The carnage and crucible of WW1 didn’t end in 1918, but the gruesome genocide continued. The Greeks and Turks fought for centuries before then, and have continued since. No wonder.
By Mark D. Harris
World War I had been a catastrophe for the Ottoman Empire. Siding with the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria, Sultan Mehmed V Rashād (The True Path Follower) fought the Serbians, Rumanians, Russians, British, French, Arabs, and others. The Turks enjoyed some early successes, notably at Gallipoli (1915) and Kut (1916). Such victories emboldened radicals in the government to attack their traditional enemies, the Armenians, and in this genocide 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished. The tide of war turned against the Ottomans, as it did against all of the Central Powers, and ultimately the strategically encircled Turks lost their empire and their political system. An estimated 5 million Turks died, the sultanate ceased to exist, and Mustafa Kemal, later known as the Father of the Turks (Ataturk), rose to prominence.
The Greeks had been under Ottoman domination from the fall of Constantinople (1453) to the Greek War of Independence (1821). Sensing the Turkish weakness, and wishing to avenge the slaughter of Greeks and Armenians, the Hellenists tried to recover the ancient Greek lands in western Anatolia and incorporate the large ethnically Greek population there (estimated at 1.8 million in 1912). They also wanted to claim Ottoman territory that they had been promised by the victorious Allied powers.
20,000 Greek troops supported by Allied navies landed in Smyrna (Izmir) on 15 May 1919, even before the Versailles treaty was signed (28 June 1919). They established control over the city and its environs, including hundreds of square miles of territory, with a roughly equal Greek and Turkish population. In the 1920 offensive, Greek soldiers captured most of Thrace, including Adrianople, and Anatolia from Bursa to Cay. Insisting on navigational control, the British retained control over Constantinople, Canakkale, and the Asian side of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus Straits. The Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) codified these gains, but was never ratified by the Ottoman Empire or Greece. Thinking that they had the military advantage and unsatisfied with their gains, the men from the Peloponnese demanded more.
The situation changed markedly thereafter. The Hellenists advanced deeper into the Turkish hinterlands in October, areas that did not have large Greek populations, but could not hold the ground. The Greek monarch, King Alexander, died of sepsis after a monkey bite that same month, and the traditionally fractious Greek government splintered. The Greeks suffered their first defeats at the First and Second Battles of İnönü (Jan and Mar 1921). The conflict also developed into a Great Power struggle. The Soviet Union, increasingly confident of winning the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), began supplying arms to the Ottomans (Treaty of Moscow, 1921). While Czarist Russia considered itself a Western power and allied against Turkey, the USSR was a communist state and aligned itself against the West. For their part, France and Italy saw Greece as a client of the United Kingdom, made a separate peace with Turkey, and began selling arms to the Ottomans. The British, meanwhile, refused to arm the Greeks for fear of provoking France.
The Battle of Afyonkarahisar-Eskişehir (July 1921), on the outskirts of Ankara, was the last major Greek victory. Hellenists and Ottomans fought to a bloody draw in the Battle of Sakarya (August and September 1921), and a stalemate began. Weary of war and no longer fed on success, Greek public opinion turned against the war, and a creeping demoralization ensued. Turkey grew stronger, and Greece grew weaker.
The dam burst with the Ottoman counteroffensive at the Battle of Dumlupınar (26-30 Aug 1922). The Greeks had sent two divisions to Thrace in the forlorn hope that the British would let them take Constantinople. To the east, 60 miles west of Ankara, 105,000 well-armed Turks routed 130,000 strategically isolated, poorly armed, and poorly supplied Hellenists, capturing two generals and almost all of their equipment. By 9 September, Smyrna was retaken, and by 24 September, Ottomans were reoccupying Thrace.
Violence erupted, continuing the Greek genocide that had commenced after the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). In the Great Fire of Smyrna (14 Sep 1922), the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city were destroyed, while the Turk and Jewish quarters remained. From 1913-1922, roughly 700,000 Christian Greeks perished. In a population exchange of 1923, over one million Greeks were expelled from Asia Minor. The 1955 Istanbul Pogrom caused many of the Hellenists remaining in Turkey to flee to the Peloponnese. Unwilling to reopen war with Turkey after the carnage of World War I, the Western Allies abandoned the Treaty of Sevres. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne codified the borders demanded by the Turks and contained a declaration of amnesty for war crimes.
These events of nearly a century ago may seem distant but they impact international relations today. Cyprus, invaded by Turkey after a Greek nationalist coup in 1974, remains a flashpoint. Greece has been intransigent in opposing Turkey’s accession into the European Union. Also, the current refugee crisis of citizens from the war-ravaged Middle East moving into Europe has increased tensions.
Issues of who should possess western Asia Minor are complex. The Turks argue that these lands are their ancestral homelands, although the Ottomans actually descended from peoples of the Eurasian steppes, not Anatolia. The Turks did not get to Anatolia until the Seljuks in the 11th century and Ottomans in the 14th. The Greeks contest that eastern Asia Minor has belonged to them since Alexander (330s BC), but this does not account the earlier Lydians and Hittites who possessed the land. Ultimately force, not right, is what has mattered in this long-contested real estate – not too different from the rest of the world.
The Greco-Turkish War is a little known but important chapter in 20th century history, which has profound reverberations in the 21st century. Valor and vanity, and brilliance and blame, characterize both sides. The Western Allies were culpable in self-interested, colonial politics, and in making promises they did not intend to keep. The Soviets began their great expansions early, beginning the Cold War 25 years before anyone in the West realized it.
Nonetheless, in its death throes the Ottoman Empire, which was finally dissolved in 1922, butchered over two million civilians, largely Greek and Armenian Christians. The Turks can justly point to a great victory in what they consider to be the war of independence of their homeland, and they do celebrate it as Victory Day every 30 August. However, long after the trumpets become quiet, soldiers stop marching, and crowds return home, the blood of their victims will cry out from the ground.