Tory backbenches, had done very well out of the War. But appearances were deceptive. They had achieved a vast expansion of territory, but not through their own efforts on the battlefield. The new Byzantium, conquered through the diplomacy of Venizelos, did favours for the Allies and benefited from their military power. But now it was the overextended Allies who were relying on the military power of the Greeks to sustain their hegemony in Asia Minor, and General Metaxas and the Greek General Staff had already calculated that such a project was foolhardy and unsustainable.

The idea that Greece could provide good government to the Smyrna region, where a mixed population lived, and within which a large proportion were deeply hostile to Hellenic rule, was an extremely rash and foolish decision. Turkey was the leading State in the region with hundreds of years of experience in administering areas of mixed population within the Ottoman Empire. The Greek State had been in existence for less than a century and had had only experience of ruling peoples of other races for a decade. It had not been noticeably successful in this and it had been Constantine’s opinion that the Greek State required a generation to consolidate itself, rather than taking on any further responsibilities elsewhere.

Then the Greek democracy, reasserting itself. Venizelos, despite his triumphal return to Athens, was thrown out of power in the Greek General Election of 1920. When Venizelos had returned to Athens in July 1917, behind the French Army, a General Election had been urged upon him to legitimise his authority. Venizelos declined a contest, however. By November 1920 his Government had exceeded its term of office, under the Constitution of Greece, by eighteen months. The Venizelist dictatorship might have gone on for years to come had his sponsors not grown uneasy at his conduct of affairs and pushed him into an election to renew his mandate.

Venizelos decided to fight the election against King Constantine, even though the former King was not a candidate and remained in exile after his forced abdication.  His replacement, King Alexander, had died from a monkey bite and Constantine was invited to return to Athens with the defeat of Venizelos by Gounaris and the pro-neutrality former Ministry. Venizelist, still believing in his star, and having deluded himself into believing he was the representative of the Greek people, thought a contest with the ex-King would be ideal.

Venizelos could have put the matter to the test by declaring a Republic and becoming President. But Venizelos must have made the calculation that that would have meant civil war – and what would have become of the new Byzantium then?

There had been a welter of books published in London, around 1918-19, celebrating the ‘victory of Venizelos’ and the downfall of Constantine. These had been carried along by the British propaganda in favour of Venizelos and against the Greek King. But in 1920 it was all shown to be a castle built on sand.

What the election showed was how much Venizelos’s power rested on foreign arms and so little on the support of the democracy. The Greek people understood that they had been forced into the War through foreign intervention and Venizelos had returned with a foreign army. They resented these infringements on their independence and wanted to reassert their independence and sovereignty. The result was a massive defeat for the Greek Premier as a huge majority voted for the opposition and ‘Constantine.’

After nearly six years of interference in the affairs of Greece England now began its formal withdrawal. And its withdrawal was to prove as disastrous to Greece as England’s first fatal overtures to her in 1914-15.

The new Greek Government was warned by Britain that if they accepted Constantine back to Athens there would be consequences. Two Notes were presented to the Greeks after the fall of Venizelos. One declared that the recall of King Constantine would be considered as a ratification of the Greek people of the hostile attitude taken by the Greek Government to the Allies during the War – i.e. by remaining neutral they were considered hostile. The second was a warning that financial help would therefore be withdrawn. But the Greek Government persisted in behaving as an independent country.

So having done the Allied bidding in their Asian Minor military adventure, the Greeks were now to be left high and dry, with their army in the middle of Anatolia, because they exercised their democratic right in choosing their own rulers.

Why was Britain acting like this and abandoning its instrument in the Near East?

The Tory backbenchers were certainly growing uneasy at reports of increased Turkish resistance to occupation after the Greek advance into the Anatolian interior – and the awful expense of it all. Apparently, and quite worryingly for the Coalition Cabinet, they began to utter the old phrase of previous era, from the time of a long lost foreign policy, again: the Turk is a gentlemen.

The instincts of a former world fed into anger against the Greeks, who had had the temerity to recall their King, who had put his country before the Allied cause. So the Coalition began to be put under pressure by its backbenchers – who had been very quiescent and tolerant of the Coalition up until then – to restrict its expansionist designs on Turkish territory. And there was some talk in Parliament and the Press that the Jews were behind it all again.

The reinstitution of Constantine gave Britain the cover necessary to begin to abandon their Greek catspaw. It began to be recalled that the cost of assisting Greece by the British taxpayer had been £16 million since 1914. Had not the return of Constantine wiped the slate clean?

When the tide began to turn against the Greeks on the battlefield their usefulness to England was found to be negligible, and they were now being hung out to dry.

In December 1920, the Greeks had advanced deep into Anatolia, to Eskisehir, the important Railway junction. Finding stiff resistance from the Turks they retired to their original positions. In early 1921 the Greeks resumed their advance, but again met stiff resistance from Kemal‘s forces, who were increasingly fighting in a more effective way.

The Greek advance was halted for the first time at the Battle of Inonu on January 11th 1921. By March the Allies began to realise that Turkey was not done, after all, and was a force that needed to be reckoned with again. This set-back led to Allied proposals to amend the Treaty of Sèvres at a conference in London where both the Turkish Revolutionary and Ottoman Governments were invited.

The Allied Powers assembled in London to revise the Treaty of Sèvres. Calogeropoulos, the new Greek Premier, and Gounaris, now the Greek War Minister, apparently accepted Allied terms that Greece end its military occupation of the Smyrna district. Gounaris was increasingly concerned with the safety of the Greek population in the area that the expansionist policy of Venizelos had put in danger. However, the Turkish delegation refused to be pressurised into a modification of Sèvres by the Allied Ministers at London and stated that they would have to return to Angora to submit any revisions to the National Assembly.

Mixed-messages were coming at the Greeks from London and they were compounded by Lloyd George’s continued moral support for the Greek adventure in contacts with them through private channels and in Parliament. This Pilate-like washing of the hands by Britain presented King Constantine with a dilemma: The Allied Supreme Council had ordered the halting of the Greek advance and the British had withdrawn support; but Lloyd George and his Ministry was winking the Greeks on, where Venizelos had left off, at the same venue.

King Constantine and his Ministers were placed in a dilemma. They had not originated the Greek adventure in Asia Minor and had actively opposed it for years. But they also realised that there was no going back in the war of conquest and extermination that Venizelos had launched with British support. A retreat would leave the Greek inhabitants of Anatolia, who had been implicated in the ethnic cleansing of Turks from the Greek occupation zone, at the mercy of the advancing Turkish army.

King Constantine may have believed that with Lloyd George on his side all would be well, or he may have just reasoned that the only way of retaining British help was by doing its work on the battlefield. Whatever the case he decided to stake all on the test of battle and ridding Anatolia of Kemal once and for all.

The Greek Army, whom the British had effectively washed their hands of, embarked on a spring offensive aimed at the new Turkish capital of Angora. All went well at first, as the Greek Army with its morale buoyed up by the arrival of the King, captured Eskishehir, the important railway junction considered to be the key to controlling the rest of Anatolia. And Lloyd George was singing the Hellenic praises in Parliament again and taunting the backbenchers with, ‘I told you so!’

Mustapha Kemal had located the new capital at Angora (Ankara) because any invader would find it much harder to attack a Turkish administration there than at occupied Constantinople – it was safe from the Royal Navy, in particular. Angora was a small provincial town on an arid plane in the middle of nowhere. But it was located in a fatal environment for an attacking army. An attacking army risked their lines becoming dangerously extended and exposed in the vast Anatolian heartland behind it.

That is what happened to the Greeks. Kemal surrendered territory to the attackers until they were drawn into the most hostile of conditions at the line of the Sakarya River, fifty miles from Ankara, with their supply lines stretched. Kemal positioned himself with two river tributaries guarding his flanks and a railway at his rear to maintain his supplies and aid reinforcements. He ensured all the advantages lay with the Turkish defence and all the disadvantages with the Greek offence despite the fact that the Greeks faced a smaller Turkish force.

The advance into Anatolia had lengthened the Greek lines of supply and communication and they began to run out of ammunition. The battle of Sakarya, fought during August/September 1921, lasted twenty-one days before the Greeks, unable to break through, went into a full retreat. The Turks broke the Southern front of the Greeks, surrounding and destroying half their army. The survivors fled at the double for Smyrna and the coast.

The Greek retreat turned into a rout; the Greeks left a trail of burning towns, desecrated Mosques and massacred civilians, which the advancing Turkish army encountered on its way to the coast. Greek civilians fearful of the vengeance of the Turks fled with Constantine’s army back to the port of Izmir/Smyrna, where the misadventure had all began. The port became crowded with the remnants of the Greek army and thousands of refugees. Turkish forces entered Smyrna in early September 1922 as the Greeks, and other Christian inhabitants, left in disorder in numerous ships, and the town burned before them.

Atatürk had concluded an alliance of convenience with the Bolsheviks to secure his Eastern flank against the Armenians, who the British were urging to link up with Greeks. This was advantageous for both Atatürk and Lenin. It helped the Bolsheviks to secure Transcaucasia and the oil of Baku.

If Lloyd George had made a speedy and honourable peace with Ottoman Turkey in 1919, as Churchill proposed, and allied with Istanbul against Bolshevism it is conceivable that the Caucasus would have been held against Lenin with dramatic results. The history of the world would have been different.

Because the British Prime Minster adopted the course he did and managed to secure his Hellenic ally by irredentist rewards the ancient Greek population of Asia Minor fled on boats from Smyrna, with the remnants of their army after Britain had withdrawn its support, because the Greek democracy had reasserted its will to have back its King. The Greek invasion of Anatolia a century ago is an event that, despite its historical importance, has all but been forgotten today, despite the phrases that decorate First World War “Remembrance” such as “Lest We Forget”.


  1. “Thank you so much for this very informative and brilliantly written article!” wrote reader Michael Awad, and it was beautifully put. Well done, Dr. Walsh.

    The ending line, “The Greek invasion of Anatolia a century ago is an event that, despite its historical importance, has all but been forgotten today,” bears a supplement. What happened during these years, particularly with an Armenian genocide” that is commonly said to have lasted from 1915 until 1923, is remembered as a “genocide” affecting all Christian minorities, at the head of which are the Greeks. (Also, Assyrians, where 750,000 are usually said to have been “exterminated.” There were not that many to begin with.)

    Yet it’s not enough. The hatred needs to extend to modern Turkey. An “Armenian genocide” bill in California from 2018 has this line:

    “Hundreds of thousands more were subjected to ethnic cleansing during the period of the modern Republic of Turkey from 1924-1937,”

    The line is from AJR-37 (https://trackbill.com/bill/california-assembly-joint-resolution-37-armenian-genocide/1577859/); one of the signers (the bill passed unanimously, with a vote of 75-0) was Tony Thurmond. He is currently the superintendent of public instruction in the California Department of Education. He is fervently making sure to teach to Californian children, as the law in California requires, that Turks are simply “unspeakable.”


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