With the Ottoman Empire in ruins, Greek and Turkish nationalists wage an epic fight for Asia Minor.
Greek culture once dominated the Middle East. As early as the ninth century BC, Greeks established settlements and trading posts along the shores of the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Alexander the Great’s campaigns of conquest in the fourth century BC expanded Greek power to the gates of India. The Hellenistic kingdoms he left behind eventually decayed, but far-flung Greek settlements continued to thrive as imperial powers came and went. Ten in ad 324, Constantine the Great, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, designated the grand city of Constantinople as his new capital; it soon equaled and eclipsed Rome as the center of the Western world. With the rise of the Byzantine Empire, Greek culture and influence revived and achieved new heights of splendor.
Byzantium carried the banner of Roman civilization for more than a thousand years. With the passing centuries, however, the empire came under increasing pressure, as Islam swept out of Arabia and conquered vast domains. Early in the second millennium the Seljuk Turks—converts to Islam—entered Asia Minor from the east and battled the armies of Christian Byzantium. By 1299 the Ottoman Turks had established dominance in the region, and they slowly battered the Byzantines out of Asia Minor, Greece, and the Balkans. Constantinople fell to their armies in 1453.
The centuries of Ottoman dominion that followed changed the political landscape in the Middle East but left many ethnographic, cultural, and religious patterns intact. As the Ottoman Empire began to decline in the 19th century, Greeks throughout the region became increasingly assertive. After years of bloody revolt, southern Greece, with the help of Western powers, won independence in 1832. Western businesses began penetrating the Ottoman territories, and fresh waves of job-seeking Greeks moved into and expanded such ancient settlements as Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Nationalist visionaries dreamed of “redeeming” the Greek diaspora and establishing a new Byzantium with Constantinople as its capital.
The Greece that slowly emerged from Ottoman control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under a royal house imported from Denmark was impoverished and wracked by political conflict. Although Greek nationalists envisioned a glorious future, they could not simply wish away their country’s backward economy and archaic army. In 1897 a brief Greco-Turkish war ended in glorious victory—for the Turks.
Prospects were looking better by 1914. A coup d’état several years before had led to Elefherios Venizelos assuming the mantle of prime minister of Greece. A vigorous statesman, Venizelos inaugurated sweeping military, political, and economic reforms. Victorious campaigns in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 followed, almost doubling Greece’s territory and population at Ottoman and Bulgarian expense. Greek nationalist confidence revived along with irredentist dreams of expansion into western Asia Minor, where almost a million Greeks lived in Smyrna and nearby settlements.
The First World War offered an opportunity to bring Greek dreams to fruition. As the Anglo-French campaign for Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula got under way early in 1915, British diplomats sought to entice Venizelos into entering the war by offering him a slice of western Asia Minor. Ever the opportunist, Venizelos agreed, but King Constantine and others in the Greek government expected eventual German victory over the Allies and didn’t want to provoke the Ottomans into attacking the Greeks in Asia Minor. Already in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, the Turks had driven many thousands of Greeks into exile, and their atrocities against the Armenians were well known.
After months of political turmoil, Venizelos emerged triumphant from his struggle with the crown. On June 29, 1917, Greece oficially joined the war on the Allied side. The decision looked prescient as the Ottoman Empire sank to defeat, ultimately signing an armistice with the Allies in October 1918. With their ancient enemies facing ruin, Greek nationalists demanded territorial compensation for choosing the winning side. Anything seemed possible, including the restoration of Constantinople.
As the First World War ended, the victorious “Big Four”— the leaders of France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States—discovered they had no defined policy for the fate of the former Ottoman territories. Covert promises made during wartime could not easily be fulfilled in a world where U.S. president Woodrow Wilson railed against secret treaties and promoted self-determination of peoples. While Western leaders bickered over what to do with Asia Minor—outgoing British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour derided them as “all-powerful, all-ignorant men sitting there and carving continents”—the generals began to move forward on their own initiative. French troops drove north from Syria into Cilicia. Italian forces landed in Antalya in southern Asia Minor and threatened to push inland. British troops garrisoned posts throughout Asia Minor, while British ships hovered off Constantinople. Greek forces assembled at Aegean ports, eager to seize Smyrna, a stronghold of Greek culture and influence.
British prime minister David Lloyd George, who was fiercely pro-Greek, gave the green light for the occupation of Smyrna by employing a bit of chicanery. Tired of the diplomatic stalemate, he trumpeted misleading reports that the Turks had taken the first steps toward expelling Christians from Smyrna, thereby prodding the reluctant but deeply religious Wilson into acquiescing to a Greek military expedition on humanitarian grounds. Troops of Greece’s 1st Infantry Division, accompanied by token French and Italian contingents, began landing in Smyrna on May 15, 1919.
The landing began as a celebration. Greek townspeople crowded to the docks to welcome their compatriots, singing and dancing with joy. The sizable Turkish population was less welcoming, and a few men who had served with Ottoman forces offered scattered resistance. Greek soldiers and civilians dealt with such opposition mercilessly, often killing prisoners out of hand. Over the next few days looting of Turkish properties and villages became commonplace.
Four days after the Greek landing, a blue-eyed, fair-haired Ottoman army officer celebrated an unhappy birthday as he journeyed toward Turkey’s eastern provinces, where he had been assigned as a provincial administrator by the figurehead sultan in Constantinople. Born in 1881 in Salonika—now a part of Greece—Mustafa Kemal had served with distinction as a divisional commander during the Gallipoli campaign. Later in the war he had commanded armies fighting the Russians in the Caucasus and the Western allies in Palestine. These experiences, along with a wartime visit to Germany, strengthened his abilities as a leader and taught him the virtues of careful organization. Fired by a passionate nationalism, Kemal put his strengths to good use in eastern Turkey. Ignoring the sultan, he called on remnants of the Ottoman armies and bands of Turkish guerrillas to join him in clearing Asia Minor of foreign invaders.
Fortunately for Kemal, intact Ottoman military formations still lay to hand, along with large stockpiles of arms and ammunition (despite armistice terms that had called for their destruction). Kemal was thus able to assemble considerable, well-equipped military formations with relative ease. For all his abilities, however, Kemal would not have stood a chance against a determined and united opposition from the British, French, Italians, and Greeks. It was their hesitancy and competing claims—both Italians and Greeks claimed Smyrna, for example—that gave him time to build his armies and establish his leadership at the head of the Turkish nationalist movement.
Among the “allies,” if they could be called that, only the Greeks showed any fixity of purpose. French troops fought the Turks for control of Cilicia in southern Asia Minor but became increasingly jittery as Kemal’s military power grew. The Italians brazenly sold guns to Kemal, asking only that he leave them alone and go fight the Greeks. Lloyd George promised Greece large territorial concessions in Asia Minor, but British land and naval forces avoided conflict with the Turks. For the Greeks, there was no turning back. Venizelos had staked his political reputation and several divisions of Greek troops on the Asia Minor adventure. In the process he had infuriated the Turks. Venizelos nevertheless remained confident. He was certain that Greece could impose its will on Turkey militarily—despite a report from the former Allied commander in chief, Ferdinand Foch, warning it would require at least 27 years of warfare to control Asia Minor.
In the winter of 1920 Kemal defeated French forces in Cilicia. Reports simultaneously arrived of renewed Turkish massacres of Armenian Christians. Alarmed, Lloyd George and French prime minister Alexandre Millerand ordered the occupation of Constantinople by British and French troops on March 16. The two leaders also released the Greek dogs of war, giving Venizelos permission to advance on a broad front not just in Asia Minor but in Eastern Thrace, between Greece and Constantinople. Greek divisions began pushing deep into Asia Minor on June 22, 1920. One month later, supported by shore bombardments from British dreadnoughts in the Sea of Marmara, they attacked Turkish garrisons near Constantinople and marched into Eastern Trace. The Greeks captured Adrianople on July 26, driving Turkish forces out of Trace and across the frontier into Bulgaria, where they were interned.
Lloyd George looked on gleefully as Turkey’s nationalist forces fed east into central Asia Minor. “They are beaten and are feeing with their forces towards Mecca,” he crowed to his cabinet. Not Mecca but Ankara, his foreign secretary Lord Curzon waspishly pointed out. Tis gave the prime minister just a moment’s pause. “Lord Curzon is good enough to admonish me on a triviality,” he conceded and continued his joyful tirade. By the time Greek forces paused to reorganize in August, they held most of northwestern Turkey, with the exception of Constantinople and its immediate environs.
At this low point in Turkish fortunes, the Allies forced the sultan to sign the humiliating Treaty of Sèvres. In a few pen strokes, the document abolished the Ottoman Empire, effectively gave western Asia Minor and Eastern Trace to Greece, awarded France and Italy large “zones of influence” in Asia Minor, established independent Armenian and autonomous Kurdish states, and internationalized the Bosporus. Under these terms, next to nothing remained of the Turkish state.
Kemal refused to recognize the treaty. He doggedly continued to organize and equip his new Turkish army, replacing inefficient field commanders with picked men of proven quality. Seeking to secure his position in the east, he came to terms with the Russian Bolsheviks over crushing and eliminating the nascent Armenian state and brought the rebellious Kurds to heel. Despite these worrying signs of Kemal’s ruthless energy, Greek commanders continued to dismiss the Turkish will to resist. Driving farther into Asia Minor, they sought to force engagements that would eliminate Kemal’s nationalists once and for all. Venizelos even spoke of establishing a new state around the ancient Greek settlement of Pontus in northeastern Turkey to “form a solid barrier against Islamism and eventually against Russian imperialism.”
The British, French, and Italians did not raise a finger to assist their nominal ally Greece, supposedly fighting in their common interests. France and Italy instead began secret negotiations with Kemal, seeking to withdraw all their troops from Turkey in return for economic concessions. Responding to growing war weariness among their voters, Western governments eventually disavowed association with the Greeks altogether, hypocritically cutting of their erstwhile allies from military aid even as Kemal successfully shopped in European arms markets.
The political situation in Greece changed too. Late in 1920 Greek monarchists booted Venizelos out of power and took control of the state. The king hand-picked General Anastasios Papoulas, a vocal royalist who had spent much of World War I in prison for opposing Venizelos, as commander of the Greek forces. Vigorous and courageous though he was, Papoulas was a straight-ahead fighter who lacked creativity. His troops, now nearly 200,000 strong but generally dispersed in scattered detachments to hold down the restive countryside, resumed the offensive in the winter of 1921. They encountered their first reverses with two minor defeats near the village of Inönü in northwestern Turkey but continued to push forward, hustling the Turks out of what remained of their holdings in western Asia Minor.
For Kemal, the moment of crisis had come. Patriotism dictated that he continue to fight the Greeks at all points, to the last ditch. Prudence dictated otherwise. His frontline soldiers were exhausted and demoralized. Farther east, however, vast reserves were assembling, well equipped with new shipments of German and Austrian artillery and even French aircraft. Instead of risking destruction, Kemal decided to withdraw toward the desolate regions west of Ankara in central Asia Minor and dare the Greeks to follow. If they did, he could face them on defensive ground of his choosing, while they would be operating in the desert during high summer and at the limits of their already overstretched supply lines.
The Turks withdrew—and as Kemal anticipated, General Papoulas drove his troops forward in headlong pursuit. The showdown began on August 23 along the banks of the Sakarya River, 50 miles west of Ankara, where Turkish forces had dug in on rugged high ground along a front some 60 miles long. The Greek columns approaching the Sakarya included more than 80,000 troops, outnumbering the Turks by two or three to one. But over the course of the battle, reinforcements brought Kemal’s forces close to parity with their adversaries. Wilting in the brutal summer heat, the Greeks relied entirely on water and food brought forward by truck. The Turks were by contrast well supplied, well rested, and effectively dug in.
For all their exhaustion, the Greeks did not shrink from the fight. Attacking frontally, they fought trench by trench, hill by hill toward the central high ground occupied by Kemal’s forces. Days of bitter hand-to-hand combat followed as the Turks contested every inch. On September 2 the Greeks finally stormed and captured the heights of Chal Dag, square in the Turkish second line of defense. The game seemed up, but the Greeks had passed their limits of endurance and could not move a step farther. Essential supplies, including food and water, were almost gone. They had also used up all their reserves, while Kemal’s army grew with every hour. When the Turks launched a counterattack on September 8, the Greeks had no choice but to withdraw. That they did so in good order was practically miraculous under the conditions.
The Battle of the Sakarya River (Sagarios to the Greeks) was a turning point. The Greeks, who had suffered 20,000 casualties and squandered their offensive strength, abandoned all their gains of the summer. Demoralized Greek politicians began labeling the campaign a “nightmare,” while war-weary Greek soldiers chanted, “Let us go home and to hell with Asia Minor,” as they marched down dusty roads and beat of Turkish partisan attacks.
Kemal, meanwhile, was widely hailed as the savior of Turkey. Fickle Europeans who had entertained romantic visions of Greek expansion a year or two before now adored him as the hero of the hour. Giving up on their imperial dreams and leaving the hapless Greeks holding the bag, French and Italian forces evacuated Asia Minor, obligingly leaving behind mountains of munitions for the Turks. The British adopted the role of impartial observers of the events that followed.
In August 1922 Kemal launched his rapidly growing army on a final offensive aimed at driving the Greeks from the region. In just two years he had brought Turkey out of ruin, creating a modern army and a ruthlessly efficient political apparatus. The Greeks had by contrast undergone a catastrophic collapse of morale. Papoulas had resigned the previous May, and his successor, Georgios Hatzianestis—a swaggering martinet who privately labored under paranoid delusions that his legs were made of glass and could shatter at any moment—was even more inept. The troops themselves were poorly led and supplied. Attempting to defend an overstretched and militarily indefensible front in western Asia Minor, they were also outnumbered and—as it turned out—completely outfought. Within days the Greek retreat from Kemal’s forces degenerated into a rout. Eight divisions essentially ceased to exist. Greek troops fed Smyrna on September 9, many of them evacuating by sea. Kemal entered the city in triumph the next day. Rightly banking on the unwillingness of the Western allies to enforce peace, he continued his offensive by breaching a French-Italian “neutral zone” to move into Eastern Trace and drive out the shattered remnants of the Greek army.
As Turkish forces entered Smyrna, they vented their hatred first against the significant Armenian population in the city and then against the Greeks. Turkish soldiers and civilians massacred thousands of Christians, while a mob seized the Greek archbishop and tortured him to death. British troops, ostensibly sent to Smyrna to enforce order, stood by as the entire Christian quarter of Smyrna was burned to the ground. As atrocities intensified in Asia Minor and Trace, a vast exodus of Greeks, Armenians, and other Christian peoples took place. Those who failed to escape were massacred, deported, or sent to labor camps; many never returned. By some estimates, more than 1.5 million people ultimately left or were expelled from Turkey, mostly to Greece, during this immense human tragedy. It was ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.
In Turkey, Kemal reigned triumphant. Completely overturning the terms of Sèvres, he established Turkish control over Constantinople, which the Western powers evacuated. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 confirmed the existing borders of Turkey and Greece and established the foundations for a stable, secular, and now more ethnically “pure” Turkish state. The few remaining Greek Christians in Turkish territory were transferred to Greece, and some 500,000 Muslims living in Greek territory were forcibly repatriated to Turkey.
The Greco-Turkish War of 1919–22 is notable less for its military strategy and tactics than for its political and moral implications. From 1918 to 1920 western European and Greek imperial overreach set the stage for tragedy by dismembering Turkey without regard to the Turks. Disunity, timidity, and even treachery on the part of the British, French, and Italians left the Greeks to face the awakening Turkish giant alone. Ethnic hatreds exacerbated by greed and political ineptitude in turn led to one of the greatest human catastrophes of the 20th century as communities that had endured for centuries disappeared forever. If there is a positive example to find in these tragic events, it is in the political and military genius of Mustafa Kemal—hailed by future generations as Atatürk. His abilities and the blunders of others contrived in a few years to overturn almost two millennia of history and transform the Middle East.
Edward G. Lengel, an expert on George Washington, also writes about other historical topics. He is now completing a World War I prequel volume on American military engagements in 1918.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.