220: Turkish War of Independence Pt. 3


The Greeks would first land in Anatolia in Smyrna, and when they returned it would cause a disaster.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 220. Patreon supporter Kevin. Last episode we discussed the formation of the government in Ankara under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal and the advance of the Greek forces into central Anatolia. This episode we will continue that story by discussing the events that would occur after the Greeks had reached their furthest advance. Almost as soon as they stopped advancing the Greek position would just completely fall apart. The collapse of the Greek army would not end until they had reached the coast, and they would soon be evacuating all of their forces from the ports on the Aegean Sea. One of the most important of these ports was Smyrna, where the Greek advance had began. When the Turkish troops arrived at the city the Greek forces were still evacuating and there were thousands of refugees in the city also trying to find space aboard a ship, most of them would not be successful. This situation already had all of the marks of a disaster even before the fire started. The fire would spread throughout the city, burning for 11 days, killing thousands and causing thousands more to flee to the edge of the city, against the water, to try and escape.

The Greek defeat would begin hundreds of kilometers from the city, and it would start with another Greek attack in the middle of August. The Greeks would attack for five days, they hoped to achieve some level of surprise and completely failed. They were betrayed not by a person, but by the dust that the army kicked up as it moved through the Anatolian desert. Instead of unprepared Turkish defenders the Greek attack was met by defenders who were organized and prepared. After the attack failed the troops held onto the ground that they had gained for a few weeks, which in and of itself was madness. Some of the troops had moved across completely inhospitable geographic features like the Anatolian salt desert during their advance, and this made the supply situation basically impossible. While efforts were being made to keep supplies moving forward to the front lines, the supply services were fighting a losing battle. With supplies running low, a Turkish counter attack on September 11th started a cascading failure of the Greek defenses. The retreat would begin the next day, and the greek defeats would continue for weeks. For example on August 26th, in a single offensive, five Greek divisions were effectively destroyed and 50,000 Greek soldiers were taken prisoner. Both the Greek commanders and the Turkish leaders were shocked at the scale of the Greek defeat, and how far the retreat continued. The only thing that prevented a larger Greek disaster was the fact that the Turkish troops were not motorized, and they did not have enough cavalry to put in place a proper pursuit. Even if they could keep ahead of their Turkish pursuers the Greek retreat would continue all the way to the coast. In London and Paris Greek representatives would try to negotiate some way out of the growing disaster, but with their strength growing the Turkish leaders were in no mood to negotiate any settlement other than the complete expulsion of the Greeks from Anatolia. Even with their position falling apart the Greek leaders were unwilling to consider such a negotiating position, and so with peace seemingly out of reach, the retreat continued until it reached Smyrna. The order before the August 26th attack was simple, “Soldiers, your goal is the Mediterranean”, and they would achieve it.

The Greek disaster would good for Mustafa Kemal, however some changes were made in Ankara before the Greek retreat in August that made it even better for the Turkish leader. During the period of Greek advances the calls for Mustafa Kemal to personally take command of the nationalist forces continued to grow. On August 5th this change finally happened, and two weeks later he would take active command of the troops. In his book Ataturk: Rebirth of a Nation historian Andrew Mango describes what happened next “As soon as he was appointed commander-in-chief, Mustafa Kemal issued a proclamation to the nation. The enemy, he declared, would be ‘throttled in the inner sanctuary (harim-i ismet) of the fatherland’. He followed it up with ten orders requisitioning supplies from the civil population: every household was to provide one set of underclothes and boots for the army; 40 per cent of all stocks of cloth, leather, flour, soap and candles were to be delivered immediately; all owners of transport were to move army supplies over 100 kilometres a month free of charge; all weapons had to be surrendered to the army.” Taking command at this moment was absolutely perfect timing for Kemal. He avoided any possible blame for the previous Turkish defeats, and he inherited a Turkish army that while bruised as not beaten, and an enemy that was greatly overextended. This would allow Mustafa Kemal to take all of the credit for the coming Turkish victories. Those victories would allow for the liberation of Anatolia from the Greek invaders, a victory achieved with Mustafa Kemal in command. This victory would lead the Turkish forces all the way to Smyrna.

Before the First World War Smyrna had been a very diverse city. It was a city that was dominated by its Greek citizens, but there were several different ethnicities represented within the city, including large Armenian and Jewish populations. There were occasionally problems among the citizens of the city, but the power of the local governor was generally accepted and he was able to keep things under control. The city was within the Ottoman Empire, and did not really have any notable resistance or independence movements, it was just one of many cities inside the Ottoman Empire with large groups of non-Turkish citizens. After the end of the war both the Italians and the Greeks believed that they would receive Smyrna in the peace agreement. However, in the weeks following the signing of the armistice neither the Greek or Italian forces were the first to arrive in the city and it would instead be British troops that would arrive on November 6th. There was general excitement among the population of the city upon their arrival, with the non-Turkish citizens welcoming the arrival of Allied forces.

While the Greeks would eventually be the drivers of many of the events in Anatolia, it would be the Italians and not the Greeks would be first prompt action from the Allies. The Italians would land in Western Anatolia, which they believed belonged to them based on the treaty they had signed with the Entente in 1915 which promised them parts of Western Anatolia. With the Western Allies no longer wanting to honor that treaty, the Italians took the matter into their own hands and landed troops, which caused quite a stir in Paris at the Peace Conference. The topic would be discussed on the Supreme Council on May 5th. Lloyd George, Wilson, and Clemenceau were concerned that the Italians were about to take over Anatolia, and so they turned to the Greeks. Venizelos was asked if he had troops available to land at Smyrna to counteract Italian aggression, Venizelos answered that his army was ready to land at the earliest possible opportunity. In his recollection of the events British Chief of the Imperial Staff Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson would write “I asked Lloyd George if he realized this was starting another war.” As we have already seen this is exactly what the Greek landings at Smyrna would do. Back in Smyrna the Turkish governor, Izzet Bey, was informed by the British leaders in the city that the Greeks would be landing. He would tell those same British leaders that he was very concerned about what the Greeks would do in the city. These concerns were not without merit, and due to concerns about Greek actions and the responses from Turkish citizens, British soldiers were spread throughout the city to guard important buildings. There would never be enough British troops to control any violence in the city should it begin.

On the night before the Greeks were scheduled to arrive, May 14th, there were demonstrations around the city. These demonstrations were organized to protest against the arrival of the Greek forces, or the Greek invasion as the protesters would call it. Some reports put the number of participants as high as 50,000. There were also reports of a Turkish military depot in the city handing out arms and ammunition to the protestors. On the next morning 13,000 Greek soldiers would arrive on three different landing sites around the city. The plan was for one group to circle around the southern edge of the city, another to move around the northeastern side, and then for the third to cut directly through the middle. This third groups would be moving directly between the Greek and Turkish districts in the city in the hopes of maintaining peace. The first ships arrived at 7:30 in the morning and they were met not with violence but with excitement. The Greek citizens of the city came out in force and Greek flags could be seen flying all along the water’s edge. After the initial reception on the docks the Greek troops began moving. At this point the third Greek regiment made a critical mistake. Their initial purpose had been to march down the street that separated the Greek and Turkish areas of the city. This was purposefully chosen as the route to prevent any unnecessary antagonism with the Turkish people and soldiers within the city. However, instead of choosing this route the Greek troops moved south, which took them directly the Turkish parts of the city, and more importantly directly past the Turkish barracks. It was quite literally the worst possible direction that the troops could have marched. As they passed the barracks a shot rang out. Nobody really knew who fired the shot, each side generally blames the other, it could have been a Greek or Turkish soldier, a Greek or Turkish citizen, or a person belonging to some other group, some accounts blame it on the Italians. While the source of the shot was and is unknown, the results were almost inevitable. The Greeks troops instantly stopped and started firing on the barracks, and then the Turkish troops fired back, and then the fighting spread to the surrounding buildings. Eventually the barracks would surrender, but the Greek troops could not be brought back under control. Joined by Greek civilians they proceeded to move through the Turkish quarter, looting and killing as they went. The violence slowed in the afternoon when it started to rain, but then it began again in the evening. In total upwards of 400 Turkish soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded, and about 100 Greeks were also added to the casualty lists. Peace would eventually be restored, but the damage had already been done and relations between the Turkish and Greek citizens would never really recover.

After the initial violence settled down in the city things were relatively calm for the next three years as the Greeks first occupied the city, and then advanced their armies inland. The city itself was generally disconnected from the fighting at the front, although news did arrive. After the Greek defeats in August 1922, rumors began to arrive in the city of the Greek defeats in the interior. At first these rumors were not generally believed, but then in the first days of September troops began to arrive, and then after the troops thousands, thens of thousands, of refugees began to arrive in the city. Many of these refugees hoped that Allied ships, which were in the harbor, would help them leave the city. However, the American and British ships were under strict orders not to get involved. There were some Greek transports present, but they gave priority to the Greek soldiers who were also arriving in growing numbers. This left little space aboard the transports for refugees, and so all they could do was wait. Over 250 American and British troops were landed to guard American and British property in the city, but they refused to provide any protection for private property. On September 9th, just a day after the Greek military had completed its evacuation, the first Turkish troops arrived outside the city, their arrival took a volatile situation and made it worse. As Turkish cavalry began moving into the city violence erupted ini the Armenian areas of the city. The Armenians were not on good terms with the Turkish forces, and the violence in that area of the city quickly escalated. The Armenian citizens could not really hinder the Turkish takeover of the city, and by the end of September 10th Turkish forces were completely in control of most of the city. On September 11th the violence spread beyond the Armenian areas, and into other parts of the city. At the American consulate the largest concern was not the Turkish violence but instead the thousands of Greek and Armenian civilians that were crowding around the outside of the building hoping that the presence of the American troops would offer some protection. It was in this confused atmosphere of sporadic street violence and frightened refugees that the fire began.

Much like the stories of who fired the first shot at the Turkish barracks, the information about who started the fire is confused. Turkish authorities at the time, and Turkish historians since 1922 have claimed that it was started by either the Greeks or Armenians. However, there are eyewitness accounts, including from those who should be at least somewhat impartial, that claim that Turkish soldiers started the fires under orders from their commanding officers. Regardless of who started the fire, by 2PM on September 13th most of the Armenian quarter was in flames. With a complete breakdown of civil services within the city, once the first started there was nothing that could be done to slow it. Onboard the foreign ships in the harbor, seeing that the fire was spreading through the city, the decision was finally made to begin the evacuation of refugees. While the evacuation began the fire continued to rate within the city. A day later 20,000 people had been loaded on ships that were present, and those ships began to leave to try and find a place to offload them. However, even this large number was just a small percentage of those that had been forced into the areas around the dock. They were forced into these areas due to the fire that was raging, and they had nowhere else to go. For the next several days the ships continued making trips, they would go to Smyrna, load as many people as possible, and then sail away to drop them off at various islands or on the Greek mainland. No matter how many they evacuated, there seemed to be an endless supply of those that remained. By the 18th there were an estimated 300,000 people still remaining. These people had little food or water, no sanitation facilities, and very little shelter. With the ships focusing on the living, and those that were living struggling to stay alive, there was very little thoughts to the dead whose bodies lay on the streets and the beach for days on end, a sanitation nightmare. On the 19th the Greek government was able to arrange for some civilian ships to help evacuate more of the refugees but by the end of September there were still 50,000 people remaining, they had been supplied with food, water, and shelter at least. The total number of people killed in the violence, the fire, and the resulting wait to evacuate is difficult to calculate, and estimates vary wildly. The number was proably somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 killed, and then another 150,000 forcefully deported into the interior of Anatolia by Turkish officials.

The last Greek troops left Anatolia on September 19th, and with their evacuation the Greco-Turkish War had been won by the Turkish forces. Mustafa Kemal’s forces advanced first West and then north, towards Istanbul. In London there were discussions about continuing the fighting without the Greeks. Lloyd George supported further military action in the country, and he wanted troops from the Empire and from France and Italy to join him in the fight. However, there was a very lukewarm response form the dominions, with Canada flat out refusing, other members of Lloyd George’s government did not want further war, the British people were staunchly against further fighting, Britain’s allies in Europe refused to support the conflict, and the British military leaders in the theater were against further adventures. Eventually the agreement of, well pretty much everyone, against further military action caused Lloyd George to back down and on October 11th the armistice of Mudanay would be signed that would end the fighting in Anatolia. The two sides were able to strike a deal whereby Mustafa Kemal’s forces would not move into Constantinople, Gallipoli, or Ismit until an official peace conference had been convened. In return the Greeks evacuated some areas of eastern Thrace, and handed them over to his control. With the war over for the moment, the failure of British Policy, and Lloyd George’s attempts to lead the country into another war caused his political downfall, and he would be removed from his position as Prime Minister October 19th.

The victories of the Turkish nationalist forces cemented Mustafa Kemal’s position in Anatolia. With the Greek forces defeated, and the resolve of the Western Powers to continue the fight wilting almost by the day, Kemal would return to Ankara after a month at the front to give a victory speech. Even at this point, which was really a new zenith for Mustafa Kemal’s power within Turkey, and also for respect for the National Assembly from external powers, he made it clear that he was not planning on moving beyond the boundaries set down in the Armistice of Mudros. He would say ‘We must know our limitations, and expend our lives only in the cause of our independence.’ This functioned as a direct and public repudiation of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism, or the idea what one state should control all of both groups, which were concepts that many members of the national assembly were pushing for. When his speech was over, two bills were put before the assembly, the first of which promoted him to the rank of Musir, or Marshall, and the second awarded him the title of Gazi. This was an important period during which Mustafa Kemal sought to solidify his power within the National Assembly while others would try to limit that power.

While these internal political maneuverings were still ongoing, there were also ongoing negotiations with the Western Powers. These negotiations would continue until July 1923, at which point the Treaty of Lausanne would be signed. This treaty would mostly be in line with the goals that Mustafa Kemal had originally stated as the goals for the nationalist movement many years ago. Essentially all of the Turkish speaking territories of modern day Turkey were given over to his leadership. The new country was also given control of Istanbul and the straits, with the only caveat being the creation of an international agreement that set some rules around trying to maintain free use of the straits. While the treaty addressed many of the disagreements between the two parties one question that it left open was the status of Mosul and its surroundings in modern day Iraq. At the time it was occupied by British forces, the Turkish leader wanted it, both knew that oil was present and so the value of the area had significantly increased. Due to the inability of the two sides to come to an agreement, this topic was left open with the promise of further negotiations. After the signing of the treaty, the final evacuation of foreign troops began, and a few months later they were completed. With this, yet another victory although a political one, Mustafa Kemal’s prestige continued to rise. At this point he would begin his platform of changes for the country, as well as make moves to assure that he stayed in power in the future. He would remain as leader of the country, later under the title of Ataturk, until 1938 when he died.