Turkey and Greece 1918-22

The WWI victors meant now to divide up the Ottoman Empire: Italians in the south-west, British in Iraq, Palestine and the Constantinople region, the French all over Syria and the south-east. There were proxies. Armenians now dreamed of a Greater Armenia, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and they claimed some American support. There was a further possibility: Kurdestan. Of course the Powers quarrelled among themselves, and the British decided to use the Greeks, whose prime minister, the nationalist Venizelos, was greatly admired and trusted by Lloyd George especially. In mid-May 1919 they were encouraged to occupy partly Greek Smyrna and their troops spread out over that area, expelling the Turks and behaving sometimes with much cruelty (one of their army commanders, Prince Andrew, father of the Duke of Edinburgh, said that he had not believed any human beings could behave in this way, let alone Greeks).

Meanwhile, the Sultan, now Mehmet VI Vahdettin (r. 1918–22), and his cronies were defeatist. The Ottomans had after all tried everything – Tanzimat secularization, a constitution, co-operation over the Debt, Islamic reaction, revolution of a sort, alliance with Britain, alliance with Germany: nothing had worked. The Sultan saw a future only as Caliph, Muslim figurehead for the entire world, including, of course, British India, where he thought he still held some trumps. In other words, he would become a sort of Aga Khan (head of a civilized variant of Islam and also very rich). His men signed the Treaty of Sèvres, in 1920, which carved up the empire and left him with a small state in central Anatolia, the capital of which might even have been Ankara. It was a humiliating treaty, designed to bring civilization to the Turks, who undertook to grease the brakes on locomotives and not to sell dirty postcards. In the Smyrna region, a governor was moved in, Aristidis Stergiadis, who, as a Cretan, was supposed to understand Muslims and who had been the first Greek governor of occupied Salonica. His ways were in fact mild, mild enough to enrage the local Greek nationalists. The Greeks even set up a university of the eastern Mediterranean, meant to re-Hellenize the local Muslims. Meanwhile, the Armenians occupied Kars, and drove towards Trebizond and Erzurum; their megalomania was such that their first action after the armistice was to attack Georgia, on the grounds that Batum, a considerable port, really belonged to them.

All of this brought a Muslim reaction – we can fairly call it ‘Turkish’, but at the time ordinary locals, especially in the east, would have defined themselves by religion. A leader of genius now emerged, Mustafa Kemal, whom the world knows from his later, adopted, name, as Atatürk, or ‘Father of the Turks’. He had been a very successful general, at Gallipoli and elsewhere, and he played a careful game, initially getting approval from the Sultan (who maybe suspected what he was really about) and then departing on a pretext and on a Clyde-built steamer to Samsun, on the Black Sea, on 19 May 1919. Travelling along the dusty roads in an abandoned German staff car (which frequently broke down) he rallied support. The Armenians, who had been massacring quite diligently on their own account, caused the Muslims, including Kurds, to unite as they might never otherwise have done, and Mustafa Kemal had the charisma and the cunning to become their leader. Then he challenged the Sultan’s government. By chance he hit upon Ankara as his base, because it was on a railway line and because it had a telegraph office, which he used to great effect. Soon, Mustafa Kemal was collecting adherents from occupied Constantinople, and a ‘Grand National Assembly’ met in April 1920 in the clubhouse of the Young Turks. It was no rubber stamp; running it was difficult, and great concessions had to be made (such as a prohibition on alcohol and religious provisions for women’s dress). However, there was in existence an army, which had retreated from the Caucasus, and though the French in the south-east, with an Armenian legion in tow, and the Greeks in the west advanced, there was gathering resistance to them.

In 1920 a new factor entered the calculations. In Russia the Bolsheviks had won the civil war, but they greatly feared an Allied intervention, and they needed support. They had come to understand that, under the banner of anti-imperialism, they could recruit Muslims; and after some experimentation with Enver, they somehow guessed that Mustafa Kemal would be their man. Messages went between Ankara and Moscow, followed by envoys, and a deal was done. In 1920 Soviet gold and arms came over the Black Sea, and the first effect was felt on the eastern front, where the Armenians collapsed. Then the nationalists sent support to the south-eastern front, where the French soon came to terms, and also did a deal over the Syrian border. By 1921, the Turks had enough strength to resist the Greeks who, sure of British support, advanced wildly towards Ankara. At a great battle on the Sakarya river, in August–September, they were stopped, and it was a victory that ran round the world, especially the Muslim world: telegrams of congratulation came from all sides.

Mustafa Kemal then showed his qualities in another way: he knew when to stop. He did not want to provoke British intervention, and refrained, for a year, from attacking; instead (and this needed management) he built up his domestic position in Ankara, which was acquiring the rudiments of a capital (the French embassy was the railway buffet). Then in August 1922 he attacked, and this time it was the Greeks’ turn to collapse. Their army broke (even the high command was captured) and on 9 September the Turks entered Smyrna (which subsequently became İzmir). The Greeks, retreating, had set fire to various places, and there were, in the great bay, some thirty Allied warships. Smyrna contained about 300,000 Greeks and other Christians, and the Turkish general, Nurettin, in any event an embittered, not to say maddened, man who had lost his sons in this war, probably decided to prevent any reconquest. The non-Muslim (and non-Jewish: on the whole the Jews had taken the nationalist side) part of the city was burned, in a fire that lasted for five days, while hundreds of thousands of refugees clustered on the coastal road and the harbour, waiting for help that diplomatic niceties did not allow for all of that time. It is an episode that has entered the world’s subconscious. At any rate, the nationalists had won. Mustafa Kemal entered the city, and found that, on the steps of the government house, a Greek flag had been draped for him to walk over. He would not: chivalry meant that he had to respect a flag for which men had died.

In the event, his forces moved on Constantinople, and there encountered a British cordon. Lloyd George was adamant that the Turks could not be allowed to win, and sent a telegram to the local commander, ordering him to fight. The commander, ‘Tim’ Harington, was a man of great common sense and humanity; in any case the British army had come to respect the Turks and, as it turned out, some of the survivors of Kut-el-Amara even spent their summer holidays, years later, with their old guards. Harington kept the telegram in his pocket and pretended that it had not arrived. Then he negotiated sensibly with the Turks, agreeing to let them into what is now Turkey-in-Europe, and, in November, into Constantinople. The Sultan, fearing the worst, was smuggled onto a British warship and taken, with his five wives, to Malta (where he was presented with a bill). In 1923, a peace treaty followed, at Lausanne, and it established Turkey’s present-day borders, although these were extended, in 1939, when the French handed back the area of Antakya, the old Antioch, which had originally been assigned to their Syrian colony. Then, in 1923 and 1924, came the crowning and dismal consequence of all of this. Hatred between Turks and Greeks had of course grown and grown, and co-existence was hardly possible. An exchange of populations followed: about half a million Muslims, some of them Greek-speaking, from Greece, and about a million Greeks, many Turkish-speaking, from Anatolia. Misery followed, and both countries were set back a generation, although in Constantinople itself about a quarter of a million Greeks were permitted to go on residing with their Patriarch in the old Fener district. But by now a separate and national Turkish state had been established, and Mustafa Kemal proclaimed it a republic on 29 October 1923.


Greece finally entered World War I, in its very last phase, on the side of the Entente. Greece’s territorial gains this time proved to be short-term. After the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) Greece took over the administration of the Smyrna region in Asia Minor, a former Ottoman land. Despite Venizelos’s diplomatic triumph in the elections of 1920 he was defeated by the royalists, who took advantage of the war weariness of the population, and Constantine returned to the country. Greece sent troops to Asia Minor to defend its territorial gains against the rising tide of Turkish nationalism led by Mustafa Kemal. The Greek military campaign against the Turkish troops failed, and the Turkish counteroffensive resulted in the defeat of the Greek army and the expulsion of the entire Greek populations from Asia Minor in 1922.

After WORLD WAR I, the Allied Powers supported Greek occupation of Smyrna, which had been part of the German- allied Ottoman Empire. In the meantime, Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938) (later renowned as Kemal Atatûrk) successfully led a revolution against the government of Sultan Muhammad VI (r. 1918–22) and set up a new provisional republican Turkish government at Ankara in 1920. For their part, the Greeks wanted to expand what the post–World War I Treaty of Sèvres had given them, Smyrna, to include Thrace and as much of Anatolia as they could manage to acquire. On June 22, 1920, the Greek army under Alexander I (1893–1920) began its advance inland, taking Alasehir on June 24. The advance paused here while Greeks and Turks negotiated at Constantinople (later Istanbul). Muhammad VI had agreed to certain concessions, which Kemal now refused to honor. The negotiations broke down, and the Greek offensive resumed on March 23, 1921.

At Inönü 150 miles west of Ankara, a Turkish force under Ismet Pasha (1884–1973) retarded the advance of 37,000 Greek troops. By August 24, 1921, however the Greeks had reached the Sakarya River, 70 miles outside Ankara, where they would fight the decisive battle of the war. The battle commenced on August 24, 1921, and pitted 50,000 Greeks against 44,000 Turks, who were subsequently reinforced by an additional 8,000. Although the Greeks initially succeeded in driving back the Turkish center, on September 10, Kemal led a small reserve force in an attack on the Greek left flank. Fearing envelopment, the Greeks disengaged and withdrew to Smyrna, having lost 3,897 killed and 19,000 wounded. An additional 15,000 had been captured or were missing in action. Turkish losses were 3,700 killed, 18,000 wounded, and 1,000 missing or taken prisoner.

Following their victory at the Sakarya, the Turks intensified their counteroffensive, beginning on August 18, 1922, laying siege to Smyrna. It fell to the Turks on September 9, and the Greek forces were expelled from the island.

The flight of about 1.3 million Greeks from Turkey was later ratified by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which also provided for the transfer of 380,000 Muslims to Turkey in the framework of the forced exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The defeat in Asia Minor caused a major political crisis. A Revolutionary Committee of officers forced Constantine to leave the country for a second time and a Commission of Inquiry put the blame for the Asia Minor debacle on leading royalist ministers and officers: six of them were sentenced to death and executed. Constantine abdicated and retired to Sicily, where he died soon after. After a plebiscite in April 1924 the monarchy was abolished and Greece was proclaimed a republic.

Further reading: Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (New York: New Mark Press, 1999).