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.



  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



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.