Category Archives: Greece

15 MAY, 1919: Izmir Is Or Izmir Ain’t…?

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.

It’s altogether too much map, and not really the right map, but it was the best I could steal.

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.

Greek troops arrive in Smyrna on 15 May 1919… things were about to turn nasty.

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.

Mustafa Kemal was a famous wartime general in the Ottoman Army, but he preferred civvies as a post-war nationalist.

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.

27 JUNE, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut

Today was the day, a century ago, that the politics of Greece sorted itself out, at least for the moment.  The monarchy, if not pro-German then at least unwilling to upset Germany, had been driven from Athens, and a Provisional Government – based in the northwest of the country, led by veteran statesman Eleftherios Venizelos and protected by the huge Allied army camped at Salonika – finally took formal control over the state as a whole.

So what had happened to untie the political and diplomatic knot that had condemned Greece to almost two years of virtual civil war?  It hardly needs saying, this being the imperial world war, that the big European empires had something to do with it, and if you’ve checked into any of my earlier rambles through Greece you won’t be surprised to find that the French were the prime movers.

Most of the French government, the French armed forces and the French population had been united in coercing the Allies into parking an international army at Salonika, and keeping it there, by way of appearing to defend Serbia.  Government and armed forces were less united when it came to dealing with Greek King Constantine and his apparently pro-German regime.  The French government kept faith with diplomatic efforts to persuade Constantine into the Allied ranks, a cause made plausible by the monarch’s affable, courteous assurances that he was almost ready to agree.  Meanwhile the French Army and Navy, which dominated Allied operations in the theatre, encouraged the breakaway, pro-Allied movement led by Venizelos and plotted the King’s overthrow.

This destructive echo of the divisions in elite French society reached a crisis at the end of 1916, when the military found excuses to send French ground forces into Athens, and royalist Greek troops used extreme force to drive them away (1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy).  At this point, the French political establishment and population lost patience with Constantine, but for a lot of very good reasons they were in no position to do anything about it for a few months.

Once the French war effort had gone through a change of government, the disastrous Nivelle Offensive and the Army’s mass mutiny; once the world and all its battlefronts had taken a deep, shocked breath in the cosmically uncertain aftermath of revolution in Russia; and once the vast, multinational collection of diseased, demoralised or potentially mutinous troops at Salonika could be trusted to at least look menacing – the French got rid of King Constantine.

It wasn’t a difficult job.  On 11 June, French forces seized strategic points in southern Greece and presented an ultimatum demanding Constantine’s removal from power.  Constantine left the country next day, abdicating in favour of his second son, Alexander, leaving the way clear for the resignation of the royalist government, the appointment of Venizelos as premier and, on 27 June, his arrival in Athens.

King Alexander of Greece  caused a scandal by marrying a commoner – that’s colonel’s daughter Aspasia Manos at his side – and died after being bitten by a monkey.  That’s about all you need to know.

The Provisional Government had declared war against Germany in November 1916, and the declaration became effective for all of Greece on 29 June, while a ‘state of war’ was declared against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  What had been the Provisional Government’s 60,000-strong Army of National Defence became the basis for a reconstituted Greek national army, which joined Allied forces on the Salonika front in July, and Greek ships seized during the previous year’s quarrels were returned to join Allied anti-submarine forces in the Mediterranean.

The first Greek troops head for the Salonika front… expensive, late and not about to make much difference.

So the Allies had finally brought Greece into the War after almost three years of tying themselves in knots trying.  History backs the impression held by contemporary critics, that the success added almost no strategic value to the Allied cause and had cost far more than it was worth – but the same can be said of almost all the bribes offered to entice smaller countries into the conflict.  More resonantly from a modern perspective, the French had overridden mild objections from the British and Italians to institute regime change in Greece.  To liberal opinion worldwide, and despite reservations about the means involved, this at least seemed cause for some satisfaction, because Venizelos espoused liberal values and boasted a solid record as a supporter of representative democracy. After decades of turbulence and war, surely the people of Greece could at last look forward to a more stable and peaceful future.

Well, no…

Venizelos was indeed inclined to follow democratic process, but he was above all a nationalist.  He went on to prove it by demanding full satisfaction of his territorial ambitions at the post-War peace conference and, when he didn’t get it, ordering the military occupation of the region around Smyrna (Izmir) in western Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Greek portion of its population. As Turkish resistance matured into war, and the war went badly for Greece, the illusion of stability evaporated.

Venizelos was a nationalist with expansionist ambitions… but then so was every Greek leader for more than a century.

The sudden death of King Alexander in October 1920, immediately followed by a landslide electoral defeat for Venizelos and his Liberal Party, brought Constantine back to the throne, but he abdicated again in September 1922 after the final defeat of Greek forces in Turkey.  His successor (and eldest son), George II, lasted eighteen months before he was overthrown and a republic proclaimed… and so it went, on and on into the twenty-first century.

I think we know by now that war can make for strange bedfellows – the British and Ibn Sa’ud spring to mind, while Roosevelt and Stalin make the point in spades – and it’s easy to assume such arrangements are the product of clear-eyed realpolitik on both sides. The Greek denouement of June 1917 wasn’t at all like that.  Some Allied authorities on the ground understood Venizelos in the context of his political environment, but by 1917 their masters were set on a happy path laid out by their own relentless propaganda.

Years of propaganda had portrayed Venizelos as the good guy, the political moderniser who would bring coherence, stability and a grateful attitude towards western democracies.  Meanwhile Constantine, a complex character who was no more willing to join the Central Powers than the Allies, who was liked and trusted by the network of European aristocrats who knew him personally, and who could be described as a peaceful man with the best interests of his people at heart, was publicly dismissed in Allied circles as the greedy partner to tyrants.  By 1917 all that propaganda had convinced its creators to invest energy, resources and extravagant promises in a new regime that paid back nothing but the same old trouble – and the trouble has never really gone away.

Like so many other places reshaped by the needs of great powers during the Great War, Greece offered some fairly obvious lessons for future exporters of regime change, especially the one about accepting your own propaganda view of the candidate you’re backing.  Lesson learned?

1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy

A couple of weeks ago, in the process of spilling a few paragraphs about the Allied shambles at Salonika, I mentioned that one factor working to reinforce General Sarrail’s instinct to caution was the powder-keg condition of the political environment in Greece (19 November, 1916: Fake News).  Sarrail’s armed camp was hemmed by political violence and intrigue as Greece teetered on the brink of civil war between a pro-Allied rebel government centred on Salonika and a neutralist royal government in Athens .  Today seems a good day to look a little more closely at wartime Greece, because a hundred years ago, on 1 December 1916, Allied forces were engaged in serious combat by Greek troops on the streets of Athens.

Armed combat may seem an odd way to go about persuading Greece into an alliance, but world war makes a strange beast of diplomacy and the royal Greek regime’s behaviour during 1916 had been driving Allied diplomats to distraction.  The trouble centred on King Constantine’s refusal to take sides.  His position, apparently driven by an earnest desire to keep his people out of the War (and to avoid upsetting members of his extended family), had long been perceived as pro-German by most Allied strategists, but he was trusted by the British monarchy and its friends in high British places, who tended to believe that the King was a man of his word and would join the Allied side when he felt his people were ready.

Venizelos and Constantine... think Mourinho and Wenger.
Venizelos and Constantine… think Mourinho and Wenger.

The latter theory – tolerant or smug, depending on your view of elite political attitudes in early twentieth-century Europe – had survived the resignation of pro-Allied premier Venizelos in October 1915, and the barely disguised, obstructive hostility of government forces towards the Allied camp at Salonika over the following months, but it had taken a battering since the summer of 1916.

The Greek Army’s unwillingness to oppose the first German-led incursions into northern and eastern Macedonia had come close to triggering direct Allied intervention in June.  Amid civil unrest in Athens, a French naval detachment of six battleships, two cruisers and about 50 smaller craft had been about to land 8,000 troops on the offshore island of Salamis when the Athens regime agreed to Allied demands that it demobilise its army, immobilise its navy, dissolve the government and expel all German agents.

Respite from crisis ended with the failure of Allied operations from Salonika in August, which were ruined by a German-Bulgarian counteroffensive so exquisitely timed that it rekindled suspicion of Greek treachery.  The French naval force was reassembled, with the addition of various Allied ships – including light cruisers, an elderly Russian battleship, swarms of anti-submarine craft and a British aircraft carrier – and another set of demands was sent to Athens. On 3 September the demands, which included the surrender of interned German and Austro-Hungarian shipping, were met, but this time the Allies’ Mediterranean naval c-in-c, French Admiral Dartige, decided to go further.

An ultimatum of 10 September required the Greek Navy to disarm its coastal-defence battleships, hand its light units to the Allies and allow Allied occupation of its coastal fortresses.  Again the royal government agreed, and Greek light naval units officially joined the French Navy on 7 November, but Dartige kept his fleet in the Bay of Athens anyway, ready to intervene if further bullying was required.

To nobody’s surprise at the time, Dartige soon decided it was required.  A fresh ultimatum of 22 November demanded the surrender of Greek Army rifles, machine guns and artillery, with delivery of the first instalment due on 1 December.  After talks with Constantine brought the King’s formal rejection of the demands, Dartige opted to ensure compliance by landing a small force at Piraeus, and 3,000 French sailors, along with a few Italian and British troops, got ashore unopposed on the morning of 1 December. At this point, as has tended to be the way with military intervention across the centuries, emotion got the better of calculation and things went horribly wrong.

French artillery demonstrating passive aggression outside Athens
French artillery demonstrates passive aggression for the benefit of Athenians.

The French force moved inland to Athens, where its official task was to provide a ‘pacific demonstration’ of Allied determination. Some 20,000 Greek Army regulars had been gathered in or around the capital and, despite an assurance of safe passage from the King, a combination of pro-German sentiment, national pride and individual over-excitement prompted some units to open fire on the interlopers, after which heavy skirmishing broke out in several city-centre and suburban locations.  Opinions differ about the exact number of casualties during fighting that culminated in the French battleship Mirabeau firing four heavy rounds in the general direction of the royal palace, and but at least 90 men were killed before Allied diplomats and Constantine arranged a ceasefire, and the pacific demonstration retreated to Piraeus.

Without resort to evidence, royalist newspapers and politicians immediately blamed the outbreak of violence on Venizelos and his supporters.  Three days of rioting followed in Athens, as royalist mobs attacked Venizelists and ransacked their property, a period viewed by Greek commentators as the culmination of what was called the National Schism, and as the end of efforts by either side to restore Greek political unity.

News of the Athens incident provoked strong and largely predictable reactions all over the world.  Among the Central Powers and in the United States, the landing was (correctly) condemned as a violation of neutral sovereignty, while Allied media focused on portraying the ‘Athens ambush’ as proof of Constantine’s two-faced villainy.  The strongest and most significant reactions came from France, where royalist ‘treachery’ caused sufficient outrage to end all hope of Allied reconciliation with the Greek monarchy, and prompted a change of tactics on the ground.  While Salonika c-in-c Sarrail took overall command of military operations around Athens, and Admiral Souchet replaced Dartige as naval commander, the French government announced a full naval blockade of Greece – and the threat was enough for Constantine, who accepted the November demands and withdrew the Greek Army to Peloponnese.

Constantine was the ultimate loser in this ridiculous, if relatively minor Greek tragedy, because it damaged his reputation for honest dealing among Europe’s influential royal families, and so removed an invisible but effective layer of protection against regime change.  In the months to come, as Greece continued to boil on the edge of civil war, only the opposition of French premier Aristide Briand would prevent the Allies from demanding Constantine’s removal from the throne, and the chaotic, protracted saga of Greek neutrality would finally proceed to an endgame after Briand’s fall from power in March 1917.

So the Athens Landing, as it is known, was an example of dithering half-measures on both sides coming home to roost in a gunfight, and a reminder that Great Powers in 1916 foisted the same colonial attitudes and outcomes on Europe as they inflicted on the less developed world.  Though a trivial sideshow in the context of the War as a whole, it was also a pivotal incident during a tempestuous and momentous phase of modern Greek history.   As such it illustrates the point that, while Greece was hardly Europe’s most stable or coherent nation before 1914, wartime interference in its affairs by the continent’s big boys did make a significant contribution to the volatility that has plagued the country ever since.  And although the British played a significant supporting role, and other allied powers played bit parts, the principal big boys messing with wartime Greece were undoubtedly the French, and in particular the French officer class.  Here’s why.

Years of propaganda had made defence of Serbia, a close pre-War ally, into something of a popular and political sacred cause in wartime France (and a casus belli that sounded a lot more noble than hatred of Germany).  When Serbia fell, the French government desperately wanted to be seen to help, and the only way to provide military help, however token, was by advancing north from Salonika.

The French government and military had followed public opinion in insisting on maintenance of a major force at Salonika in early 1916, when their allies were ready to abandon the project as a waste of resources, but when subsequent, French-led offensives had fallen foul of Greek political factionalism (among other things), political leaders had resisted military demands for Constantine’s removal. Ignoring or overriding politicians came naturally to the French military, and the French Navy’s unproductive, destabilising adventures in Athens were typical of the half-cocked attempts to force the issue undertaken by Admiral Dartige and like-minded senior officers.  To sum up and lest we forget, France was a military takeover waiting to happen before, during and after the First World War, already on a path that would lead to the coup d’état of 1958 and the authoritarian reign of General Charles de Gaulle.

21 JULY, 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb

A century ago today, Britain and France confirmed a loan of about £800,000 to the Greek government, backing up a loan of £1,600,000 made the previous November.  In itself, this was nothing too special.  Loaning large sums (and the economic effect of a million pounds in 1916 was equivalent to more than £500 million today) to minor powers either at war or likely to join the War was standard practice for the major belligerents.  On the other hand, the position of Greece in July 1916 was quite special, though not in a good way, and this is a good time to catch up with that country’s unfolding chaos.

As previously discussed (6 March, 1915: Side Effects?), the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 had left an expanded Greece with a lot of new territory, a multi-ethnic population, some major administrative challenges and a bunch of jealous neighbours – including Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Turkey and Bulgaria – bent on (literally) cutting it down to size. Given that most of those regional rivals were committed to the War from quite an early stage, Greek participation was almost inevitable at some point, if only because neutrality was unlikely to protect its new frontiers from whichever side won.

King Constantine, in charge since the assassination of his father in 1913, nevertheless clung to neutrality for all he was worth during the first two years of the War. Though he was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister – and many of his ministers and senior military officers (especially in the navy) were explicitly pro-German – Constantine was not exactly an enemy of the Allies, more a friend unwilling to do anything that might upset his other friends. On the other hand the dominant Greek political figure of the day, serial prime minister and unapologetic expansionist Eleftherios Venizelos, was all for making a deal with the Allies as soon as possible, partly because he regarded British and French democracies as the way forward for a developing Greek society, but largely because their support represented the best chance of maintaining the country’s bloated status in a post-War world.

Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams... as briefly realised in 1919.
Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams… as briefly realised in 1919.

An uneasy truce between the two sides had held together until the autumn of 1915, when Venizelos, having been frustrated in his attempts to aid the Anglo-French effort at Gallipoli, had invited the Allies to land troops in Salonika.  He was promptly removed from power, leaving a major Allied force high and dry in an armed camp, hemmed in by potentially hostile Greek government forces and susceptible to connivance with the ‘Venizelist’ opposition.

Since then, the Central Powers and their newest ally, Bulgaria, had conquered Serbia and moved troops close to the northern frontier of Macedonia – a region occupied by Greece since 1913 but popular with planners in both Vienna and Sofia – and to complete the picture of circling sharks, the French Navy had taken control of two Greek islands during the first half of 1916: Corfu to provide a home for Serbian refugees, and Kefalonia to provide a useful base against Austrian or Turkish naval adventures.

In May 1916, after Constantine’s troops allowed Bulgarian and German forces to occupy Fort Roupel, on the northern Macedonian border, without a shot being fired, the royal regime’s shaky grip on power began to melt away.  Seen by the King as genuinely neutral, the gesture was portrayed by Venizelists as a pro-German betrayal of the national interest, a position that struck a chord with a population and army weaned on aggressive nationalism.  During the early summer, Venizelos and his supporters established dominance over the north of the country, close to the Allied camp at Salonika, and began plotting with local Allied authorities to engineer regime change and a Greek declaration of war against the Central Powers. By July, Greece was effectively, though not officially, two states, and some kind of Venizelist move against the royal regime in Athens appeared imminent – but though Venizelos was much admired by the Allies, and particularly by the French, the British weren’t quite ready to abandon Constantine.

The reasons for this were largely social, in that the King was personally well known to a number of senior British figures (including the late war minister, Kitchener) and regarded as a good chap with his heart in the right place.  Ridiculous though that sounds today, it was a genuine reflection of the way European diplomacy had worked before the War and still worked in 1916.  The continent’s elite classes, largely though not entirely aristocratic, still had more in common with each other than with the rest of the people they represented, and were inclined to reach diplomatic decisions on the basis of personal relationships at the highest level. So it was that British diplomats remained in touch with Constantine, listened to his muddled (though probably honest) plan to join the Allies one day, when all attempts at neutrality had failed, and approved the £800,000 bribe confirmed on 21 July.

King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.
King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.

So Greece remained teetering on the brink of both civil war and world war, a mess of rocks and hard places, just one of the many European societies being wrecked in passing by the warring Great Powers. Within a few weeks an invasion of Macedonia by the Central Powers would push the country over the edge, and I’ll wander back for another look then. In the meantime, there is another aspect of the Allied loan that opens up a can of worms so big and smelly all I can possibly do here is point at it from a distance. Given the undeniable fact that the War was in the process of draining all the wealth accumulated by Britain and France during a century of imperial looting, what were they doing handing out money to a longshot like King Constantine?

It’s a big question, especially when you consider that Britain alone shelled out more than £20 million in gifts, loans and credit to Greece during the War, and if you want an answer you’ll need to read a bunch of academic tracts on wartime economics and then see which guess you like the most. What can be said is that, then as now, a big economy (and Britain’s economy was still the biggest in the world in 1914) could expect to reap rewards in the aftermath of any crisis that required reconstruction, and that dominance of emerging markets was part of British and French financial thinking as they imagined the post-War world. One day, in theory quite soon, everybody everywhere would be rebuilding, big economies would control the process, loans would start to look like investments and the vast wartime accumulation of global debt would pay off in their favour. This is simplistic stuff, and economic historians wouldn’t say anything so black, white or all embracing, but I’ll risk their wrath to point out two things.

First, the big European economies never did get their mojos back. Russia fell apart in 1917, Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the German economy screamed to self-destruction as it tried to fight the cancer of blockade with a super-heated internal production binge. France and above all Britain ended up owing a lot more money than they’d bargained for, and losing much of their grip over imperial infrastructure to the upstart United States, which ran a pretty much perfect economic war, growing its economy for three years before joining the winning side and profiting from the reconstruction boom from a position of unparalleled financial strength.

Secondly, capital forces from rich countries all over the world are currently doing roughly the same thing – pouring money they haven’t got into global crises they hope will turn into paydays.  They are of course operating on the basis of informed guesses about the timescales and final results of various crises, so maybe they should all take a look at what went wrong for their predecessors a century ago.


25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.


The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.


From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.