09 April 1 2015 The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Burning of Smyrna 1922. Part One
The Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Burning of Smyrna 1922. Part One
Cui bono? Who stands to gain?
After the Greek War of Independence, the Turks finally recognized the newly independent Greek state with the signing of the Treaty of Constantinople in July 1832. Greece now consisted of the Peloponnese and a few hundred miles of mainland stretching north from Arta in the west to Volos and Mount Pelion in the east, and a few Greek islands. It would not be until after the Balkan wars that it would add Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Crete and the Aegean Islands. During this period, the fire of Hellenism burned brightly in the minds of Greek Intellects. This fire, known as The Megali Idea – The Great Idea, was a vision deeply rooted in the Greeks’ national and religious consciousness. For them, they wanted nothing less than the recovery of Constantinople and the reestablishment of the Christian Byzantine Empire which had fallen to Mehmet the Conqueror and the Ottomans in 1453. In the aftermath of the Great War in 1918, this yearning to regain Greek territory in Asia Minor inhabited by several million Greeks suddenly appeared attainable. But as history has proven, time and time again, a heady cocktail of patriotic fervour combined with the vested interests of politics does not always provide the desired outcome.
This story carried us back to classic times. It is true Greek tragedy, with Chance at the ever-ready handmaid of Fate. However the Greek race might have altered in blood and quality, their characteristics were found unchanged since the days of Alcibiades. As of old, they preferred faction above all other interests, and as of old in their crisis they had at their head one of the greatest of men. The interplay between the Greek love of party politics and the influence exercised over them by Venizelos constitutes the action of the piece. The scene and the lighting are the Great War; and the theme, ‘’How Greece gained the Empire of her dreams in spite of herself, and threw it away when she awoke.’
The World in Crisis: the Aftermath, p.379
On November, 1918 in the aftermath of the Great War, the Allies gathered together to map out the Peace Conference. The four great men of the moment – Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Wilson and Orlando, imposed a costly peace on Germany. In doing so, they procrastinated about a settlement in the Near East. Earlier in the war, it had been agreed that Turkey would be divided among them. France wanted Syria and Cilesia; Britain, the oil-rich regions including Mosul; there was to be a promised homeland for the Armenians in North-Eastern Turkey; a homeland for the Jews was discussed, and both Greece and Italy expected portions of the west coast of Anatolia. Greece claimed the Smyrna region, not only on the basis of population, but because it was used to entice them into the war.
In January, 1915, England and France, with Russian approval, offered Greece large concessions on the coast of Asia Minor. The French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, even went as far as to promise them Constantinople but the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, argued that it should be internationalized. Greece, however, wanted no part of the war. They were a poor country and already drained financially and militarily by the Balkan wars. Added to that, King Constantine’s wife was the Kaiser’s sister and Constantine himself was known to have been an admirer of German military prowess. Unable to accept the situation, Venizelos resigned and in 1916, established his own revolutionary government in Crete. In November, he declared war on the Central Powers and Bulgaria. Eventually, France and Britain obtained the right to pass their troops through Greek territory and eventually demanded the King’s resignation. On 30 June, 1917, Venizelos returned to Athens and entered the war on the side of the Allies. For Venizelos, a close friend of Lloyd George, a veteran fighter against the Turks and a charismatic leader in his own right, his aim was to ‘liberate’ the Smyrna region from Turkish rule. When the war was over, he rushed to Paris to claim his prize. A new problem arose. Earlier in the war, Britain and France had promised the area to Italy when Greece refused to join the war. Now Italy was incensed. They had viewed the fertile Anatolian plains with longing and saw Greece as merely Britain’s vassal. Every aspect of the Near East question was proving to be a dilemma. The Allies were still divided over the fate of Armenia whilst uppermost in the minds of the British were the oil areas of Mesopotamia.
While the victors procrastinated, a vast Turkish army was left entirely to its own devices in the hinterland of Anatolia. Elsewhere, the Sultan’s army had disintegrated into chaos. The emergence of the hero of the Dardanelles, and the only hero of the war, thirty-eight year old Mustafa Kemal, was about to change all that. Installing himself in the prestigious Pera Palace hotel which in those days was a haven of intrigue where Allied officers, Bolshevik spies and an assortment of shadowy figures socialized with the diplomatic corps, he set about convincing disenchanted commanders opposed to the Sultan’s government to unite under his leadership.
Meanwhile, the Paris Peace talks were breaking down. Prime Minister Orlando walked out and took matters into his own hands. Under the pretense of unrest and bandit activity in the area, on the 12 March, an Italian battleship, the Regina Elena, slid into the harbour of the Mediterranean seaport of Adalia, about two hundred and twenty-five miles south of Smyrna. Within days, Italian forces were moving up the coastline towards Smyrna. Lloyd George and President Wilson were perturbed and at this point, Lloyd George suggested that the Greeks occupy Smyrna n the name of the Allies. Most diplomatic and military experts were nervous and skeptical of the venture. In Britain too, there was a strong Conservative opposition to the plan, not least because of the sensitivities in Indian politics at the time. As Churchill said, ‘there was rampant opinion that Greece could not conquer the tide of increased Turkish resistance.’
On 5 May 1919, at eight o’clock in the morning, a British destroyer leading two Greek destroyers, six transports and the Greek battleship, Kilkis, entered Smyrna harbour. On such a momentous occasion, hundreds of Greeks, headed by the Greek Metropolitan, Chrysostomos, lined the quayside, cheering and dancing for joy. The Turks were appalled. Within hours violence erupted towards the Turkish army and civilians. After a week, the newly appointed governor, Sterghiades, a friend of Venizelos, regained calm, albeit with an iron fist. Needless to say, the reaction to the occupation by everyone except the Greeks was one of stunned belief as they thought they would be ruled by the British. Foreign businessmen were also downcast at the thought of having the Greeks in control of the area. To all intents and purposes, the city was virtually run by foreigners. The two great railway lines were owned by the British and the French; power and lighting was in the hands of the British; the waterworks were Belgian; the quay and the powerlines were French concessions; the liquorice and tobacco interests were American as were the oil depots, and the carpet, grain, mineral and dried fruit business were largely run by British firms.
A Maze with No Exit. Four months later, Mustafa Kemal convened a meeting in the eastern town of Sivas. According to his biographer, Lord Kinross, he jerked apart a string of prayer beads, then proceeded to gather them on the floor, illustrating his intent to draw the pieces of his country together, to save it from its various enemies, to make it an independent and civilized state… “If we can’t succeed,” he said slowly, as he raised his upturned palm, “rather than fall into the hands of the enemy, like a bird… we prefer, being the sons of our forefathers, to die fighting.” Meanwhile in the countryside, there was still unrest. Greek refugees began to pour into Smyrna from towns under Turkish control and Greek troops were quickly dispatched to the countryside. Before long, they fanned out towards Ushak and Kutaya. In august 1920, the Treaty of Sevres was signed. For the Turks, they had nothing to lose. Under the new agreement, their empire had eroded to a small patch of land. Only the Greeks and the Armenians took it seriously. It gave the Smyrna region to the Greeks, created a free Armenia and autonomous Kurdistan and partitioned Anatolia into French and Italian zones. By late summer, 1920, the protracted war and Venizelos’s long absence from Greece plunged Greece into chaos. Riots erupted in Athens. At a railway station in Paris, two days after the treaty was signed, to young Greeks fired fourteen shots at Venizelos wounding him slightly thanks to a bullet-proof vest. Then fate took a turn for the worst. King Alexander of Greece died from a monkey bite. The throne was offered to his brother, Paul, who had been living in exile with his father, King Constantine. He refused it saying that his father had never resigned. In the November elections, Venizelos was defeated and a plebiscite reinstated King Constantine back on the throne. Now the Allies had the perfect opportunity to escape the quagmire of Smyrna. They had never liked King Constantine because of his failure to join them in the Great War. Sentiments for Greece were now at an all time low and the Allies… Britain, France, Italy and the United States agreed there would be no further financial aid to the Greeks. Instead of pulling out of the Smyrna territories, King Constantine stayed to fight saying that to withdraw was unthinkable as it would leave the Anatolian Christians at the mercy of the Turks. In February 1921, Kemal’s Angora government was given de facto recognition by the Allies and asked to attend the peace conference in London. The two hundred thousand men of the Greek army in Anatolia were in desperate straits. The winter was severe; food and clothing, scant, equipment decayed and the leadership demoralized. Isolated and abandoned, they waited for spring. Meanwhile, Kemal’s forces waited with renewed vigour. Further eastwards, English newspapers were reporting more death marches of Ottoman Greeks and Armenians.
‘Hellenism in Asia Minor, the Greek state and the entire Greek Nation are descending now to a Hell from which no power will be able to raise them up and save them.’
Patriarch Meletios to Venizelos 7 September 1922
But what of life in Smyrna at the time? Life went on as usual. Spring and summer months in Smyrna were always beautiful. In Bournabat, a suburb of Smyrna, the jasmine was so profuse it sweetened the neighbourhood. Everywhere, the locals lived life just as they did every summer. Theatres and the Opera were filled to capacity and cafes and entertainment venues did a roaring business. The grand shops selling the very best from Western capitals thrived. Caravan trains continued to pour in delivering good to be loaded onto ships bound for the West much as they had done over the centuries: bales of silk, raw dyes such as indigo, spices, grapes figs and tobacco. For the well-connected this was the season for parties, tennis and a never-ending round of social events. While they sipped their cocktails on clubhouse verandas, no-one wanted to believe anything would go wrong and those officials in the know deliberately chose not to inform the inhabitants for fear of chaos. Yet they only had to look at the harbour. It was ringed with foreign warships. It was a surreal situation and defeat was not contemplated.
With the winter over, the Greek troops were on the verge of disintegration whilst Kemal’s Nationalists were well rested, and their plan of attack well thought out. On the 26 August 1922, Mustafa Kemal gathered his troops and just as he had done in the Dardanelles, delivered another memorable speech; ‘Soldiers, your goal is the Mediterranean!’ They struck at dawn catching the Greek troops by surprise. They never stood a chance. The Turks annihilated five Greek divisions and took 50,000 prisoners. The Greeks retreated, many fleeing to the Sea of Marmara where French troops blocked them on the pretext of neutrality and handed them over to the Turks. Kemal had once stated to his followers: ‘If it is the will of God that we are defeated, we must set fire to our homes, to all our property; we must lay the country in ruin and leave an empty desert.’ Now the defeated Greeks panicked, torched their own villages and fled to Smyrna. The pursuing Turks came upon one smouldering village after another. On 1 September, word came through that the Greeks had abandoned Ushak, the centre of Turkey’s carpet industry, and that same day the first Greek wounded arrived in the city. Fleeing soldiers arrived next followed by civilians. George Horton, the American Consul, wrote that ‘they were ragged, dusty and ghost-like’. In a silent procession, they stumbled into doorways begging for food. Horton never forgot the sight of an old woman stumbling along with an emaciated, feverish son astride her neck. The son was taller than the mother and his legs touched the ground. George Horton also noted that from that day on, he ‘could no longer guarantee the Armenians and Greeks that they would be perfectly safe’. He had been in the East far too long.
On 7 September, the Greek flag was lowered and the administration departed Smyrna. To hisses and boos, Sterghiades was the last to leave. The city remained quiet. The next day the first Turkish cavalry appeared. The Turkish population were jubilant. At nightfall, the Christian population barricaded themselves behind doors but the looting, rapes and murder had already begun. Time and time again, the Christian population asked themselves, ‘What can happen to us when the eyes of the world are watching us. Surely the foreign powers will not stand by and allow a massacre?’When Kemal entered Smyrna, he appeared on the balcony of Government House with the new Governor, General Noureddin, a man known for his hatred of foreigners, and appealed for calm. Afterwards, Noureddin sent for Archbishop Chrysostomos, gave him a dressing down and released him into the crowd baying for blood. Chrysostomos was taken away, tortured unmercifully and killed. With this, the Christians knew they were no longer safe. From that moment, the situation quickly deteriorated. Those who could fled to the quayside hoping to board one of the many ships anchored in the harbour. In the Armenian Quarter, the Turks showed no mercy. On the night of Wednesday 13 September, fires could be seen there. By the early hours of the morning the wind changed and the fire took hold. By dusk, the sky was a fearful orange glow. Those taking refuge in hospitals, churches, schools colleges, etc., were now faced with the prospect of being burnt alive or fleeing into the hands of the Turks. The next day, the fire reached the quayside. A journalist from the Daily Mail watching on from aboard his ship noted ‘What I see as I stand on the deck of the Iron Duke is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flames are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues up to a height of a hundred feet.’ The crowd on the seafront surged forward. With nowhere to go, hundreds drowned. Watching it all from the safety of their ships were the Allies who were under strict instructions not to interfere. After two days, the fire began to burn itself out.
‘The fire of Smyrna was put out today by our forces.
Official Turkish communiqué,
Angora, 14 September 1922
By now, the Admirals could no longer stand by and in a last ditched attempt to save many, lowered boats in a rescue attempt. The water was filled with oil, suitcases and packages, upturned boats and bodies. Ernest Hemingway wrote In Our Time, ‘You remember the harbour. There were plenty of nice things floating around in it. That was the only time in my life I got so I dreamed about things’.
In a matter of one week, the beautiful, historic and cosmopolitan city of Smyrna, gateway to the East, was now a charred mass of buildings with countless thousands dead. All that remained was the Turkish Quarter and the Standard Oil Refinery. More than 1,500.000 Greek refugees fled to Greece and untold thousands more perished. In the wake of such a disaster, Hellenic Smyrna was dead and with it, over two thousand years of Greek history ended.
To be continued. The Asia Minor Catastrophe: The Winners and the Losers. Part Two
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