The Greek War of Independence, 1821-1832



The revolutionary shock waves set off by the American and French revolutions did not dissipate with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Liberal and national revolts continued to occur. Most, however, failed.

Typical was the Irish rebellion against Britain in 1798. It was organized by the Society of United Irishman, an underground movement created by Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and other well-to-do Protestants. Unfortunately for the United Irishmen, their ranks were so infiltrated by informers that the government was able to arrest most of its leaders before the revolt began. The use of torture forced conspirators to inform on one another; many suspects were spread-eagled on wooden triangles and flogged, “their flesh cut without mercy,” with salt sometimes sprinkled into the wounds to prolong the agony. Those rebels who took up arms-in many cases, nothing more than a pike was available-were crushed by the better-armed and better-organized militia and military. Many prisoners were shot or hanged; others were sent to newly established penal colonies in Australia. (Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat.) The whole rebellion was suppressed within six weeks at a cost of perhaps fifty thousand lives. Revolutionary France had promised to aid the United Irishmen, but French troops did not land in Ireland until it was far too late to affect the outcome. Most of the populace remained loyal to the crown; the military forces that put down the revolt were composed almost entirely of Catholic Irishmen. Further Irish uprisings in 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916 were just as ill-starred.

At the other end of Europe, the Poles matched the Irish for revolutionary futility. They rebelled in 1794, 1830, 1863, and 1905, and each time they were crushed by the repressive machinery of Austria, Prussia, or, more often, Russia-the three states that had divided Poland between them. There is no point in going into the gory details; one disorganized, doomed uprising is pretty much like another.

More interesting to examine are the few revolts that succeeded and ask why they were exceptions to the rule. How was it, for example, that the Latin American republics managed to win their independence from Spain between 1810 and 1825? Part of the answer has to do with the genius of the leading “liberators,” José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, who, while revolutionaries, were not guerrillas per se. Although they occasionally made use of hit-and-run tactics, their victory was due to their ability to cobble together small conventional armies and to maneuver rapidly to catch the ponderous Spanish defenders off guard. Their ultimate triumph becomes more explicable if one keeps three facts in mind: the Latin American colonies were 50 percent more populous than metropolitan Spain; they were 3,500 miles away; and Spain was distracted by its own war against Napoleon and the chaotic aftermath.

Harder to understand at first blush is how the Greeks, who constituted a tiny minority within the Ottoman Empire and had never had a unified nation-state during their long history, won their freedom from imperial masters who were located next door. The Ottoman Empire may have been in decline, but it had lasted more than five hundred years and encompassed much of the Middle East and Balkans. During the course of its history it had banished foes far more formidable than the Greeks—including the Byzantium Empire, the heirs of Rome. The Greeks’ skill at guerrilla warfare was impressive but not enough to prevail. Their revolt, which broke out in 1821 thanks to the machinations of a secret society of Greek exiles known as the Philiki Etairia (Society of Friends), would showcase for the first time the importance of “humanitarian intervention” in deciding the outcome of a guerrilla war.

Greeks had a long tradition of low-intensity warfare waged by the klephts, the traditional Christian Greek bandits, as well as by the armatoli, who had been recruited by the Ottomans from among former outlaws to keep the klephts in check. Whether klephts or armatoli, these hardy warriors were organized into bands ranging in size from a dozen to a few hundred men. Many were kinsmen, and they were invariably led by a ruthless and charismatic captain. The irregular style of fighting practiced by these men left much to be desired from the standpoint of soldiers schooled in modern methods, including the American and European philhellenes (“lovers of Greeks”) who flocked to fight in the land where Western civilization had been born. Samuel Gridley Howe, a young doctor from Boston who served with the Greek forces, left a vivid appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses:

A Greek soldier is intelligent, active, hardy, and frugal; he will march, or rather skip, all day among the rocks, expecting no other food than a biscuit and a few olives, or a raw onion; and at night, lies down content upon the ground, with a flat stone for a pillow, and with only his capote [a hooded cloak], which he carries with him winter and summer, for covering; baggage-wagon and tent he knows nothing of. But he will not work, for he thinks it disgraceful; he will submit to no discipline, for he thinks it makes a slave of him; he will obey no order which does not seem to him a good one, for he holds that in these matters he has a right to be consulted.

Howe went on to note that these Greeks “would be called cowards” in a European army: “They never can be brought to enter a breach, to charge an enemy who has a wall before him, or to stand up and expose themselves to fire.” Instead, like most irregulars, their “invariable practice is to conceal their bodies behind a wall, or a rock, and fire from under cover.” Howe nevertheless concluded that they were actually “brave, if you will let them fight in their own way, which is like that of our own Indians.”

Attempts to make the Greeks conform to conventional military practices did not get very far. There was no chance that klepht chieftains such as Theódoros Kolokotrónis and Odysseus Androutses would cede power to regular army officers, because they knew this would strengthen the hand of the central government at their expense. The klephts literally let European volunteers starve rather than provide them with provisions.

Westernizing Greek leaders created the small nucleus of a conventional army, but it was composed of foreigners and Greek exiles. This force, numbering five hundred regulars, saw its first and last major action on July 16, 1822, when it attempted to defend the hill village of Péta from several thousand Turkish soldiers. The battle began satisfactorily enough from the philhellenes’ standpoint: they opened a “regular fire . . . very coolly” and brought down hundreds of attackers. After a couple of hours, the Europeans fancied that victory was theirs. “All of a sudden,” one of them wrote, “we heard dreadful cries behind us.” Their rear had been secured by a thousand Greek irregulars under a chieftain named Gogol, who had chosen this moment to depart with his men. The philhellenes later charged that he had been bought off by the Turks, but he may simply have been following the dictates of self-preservation. Whatever his motivations, he left the regulars horribly exposed to a flanking attack. “In one moment the Turks rushed upon us like a torrent . . . so that we were compelled to abandon our position,” a philhellene later wrote. Only a third of the philhellenes managed to escape this debacle. In its aftermath their battalion was disbanded.

Luckily for the Greeks’ cause, the klephts’ preferred method of fighting proved more effective. It was certainly better suited to an outnumbered, badly equipped force fighting in mountainous terrain than were the linear formations favored by the well-intentioned but arrogant European volunteers. In 1821–22, one Turkish fortress after another fell to the rebels, and Turkish reinforcements sent from the north to restore order were repulsed with heavy losses through traditional hit-and-run tactics. Macedonia and northern Greece remained in Ottoman hands, but much of central and southern Greece was liberated, and an impressive-sounding constitution and government were proclaimed by a national assembly led by Europeanized Greeks.

The Greeks did not limit their war to land. At sea their primary weapon was the fireship—a nautical car bomb. The crew would ram a small vessel packed full of gunpowder and combustible materials into the target ship, set it afire, and then escape in a rowboat. When everything went according to plan, this could be a devastating tactic. On June 18, 1822, the Turkish fleet was anchored off the Aegean island of Chios, celebrating the end of Ramadan. Just after midnight, a Greek fireship hit the brightly lit flagship. The flames quickly reached the powder store, and the ship exploded. Out of 2,300 people on board, fewer than 200 survived. The dead included the Turkish admiral who was hit on the head by a falling mast as he was trying to get into a lifeboat.

The Ottomans failed to exhibit any of the restraint shown by the British in dealing with American rebels. In retaliation for the firebombing of their flagship, the Turks killed 25,000 Greeks and enslaved another 41,000 on Chios. Many of the dead had their noses, heads, and ears cut off, and these were sent by the sackful to Constantinople as grisly mementos. This was part of a pattern of the Ottomans targeting Greek civilians, including the elderly Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, who was hanged notwithstanding his opposition to the revolt. After the Ottoman fleet returned to Constantinople, spectators on the docks could see captured Greeks hung by their necks from bowsprits and yardarms, “struggling in the agonies of death.”

The Greeks were hardly innocent of such transgressions as they set about ethnically cleansing—a practice scarcely new to the twentieth century—the Peloponnese of all “Mohammedans.” Theirs was not only a nationalist struggle; it was also a holy war pitting Christians against Muslims with all the cruelty implicit in wars of religion. After the fall in 1821 of Tripolitza, a wealthy Turkish town, an Italian philhellene recounted, “We found nothing but dead bodies, which lay as food for dogs. What shocked us the most was the sight of the naked bodies of the women and children.”

In Europe, however, Greek misconduct barely registered, while Turkish atrocities, real or imagined, loomed large: the Western public had been conditioned by centuries of lurid and often inaccurate tales from “the Orient” to ascribe barbarism to “the Turk” and “Mohammedan” while crediting the Greeks with all the virtues of Pericles and Aristotle. The imbalance was compounded by the fact that Ottomans had no conception of the importance of Western opinion and no plan to marshal it in their favor. Greek exiles were much more cognizant of this new realm of what is today known as information warfare. They were able to take advantage of the inherent sympathy for their cause among Western intellectuals as well as the loathing of “the Turk” and other Middle Easterners that dated back to the ancient wars between Greeks and Persians and had been strengthened by more recent events such as the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium in 1453, the subsequent Ottoman sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, and the capture from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in the Mediterranean and Atlantic of tens of thousands of Western mariners by “Barbary pirates” from North Africa who were nominally subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Prominent philhellenes included the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the American professor and future secretary of state Edward Everett, and the French painter Eugène Delacroix. The most famous Greek lover of all was Lord Byron, the wealthy, scandal-ridden, and priapic English poet who in the summer of 1823 sailed to Greece on his private yacht, the Hercules, which carried a retinue of volunteers and servants, including a gondolier and valet, along with horses, medicines, two cannons, and a large bankroll. En route he honed his pistol marksmanship, a companion reported, by shooting at “live poultry” that “was put into a basket” and “hoisted to the main yard-arm.” Upon arrival Byron formed his own brigade in Greece, but it accomplished nothing and fell apart after his death from disease in the pestilential port of Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. He had anticipated his fate with a poem completed on his thirty-sixth birthday just a few months before. It ended, “Seek out—less often sought than found— / A Soldier’s Grave, for thee the best; / Then look around, and choose thy Ground, / And take thy rest.” His romantic demise on his chosen ground caused a sensation back home that anticipated the British reaction to the death of Princess Diana, and further inflamed support for the cause to which he had given his life.

In addition to Byron, twelve hundred other philhellenes eventually reached Greece. Their military significance was negligible. Far more important was the philhellenes’ political role in rallying Western support for the Greeks after the Ottomans launched an effective counterattack in 1824. The Turkish forces were led by Mehmet Ali, the Albanian-born ruler of Egypt, and his son Ibrahim Pasha. With the help of European advisers, they created a regular army on the European model that was far more formidable than the antiquated Ottoman janissary corps. The Egyptians’ ability to stay in their ranks, suffer losses, and charge home with the bayonet allowed them to shrug off irregular attacks and regain much of the ground the Greeks had won in 1821–22. “The cause of the Greeks is fast declining,” commented a British diplomat in 1825.

Only the intervention of Britain, France, and Russia saved the Greek cause. Overcoming the qualms of conservatives such as the duke of Wellington who regarded the Ottomans as a force for stability,the three powers spoke with one voice to demand that the Turks grant the Greeks autonomy. The sultan ignored their demand and paid the price. On October 20, 1827, twenty-four British, French, and Russian warships mauled a larger Ottoman fleet in the Bay of Navarino in the southwestern Peloponnese. In four hours of close-quarters firing, the Ottomans lost sixty of eighty-nine warships, while the allies did not lose one of their own. Because the Ottomans were now unable to resupply their forces by sea, the Battle of Navarino made Greek independence inevitable. Four years later Greece was formally recognized as a unified, independent state for the first time in its long history.

There was nothing novel about outside powers’ helping a rebellion. The French had helped the Americans, as well as, less successfully, the Scots and Irish, in their struggles against Britain. The British, in turn, had helped the Spanish guerrillas against France and, before them, the Dutch rebels against the Spanish Habsburgs (1568–1648). But they had done so strictly for strategic reasons, whereas Britain and France, and even to some extent Russia, intervened in Greece in no small measure out of sheer humanitarian instinct. Certainly they had little but moral satisfaction to gain from weakening their ally, the Ottoman Empire. In an echo of modern human-rights campaigners, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the allied armada at Navarino, said that his goal was to force Ibrahim Pasha “to discontinue the brutal war of extermination which he has been carrying on.”

Although commercial and strategic considerations were not entirely absent and the French covered their bets by also providing surreptitious military assistance to Mehmet Ali, the allied role in the Greek War of Independence was, as argued by the historian Gary Bass, a precursor to the 1990s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo (and the 2011 intervention in Libya), with Byron and Delacroix performing the galvanizing role that television networks and human-rights groups would play in the latter conflicts. By publicizing their suffering, the Greeks managed to persuade others to free them. Their strategy of “winning by losing” would be emulated by numerous rebels in the future, most notably by the Cubans who in 1898 persuaded the United States to declare war against their Spanish oppressors.

Theodore Roosevelt, for one, sounded as ardent as any philhellene when he wrote in 1897, “I am a quietly rampant ‘Cuba Libra’ man,” and suggested that “a war with Spain” would be advisable “on the grounds both of humanity and self-interest.” The Rough Rider would enjoy more military success in Cuba than the philhellenes had had in Greece, but victory in the Spanish-American War, as in the Greek Revolution, would be secured primarily by naval might—specifically by the U.S. Navy’s successes in sinking the Spanish squadrons at the Battles of Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba.

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