219: Turkish War of Independence Pt. 2


While Mustafa Kemal solidifies his power in Ankara, the Greeks arrive.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 219. This week a big thank you goes out to Ed and Steven for choosing to support the podcast on Patreon. And to Eric for the very generous Paypal donation along with the very cool picture of the Latvian certificate of service that was given to his Grandfather for his service during the Latvian war of independence. I cannot pretend to be able to read any of it, but it looks cool! When we ended last episode a nationalist government had been elected in Turkey but Mustafa Kemal remained in Ankara, even though he had been elected as a representative of the new government. His plan was to wait and see if something would happen that would allow him to advance his position, which might require him to be outside the capital. This opportunity would present itself. The problems in the capital were amplified by the new nationalist government, and the rift between the Turkish leaders and the Allies would grow. This would climax in Allied troops, primarily British, occupying government buildings in the capital and unleashing a wave of arrests targeted at the Turkish nationalists. This would occur on the night of March 15th and news of the events would quickly spread. This was precisely the opportunity that Mustafa Kemal had been waiting for and he quickly went into action. He sent two notifications to military leaders all over the country, he asked all of the military commanders to make sure that there was no violence against foreigners and then to also disregard any declarations that came from the capital. Disregarding everything from the capital was critical, according to the message, because anything that was released from the elected government might be tainted by Allied influence. After these communications were sent to the military leaders, he then released a proclamation that was spread all over the country. In this document he denounced the occupation of Istanbul by the Allies, and he would then call all of the citizens ‘Today the Turkish nation is called to defend its capacity for civilization, its right to life and independence – its entire future.’ To try and make this future a reality Mustafa Kemal set up a new government in Ankara, where he was joined by many nationalists who rapidly fled the capital.

Mustafa Kemal was ready for this exodus from the capital, and he knew what was required. The two main priorities of the new Ankara government were to maintain control over as much territory as possible in both military and political terms. On the political side the tasks revolved around getting information around to the political leaders of the country, but then also to get support of the people. A dedicated propaganda arm of the nationalist government would be created on April 6th, called the Anatolian Agency. The goal of this propaganda group was to, well, spread propaganda, putting emphasis on all of the successes of the Ankara government while spreading as much information as possible about the failings of their enemies. A key part of this message revolved around xenophobia, a hatred of all foreigners, which was a critical rallying point for the Ankara government and its quest to gain support form the people. The second task was to maintain military control of as much territory as possible, in some ways this was easier, at least conceptually, due to the fact that so much of the Ottoman military leadership was in the nationalist camp, and many of the leaders of the movement were either former of current military officers.

On April 23rd the Ankara assembly, called the Grand National Assembly, had its first session. This was an important step, but perhaps more importantly was that one of the first votes for the assembly was that the president of the assembly should also be the executive head of the government. This would focus all of the power of the government into the hands of just one person, and I will give you just a moment to try and guess who was the creator of the motion to concentrate the power, and then made sure that he would be elected as the first recipient of all of the power. … . Yep, that would be one Mustafa Kemal who would become the President of the Assembly on April 24th. After accepting the position Mustafa Kemal would put out a proclamation, now as president of the nation, ‘We, your deputies, swear in the name of God and the Prophet that the claim that we are rebels against the sultan and caliph is a lie. All we want is to save our country from sharing the fate of India and Egypt.’ On April 29th an important law was passed that dealt with high treason, sentencing any person who challenged the legitimacy of the Ankara government to death. This was then answered by the government in Istanbul with the announcement that Mustafa Kemal and many other leaders in Ankara were to be arrested on sight and sentenced to death. This was the moment, at the beginning of May 1920, that the break happened between the nationalist, but allied controlled government in Istanbul and the nationalist government in Ankara, there would be no going back.

At the same time that the Ankara government was being created and was solidifying itself, the Allies were negotiating with the Ottoman representatives in San Remo Italy. These negotiations were the actual official negotiations for the signing of the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire to end its participating in the First World War. This was attended by three Ottoman delegates, none of which were recognized by Mustafa Kemal as representatives of his or any other government of Turkey. Most importantly for our story these negotiations resulted in a treaty, the Treaty of Sevres, which would officially dismantle the old Ottoman Empire, with Palestine, Mesopotamia, and other areas being removed from the control of Istanbul. It also partitioned Anatolia, with Italy, Greece, France, and the British Empire all being given zones of occupation and control. While the treaty was signed in Italy, it was not officially until it was ratified by the Turkish parliament, but the official parliament in Istanbul had been dissolved by the Allied actions, and then officially by the Sultan. This put the treaty in a bit of a limbo, with the Western Allies recognizing it and trying to put it into place, while those in Anatolia, and especially the new leaders in Ankara, refusing to even acknowledge its existence, let alone willing to obey its terms. This would set the stage for a confrontation, involving nationalist troops under the command of Mustafa Kemal, and Allied forces commanded by the Greeks.

Obviously the reactions and interactions with the Western Allies and the Greeks were important to the future of the Ankara government. There was one other relationship that would be of great concern, and that was with Communist Russia. While Ankara was the seat of government of the nationalist leaders, the core of its support from the Eastern Territories, and they would soon have Russian forces on their borders. There was a desire on both sides to create some kind of friendly relations. Mustafa Kemal would send a telegram to Moscow, stating that ‘We agree to cooperate with Russian Bolsheviks in their efforts to save the oppressed from imperialist governments.’ and outlining a possible plan for the two countries to form a relationship in the east. He suggested that the Soviets should move into Georgia, while his government dealt with the Armenians, after they were dealt with the Russians could then have Azerbaijan. This was acceptable to many Communist leaders, and they agreed, although there was still hope at this stage that Turkey could eventually come under Bolshevik influence. While this possible future Bolshevik revolution in Turkey would not occur, the agreement that Mustafa Kemal laid out in his letter did happen almost exactly. The Red Army moved into Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Turks attacked the new independent Armenian government. In mid-November the Armenians would sign an armistice with the Turkish leaders, which involved large territorial concessions, then they would become a Soviet republic. The Armenian Prime Minister would say that “Nothing remains for the Armenians to do but choose the lesser of two evils.” The small country had been in a difficult position from the start, and the lack of military support from the west made it almost hopeless. Like so many other countries throughout history, trapped between two larger and hostile states, independent Armenia would be partitioned and destroyed.

In Ankara Mustafa Kemal was in an incredibly powerful position. He was head of both the legislature and the executive, he had a majority in the parliament, and he could really do pretty much whatever he wanted. An opposition party of sorts formed as the Second Group, but it had very little real power in the beginning. Without any real constraints upon his actions Mustafa Kemal began planning and putting in place his next set of moves, which would in his mind remove all foreigners form the country. Before this goal could be achieved those that were seen as traitors to the new revolutionary government had to be taken care of. To move things along on September 11, 1920 an Independence Tribunal was created by a vote of the assembly. This Tribunal would be made up of three representatives, elected from the ranks of the assembly and it would function as the highest court, and its ruling could not be appealed. The Tribunal would be mostly responsible for trying those believed to be guilty of acts against the revolution, death sentences were common, but many were given the option of commuted sentences if they agreed to serve in the military.

Speaking of that military, the Ankara government also moved to bring the military under more control. Up to this point an important part of the nationalist forces were irregular volunteer troops, however there was a growing concern about their discipline, or complete lack thereof. It was generally felt that if these irregular troops were not brought into hand they might be the starting point for a Bolshevik movement, which was of course very undesirable. While discipline was being instilled in these units instances of desertion rose, with many commanders choosing summary execution as the punishment, instead of allowing the courts to have their say. These efforts were also occurring at the same time that serious discussions were being had about a general mobilization. There was hesitancy among the nationalist leaders to start a general mobilization too quickly, before their power had been properly solidified. Among many formerly Ottoman citizen mobilization was something that they hoped was in the past, with millions having been mobilized during the First World War, only for so many to die. It would not be until September 13th, 1920, after some successes against the Greeks that we will discuss here momentarily that the Ankara government felt strong enough to order a general mobilization. When this announcement was made there was unrest, but it was also not strong enough to be a serious threat.

This is the point where the Greeks really enter our story, so we should probably take a step back and discuss why they are even in this area of the world to begin with. First of all, there was a general desire among the people of Greece to see their country expand, especially into areas that would be considered classically Greece. Western Anatolia, especially right on the coast, was one of these areas. This included the acquisition of Constantinople, but that was more a stretch goal. Second, the Greek had entered the First World War late, and on the Allied Side, which allowed them to be on the winning side during the peace conference. During the conference they would have especially good relations with the British. In these relations they were led by their Prime Minister Venizelos, who was a persuasive speaker which the other Allied leaders had very good opinions of. The British and French saw the Greeks as a way to extend their power into the Eastern Mediterranean. This was strategically important to the British, who wanted a strong friend in the Eastern Mediterranean to help make Egypt more secure. Finally, and most understandably, there were a large number of Greeks in the port cities of Western Anatolia. In this region the situation was not that much different than what we discussed a few episodes back in Lithuania, where in the cities there was a heavy Polish majority, but the countryside was mostly Lithuanian. Here the port cities of Western Anatolia, like Smyrna, were heavily populated by Greeks, but the surrounding countryside was Turkish. The Greek leaders would use the presence of so many Greeks as their excuse to send in Greek troops after the armistice had been signed.

The Greeks had two large advantages when it came to their political situation, they were strongly connected to the allies, but they were also the strongest Allied military power in the region. This meant that when the British wanted to project more of their power into Anatolia, and they did not have the manpower to actually do it, they turned to the Greeks. The Greeks agreed to send more troops to assist them, but only if they were allowed to advance out of Smyrna and into Western Anatolia, which they hoped to capture and then retain as new territory to be incorporated into Greece. After permission was granted for this movement the Greek Army would advance out of Smyrna and into Anatolia. At this same time they would be allowed to advance in Thrace, taking the city of Adrianople. In Anatolia they would advance mostly unopposed, and by August they would be 250 miles inland. After advancing over 200 miles the army needed a pause, so in August they paused for over a month, only to then begin the advance again in October. After they pushed forward again they experienced very little Turkish resistance, and they would only stop due to political pressure from the Western Allies who were concerned that the Greeks were taking over too much territory.

While the Greek forces were advancing, and allied political pressure to stop was mounting, back in Greece the entire political landscape would cataclysmically shift. In October 1920 the King of Greece, King Alexander died from, and I checked my notes twice on this one, being bit by his pet monkey. Anytime a monarch dies unexpectedly there can be some instability, but in Greece at this point in time it was much worse. Alexander had been placed on the throne by Venizelos and other Greek politicians, with no small amount of help from the Allies, because they wanted to join the First World War on the side of the Allies. Alexander’s father, King Constantine, was still alive, and he would be placed back on the throne when his son died. He was obviously not the biggest fan of Venizelos and the others who had deposed him. There were elections scheduled for November 1920 which could have given the King a new Prime Minister to work with, but in these elections it was assumed by just about everyone that Venizelos would retain his position, but then, he didn’t. This result completely blindsided everyone, King Constantine, Venizelos, the Allies, everyone. There were some warning signs that it might happen, the economy was a wreck and there was some level of discontent with the continued fighting, but it was still a huge shock.

A new government had to be created, but this new government found itself working under some of the same constraints that Venizelos had been having problems trying to reconcile. The new government did not feel that it could order a retreat in Anatolia, to do so would be an admission of defeat, which would probably bring the fall of the new government. The other option was to continue the attacks, but to do so required money. Up until t his point the French and British had been essentially bankrolling the Greek war effort in Anatolia. This financial aid would be removed when Venizelos was replaced. This prompted serious conversations in Paris and London about whether or not they should continue to support the Greeks at all, or if they should just completely remove themselves from the situation. They hoped to be able to construct some sort of peace agreement between the Turkish Nationalists and the Greeks but the two groups seemed so far apart politically. The Greek leaders even went so far as to threaten to land Greek troops in Istanbul, and take it over from the Allies. There were even units loaded onto ships that sailed for the capital, this bit of brinksmanship was designed to force the Allies into action, but it did not work. While these moves were being ordered from Athens a purge of Venizelos affiliated officers was occurring in the military. Some of the army’s most experienced commanders, many of which had been in command since the Balkan Wars, and then through the First World War, were removed. This threw the army into some confusion as new officers tried to take command at a critical time. Even with all of these challenges, there was still a belief that any form of retreat was impossible, but there was the reality that the Greek Army could not just stay where it was, and so the only option was to attack. This next attack would begin in the spring of 1921. The previous Greek attacks had been incredibly successful, but the enemy that they would face in 1921 would be very different than what had been in front of them during the summer of 1920.

After the Greeks had moved inland they had paused their advance due to Allied political pressure, and this delay in further attacks greatly benefitted the defenders. The Greek advance had galvanized Nationalist support and Turkish leaders in Ankara had spent the next five months doing everything they could to bolster the strength of their forces. When the Greek attacks began again in the spring, they would still be able to advance, but it was very different than at the end of 1920. Instead of encountering almost no resistance they were having to fight their way forward. Their attacks would continue throughout the spring as the Greeks continued pushing closer and closer to the nationalist capital of Ankara. The problem for the Greeks was that the attacks became more and more costly and advanced shorter and shorter distances. Eventually and attack was launched that was unsuccessful, and was met by a counter attack that forced the Greeks to move back to the West. This was an important moment, because it was the first true success by the Turkish forces against the Greeks. The Greeks would reinforce their troops at the front, and the next attacks would be launched in July. These would be the largest attacks since March and their goal was to surround the Turkish troops to the north. If this could be completed they would be able to regain the numerical advantage that they had previously enjoyed. By this point in the campaign the number of Greek troops, about 125,000 of them were attacking into roughly the same number of Turkish troops, about 122,000. The Greeks did have a serious advantage in terms of artillery and machine guns, and they would use these advantages for some quick successes. Most importantly for the Turkish defenders the Greeks were unsuccessful in their primary goal of surrounding large numbers of Turkish troops, who were able to escape the attempted encirclement with a quick retreat. The retreat was not exactly tidy, and tens of thousands of men would desert during the movement, but the army remained at least somewhat intact. The Greek attack was in some ways a success, it gained more territory and a few important towns, but it was failure in its primary objective of drastically reducing the fighting capabilities of the Turkish troops.

After this attack began to slow and then stop there were serious concerns both in Greece and among British leaders about the position of the Greeks in Anatolia. They had captured a lot of territory so far, nobody could deny that, but now they were advancing deeper and deeper into the Anatolian desert, without a real plan beyond just going further. Up to this point the nationalists had been constantly retreating, and they had always done so mostly successfully. This led the Greeks deeper and deeper into the country, and they were soon finding it very difficult to keep their supply lines together and functional over such large distances. There were also problems with the demography of the areas that the Greeks were now occupying. Early in the campaign the Greeks had been attacking into areas that were populated by large numbers of Greeks, these citizens were often excited by the development happening around them. However, now the Greeks were adding territory that was populated by hostile citizens, who very much did not want the Greeks to be in control. This led to more instances of civilian disorder, and the Greek army could not count on the support of the countryside, increasing the need for security troops. Regardless of the problems, the government in Athens, faced with the questions of what to do was determined to push onward. They knew that they could not stay where they were, with their troops wasting away in the Anatolian desert as the enemy continued to grow stronger. They ruled out retreat, and so the only option was to attack. Their next attack would be a complete disaster and soon the Greek forces would no longer be advancing, or even holding onto their gains, they would be retreating, and the retreat would not end until their reached the Mediterranean.