The Great War and the Great Idea (Megali): Forgotten aspects of the Greek war on the Turks

There are many forgotten aspects of the Great War of 1914. One is the fact that Britain violated Greek neutrality because the Greek government resisted its pressure to join its war on Germany and Ottoman Turkey, and then invaded neutral Greece, overthrew its government, and installed a puppet government which declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Britain then lured Greece into a fatal military adventure in Anatolia in order to impose a punitive treaty on the Turks and to advance its Imperial interests in the region. This produced a Greek tragedy of immense proportions whilst at the same time generating a powerful Turkish nation out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. No wonder such a disastrous policy and turn of events is seldom talked about in the West or examined by its historians.

Britain’s Great War of 1914

The character of Britain’s Great War on the Ottoman Empire was largely responsible for the Greek war on the Turks. It is possible that there could have been a local Greek/Ottoman war if the events of 1914 had not generated a world war but it would have been an entirely different affair, much more limited in scope and duration. It certainly would not have resulted in the catastrophe it did.

The catastrophe was inherent in the nature of Britain’s Great War on Germany and the Ottoman State.

British Liberalism, the governing power in the British State in 1914, had to present the Great War as a great moral crusade of good versus evil in order that Liberal M.P.s and the political 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 the ‘barbarians.’ The Germans and Turks were depicted as the barbarians of the West and East. This infusion of a moral dimension 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 Nonconformist Protestants, who made up a great deal of the Liberal rank and file in Britain.

This fundamentalist Christian impulse gave the War its catastrophic character, thwarted all efforts at peace, particularly those of Pope Benedict XV, who tried energetically to put a stop to Europe destroying itself and the world in 1917.

Another thing that was important was that English Liberalism was opposed to military conscription. A conscript army was seen as a luxury for an island state without frontiers that only needed to dominate the seas to control and regulate the world market. And it had become a principle of Liberalism to oppose 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 Liberals were reluctant to impose on their 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. Of course, England had anyway a long tradition of getting other nations to do its fighting for it, whilst the Royal Navy mopped up trade routes, important strategic bases and territory around the world while the enemy was otherwise occupied.

The Liberal Imperialists, including 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 Eurasia, 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 of defence.

So this is where Greece came into Britain’s Great War.

England violated Greek neutrality on the first day of the War on Turkey by occupying the harbours of three Greek islands in the vicinity of the Straits. In justifying this action Britain said that since these islands had been taken by Greece from Turkey in the Balkan Wars and they were formally still part of the Ottoman Empire there was no violation of neutrality, but simply a conquest of enemy territory.

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 attempted to draw Greece into the Great War on irredentist grounds, as it did with Italy four months later.

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. Turks and Greeks were intertwined in many areas and interdependent. But the division between the Greeks within the new Greek state 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 Ottoman State. The spread of nationalism into the Balkans had resulted in great ethnic cleansings in which minorities were put out of their homes by local majorities, carving out more ethnically homogeneous states. There was a view among Greek nationalists that this process could be extended into the Ottoman territories where there were substantial amounts of Greeks, upon whom an extension of the Greek state could be based.

King Constantine and Venizelos

Basil Thomson of the British intelligence services, and 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)

In 1914 Britain offered Greece a sizeable chunk of Turkey if it would declare war on Turkey. King Constantine, supported by his Chief of Staff, General Metaxas, refused the offer. Greece had recently doubled its size in the Balkan Wars and time was required for the consolidation of this extra territory. However, Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister had bigger ideas and unlimited ambitions on the lines of a new Byzantium and he showed interest in the British offer. The very qualities that made Venizelos very dangerous to the Greek national interest endeared him to England.

The following estimation of the differences between King Constantine and Venizelos is from Greece And The Allies 1914-1922 by G. F. Abbott:

“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)

The Greek War of Independence had had the effect of separating a large section of Greeks from the Greek State that was established in the 1830s. That presented the possibility of future Greek irredentist claims on parts of Turkey, 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.

Venizelos argued that Greece would never be presented with an opportunity like the European War again to achieve its irredentist programme – the chance of fighting with so many powerful allies to gain a “Greater Greece” in Asia Minor. King Constantine realised such a venture would be extremely unwise and, unlike his Prime Minister, he listened to military advice on deciding on military matters. The Chief of the General Staff, General Metaxas, who had been involved in compiling 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 as the basis of a Greek colonial venture would be the gentile and effete commercial classes of Greeks and Armenians in the vicinity of the town of Smyrna, and they were surrounded by seven million hardy Turkish peasants, the long term prospects of survival of such a colony were not good.) So Constantine informed the Entente that in line with his policy of “benevolent neutrality” he would not fight Turkey unless Greece was attacked by her.

Modern Greece – Made in Britain

Britain generally took the position that Greece was made by England and so it was under a moral obligation through a debt to its creator to answer England’s call to arms. England had had a long history of interference in the affairs of the Greeks and regarded this interference as a matter of routine.

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 and use Greece as their instrument.

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.”

Professor Burrows was adviser on Greek affairs to the British Cabinet and simultaneously to Venizelos.

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)

Phase One – The “Pacific Blockade”

The question was: how much British interference in the affairs of Greece was politik in the circumstances? Interference in the affairs of neutrals would damage the moral standing of the War, particularly in the US, which Britain needed as a friendly neutral. Also, there was the problem of Britain’s main ally in the East, Tsarist Russia, which was vital to the encirclement of Germany.

British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was paralysed by his reliance on the Tsar and his “Russian Steamroller”. 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)

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 to change Greek minds.

So, what was termed 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’s article, ‘A Pacific Blockade’, was published in The Continental Times is largely about the British/Allied violation of Greek neutrality during a Great War that England was originally claiming to fight because of a violation of Belgian neutrality. As Casement noted:

“… a war, began on behalf of the violated neutrality of Belgium, takes the form of a scheme of ‘pacific pressure’ to be exercised on Greek neutrality.”

On 5 October 1915, the British 10th and French 156th Divisions landed at Salonica without the permission of the Greek government on neutral Greek territory. On 23 October additional French and British forces invaded in an effort to force Greece into the Great War on the Allied side. The original two Brigades were reinforced by larger forces until the British 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th Divisions were occupying Greek territory.

The Royal Navy had originated the “Pacific Blockade” against Norway (1814) during the war against France and had also used it against Portugal (1831), Holland (1832-3), Carthagena (1834), New Granada (1837), the Argentine Confederation (1845-50), Greece (1850), Brazil (1862), Greece (1886), Zanzibar (1888-9), Crete (1897) and Venezuela (1902).

In 1902 Balfour described the “Pacific Blockade” of Venezuela as an act of war. However, as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Great War he instructed his Navy to impose it on neutral Greece, while pretending it was merely friendly persuasion.

Owing to Greece’s geographical position her existence – and potential expansion – depended on the Powers who controlled the Mediterranean. Her large merchant marine could be destroyed, her islands captured and Athens easily shelled by anyone controlling the Sea. King Constantine, in refusing the Kaiser’s overtures for help at the start of the War told him that “The Mediterranean lies at the mercy of the combined British and French fleets. Without being of any use to the Kaiser we should be wiped off the map.” (The Allied Secret Service in Greece, p. 39)

Venizelos, frustrated at the King’s opposition, sought to end Greek neutrality through secret diplomacy. Without the knowledge of the King or Cabinet he contacted the Entente in private inquiring if they were willing to supply French or British troops to satisfy provisions in a Balkan War convention promising Greek aid to Serbia in the event of a war. This convention was redundant by this time and inapplicable to the Great War but it provided legal cover to Venizelos to enter Greece into the War.

The Entente, seizing the opportunity, went ahead and despatched an army to Salonika – in spite of the Greek Government’s position of neutrality. This forced Bulgaria into the war.

In Britain it was pretended that it was King Constantine, the so-called “agent of the Kaiser,” who had acted unconstitutionally in dismissing the Venizelos Government. But Article 31 of the Greek Constitution, that was given to Greece by Britain and France, stated: “The King appoints and dismisses his Ministers.” Article 99 stated that “No foreign army may be admitted to the Greek service without a special law, nor may it sojourn in or pass through the state.”  It was also part of the Greek system that the King’s consent was a requirement for an amending of the Constitution and the King had the final say on external affairs.

Venizelos was forced to resign as Premier after this. A new Government was formed after the resignation of Venizelos and this pledged to continue to uphold Greek neutrality – despite the presence of Allied troops on its territory.

Phase Two – The Coercion of the Greeks

The Great War was going badly for the Entente by 1916. In the late autumn of 1915 there was stalemate on the Western Front, the Royal Navy was making little headway in the War, Serbia was falling and neutrals were resisting enlistment, or even going over to the enemy. Worst of all the Gallipoli invasion was seen to have failed and this was a mighty blow to British prestige.

By the end of 1915 a British and French army composed of 350,000 men landed at Salonika, in spite of Greek neutrality – even though a similar German violation of Belgian neutrality had supposedly brought Britain to declare a Great War on Germany for the same violation of international law. It was claimed that the Allied armies in Salonika were there to fight for the Serbs. But by this time the Serbian front was collapsing. So it made little sense to move forces to the area, where they would be effectively bottled up.

Churchill openly admitted the real purpose of the Salonika expedition in his World Crisis, where he states: “As a military measure to aid Serbia directly, the landing at this juncture of allied forces at Salonika was absurd… As a political move to encourage and determine the action of Greece, the despatch of allied troops to Salonika was justified.” (p. 585)

Despite the threats from Britain to Greek neutrality, the King stood firm. In January 1916 Constantine re-emphasized his policy of “benevolent neutrality” toward Britain and he requested the Allies to leave Greek territory – since with Serbia knocked out of the war they had no purpose in being there. He restrained his Army from defending Greek territory from the Allied occupation forces and simply requested the invaders to leave. All the time the Allies wished for a “provocation” from the Greeks, i.e a defence of their sovereign territory, to justify a full-blooded thrust toward Athens.

On January 21st 1916 the Liberal Daily News, which employed the German violation of Belgian neutrality to encourage its pacifist readership to become warmongers had this to say about the Allied violations of Greek neutrality:

“The conditions under which the Allies are encamped, and will soon be fighting, on neutral soil are an anomaly without parallel in modern warfare, and they involve inevitably an attitude equally anomalous towards the neutrality of Greece. Apart from the occupation of the Salonika zone, her railways have been cut, her bridges blown up, certain of her islands borrowed, and Consuls accredited to her put under arrest. Such facts cannot and need not be disguised. They call for no defence from the Allies, for Greece has no one to thank for them but herself.”

That said all that was necessary to say of the moral collapse of English Liberalism as its principles were whittled away in the Great War effort.

On 21st June 1916 the Allies issued an ultimatum to Greece. The Allied Governments stated that they were not demanding an end to Greek neutrality but put forward demands that would ensure the Greeks went along with the Allies’ project. 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. It was also 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 in the same way as Louis XVI.

This ultimatum was backed up by a demonstration of force in Allied occupied Greece. On St. Constantine’s Day, when Salonika was honouring the King, Martial Law was proclaimed by the Allies on Greek territory that they occupied. Entente detachments occupied strategic points, the Macedonian gendarmerie and police were expelled, and the press was placed under an Allied censor. In June a Royal navy blockade of the Greek coasts was established and 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 hydro-planes would drop bombs on the Royal Palace; then troops would land, occupy the town, and proceed to arrest, among others, the Royal family.

In the Battle of Athens of December 1916 a force of 4,000 French and British troops were landed in Athens. When Greek soldiers and the citizens of Athens drove them off, with over a hundred fatalities to the French and British, a state of official war was only just avoided. The British regarded the effective Greek defence and defeat of the coup as a provocation.

To save the capital from the guns of the Royal Navy King Constantine complied with the four demands of the Allies, and a new Ministry 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 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 activity 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 Royal Navy blockade but restricted the importing of foodstuffs into Athens – thereby putting the people on a starvation blockade.

Rather than contest the general election Venizelos stole out of Athens, accompanied by his supporters, in September 1916, with the help of the French Secret Service. He took the head of a rival Greek Provisional government established by the Allies at Salonika. The Allied objective was to create a new government that would lead Greece into the War on the side of the Allies. The British and French supported the new government substantially with arms and money and its military forces.

On November 19 1916 the British announced a new 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 Greece that saw Venizelos in charge at Athens, so that he would bring the Greeks into the War. On November 23, Venizelos’s new Government, established by the Allied armies in Thessalonica declared war against Bulgaria and Germany.

On 9 December 1916, two days before he left the Foreign Office, Sir Edward Grey agreed to “the decision to coerce the Greek Government”. He told General Robertson: “Diplomacy in war is futile, without military success to back it.”

Sir Edward Grey hoped to encourage the Greek people into rebellion against their King by intimidating and starving them. But the blockade failed in its objective of getting the Greeks to abandon King Constantine and force regime change to the Allied liking.

In May 1917 the British and French decided on a 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 instead decided to seize the wheat crop of Thessaly, upon which the entire Greek population depended for bread; to seize the Corinth Isthmus, cutting off the Greek Army from the capital and 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 Allied military occupation of Thessaly and Corinth, coupled with a Royal Navy threat to bombard Athens, finally had the desired effect and it forced Constantine to abdicate. The presence of the British Army at Salonika, the starvation blockade by the Royal Navy and the seizure of the harvest by Allied troops had the result of a widespread famine in the neutral nation that finally forced the surrender of Constantine. The Allies treaded carefully due to revolutionary 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.

But that was only the start of the Greek tragedy.

The Greek Tragedy Begins in Paris

Venizelos went to the Paris Peace Conference in Paris to claim his reward as part of the spoils of victory. Here is what Arnold Toynbee said of the Greek claims at Paris in 1919:

“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 led Greeks 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 new allies, without a further extension of the War, the Germans and Turks 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!

Arnold Toynbee, of course, knew better. Toynbee, the famous classical historian, 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 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 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 got 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)

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 further British and French 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” 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 and the Greeks

The British Prime Minister, 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)

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 and Ottoman 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 armies as quickly as possible. The War propaganda that had been used to gain the recruits had been on the lines of seeing off the Prussian evil, and since that had been done, it was only reasonable that the men be released from service, rather than being retained for any 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.

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.

The Megali Adventure in Anatolia Begins

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 Entente forces 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. 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… it is quite impossible for the Allies, under present circumstances, to conquer and occupy the whole of Anatolia… We have no means, therefore, of enforcing… the military clauses of the Treaty…

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)

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 destroyed by a quick advance of the Greek forces, numbering 90,000 men, who would capture an important railway junction on the railroad from Izmir and Adana. 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 where Turkish resistance could be broken, in conjunction with the Armenians.

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

On August 10th 1920 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 Mustafa 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.

An Unexpected Development

The Megali or ‘great idea’ of a new 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 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 unexpected occurred. The Greek democracy, reasserted itself with Allied guns removed and ranged elsewhere. 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 fought the election against King Constantine, even though the former King was not actually 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.

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.’

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 Britain did what it did and abandoned the Greeks

Mustafa Kemal 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 the Turks and Russians. The Armenians were thoroughly defeated and the rear was secured by the Turkish resurgence. It helped the Bolsheviks to secure Transcaucasia and the oil of Baku. This was a very worrying development because of the fear of Bolshevism spreading to Europe. Churchill urged Lloyd George to make peace with the German and Turk and fight the Bolshevik. This realistic policy is what Britain would have adopted in the old days before it became a democracy and the aristocracy determined foreign affairs and war and peace. But in 1918 Britain had become a majority democracy and Lloyd George rejected it in favour of Greek and Armenian proxies forcing through the Great War’s moral agenda.

If Lloyd George had made a speedy and honourable peace with Ottoman Turkey in 1919, as Churchill proposed, and allied with the Turks 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. But the British Prime Minister backed the Greek horse and gambled on its victory.

The Conservative backbenchers who supported the Lloyd George Coalition in the British Parliament 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. 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.

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.

By December 1920, the Greeks had advanced deep into Anatolia, to Eskisehir, the important Railway junction. The Greek advance was halted for the first time at the Battle of Inonu in January 1921. By March the Allies began to realise that Turkey was not finished, 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. 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 Ankara 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 was faced with a difficult choice. He had not originated the Greek adventure in Asia Minor and had actively opposed it for years. But he 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 Mustafa 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 Ankara. All went well at first, as the Greek Army with its morale buoyed up by the arrival of the King, captured Eskisehir, the important railway junction considered to be the key to controlling the rest of Anatolia, in July 1921. 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 Ankara because any invader would find it much harder to attack a Turkish administration there than at Istanbul – it was safe from the Royal Navy’s guns, in particular. Ankara was a small provincial town on an arid plane, located in a fatal environment for an attacking army. Attackers risked their lines becoming dangerously extended and exposed in the 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. 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 series of battles at Sakarya, fought during August and September 1921, lasted 3 weeks 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 Conservative backbenchers in the Coalition Government used the Turkish victory to rein in the Prime Minister’s military support of the Greeks. The Greek State had been bankrupted by the British pressure of the previous years and was totally reliant on England financially for its expansionary adventure in Asia Minor.

The Greek army, after rallying and putting up resistance for a year, went into full retreat and it employed a scorched-earth policy to Turkish villages as it fled. The Greek population, fearful of the consequences of their actions, went with them. The ancient Greek community of Asia Minor that had lived peacefully and prospered under Ottoman rule for centuries now fled on boats from a burning Smyrna, with the remnants of their army.

This was the ultimate British betrayal of the Greeks, who they had encouraged and bullied into the Great War with promises of the fulfilment of irredentist dreams, only to be left in the lurch at the vital moment because the Greek democracy had voted to return their King. England washed its hands of Greece and blamed King Constantine, who had all the time resisted their attempts to cajole the Greeks into the catastrophe.

Churchill justified the British let down of Greece thus:

“It would be absurd to ask the British or French democracy to make sacrifices or efforts for a people whose real spirit was shown by their choice of such a man… For the sake of Venizelos much had to be endured, but for Constantine less than nothing.” (World Crisis – Aftermath, p.388)

It was not Britain who betrayed Greece but apparently the ungrateful Greeks who had betrayed England! The Turks were now the substance to take account of in the region.

It was a death sentence on the Anatolian Greek community which paid the price, like many other peoples that had been similarly implicated in Britain’s Great War. Greece itself was deluged with a million homeless and penniless refugees who had left everything in Asia Minor. During the next decade and a half no less than nineteen changes of government took place and three changes of regime. The finances of the Greek government collapsed under the double strain of the cost of settlement of the refugees and the world economic crisis resulting from the Great War. Greece became bankrupt and had to suspend the service of her foreign loans. Has it ever recovered?

Greek Pawns making Turkish Queens

With regard to affairs in relation to Greece England assigned one of its foremost historians, Arnold Toynbee, to the project of creating an account that, if not absolving England of all responsibility for what happened to Greece, at least deflected the blame onto other parties. The purpose of this was evidently to create an understanding that the whole affair had all the atmosphere of a terrible tragedy that really could never have been imagined before the event. Toynbee’s account portrays the events that led to the Greek catastrophe as having originated in the characteristics of an inferior people who did not possess the qualities of their great ancestors.

Toynbee wrote the following in 1922 to explain the turn of events:

“A game played with living pieces may be a cruel spectacle, and, half through her own fault, Greece has been the principle victim. The fault is only half hers, for at first she struggled hard not to be drawn into the rivalries between the Power, and the struggle cost her her internal unity. But instead of common sense and moderation prevailing, as since the armistice they have begun to prevail in the West, they were overborne by the pressure of the Entente Powers and the imperious personality of Mr. Venizelos; and Greece, more than ever divided at home, was pushed into that foreign policy of reckless aggrandisement towards which the blind herd-instinct under the surface of her politics was all the time impelling her. At last, fatally at war within herself and at the same time fatally united for war against a neighbouring nation, she was brought to a point from which she could neither reach internal or external peace, nor retreat without loss or even disaster. The world has sympathised with the personal tragedy of Mr. Venizelos. There is a greater pathos in the national tragedy of his country…

“Mr. Venizelos… grasped at such excessive territorial prizes that he failed to secure the greater prize of peace. Being a statesman of great force and great charm of character, he has been able to give ample effect to his policy, and when it has been mistaken, his country has therefore suffered its consequences to the full…

“Neutrality, during the whole period during which we respected the King’s legitimate claim to insist upon it, was more prudent for Greece, and more dignified, than the purchase of territory by intervention; and it makes for the general betterment of international relations if small states always and everywhere keep as clear as possible of the rivalries between Great Powers. Indeed, King Constantine was not alone in his views. Possibly a majority among the politically educated people in Greece agreed with him… Every event… raises controversial issues…” (The Western Question in Greece And Turkey, pp.63-8)

Arnold Toynbee adjusted from being a vigorous anti-Turk propagandist at Wellington House during the Great War to being a considered apologist for the Turks after it. When the Turks were ear-marked for destruction he vilified them as evil personified and when they re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with, after it was thought they were down and out, he understood them and what they were about. He turned his disdain on the former ally, the Greeks.

But Toynbee could not avoid England’s part in the Greek Tragedy and did concede the following, about the manipulation of the Greek catspaw in the period after the Armistice, whilst couching it in a general criticism of the West:

“… the illusions of the local nationalities have been utilised by the Western diplomatists in order to save something from the wreck of their schemes. The harder they have found it to coax supplies out of their own Parliaments, the more they have turned their attention to other ways and means; and they have found these nations much more ‘suggestible’ than the comparatively well-educated, sophisticated, and politically experienced public of Western Europe – particularly in regard to Eastern affairs… On the international chess-board such pieces make excellent pawns, and the Western diplomatists… have not neglected them… This pawn playing, however, has not been so odiously cold and disingenuous as an analysis makes it appear. The trap in which the victims have been caught in order to be exploited was not cunningly hidden. They rushed into it with their eyes open because they could not resist the bait… There has been less conspiracy about it and more sport… They (the Greeks) were too weak to perform the role marked out for them, however great the bribe. They could not struggle on to the eighth square and turn into queens. On the contrary, they have displayed an exasperating faculty of making queens out of the opposing pawns.” (pp.61-2)

Of course, Britain was still King, but not for long.

One comment

  1. Dear Pat, Thank you for this very informative article. Best wishes.

    Betula

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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