The “Chanak incident”, which occurred a century ago during September/October 1922, is virtually written out of British history – or referenced as a mere incident of no consequence. It is mentioned in the downfall of Lloyd George’s Coalition Government, with the Carlton Club and 1922 Committee, but only in passing, without explanation of its wider significance. There are clues to what happened in the writings of the some of the participants, such as Churchill’s, but the impression given is that the whole affair, including the British instigation of the Greek adventure that preceded it, and did for the Greek population of Anatolia, is one that is best forgotten.
So let us take a look at one of the most significant forgotten aspects of Britain’s Great War on the Ottoman Empire.
British policy to impose a punitive treaty on the Ottomans had led to the Greek tragedy in Anatolia because the puppet government under Venizélos, installed in Athens through Allied bayonets, was enlisted as a catspaw to bring the Turks to heal after the Armistice at Mudros. They were presented with the town of Smyrna first and then the Greeks, encouraged by Lloyd George, advanced across Anatolia toward where the Turkish democracy had re-established itself, at Ankara, after it had been suppressed by the British occupation in Istanbul. Britain was using the Greeks, and their desire for a new Byzantium in Anatolia, as a catspaw to get the Turks to submit to the Treaty of Sèvres, and the destruction of not only the Ottoman State but Turkey itself.
This was because after its Great War Britain was virtually bankrupt, and in hock to the United States, and the promise had been made by Lloyd George to demobilize the troops immediately in order to win a snap election he called just after the armistice. So the Greek Army was needed to do the imposing of the Treaty of Sèvres which British Imperial forces were unable to undertake themselves.
But the Greek Army perished just short of Ankara after being skilfully manoeuvred into a position by Mustafa Kemal in which their lines were stretched. And the millennial old Greek population of Asia Minor fled on boats from Smyrna, with the remnants of their army after Britain had withdrawn its support, because the Greek democracy had reasserted its will to have back its King.
After the liberation of Smyrna the Turkish objective was the recovery of Istanbul from the British, and Eastern Thrace from the Greeks. But Mustafa Kemal found his way barred by British forces stationed at Chanak on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. A stand-off ensued with something of the character of High Noon.
There is a book about The Chanak Affair by David Walder (then a Tory M.P), which tries to explain it away. But it is written in 1969 when the British Empire was no more – or had not been re-imagined yet as Global Britain.
The Chanak Affair is not written with the purpose of explaining the significance of Chanak for the Empire but rather in putting a gloss over it. It explains Chanak as a kind of triumph of British reasonableness over momentary British recklessness. British reasonableness had become the dominant idea by 1969, particularly amongst the Heathite Tories who were attempting to make the necessary post-Imperial readjustment and point Britain in a different direction to the past. But, of course, the Empire was not built, or could not have been built, on reasonableness. And it was often expanded through recklessness of catastrophic proportions, and lately the buccaneering spirit has been evident again in British Foreign Policy, with even a return to the Straits in contemplation.
Chief among the reckless of 1922 was, of course, Churchill. The arrival of Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish forces at Chanak transformed Churchill’s attitude to the Turks. Churchill was a fierce anti-Bolshevik who wanted to settle swiftly after the armistices in 1918 with the Germans and Ottomans and employ them against the Communist menace. However, as Lord Beaverbrook later noted: “Lloyd George was a great partisan of Greek imperial pretensions. He believed the Greeks were a strong people, prolific, and capable of establishing and maintaining a domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.” Lloyd George’s view, according to his secretary/mistress was that “A new Greek Empire will be founded, friendly to Britain and it will help all our interests in the East. He is perfectly convinced he is right over this, and is willing to stake everything on it.” (Lord Beaverbrook, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George, pp.152-3)
Churchill had previously advised Lloyd George against his Greek adventure as military madness and argued for a placating of the Turks to ensure British interests in the region but he now reversed his position when he smelt the possibility of war. He viewed Mustafa Kemal’s challenge to Britain as one that could not be backed down to without losing the prestige necessary to keep the lesser races of the world in order. He did not wish to see the tremendous aura of invincibility that Britain had won at great cost in the war surrendered to those it had beaten. “Chanak had now become a point of great moral significance to the prestige of the Empire,” Churchill warned the Government. And he stated at a Cabinet meeting that if the Turks took Gallipoli and Istanbul/Constantinople the Great War, and its great sacrifices of blood and treasure, would have been in vain.
Lloyd George, himself, described the Straits at the same meeting as “the most important strategic position in the world,” the lack of possession of which “had added two years to the war.”
So the British Cabinet decided to resist the Turks by force and determined this should not be a bluff. In the meantime Britain began to scramble about for suitable allies that would do the bulk of the fighting for them, to allay the costs and prevent a new call-up of Englishmen to the colours. Suggestions included France, Serbia, Rumania and Bulgaria and, particularly, the nations of the British Commonwealth/Empire.
Churchill was asked to draft a telegram to the White Dominions on 16th September asking for support; and then to prepare a press statement announcing this support (since this was an Empire/Commonwealth requirement it was taken for granted).
However, in his excitement at the prospect of a new war, Churchill forgot about the time difference between Britain and the White Dominions and released his press statement too early. As a result the Prime Ministers of the Dominions embarrassingly read of the Imperial call to arms in their Sunday papers before they were even given the courtesy of being asked for their agreement.
Here is part of Churchill’s extravagant communiqué – the declaration of a statesman who saw himself directing the forces of an Empire at the pinnacle of its power which would have no truck with any defiance of its will:
“The approach of the Kemalist forces to Constantinople and the Dardanelles and the demands put forward by the Ankara government… if assented to, involves nothing less than the loss of the whole results of the victory over Turkey in the last war… That the Allies should be driven out of Constantinople by the forces of Mustapha Kemal would be an event of the most disastrous character, producing, no doubt far-reaching reactions through all Moslem countries, and… through all states defeated in the late war, who would be profoundly encouraged by the spectacle of the undreamed of successes that have attended the efforts of the comparatively weak Turkish forces… The reappearance of the Turk on the European shore would provoke a situation of the gravest character throughout the Balkans, and very likely lead to bloodshed on a large scale in regions already cruelly devastated.” (The Chanak Affair, pp.224-5)
Churchill could not have made it any clearer – the defeat of Mustafa Kemal and Turkey was life or death for the British Empire.
Lloyd George believed a war would save his skin:
“The Conservative Party and their Coalition allies would be united at last. United in a war effort which always brought a united front in the Government, in the House of Commons and in the country.” (Lord Beaverbrook, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George, p.163)
The Prime Minister calculated that England would be at peace with itself by engaging in war, its most unifying state.
France remained unimpressed with the British call to arms at Chanak, despite four visits by Curzon to Paris. Convinced that the British were leading them into another war, the French and Italians decided to withdraw their forces from Chanak. The other European ‘allies’ also declined and the response from the Empire was embarrassingly lukewarm (only New Zealand offered to help) despite the moral blackmail Churchill resorted to about “the sanctity of our graves at Gallipoli.” (which E.M. Forster wrote a spirited reply to). And the British public and press expressed widespread astonishment that they might be going back to War given Lloyd George’s election pledges of rapid demobilisation, and so soon after the “war to end all wars.”
The alliance between England and France which had been formed in 1904 to deal with Germany started to become “a mockery and a delusion” as soon as Germany had been beaten. Both countries had had differing reasons for the Entente Cordiale. France had been encouraged to join with England because of irredentist considerations concerned with Alsace/Lorraine. Britain had looked upon the alliance as a exercise in the readjustment of the Balance of Power Policy to deal with Germany.
In 1914 Britain had aimed to destroy Germany’s commerce and capture large areas of territory from the Ottoman Empire. This process began to involve the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, which would mean that the Russian and French Allies would also pick up a cut of the territory in the area. So the object, from Britain’s point of view, was to make sure that she maximised her gains and minimised those of her Allies – her future rivals in the new Balance of Power.
But one of her Allies was counted out during the War, before the knock-out blow could be landed on Germany. Russia collapsed and then treacherously reneged on her part in the effort against Germany, and, was taken over by Bolsheviks. So she was absent when the vultures gathered around the carcass of the Ottoman Empire.
However, France remained, and Britain could not conclude the Peace entirely in the way she wanted. And both had to take care of the interloper, America, which had rescued the Allied cause and whose President had issues with old style European Imperialism.
During the course of the war France had made the greater sacrifice in terms of men and materials and she was determined to protect herself from Germany in the future by establishing a Rhine frontier – with the German land on the east bank forming a buffer state between France and Germany. Marshall Foch, the Commander of the Allies, argued that France was as entitled to this security, as Britain had been when she set up the Belgian buffer state in the 1830s to keep Antwerp from any major European power. Clemenceau, the French Premier, who had experienced the debacle of 1871, concurred with this view. But despite setting up buffer states in other parts of Europe, this was one buffer state that Britain was intent on obstructing, to facilitate Germany’s future resurrection.
A month after the Armistice with Germany Clemenceau met with Lloyd George in London. The French understood that they had received a British commitment to supporting French requirements in Europe, in relation to Germany, in return for deferring to England’s desires in the Middle East. However, when it came to the bit, Britain refused to allow France to gain the security of a Rhine frontier against Germany, despite a degree of acquiescence in the Rhineland existing for it. Britain was still operating the Balance of Power policy and France was replacing Germany as the object of it. And the presence of a strong French State amongst all the small buffer states in central Europe that had been created, and which the French wanted to add to, with the Rhineland and Bavaria, was unacceptable to London.
England blocked the French requirement for a Rhineland frontier with the argument that the British Empire had fought the War for self-determination and the Rhenish people were undoubtedly German. And the French could not counter this argument with reference to the Middle East, where Britain had showed no respect for such principles, because the Mandate system only applied to the backward races who could not, as yet, supposedly govern themselves. Britain had an answer for everything it did, as usual.
The French became very disillusioned with the peace that Britain arranged in 1919-20. Whilst the British imposed a much harsher peace on Germany than the Germans had on the French in 1871 with the scuppering of the Kaiser’s fleet and the appropriation of the cream of the merchant navy England refused to countenance French demands for the security of their land frontiers.
The French had their own interests in the Near East and their businessmen had greatly availed of the Capitulations which the Ottoman Sultan granted to foreign capitalists. This led the majority view within the French Government to be against the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the War. But once the British had shown their intention of breaking up and colonising as much of it as possible the French were left with no choice but to grab their share. France had historic links with the Syrian vilayets, which also contained substantial Christian Maronite communities, so she demanded this slice of the Ottoman Empire. As early as 1917 Lloyd George had tried to make a secret deal with the Ottomans, through the arms dealer, Basil Zaharoff, which would have given Britain all of Mesopotamia, Palestine and Arabia and cut the French out of Syria. The Sykes/Picot Agreement had been dished by Britain when their armies occupied Damascus. Then, according to the French Press, a secret agreement was made between the British and the Sultan with the Sultan promising to support a British mandate over Turkey and control of the Straits in return for material aid against his nationalist opponents. This involved excluding the French from the territory around Syria which Britain had agreed in the Sykes/Picot arrangement should go to France. The French were concerned at these secret British manoeuvres they became aware of and decided to cut a deal with Mustafa Kemal himself.
For England in 1900, Germany was becoming the new France, replacing France as the main enemy to organise an alliance against – to redress the Balance of Power. But now that Germany was defeated, France “was eager to step into Germany’s shoes,” which were, of course, really French shoes all along! And that was undoubtedly the truth of the matter – France (and Russia) had been the object of the British Balance of Power for centuries. Germany had only stepped in France’s shoes for a decade or so!
Under the Sykes/Picot Agreement that divided the Ottoman Empire up between the Entente France had been awarded a vast zone including Cilicia, East Central Anatolia, and “Western Kurdistan”. This award had been confirmed by the Treaty of Sèvres. But the French found themselves incapable of holding this territory against Mustafa Kemal’s forces. So France cashed in its chips with the Turks, ceding all its spoils to the loser in the War, in an agreement of 20th October 1921. And she gave up a large amount of surplus weaponry to the Turks, including some very handy artillery (the ’75s), which proved very useful to Mustafa Kemal in dealing with the Greek and Armenian pawns of England in Anatolia.
When the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson met his good friend and colleague, Field-Marshal Foch in Paris, in October 1921, the Frenchman told the Briton:
“Pauvre Angleterre, pauvre Angleterre… You break your written word. You cower under the (Irish) assassin and the Jew. Your friendship is no longer worth seeking. We must go elsewhere.” (Major-General C.E. Callwell, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. 2, p.310. Note: Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated by the London IRA less than a year later)
So Britain, who was operating a Balance of Power policy against France in Europe, suffered a pay back in the East as the Balance of Power manoeuvre was turned against her by the Turks and the French, not to mention the Bolsheviks.
The Turkish forces now surrounded the British Empire’s force at Chanak. The British Cabinet sent an order to General Harrington, the commander of British forces there, to give the advancing Turkish forces an hour to withdraw and if not to engage them. Large reinforcements were promised to him to back up the threat. But Harrington wisely decided, on his own initiative, despite being warned that he was purely a military man who should do his duty as instructed, to not deliver the ultimatum. He then entered into talks with Mustafa Kemal to diffuse the situation. And the British Press, right across the political spectrum treated Harrington as a hero for doing so.
The Irish News of Belfast recognised the significance of what had happened:
“THE GREAT CLIMB-DOWN
A remarkable document has been addressed to the ‘National Assembly’ of the Kemalist Turks by ‘the three Allied Governments.’ Its text is published elsewhere; it might be abbreviated, without altering its meaning, into a few simple lines – thus :-
‘Please, good and kind Mr. Turk, come into a conference with us: take Thrace, Constantinople, Adrianople – anything you want; only be merciful enough, out of the fullness of your charity and in accordance with our humble request, to refrain from sending your armies against the English troops at Chanak until these troops can be withdrawn without utter discredit to England in the eyes of her Mohammedan ‘subjects’ O, Turk, pray hear and heed our appeal, and you shall be brother in the League of Nations!’
The wisdom of yielding to the Turk after he had beaten an undisciplined and disheartened horde of Greeks is a matter for the Powers directly concerned. Nothing can be gained by discussing the point now. But, for the sake of whatever little regard for Truth and Common Honesty that has been left to the world by its rulers, let there be no attempt to disguise or hide the simple fact that a handful of the Turks who were signally defeated in the Great War have come out of the recesses of Asia Minor into the borders of Europe and terrified the ‘triumphant’ Western Allies into the most abject surrender in modern history.” (September 25th 1922)
There is no valid reason for Turkish aggressiveness… now that General Harrington’s masters have surrendered to the Oriental gentleman who is, like Julius Caesar, Brian Boroihme, Napoleon, and other great men of history, both a soldier and a statesman…let a tribute be paid to the personality of Mustapha Kemal. He is a real leader. He knew all along what he wanted. He went the right way about getting it. Circumstances were largely on his side, but few men could have utilised even favourable circumstances more dexterously or effectively. As an individual he deserves the success which he has achieved. He has resurrected the Turks, exalted the Bolsheviks, and finally smashed the Western European Entente.” (September 27th 1922)
“TRYING TO AVOID WAR?
The Turks have graciously consented to withdraw a little way from Erenkeuy, a small fort nearer to the Dardanelles entrance than Chanak and about 10 miles from the position occupied by the British. That is paraded as a great concession. But they are still moving quietly toward Ismid… only 50 miles from Constantinople. Ismid would be a natural base for a Turkish advance against the great city wrested from the Greeks… But the pathway to a sort of compromise is in the process of construction… Mustapha Kemal will win… His victory will mark the beginning of the end of the British Empire in the East…” (October 2nd 1922)
The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was a Liberal who headed the powerful Coalition Government made up of mostly Conservative Ministers. The Conservatives had a majority in Parliament, which had been sidelined during the War, and wished to reassert itself. Discontent was growing among the backbenchers over Lloyd George’s foreign adventures and failure to tackle the problems of unemployment and economic depression at home. There was a “strong anti-semitic feeling” because “far too many Jews have been placed in prominent positions by the present Government” (Letter from George Younger to Austen Chamberlain, 10.6.1921, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George, p.268). Many were in favour of Imperial Tariff and saw Lloyd George as a Liberal Free Trader obstructing the policy. The Prime Minister’s Irish Treaty, though seen as necessary, opened up further antagonism with Diehard Unionists during 1921-22.
The Chanak debacle was the event that drew together the majority Conservatives who wished to withdraw support for the Coalition and re-establish the party division in British politics. To head off the revolt the Coalition leaders conceived a plan to call an election before the backbench Tories could collect itself at the Conservative Party Conference in November. The idea was to use up all the Tory election funds in a Coalition campaign, thus installing the same government in power for another five years.
But the Coalition leaders miscalculated. Bonar Law, who was seriously ill with throat cancer at the time, was persuaded to come back from retirement lead the opposition at a Carlton Club meeting and put himself forward as an alternative Prime Minister. He penned a famous letter to The Times in which he said that Britain could not police the world alone. That captured the public mood.
“The people by this time were against war. The Government had failed completely in their efforts to stir up a war spirit. They could not engender any enthusiasm for an adventure in the Near East. It is possible that if the Cabinet had persisted, some headway would have been made in the direction of securing public approval but, as soon as Bonar Law raised the standard of peace , around which people could rally, the whole enterprise was at an end. They could unfurl the banners and beat the drums. But the nation would not march. Lloyd George accepted the situation. He yielded to Bonar Law’s warning.” (Lord Beaverbrook, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George, p.169)
A by-election result in which an independent Conservative candidate trounced a Coalition Conservative, and the Liberals and Labour as well, galvanised resistance to Lloyd George. A hesitant Bonar Law finally steeled himself to go to the Carlton Club meeting as alternative leader with the message that Conservative unity required the termination of the Coalition. He won the day and became Prime Minister, calling a General Election that the Conservatives won with a healthy majority.
The 1922 Committee does not, as is sometimes supposed, originate in the 19th October 1922 Carlton Club meeting in which Conservative MPs successfully demanded that the party withdraw from the Coalition Government and which triggered the 1922 General Election The committee was formed following the election, in April 1923. But its name clearly denotes the power of Tory backbenchers in unseating a very powerful Prime Minister and government in 1922.
It was in the news lately in relation to the fall of the present Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Johnson, like Lloyd George (and indeed Churchill), was an outsider and political disrupter. Johnson, also like Lloyd George and Churchill, came to power in a national emergency brought about by the British Parliament’s defiance of the British peoples’ will over Brexit. He saw the UK through the Brexit and then Covid emergencies. And like both Lloyd George and Churchill he was discarded when the emergencies ended and the return of normal politics put focus onto personal qualities.
Boris Johnson, of course, has a personal connection to the events around Chanak. He is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, the Ottoman Minister of the Interior, who campaigned against the Turkish independence movement and formed the Anglophile Society (Ingiliz Muhipler Cemiyeti) which advocated a British protectorate over his partioned country. After the liberation of Istanbul Ali Kemal was arrested and sent for trial on charges of treason in early November 1922. But before he could face a court he was seized by an angry mob in Izmit and hung as a collaborator. Mustafa Kemal, it should be noted, was extremely annoyed at this summary execution.
Britain suffered a change of government as a result of Chanak that was much more than a replacement of an administration. It represented a moral collapse, or at least the start of one, of great significance. From this point onwards great uncertainty crept into the conducting of Britain’s foreign affairs and those of Empire. The Empire that thought itself as being at the pinnacle of its power, having vanquished its German Carthage, found that it had overextended itself and was caught between a rock and a hard place. It could not govern its Empire purposefully but also could not let its subjected peoples go. It began to be seen as a paper tiger by upstart adventurists, like Mussolini and Hitler, who built up their reputations by engaging in brinksmanship with it over its balance of power game – a game it no longer had the skill or will to play with authority. And instead of being a source of stability and constancy in a new world rid of evil it turned out to be an erratic agent of further catastrophe.
Churchill called the new administration that followed the Coalition’s fall“a Government of the Second eleven.” Lord Birkenhead described the new Ministry as “second class intellects whose mediocrity frightened him.” And Bonar Law’s short premiership was followed by more mediocrity over the next decade and a half of Baldwin/MacDonald governments of the “Second elevens.”
During this period all the successful Treaties dictated by Britain to the vanquished began to be undone by those who sensed the decline of the British Imperial will. And Britain itself blundered about in the world in an increasingly purposeless and erratic manner that ultimately led to the catastrophe of 1939/45. The great beneficiary of this process was the United States of America.
The Irish News of Belfast was right – it was witnessing at Chanak the start of the setting of the sun on “the Empire on which the sun never sets.”
Outstanding piece. Not to mention the great humour throughout!
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