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.

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