Category Archives: Turkey

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.

8 FEBRUARY, 1919: Empire Games

During the last few years, I’ve been at pains to point out the part played by the First World War in spreading European imperial control through the Middle East, and in shaping the region for the conflicts it still endures.  I’ve tended to focus on the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and on the British, who planned and carried out wartime Allied invasions of the Middle East, and were the prime movers behind its reorganisation in the wake of Ottoman collapse – but it wouldn’t do toss around blame for the mess without giving the French Empire its fair share.

A century ago today, General Franchet d’Espèrey, the grizzled French firebrand latterly in command of Allied forces on the Salonika Front (15 September, 1918: Walkover), arrived in Constantinople to begin work as c-in-c of Allied occupation forces in the Ottoman Empire.  That sounds straightforward enough, albeit laden with symbolism as the Christian world once more took formal control of a region it had been invading in vain since the eleventh century, but in fact the general’s ceremonial entry into the city was both controversial and provocative.

Here comes the general… Franchet d’Espèrey hits Constantinople, 8 February 1919.

For one thing, no Allied occupation of Constantinople had been agreed or pre-arranged.  The Mudros Armistice, which halted fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire from 30 October 1918, had made provisions for occupation of those areas where Allied forces might be under military threat, but the British didn’t waste much time on such niceties.  The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet steamed into Constantinople on 12 November, accompanied by French, Italian, Greek, US and Japanese vessels, and substantial (predominantly British) ground forces began landing the following day, cheered through the streets by the city’s Christian population while its Moslem folk stayed quietly indoors.  The Allies did not occupy the capitals of the other wartime Central Powers – Berlin, Vienna and Sofia – and exactly why British foreign minister Lord Curzon decided to seize Constantinople has never been established, but plausible motives aren’t too hard to find.

Control of the Bosphorus provided the Allies with a valuable conduit for support of anti-Bolshevik forces scattered around the Caucasus, while control of the Ottoman administrative hub offered the most efficient means of speeding up disarmament of an empire long since marked for dismemberment in the event of an Allied victory.  Other, less tangible motives ascribed to British imperial strategists included a desire to expunge the public embarrassment of the Gallipoli campaign by occupying its ultimate target, and a broad concern to discourage pan-Islamic movements in India and elsewhere in the Middle East by controlling one of the faith’s major seats of power.

Whatever the precise mix of motives behind it, the British move on Constantinople triggered a minor stampede.  A few French troops had actually been the first Allied units to reach the city on 12 November, and more soon followed, while Italian forces landed at Galata, the district on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, on 7 February.  By way of giving the occupation a formal connection with the peace process underway in Paris, token US, Greek and Japanese forces also arrived in the Ottoman capital.  The city was divided into British, French and Italian occupation zones, and high commissioners from each of the six occupying countries formed the new administration’s highest authority, though in practice power rested with the British and French representatives.  Beneath that level, administration was strictly military, with a committee of generals controlling commissions responsible for various departments concerned with disarmament, public order or requisition.

The British were clearly in charge.  The commissioners were led by the British representative – c-in-c of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Gough-Calthorpe – and military command on the ground rested with General Milne, whose force from the Salonika front had been the first to enter the city and who had been named by the British in September 1918 as commander-in-chief of ‘Black Sea operations’.  The arrival of Franchet d’Espèrey, Milne’s c-in-c at Salonika and still claiming seniority, sent a loud message to the contrary that complicated the administrative command structure, annoyed the British and generated high-level arguments between London and Paris until the Frenchman’s eventual departure in March 1920.  So why did the French bother?

French influence pre-dated British in the Middle East, which had begun with the expulsion of French revolutionary forces from Egypt at the start of the nineteenth century.  The two empires had squabbled over their competing ambitions for the next hundred years, until entente between them taught each to treat the other’s Middle Eastern interests with some respect, albeit a grudging, narrow-eyed respect riddled with mutual suspicion.  Once a great war for survival was underway, the two empires had entered into mutually dependent alliance, and once the Middle East had become a battleground both Britain and France were ready to cut a definitive deal.

That deal was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and I’ve discussed its details before, as well as its incompatibility with promises of independence made to leaders of the Arab Revolt (9 May, 1916: Big Deal).  Now is a good time to take another look at the map it sought to create, because by early 1919, long before the signing of any formal agreements made in Paris, it was being turned into reality.

One more time – this was the Anglo-French blueprint for carving up the Middle East after the First World War.

Sykes-Picot was out of date by the start of 1919, because the British and French were no longer required to consider Russian ambitions. One Ottoman zone designated for Russian control had been the area around the Bosphorus Strait and Constantinople, opening the door for occupation of the capital.  The land between the Black Sea and the Persian frontier, also designated for Russian imperial control, was now being claimed as sovereign by Caucasian states on the frontline of the battle between the old ways and bolshevism, a position that made independence for Georgia, Azerbaijan and above all Armenia worth promoting from an allied point of view.

The British were already in effective control of their planned area of dominance in the south of the former Ottoman heartlands. France had neither a major army in position nor the resources to send one, so the British had agreed to mind the southern section of the area marked in blue while the French used what resources they could muster to take control of the northern section.

Some 15,000 French troops had landed in the province then known in Western Europe as Cilicia (the part of Anatolia north and northeast of Cyprus now called Cukurova) on 17 November 1918. They had spread out to occupy the region by the end of the year, and moved into towns further east in early 1919.  To the apparent surprise of the French, who seem to have decided the British had already subdued any potential opposition in Cilicia, regional nationalists immediately began organising resistance (in collaboration with Arab elements), and resistance quickly matured into guerilla warfare, becoming part of a wider nationalist struggle for an independent, largely intact Turkey.

Cilicia in 1919, since you ask…

It’s hard to believe that French authorities weren’t ready for trouble in Cilicia.  In order to field such a large force, they had cashed in on their wartime support for Armenian nationalists, and most of the occupying troops in Cilicia were Armenian volunteers with the French Legion of the East (which was rebranded as the French Armenian Legion on 1 February 1919).  With Turks and Armenians in a state of virtual civil war, and the French openly in support of Armenian separatism, civil unrest in Cilicia was inevitable and predictable.  The conflict, known as the Franco-Turkish War, would escalate and splutter on until March 1921, but the failure of a first treaty to halt nationalist violence meant that French troops did not finally withdraw from the region until the following January.

So France had military reasons to install a senior general at Constantinople, but Franchet d’Espèrey’s presence was also a means of keeping an eye on British adherence to the Sykes-Picot terms and of maintaining international pressure for Armenian independence, a cause promoted to the max by wartime propaganda and correspondingly important to the French public.  The British behaved themselves, and at the end of 1919 handed over those regions they were holding for the French, but Armenian independence, while logical in the context of western anti-Bolshevik plans, was both difficult to achieve (and another story) and anathema to most Turks.  Along with the generally harsh and overtly anti-Moslem nature of the occupation, Allied support for the Armenian cause helped spur Constantinople’s Turkish population to active resistance.

The occupation was administered under the notional umbrella of the Sultan, his grand vizier and cabinet, and the Ottoman parliament.  Grand viziers, some more apparently collaborative than others, came and went in rapid succession, but none of them made much effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons to nationalists in Anatolia from the stores of arms confiscated as part of the disarmament programme.  Meanwhile underground organisations were springing up all over the city’s Turkish quarters, and parliamentary deputies kept up a barrage of nationalist rhetoric.  To further complicate matters for the Allies, a steady inflow of ‘White Russian’ refugees evacuated from the Crimea (eventually some 200,000 of them) added to the stress on both an administration terrified of Bolshevik infiltrators and a population that, apart from its (largely Greek) Christian element, treated the occupiers with sullen hostility.

In Constantinople, though not among nationalist leaders in the provinces, official hostility to the occupiers was deliberately muted in early 1919, because the Sultan’s government and parliamentary politicians were hoping to convince the Allies that they were the good guys in Turkey.  The Turkish press, public and politicians all agreed that the criminal wartime leadership of Enver Pasha and his Young Turk colleagues (who had done a David Cameron and fled the disaster they had caused) was entirely to blame for any Ottoman disagreements with the Allies.  If the Allies could be persuaded of the same, the argument ran, Turkey might yet secure a relatively lenient peace.

Even without hindsight this seemed a faint hope, and it quickly achieved unicorn status.  Once the second phase of peace talks in Paris got underway, from mid-March 1919, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the European Allies were set on a punitive peace, because their political constituencies demanded revenge and because their wartime diplomacy demanded a carve-up of Ottoman territories to be shared among the victors.  Long before the spring of 1920, when final Allied demands presented to the Sultan’s regime triggered its collapse and replacement by a nationalist assembly in Ankara, nationalist leaders away from Constantinople were operating in the belief that only armed defence of the frontiers could prevent Turkey’s dismemberment.

The Allied occupation of Constantinople strikes me as interesting in itself, and as a fairly major example of important stuff either forgotten or deliberately left out of Western Europe’s historical narrative, but it was only one facet of a much bigger story.  In Cilicia, for instance, the French might have been driven out more quickly if Turkish nationalist leaders hadn’t prioritised another war that kicked off in May 1919, when Greece invaded at Smyrna (Izmir) in a doomed attempt to secure territories promised by the Allies. Meanwhile nationalists were competing with Bolshevik Russia and independence campaigners in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus for control of Turkey’s eastern heartlands… but these were all long stories and they’ll have to wait, as will an overall picture of the national struggle led by Kemal Ataturk.

I can’t claim that this particularly long and unstructured ramble has much of a point to make.  Think of it as a reminder that the British and French didn’t let an outbreak of peace interrupt the business of empire building, and that any sense of mistrust emanating from modern Turkey has a basis in Anglo-French mistreatment a century ago.