I’ve mentioned this once or twice before but historians, like history, never mind repeating themselves, so I’ll say it again: the outbreak of the First World War cut across and influenced, one way or another, a number of regional wars that were brewing or in progress by 1914. The most powerful states in South America were, for instance, already engaged in an arms race that was broadly aimed at resolving economic rivalries between Brazil, Argentina and Chile, a process barely interrupted by a smouldering civil war inside Brazil, while the Far East was becoming a war zone in response to the wealthy, militarist Japanese Empire’s aggressive expansionism – but the real hotspots in 1914 were the fringes of the failing Ottoman Empire.
The Italian government, bent on establishing an empire, had fought Ottoman forces for control of Libya in 1911–12, and the First Balkan War had pitched the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro, each a former province of the Empire and each seeking to expand its independent territories. A Second Balkan War in 1913 had seen the big winner of the first, Bulgaria, taken down a few pegs by an alliance of the Ottomans, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania – but a lot of regional business was still unfinished when the summer of 1914 plunged the Great Powers into war.
The Great War and its aftermath resolved much of the unfinished business in the Balkans, because the victors were free to reward their Serbian, Romanian and Greek allies by taking territory from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. By the spring of 1919 only two major running sores remained open, both centred on important port cities near disputed frontiers, and both looking likely to turn nasty.
The Adriatic port of Fiume (Rijeka) was one outstanding hotspot. Formerly part of Austria-Hungary, it had been promised to both the new ‘Yugoslav’ state and Italy. The decision in favour of Belgrade by the ‘Big Three’ in Paris, and the failure of Italian premier Orlando’s attempted protest, had unleashed popular and political fury in Italy that was approaching revolutionary levels and rising by May 1919. The other port in a storm was Smyrna, otherwise known as Izmir, and on 15 May the storm broke.
Smyrna had long been one of many bones of contention between the Ottoman Empire and Greece, which had won independence from the Empire in 1829 and had been expanding into Greek-speaking Ottoman territories ever since. Strategically well placed on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, and therefore part of the Empire’s Turkish heartland, Smyrna housed the kind of ethnically and religiously mixed population typical of Ottoman cities, but ethnic Greeks probably made up the largest contingent, followed by Turks, and possession of the port was a long-standing ambition among a powerful group of aggressive nationalists within Greece. This blog has documented the tortuous path taken by Greece towards finally joining the Allies in 1917, but the eventual agreement included an informal British promise to pro-Allied premier Eleutherios Venizelos of control over post-War Smyrna (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut). Like most wartime promises by big players to prospective allies, this one wasn’t to be trusted.
For a start, the Anglo-French carve-up of the future Middle East, aka the Sykes-Picot agreement, had allocated control over the Anatolian region to Italy in 1916. This meant Italy was also laying claim to Smyrna in 1919, an embarrassment that encouraged the French and some British leaders to support the idea that Anatolia should remain in the hands of a post-Ottoman Turkish state. This idea chimed nicely with President Wilson’s high-profile views on national self-determination, and was of course very popular in Turkey, where nationalist calls for a secular, post-Ottoman state were getting louder all the time. It was no wonder the Greek government, led again by Venizelos, felt the need for some heavy lobbying in Paris.
Venizelos, who headed the Greek delegation in Paris, didn’t just pester British and French delegates for some kind of commitment to a future Greek Smyrna, he did his best to force the issue on the ground. Alongside a major propaganda campaign that claimed Christian Greeks in the Smyrna region needed protection from systematic Islamic attacks, Venizelos dispatched a diplomatic mission to the city in late February 1919, charged with firing up local Greeks in anticipation of an occupation.
The suggestion of religious persecution worked, at least on British premier Lloyd George, who began openly planning for a future Greek administration in Smyrna during February 1919 despite objections from his own foreign office, the French and the Italians. An Italian response wasn’t long coming. On 12 March an Italian warship sailed into the southern Anatolian port of Antalya, and on 28 March Italian troops occupied the town, ostensibly to provide security against reported banditry in the surrounding countryside. Using the same pretext, occupation forces began moving north towards Smyrna in early April – but Orlando’s walkout from the Paris conference on 21 April gave the Big Three a chance to break the diplomatic deadlock in his absence.
Uneasy about Italian ambitions in Anatolia, and willing to accept the Venizelos line that Christians in the Smyrna region needed protection, Clemenceau and Wilson joined Lloyd George in authorising a Greek occupation of Smyrna. Planning was well advanced by the time the Italian delegation returned to Paris on 7 May, so Orlando had little choice about accepting the fait accompli and believing assurances that the emergency occupation did not necessarily imply post-War Greek control of the region.
One problem around the future of Smyrna had been solved, thanks to the usual combination of Big Three compromise and rapid wheeler-dealing, but as was so often the case in Paris, the bigger, underlying problem between Greece and Turkey had been left to solve itself. An Allied fleet under British command was assembled in the Aegean to support the Greek occupation, and on 14 May the Greek mission in Smyrna that Greek forces would be arriving next day. From that moment the city was a noisy, violent powder keg, doomed to resolve its problem the hard way.
Smyrna’s Greeks came out in force to welcome 20,000 troops when they arrived on 15 May, while the city’s Turkish population began organising political and physical resistance. For reasons that are disputed, and hardly important given the mood on both sides, shooting broke out between Greek and Ottoman troops as the former passed a garrison fort en route for the city, and the landing turned into an orgy of looting and violence by soldiers and civilians on both sides. Several hundred people were killed on the first day, and although casualty figures are also a matter of wide-ranging academic dispute it’s safe to say that about threequarters of the dead were Turks.
Aristide Stergiadis, a close friend of Venizelos and official head of the Greek mission in Smyrna, arrived in the city on 19 May and quickly set up an administration that did its best to stem the incipient civil war, or at least convince the powers in Paris of its fitness for permanent control – but rampant inter-ethnic violence accompanied Greek attempts to secure and expand their zone of control into western Anatolia during the following months. Mustafa Kemal – the former Ottoman general, future Ataturk and already a major player in the Turkish nationalist movement – also landed in Anatolia on 19 May, at the northern port of Samsun, as the Greek occupation provided a rallying point for nationalist groups all over Turkey to organise mass protests and armed resistance.
Meanwhile the sponsors of the mess looked on in increasing horror and did what little they could do tidy it up. An inter-Allied commission, sent to Smyrna in August to apportion blame and limit future conflict, concluded that Greek aggression was responsible for much of the violence, that Turkish armed resistance would keep growing as long as the occupation continued, and that future clashes were likely between Greek and Italian forces in southwestern Anatolia. By October, when the commission reported back to Paris, the latter problem was already being addressed, and later that month the Greeks agreed to respect a frontier, the Milne Line, restricting their movements to the Smyrna region.
Once again, the Paris peacemakers had found a way to keep Italy quiet but failed to solve the bigger problem of Greek and Turkish claims to Anatolia – a failure that would come back to haunt them during the summer of 1920. By that time Turkish nationalism based on a provisional government at Ankara had become a strong enough force to unite the British and Ottoman governments in support of Greek claims, and so British forces provided support on the ground for further Greek expansion in Anatolia. The Greek advance beyond the Milne Line in June, though initially very successful, ignited a full-scale war against the nationalists that would rage on in spite of the final peace treaty signed by the Ottoman Empire (at Sèvres in August), and eventually end with Greek withdrawal in October 1922.
The rise of Ataturk and the war that created his new Turkey are stories for another day. This story has been a reminder that a war almost forgotten outside Greece and Turkey was at least partly created by the clumsy machinations of British, French and Italian imperialists. Last week I devoted a couple of thousand words to giving the same Paris peacemakers a break, so this has also been a reminder that, for all their good intentions and laudable pragmatism, they managed to break almost everything they touched.