Greek Independence: Fact or Fiction?

A paper presented on 23.2.2021 to Ankara Üniversity İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü – Institute of Revolutionary History video conference on Greece 1821-2021.

The question of Greek independence, won in 1821, arose in conjunction with the British desire to engage neutral Greece in the Great War against Ottoman Turkey during 1915. On January 24, 1915, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, formally requested that the Greeks enter Britain’s Great War. Sir Edward Grey offered a vague promise of “important territorial concessions in Asia Minor” in return for Greek military assistance in the Balkans and against the Ottomans. Britain thus attempted to draw Greece into the Great War on irredentist grounds, as it did with Italy four months later.

Basil Thomson of the British intelligence services, and later Scotland Yard, later wrote a book called ‘The Allied Secret Service in Greece’. In the early pages he described the political situation in Greece at the start of the European War:

“Greece was in a state of internal peace which has been rare in her history. In 1913 she had emerged victorious from two consecutive Balkan wars in which her King had led her so successfully in the field that her territory had been greatly enlarged. But her people were war-weary, and since the quarrel between Austria and Serbia seemed in no way to concern them, their feeling was for a neutrality benevolent toward England and France.” (The Allied Secret Service in Greece, p. 37)

The Greek King Constantine politely refused Britain’s offer and his government declared its intention to remain neutral in the war. But Britain was determined to enlist as many neutrals as possible in the Great War. So England attempted to circumvent the King and his people by making offers to the Greek Prime Minister, Venizélos, of territory in Anatolia. Through this policy Britain encouraged the opening up of a great internal division in Greece.

Right from the outbreak of the Great War the Greek Premier, Eleftherios Venizelos, argued for an unqualified and unconditional Greek entry into the War on the side of the Entente. Venizelos, who had been an insurrectionist in Crete, wanted to use the War to advance Greek interests against the Turks and he seems to have been made aware of the British plans to extend the conflict to the Ottoman Empire, even though it was neutral at this time (Churchill was forming a plan to involve the Greek Army in a naval attack on the Dardanelles at this moment and it seems to have been communicated to Venizelos). Venizelos believed that Greece would never again be presented with such an opportunity like the European War – the chance of fighting with so many powerful allies – to gain a “Greater Greece” in Asia Minor. He had as his ultimate dream the Megali idea – a large Greek Empire across the Balkans and Asia Minor and a new Byzantium.

King Constantine, however, under the Greek Constitution, had the final say on matters of war and peace and he attempted to defend his neutrality policy. Constantine, a trained military man, saw that a Greek adventure in Anatolia would be extremely unwise and, unlike his Prime Minister, he listened to military advice on deciding upon military matters. The Chief of the General Staff, General Metaxas, who had compiled a report on taking and holding Western Asia Minor during the Balkan Wars believed that such an enterprise would be beyond the Greek Army. The General concluded that the basis of a Greek colonial venture would be the effete commercial classes of Greeks and Armenians in the vicinity of the town of Smyrna, who were surrounded by seven million Turkish peasants. The long term prospects of survival of such a colony were not good. So King Constantine, taking the advice of his Chief of Staff, informed the Entente that in line with his policy of “benevolent neutrality” he would not fight Turkey unless Greece itself was attacked.

As a result of his stand on neutrality King Constantine was denounced as an agent of the Kaiser by British propaganda, including in Greek newspapers owned in England. Because he was married to the Kaiser’s sister Constantine was handily depicted as the Kaiser’s man, although “Tino” had, in fact, resisted his brother-in-law’s’ efforts to court him.

The Entente claimed they had the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Greece due to the Treaty of London (1863-4) between England, France and Russia on the one hand and Greece on the other. This recognised the independence of Greece – but now it was claimed that it also entitled the guarantors of that independence to interfere in it. 

England had a long history of interference in the affairs of the Greeks and regarded this interference as a matter of routine by 1914. Arguing for further interference during 1916 Ronald Montague Burrows, Professor of Greek and Principal of King’s College London, noted: “As we created Greece at Navarino, so we recreated it in 1863, and the letter of the original guarantee must be construed in the spirit of the Treaty of 1863, and of the interference in the internal affairs of Greece which that Treaty crystallized.” (The New Europe, 19th October, 1916. The New Europe was a weekly periodical which sought to develop ideas from various contributors amongst the Allied nations about the type of Europe they would construct after the defeat of the Central Powers. It was founded by R.W. Seton-Watson, a famous British academic.)

Professor Burrows was adviser on Greek affairs to the British Cabinet and simultaneously to Venizelos during 1915. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this entry for him: “He taught at the University of Manchester (1908–13) and was principal of King’s College, London, from 1913 to 1920, the period when he devoted much time to modern Greek affairs. His plan for bringing Greece into World War I was adopted by the British Cabinet in 1915. A confidant and adviser to the Greek statesman Eleuthérios Venizélos, he was chosen to be the Greek provisional government’s semi-official representative in London (1916)”.

Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire until the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. Britain (with Lord Byron) had intervened in this war on the Greek’s behalf in the decisive naval engagement, destroying the Turkish fleet at Navarino, and making a Greek victory possible. Greece was “Made in England” and as a consequence was England’s to do with what it wished.

In 1832 the Greeks had wanted a Liberal Republican State but they had been straight jacketed by a monarchy complete with foreign King by the guarantors who, at that time, not long after the French Revolution, did not want to promote liberal democracies in Europe. So the Greek King, to a great extent, was the representative of the three great Powers of Europe, because his position was derived from their power over Greece, and they were always inclined to believe he should be their instrument (or not be king at all).

Prof. Burrows referred to the fact that the Greek King Otho had been forced into accepting a Constitution by Britain and when he had refused to abide by it he had been deposed in 1862. In 1863 England put Prince William of Denmark (father of King Constantine) on the throne of Greece and defined the political status of the Greek State as “a monarchical, independent and constitutional state” in a Treaty with Denmark.

Interestingly, at the time of the Crimean War, Greece, under King Otho, was in favour of going to war with Turkey on the side of Russia. But France and England, who were in alliance with Turkey against Russia, would not allow it. King Otho was told that strict neutrality was the only policy consonant with the interests of Greece. The Allies landed troops at Athens to compel obedience to their will. The Greek sovereign was put on notice for daring to adopt an independent Greek policy.

The difference between 1855 and 1915 was that in the former time the English and French compelled the Greeks to be neutral whilst in the latter they attempted to compel the country to make war. In both cases Greece was taken to have no independent existence, or an independent existence only when it suited the Great Powers.

Professor Burrows, who regarded the Greek State as a creation of England, urged the British Government to keep up this tradition of interference, which, he argued, had been given formal status by international Treaty. The Liberal Daily News concurred with this view declaring in its leader of June 23rd 1916 that because England had freed the Greeks at Navarino, drafted their Constitution, and become the country’s guarantor, it was “warranted in taking any measures for the protection of their ward.” (a ward is a kind of young, immature figure who needs to be guided in the right direction by those, more responsible, who are charged with his protection)

Both Burrows and Compton Mackenzie (British Intelligence and famous novelist) were in favour of the British Government recalling the Ambassador, and declaring open support for Venizelos against King Constantine. The Prime Minister Asquith was for intervention in Greece if a popular movement existed that Britain could point to in order to justify intervention. Lloyd George was of the opinion that Venizelos needed British might to be applied in the general region in order that a popular movement against the King could be cultivated and to swing the Greek people behind him.

Sir Edward Grey, however, was paralysed by his reliance on the Tsar and his “Russian Steamroller” vital to the military encirclement of Germany. The French were pushing for direct military action to coerce Greece but Grey was mindful “that to encourage a revolutionary movement against the King of Greece would be much resented by the Emperor of Russia and might in consequence have unfavourable influence on Franco-British relations with Russia.” (September 1, 1916, Trevelyan, p.289)

This course, if Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, had been prepared to take it, would have logically resulted in a Venizelist coup d’état and probably a Greek civil war. But the cautious Edward Grey did not feel predisposed to risking such a course in 1915.

Instead a “pacific blockade” was imposed on the Greeks to make them change their mind on neutrality. The Daily Telegraph advised the British Government that what the Greeks needed to understand their position “is strength, not too refined in character, and a downright masterfulness which is first cousin to brutality.” Greece must be “under no illusions as to her position, if she chooses to oppose our projects and must be fully aware that a blockade would be ruinous to her trade, to her shipping and above all to her corn supplies.” The Allies mean to have their way “and will use all legitimate means to secure the objects at which they aim.”

Sir Roger Casement, who had worked under Grey in the British Foreign Office, commented in the Continental Times of 13th December, 1915:

“Byron came to aid Greece in a war of independence; ‘the countrymen of Byron’ to-day are doing their utmost to plunge Greece in a war of unexampled peril and disaster to all her future. If Byron could say in his day ‘tis Greece but living Greece no more’, his fellow countrymen to-day are assuredly determined, that the strict fulfilment of the poet’s words shall come to pass a century later. Not content with occupying Greek territory and marching large forces through it in defiance of the protest of the Greek Government, these friends of Greece and of the small nationalities proceed to assail the very existence of the country they have lawlessly invaded and threaten it with everything short of open acts of war, if it will not ‘aid their projects’.”

Professor Burrows, Compton Mackenzie and Sir Edward Carson (famous lawyer, leader of the Unionists in Ireland and British Cabinet Minister) came together in London during October 1915 to try to organise a renewed effort to get Greece into the War. Mackenzie has an account of it in his book Greek Memories:

“Burrows… suggested that I should have an interview with Sir Edward Carson who had resigned from the Cabinet over the Salonica muddle in October 1915. Burrows told me that he was now inclined to interest himself in the Greek question… I no longer had any hesitation in putting the state of affairs in Greece before Sir Edward Carson. Burrows took me along to the Law Courts where we found Sir Edward Carson in a dark little room, his wig lying on a table beside him. His large swarthy face looked larger and swarthier for the dimness and dinginess of the surroundings. A sombre and impressive figure, he sat there nursing a knee and listening to my appreciation of Greek affairs.

‘Well,’ he said in the end, ‘I might overthrow the [British] Government over this if matters grow worse in Greece.’ He mentioned the number of members who were ready to vote with him when the time came. I am under the impression it was one hundred and fifty-three, the number of the miraculous draught of fishes. ‘But, Sir Edward,’ I went on, ‘the situation might develop rapidly at any moment… What is required is a positive assurance that the British Government will support Venizelos…’

‘Well,’ said Sir Edward Carson, if you find the situation becoming graver you can communicate with me through Professor Burrows, and I shall probably decide to act.’…

Perhaps if the disastrous events of the First of December in Athens had happened a fortnight earlier Sir Edward Carson would have succeeded in overthrowing the Government without those tortuous negotiations which Lord Beaverbrook relates so vividly in the second volume in Politicians and the War.” (Greek Memories, pp. 315-7)

Mackenzie’s sentence about “the disastrous events of the First of December” was a reference to the Battle of Athens of December 1916 when a large force of French and British troops were landed there after the King had protested the positioning of 10 battalions of Allied Artillery on neutral Greek territory. When Greek soldiers drove them off, with over a hundred fatalities to the French and British, a state of official war was only just avoided.

To save the capital from being flattened by the guns of the Royal Navy King Constantine complied to the Allied four demands, and a new Ministry under the leadership of M. Zaimis, and with Ententists included, was appointed to carry on the administration of the country until the election of a new Chamber. The chief of police was replaced to the Allied satisfaction and the Greek Army began to be demobilised. The demobilisation of the Greek Army had an immediate effect as irregular bands of Bulgarians invaded Cavalla. Instead of the Allies resisting this the King was condemned for being unwilling to defend his country with his demobilized army, with the suggestion that the Allied Army could do this for him.

In response to the Greek acquiescence to their demands the Allies lifted the blockade they had imposed on Greece but restricted the importing of foodstuffs into Athens – thereby keeping the people on slender rations, with the understanding that they were existing in freedom, only under Allied sufferance, and needed to choose a different option.

The General Election, which the Entente demanded by the guns of their battleships, was due to be held in September 1916 and this time the issue was clear. It would have given the Greek people an open choice between neutrality and war (discounting the threat levelled at them from the Royal Navy).

Perhaps it would have been like the Treaty election of 1922 in Ireland with the Greeks bowing to the threat of force. But we will never know. Rather than contest the election Venizelos stole out of Athens with the help of the French Secret Service, to Crete, and became the head of a rival Greek Provisional government established by the Allies, in Salonika. In doing so he determined that he could only return to Athens with an Allied Army.

On November 19th 1916 the British announced a full blockade of Greece and demanded the withdrawal of Greek troops from Salonika, the handing over of road and rail networks in the area and supply bases in Greek territorial waters. The Royal Navy blockade of Greece was designed to force Greece into the War, or else bring about a regime change in the country that saw Venizelos in charge at Athens, so that he would bring the Greeks into the War against Ottoman Turkey. But the blockade failed in its ultimate objective to get the people to abandon their King and force the Greeks into regime change.

So, in May 1917 the British and French decided on a three stage programme to ensure Greek entry into the War. It was agreed that the semblance of freedom of action should be left to the Greeks so that the Allies would not be seen to be involved in a direct military coup against King Constantine. The Allies decided to seize the wheat crop of Thessaly, upon which the entire Greek population depended for bread; and the Corinth Isthmus, cutting off the Greek Army from the capital and to deliver an ultimatum to Constantine demanding the immediate entry of Greece into the War. And it was decided that direct force would then be applied to the situation in Athens if Constantine refused to comply.

The King decided to save his people by sacrificing his throne on 11th June 1917. There were scenes of turmoil in Athens as large crowds tried to prevent the King’s departure but Constantine was left with no alternative and he urged his people to remain calm and resolute in the face of the invasion forces. The Allies treaded carefully due to events in Russia. They would not allow a Republic. But they would not have Constantine’s eldest son, Prince George, as replacement for his father either. So Prince Alexander, the young second son of Constantine, whom they believed to be more malleable, was given the throne. Venizelos entered Athens with the French Army and Greece formally joined the War on the Allied side.

That was the start of the Greek tragedy. For the following 5 years Greece was used as a catspaw to impose a punitive settlement on the Turks. It appears that although Greece had won its independence in 1821 this independence was conditional on the interests of the great powers that had assisted it, particularly Great Britain. Greek sovereignty was also something which was far from an established fact. Greece was, a century after independence, very much viewed as an instrument to be used in geopolitics and war.

King Constantine’s Statement to Neutrals, 14 January 1917

All we ask is fair play.  But it seems almost hopeless to try to get the truth out of Greece to the rest of the world under present circumstances.  We have been sorely tried these last two years and we don’t pretend to have always been angels under the constant irritation of the ever increasing allied control of every little thing in our own private life – letters, telegrams, police, everything.

Why, do you know that my sister-in-law, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was only permitted to receive a telegram of Christmas greetings from her mother in England by courtesy of the British Legation here?

Moreover, by taking an active hand in our own internal politics, England and France especially have succeeded in alienating an admiration, a sympathy, and a devotion toward them on the part of the Greek people that, at the beginning of the war, was virtually a unanimous tradition.

I am a soldier myself and I know nothing about politics, but it seems to me that when you start with almost the whole of a country passionately in your favour and end with it almost unanimously against you, you haven’t succeeded very well.

And I quite understand how those responsible for such a result seek to excuse themselves by exaggerating the difficulties they have had to contend with in Greece – by talking about Greek treachery and the immense sinister organization of German propaganda that has foiled them at every turn, and so on.

The only trouble with that is that they make us pay for the errors of their policy.  The people of Greece are paying for them now in suffering and death from exposure and hunger, while France and England starve us out because they have made the mistake of assuming that their man, Venizelos, could deliver the Greek Army and the Greek people to the Entente Powers whenever they wanted to use Greece for their advantage, regardless of the interests of Greece as an independent nation.

There are just two things about our desperate struggle to save ourselves from destruction that I am going to try to make clear to the people of America.  The rest will have to come out some day – all the blockades and censorships in the world cannot keep the truth down forever.  Understand, I am not presuming to sit in judgment on the Entente Powers.  I appreciate that they have got other things to think about besides Greece.  What I say is meant to help them do justice to themselves and to us, a small nation.

The first point is this: We have two problems on our hands here in Greece – an internal one and an external one.  The Entente Powers have made the fundamental mistake of considering them both as one.  They said to themselves “Venizelos is the strongest man in Greece and he is heart and soul with us.  He can deliver the Greeks whenever he wants to.  Let us back Venizelos, therefore, and when we need the Greek Army he will turn it over to us.”

Well, they were wrong.  Venizelos was perhaps the strongest man in Greece, as they thought.  But the moment he tried to turn over the Greek Army to the Entente, as if we were a lot of mercenaries, he became the weakest man in Greece and the most despised.

For in Greece no man delivers the Greeks.  They decide their own destinies as a free people, and not England, France and Russia together can change them, neither by force of arms nor by starvation.  And they have tried both.  As for Venizelos himself – you had a man once in your country, a very great man, who had even been Vice-President of the United States, who planned to split the country in two and set himself up as a ruler in the part he separated from the rest.

I refer to Aaron Burr.  But he only plotted to do a thing which he never accomplished.  Venizelos, with the assistance of the allied powers- a nd he never could have done it without them -has succeeded for the time being in the same kind of a seditious enterprise.  You called Aaron Burr a traitor.  Well, that’s what the Greek people call Venizelos.

The impression has been spread broadcast that Venizelos stands in Greece for liberalism and his opponents for absolutism and militarism.  It is just the other way around.  Venizelos stands for whatever suits his own personal book.

His idea of government is an absolute dictatorship – a sort of Mexican government, I take it.  When he was Premier he broke every man who dared to disagree with him in his own party.  He never sought to express the will of the people; he imposed his will on the people.

The Greek people will not stand that.  They demand a constitutional Government in which there is room for two parties – Liberals and Conservatives – each with a definite program, as in the United States or England or any other civilized country, not a personal Government, where the only party division is into Venizelists and anti-Venizelists.

The other thing I wanted to say is about the effect of the so-called German propaganda in Greece.  The Entente Powers seem to have adopted the attitude that everybody who is not willing to fight on their side must be a pro-German.

Nothing could be falser in respect of Greece.  The present resentment against the Allies in Greece – and there is a good deal of it, especially since the blockade – is due to the Allies themselves and not to any German propaganda.  The proof of it is that when the so-called German propaganda was at its height there was little or no hostility in Greece toward the Allies.

It has only been since the diplomatic representatives of all the Central Empires and everybody else whom the Anglo-French secret police indicated as inimical to the Entente have been expelled from Greece, and any German propaganda rendered virtually impossible, that there has grown up any popular feeling against the Entente.

Part of this is due to the Entente’s identification of its greater cause with the personal ambitions of Venizelos, but a great deal has also been due to the very unfortunate handling of the allied control in Greece.  When you write a personal letter of no possible international significance to a friend or relative here in Athens, and post it in Athens, and it is held a week, opened, and half its contents blacked out, it makes you rather cross – not because it is unspeakable tyranny in a free country at peace with all the world, but because it is so silly.

For, after all, if you want to plot with a man living in the same town you don’t write him a letter.  You put on your hat and go to see him.  Half the people in Greece have been continually exasperated by just this sort of unintelligent control, which has irritated the Greek people beyond telling.

The fact of the matter is that there is even now less pro-German feeling in Greece than in the United States, Holland, or any of the Scandinavian countries.  And there is far less anti-Entente propaganda in Greece even now than there is anti-Hellenic propaganda in England, France and Russia.

The whole feeling of the Greek people toward the Entente Powers today is one of sorrow and disillusionment.  They had heard so much of this “war for the defence of little nations” that it had been a very great shock to them to be treated, as they feel, very badly, even cruelly, for no reason and to nobody’s profit.  And more than anything else, after all the Greek Government and Greek people have done to help the Entente Powers since the very outbreak of the war, they deeply resent being called pro-German because they have not been willing to see their own country destroyed as Serbia and Rumania have been.

I have done everything I could to dissipate the mistrust of the Powers, I have given every possible assurance and guarantee.  Many of the military measures that have been demanded I myself suggested with a view to tranquillizing the Allies, and myself voluntarily offered to execute.

My army, which any soldier knows could never conceivably have constituted a danger to the allied forces in Macedonia, has been virtually put in jail in the Peloponnesus.  My people have been disarmed, and are today powerless, even against revolution, and they know from bitter experience that revolution is a possibility so long as the Entente Powers continue to finance the openly declared revolutionary party of Venizelos.

There isn’t enough food left in Greece to last a fortnight.  Not the Belgians themselves under German rule have been rendered more helpless than are we in Greece today.

Isn’t it, therefore, time calmly to look at conditions in Greece as they are, to give over a policy dictated by panic, and to display a little of that high quality of faith which alone is the foundation of friendship?

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923




  1. Dear Pat, Thank you so much for this very interesting article. Hope it’s all right to share with interested people. Best wishes.

    Betula Nelson

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Dr Walsh,

    Thank you for this article. It certainly makes it very clear the position of Greece when it came to the Greek Independence and the power of the outside forces. There were many things I didn’t know and it was refreshing to read it from someone who is not biased and can see things more clearly.

    I was wondering whether you had ever considered writing about the Cyprus problem? It is a topic that not many experts from other backgrounds have written about. As I was reading your article I came across your reference to the Megali Idea and couldn’t help thinking that Cyprus comes under this. The problems that occurred as a result of acting upon the Megali Idea brought the island to its division in the modern day and oddly caused an enosis of sorts not for the Greeks but for Turkey it seems with the breakaway state of Northern Cyprus.

    It would be interesting to read your thoughts on this.


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