The Balkan Wars
Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos was able to unite the Christian states of the Balkans against the Turkish oppressor when, in 1912, he founded an alliance between Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. In the First Balkan War the Turks found themselves driven back to the walls of Constantinople. The immediate result for Greece was the liberation of Epirus and Macedonia and the large islands of the northern and eastern Aegean. When the Bulgarians, dissatisfied with their spoils, attacked their former allies in the Second Balkan War, further territorial gains were made in Western Thrace. The only event to sober the cheering crowds in Athens was the assassination of King George in Thessaloniki on 18th March 1913. Yet his successor, Constantine, seemed by his very name to some to forecast at last the realisation of the 'Great Idea'.
The 'National Schism'
When the First World War broke out, Greece outwardly seemed united as never before under a popular and successful king and a universally respected Prime minister. Within three years the nation's territory had doubled, its finances (unusually) were on a sound footing, industry was growing and the worst abuses of the past had been checked.
However, the war presented Greece with an unwelcome dilemma. If Greece joined the Allies, it would take on at once not only Germany and Austria-Hungary, but also adjacent Turkey and Bulgaria, each with hearty appetites for Greek territory. The Germans were quick to hint that if Greece stayed neutral and the Central Powers were triumphant, the Greeks might expect to receive parts of Serbia and Albania. King Constantine, trained at the Berlin Kriegsakademie, brother-in-law, friend of the Kaiser and ardent Germanophile, certainly expected the armies of the Central Powers to prevail. Due To Greece's vulnerability To British and French naval action, he preferred a formal neutrality. Moreover, he was prepared to intervene in support of his views. He told a Liberal deputy: '... none of you [politicians] know anything about the military. And for this reason É put myself in charge of all the military matters, and don't give a word to anyone, not even to your Venizelos, and you go and tell him that I said this.'
Venizelos indicated his wish to assist the Allies. He had in Ápril 1914 learned from the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg at their summer house, the Achilleion, on Corfu, that in any war with Turkey, Greece could not count upon any German support. Thus Greece would need to ensure the support of the old guaranteeing powers: Russia, France and Britain. Moreover, he understood that the new brand of Turkish nationalists could not co-exist with large non-Turkish minorities within the country, and that the support of the Allies would be necessary to protect the Christian minorities. In January 1914, the British offered territory To Greece on the coast of Asia Minor in return for Drama and Kavalla if she would join in the Dardenelles campaign. Venizelos supported this if the Greeks could have Smyrna and its hinterland, with a Greek population of 800,000. Metaxas protested and resigned. He felt that holding territory in Asia Minor would prove impracticable, and the danger of attack from Bulgaria was real. The king supported him rather than his prime minister, and dismissed Venizelos
Venizelos won a majority in elections in June, but his opponents kept him out of power until August on the grounds of the king's serious illness. Both sides agreed to mobilisation in September, following the mobilisation of the Bulgarian army; the king saw this as a defensive measure, Venizelos as enabling Greece to fulfil its treaty obligations to assist Serbia if it were attacked by Bulgaria. The terms of this agreement stipulated that Serbia would provide 150,000 troops; which it could not, because of the war. Venizelos suggested that the Western Allies could provide them instead. Instantly, the British and French argued that, as Greece's guarantors, Britain, France and Russia could send troops To Greece if they were all in agreement.
On October 4th, Bulgaria entered the war. Venizelos stated the intention of the government to honour its treaty obligations to go to the aid of Serbia. The king refused to accept this policy, saying: 'É do not wish us to help Serbia, because Germany is going to win and É do not wish to be beaten!' Venizelos resigned. On the same day, allied troops landed in Thessalonika.
The new royalist government refused To allow re-equipped Serbian units to move from Corfu to Thessaloniki. Then on 23rd May 1916, Bulgarian forces appeared outside Fort Rupel, claiming that the Greek government had given its agreement to their occupying advance positions on the border, acquired at the insistence of Venizelos because of its strategic value as the key to eastern Macedonia To any Bulgarian advance, and recently renovated at great expense. The garrison inflicted damage on the attackers. But it was then ordered to evacuate the fort. This justifiably created the impression that the Greek king and government were cooperating actively with the Central Powers.
On 21st June, the Allies demanded the dissolution of the government, the demobilisation of the army, the surrender of half the Greek fleet and much of its artillery. They also imposed a strict blockade on Greece, which made prices skyrocket and increased both opposition To the Allies and the popularity of the king. The king undermined the forced demobilisation by organising a paramilitary 'League of Reservists' of former army men, whose main function seems to have been to intimidate the Venizelists.
In Macedonia, the Bulgarians took immediate advantage of the key strategic positions handed over to them to invade the east of the province. Only after they had committed atrocities against the population did the government in Athens protest. When the whole of eastern Macedonia had been abandoned to the invaders, who deported able-bodied men as slave labour to work in the Bulgarian mines and systematically starved the rest of the population, imposing a reign of terror, the wrath of many in Athens was aroused against the royal policy. A mass meeting of Liberals marched to Venizelos' house, where he addressed them from the balcony. Á deputation then went to the palace, but the king refused to see them. The king did authorise Mr. Zaimis to say that he would open negotiations with the Allies, but when he judged that indignation had died down, he did nothing about it. Even Zaimis resigned after German propaganda flooded the capital. He was succeeded by a prominent Germanophil, Mr. Kalegeropoulos. In the meantime, a revolutionary movement was set up in Thessaloniki. On 22nd September, the Prime minister announced that all those who joined this movement would be court-martialled.
Finally, on 25th September, Venizelos, together with admiral Koundouriotis, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, and a large body of followers, left Phaleron for Crete. From there they sailed To Thessaloniki, where, on 9th October, Venizelos set up a provisional government. Greece was thus divided into two states: one formally neutral, but intriguing with the Central Powers, with its government in Athens; the other openly supporting the Allies, with its government in Thessaloniki.
This 'National Schism' was much more than a rift between those who supported the Central Powers or neutrality and those who supported the Allies. It was a rift between old and new Greece. The king and the established politicians and landowners of the old Greece of the Peloponnese and Sterea Ellada were threatened by the new- comers from Crete, Macedonia, Epirus and the eastern Aegean islands. It was a1so a gulf between conservatives and liberals, the 'haves' and 'have nots'.
In Athens Mr. Kalogeropoulos resigned, and was replaced by Mr. Lambros, a learned palaeographer who really just wanted to become a monk on Mount Athos. Foreign agents from all the Great Powers flooded into Greece, conspiring against each other in an effort To secure the country for their own side in the war. The Allies made a series of demands: that the royalist government surrender the Larissa Railway and certain warships, and disarm land batteries at Piraeus and Salamis. Later it was agreed that some artillery guns and other war materials would be handed over as a guarantee of neutrality, and in return for material surrendered to the enemy at Fort Rupel. Meanwhile, royalist propaganda in Athens concocted and publicised a totally fictitious massacre of royalists in southern Macedonia by Venizelists in order to inflame public opinion against Venizelos.
At daybreak on December 1st three battalions of French troops landed at Piraeus and marched on Athens to take possession of the arms, to be handed over as agreed. But preparations had been made by the government to resist. Greek patrols withdrew in front of the advance. The advancing French were ordered to occupy the Mouseion and Nympheion Hills. When firing broke out, the French were forced to retreat To Phaleron. Firing died down at midday, but began again at 4:30. Admiral Dartige sent a message to the vessels in Phaleron Bay to bombard Stadion Çßll. During a two hour bombardment, the queen and other members of the royal family and place staff hid in the cel1ars. One shell struck the wall outside the king's study. Admiral Dartige ordered them to stop firing at seven He wanted his government's authority to bombard the city, but representatives of foreign powers complained of the danger to their legations.
After an exchange of prisoners, the Allies withdrew during the night. Troops isolated at Zappeion left for Piraeus under escort. Allied control1ers of ports, railway stations, telephone and post offices were withdrawn, as was the Franco-British secret police force. At least fifty-seven Allied soldiers had been killed and one hundred and fifty-four injured, while thirty-five Greeks had been killed, and fifty-six injured.
Burning for revenge, Admiral Dartige sent a telegram to Paris advising that the Greeks deserved a 'severe lesson', and that he was ready to carry it out. He wanted to occupy Piraeus and bombard Athens. In preparation, all Frenchwomen working in Greek homes were ordered to leave within twelve hours, or they would forfeit their passports. On December 8th he proclaimed a blockade of the city. Á few days later, he was formally deprived of his command and prematurely retired.
The blockade continued, however, and the adulteration of flour produced epidemics of dysentery, especially among the children and the old. Bread disappeared, and was replaced by carob beans and herbs. Lack of mothers' milk took too many infant deaths.
This 'victory' over the Allies emboldened the supporters of the king to initiate a violent pogrom against Venizelists throughout Athens. The houses of supporters of the former Prime minister were attacked by armed gangs, and the householders forced to flee to the Allies for protection. Many hundreds were arbitrarily arrested by the League of Reservists. Some were executed in cold blood on the banks of the Ilissos and in the military bases at Goudi and Pedeion tou Areos. The names of thirty-six victims are known, but there were probably many more. In an atavistic ceremony on December 26th the archbishop of Athens formally excommunicated the absent Venizelos, represented by a bull's head. The head was set on a stake at Pedeion tou Areos, cursed, and buried in a cairn of stones. Then the finely dressed ladies from Kolonaki crowded around to 'stone Venizelos.' As a consequence of these events, the Venizelists renounced any allegiance to the dynasty, and Venizelos' government in Thessaloniki was recognised by the Allies. [Read more about the 'stoning of Venizelos' in Athens.]
Allied Hegemony forces the Abdication of King Constantine
On 29th January the royalist Greek army in Athens was compelled to parade in front of the colours of the Allies and salute them in a ceremonial act of humiliation in front of the Zappeion building. The king was represented by his brother, Prince Andrew. Gradually, one by one, the islands began to declare for Venizelos, Á conference of Hellenic communities outside Greece met in Paris on May 1st and repudiated the king. On May 3rd Mr Zaimis formed a new administration which he said was to try to overcome difficulties with the Allies. But the attempted murder of two British officers at Phaleron showed that he was not in control of the situation, although he did dismiss some actively pro-German officers. [Read more about the Allied Occupation of Athens in Athens.]
On 10th June the Entente Powers demanded the abdication of King Constantine. He left the country to his brother, Alexander, without, however, making a formal act of abdication, and slipped out of the country from Oropos, making for Switzerland. Venizelos was installed in Athens as Prime minister. The civil service and the armed forces were purged of royalists, who were replaced with Venizelists. The royalists never forgot that the king had been forced out by a foreign power, and that Venizelos had been returned to power 'with the assistance of Senegalese bayonets.' The 'National Schism' was fatally set in amber.
The Armenian Genocide
Meanwhile, from 1916, the Turks had determined on the extermination of the entire Armenian population by the method of forced deportation, which, was interpreted as 'direction without destination.' Most were killed or died of starvation on the marches across the countryside. In consequence, a flood of Armenian refugees arrived in Greece. An orphanage was set up in the Zappeion building. It was to be a foretaste of what was to come.
Although Greek forces entered the war late, their success in Macedonia against Turkey off from the Central Powers, threatened the security of Austria-Hungary, and was admitted by íon Hindenburg to have been one of the key factors that induced the Germans to sue for an armistice. Greek warships and troops participated in the triumphal entry of Allied forces into Constantinople.
© John L. Tomkinson