The Battle of the Sakarya in 1921 represented Greece’s last bid to defeat the Turkish Nationalist army. In the end, it came down to a fight for one mountain.
In the spring of 1921, the Greek Army of Asia Minor found itself facing a new and troubling situation. Up to that point in their 22-month-long incursion into Turkish Anatolia, the Greek troops had mostly faced irregular forces known as chettes. An assault on the key railroad center of Eskisehir in March, however, had run into unexpectedly strong resistance from well-entrenched Turkish regulars. Then, at the end of the month, Turkish troops led by Mustafa Ismet Pasha fought three Greek divisions to a standstill and forced them back in a nine-day struggle known as the Second Battle of Inönu. British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who accompanied the 7th Division on its retreat, later described the mood of disillusionment that settled in among the Greek troops: “The men were angry—angry at spending so much blood and labor in vain, but even more humiliated at a defeat that broke a long record of victory of which they had been intensely proud.”
The reverse at Eskisehir shocked Greek military and political leaders into a momentous escalation of a war that could be described, in some sense, as an epilogue to World War I. In the wake of the Ottoman empire’s collapse, the Supreme Allied War Council had provided naval support for Greek forces as they landed unopposed at Adrianople (Edirne), Bursa and Smyrna (Izmir) in the late spring of 1919. The Greeks then pressed inland to Usak, and by the summer of 1920 they had occupied all of Thrace. On August 10, Sultan Mehmed VI Vahdettin signed the Treaty of Sèvres, reducing Turkey to a small Allied-occupied region in the middle of Anatolia.
Although the sultan was prepared to accept the reduction of his once sprawling Ottoman empire to impotence, a movement of officers and statesmen was not. On April 23, 1920, these “Young Turks” elected a new parliament in Ankara and mobilized a new army, determined to resist the Greeks—and the rest of the Allies if necessary.
Thus by April 1921, more than two years after the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front, Greek soldiers found themselves bogged down in Asiatic Turkey fighting a new army under a new leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, and a new creed, Turkish nationalism. And the Turks were growing stronger all the time. Realizing they had to move decisively to bring the war to a close, Greek leaders began planning for what has come to be known as the Battle of the Sakarya, a two-month campaign that took their army to within 35 miles of Ankara.
Strategically, the Greeks found their April line in the Anatolian plateau untenable. The Greek forces at Usak had a direct railroad connection back to the port of Smyrna, their main base in Anatolia, but Greek forces at Bursa had to rely on an indirect rail connection from Smyrna to Bandirma on the Sea of Marmara, and then bad roads from Bandirma to Bursa.
The Turkish forces dug in on the plateau, by contrast, enjoyed interior lines of communication based on the rail lines from Eskisehir to Ankara, and from Eskisehir to Konya via Kutahya and Afyon. The Greek generals worried that the Turkish army would be able to utilize those interior lines to strike their exposed salients at will. Capturing Eskisehir was the key to providing the Greeks with a defensible front in western Anatolia.
To make sure this next offensive succeeded, the government of King Constantine called up about 50,000 more reservists, raising the Army of Asia Minor’s strength to 200,000 men, twice that of a year before. Colonel Edward Spencer Hoare Nairne, the British military attaché in Athens, inspected the Greek army in early June and later declared it “the most formidable force the nation had ever put into the field. Its morale was high. Judged by Balkan standards, its staff was capable, its discipline and organization good.”
Nairne noted problems as well, however: political turmoil in some of the commands, poor aerial reconnaissance capabilities and not enough wireless sets to maintain communication between units. By far the biggest problem, officer unrest, had to do with the great schism in Greek politics between Royalists and supporters of former prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos.
Until the November 1920 elections, the Greek army had been dominated by pro- Venizelist officers. Then the new Royalist government in Athens began reinstating officers who had retired when Constantine lost power to Venizelos in 1917. Lieutenant General Anastasios Papoulas, the new commander in chief in Anatolia, had recently been incarcerated in Crete. Some of those Royalists were able, but others proved poor substitutes for the experienced Venizelist commanders they replaced. The government probably made matters worse by keeping many of the Venizelist officers in the army, often in superfluous positions, which had the unfortunate effect of inflaming the seething rivalry between the two camps as they struggled to work together.
On the other hand, the Greeks, with their access to Allied World War I surplus equipment, enjoyed a considerable materiel advantage. By July, for example, they had accumulated more than 1,000 trucks to haul supplies, while the Turks had hardly any motor transport. The Greeks also commanded a preponderance of field guns (410 to 160), machine guns (4,000 to 700) and aircraft (20 to four).
The Turkish Nationalist army had to scrounge whatever equipment remained in the Ottoman arsenals, supplemented by arms and ammunition that began to arrive from the new Bolshevik government in Russia (45,000 rifles, 300 machine guns, nearly 100 field guns—many of the latter captured from the Japanese in Siberia). Kemal could also count on his peasant infantry to fight doggedly, particularly in defense. Turkish advances tended to be ill-coordinated and costly, however, reflecting an inexperienced officer corps. And desertion rates were high—6,000 following the Second Battle of Inönu, for example. The one Turkish advantage was in cavalry, which was to cause constant trouble in Greek rear areas once the campaign shifted to the vast open spaces of the plateau.
On June 11, Constantine embarked for Smyrna to take nominal command of the army, “the first Christian king to set foot on Anatolian soil since the Crusades,” as one English historian noted. It was also symbolic for the Greeks that their king bore the name of the last emperor of Byzantium, last seen fighting on the walls of Constantinople on May 29, 1453. This king, however, was no warrior; he left the plans to his general staff and their implementation to Papoulas.
The plans showed imagination and verve. As in March, the Greek offensive would focus on Eskisehir, the key to the Anatolian railway network. A southern wing based at Usak would attack Afyon, and a northern wing based at Bursa would approach Eskisehir. This time, however, the weight of the concentration would be in the south, with particular focus on Kutahya, about midway between Afyon and Eskisehir. Once Kutahya and Afyon were taken, the Greeks hoped to outflank Eskisehir from the south and cut the railway link to Ankara, trapping the Turkish forces.
In early July about 126,000 Greek troops were assembled in 11 divisions—seven in the south at Usak and four at Bursa. Facing them along the front were 122,000 Turks in 18 divisions. The initial Greek moves were telegraphed in advance to deceive the Turks. On July 8, two divisions of the Greek Northern Force, the 3rd and the 11th, made a display of advancing on the fortified lines outside Eskisehir, while the 10th and 7th (operating as the III Corps) moved surreptitiously on Kutahya by trails passing over and to the west of Uludag, a mountain that dominates the Bursa region.
That same day, the 9th Division of the Southern Force made a noisy move north from Usak in four elongated columns heading for the center of the Turkish positions at Kutahya. The real Greek punch, however, had been secretly assembled at Dumlupinar, about 30 miles up the railway line in the direction of Afyon. On July 10, four divisions of this force, comprising the I and II corps, moved north from Dumlupinar, aiming for the left flank of the Turkish position at Kutahya. Meanwhile the remainder of the Southern Force, the 12th and 4th divisions, began advancing on Afyon.
The extreme right wing of the Greek advance was the first to encounter resistance on July 12, when the 12th Division (commanded by Prince Andrew, the king’s younger brother) brushed aside a small Turkish force west of Afyon, and then began moving north to Kutahya, east of the railway line. The 4th Division entered Afyon and beat back a weak counterattack on July 15, thereby securing the Greek right flank.
The previous day, the Greeks had come up against the Turkish positions at Kutahya. The I and II corps launched their major assault on the enemy left on July 15, with the 5th Division driving deep into the Turkish positions. A fierce Turkish counterattack the following day inflicted 1,000 casualties on the 5th Division, but the Greeks held. That same day, the III Corps coming down from Bursa captured the positions on the Turkish right flank. Now threatened with encirclement, the Turks at Kutahya retired that night toward Eskisehir, which the Greek 10th Division entered on July 17. Casualties on both sides amounted to about 3,000, although the Turks also sustained some heavy desertions during the retreat from Kutahya.
The loss of Kutahya and Afyon came as a shock to the Turkish high command. Ismet (later president and prime minister of Turkey) had concentrated the bulk of his forces at Eskisehir because that had been the focus of the Greek offensive in March. A later investigation by the Grand National Assembly found that only five of the 18 Turkish divisions saw much fighting; the rest spent most of their time in pointless marches. Now Ismet’s entire left flank had been turned, and the Greek II Corps began marching on Seyitgazi, which threatened Eskisehir’s rail link to Ankara.
On the day Kutahya fell, Ismet received a telegram from Mustafa Kemal, who had been monitoring events from Ankara: “If it’s no trouble, I propose to set out immediately to discuss the situation with you.” He arrived at the Eskisehir rail station at 5 a.m. the next day. An officer present at the meeting said Kemal opened the discussion by asking, “Haven’t we lost the battle?” When Ismet replied that it looked that way, Kemal suggested an immediate withdrawal to the Sakarya River west of Ankara, but Ismet proposed a counterattack first, a plan to which Kemal assented. He then returned to Ankara.
The Greek III Corps entered Eskisehir on the night of July 19, to find the Turks had completed their evacuation earlier that evening. The next day the III Corps and its two divisions (the 7th and 10th) pushed on to the hills east of Eskisehir, which they discovered were held by Turkish troops. An attack on those heights was scheduled for July 21, with the 9th Division assigned as a reserve. Meanwhile, the Greek I and II corps were approaching from the south, the II Corps on the right wing near Seyitgazi and the I Corps crossing the Turkmen Dagi range in what was now the center of the Greek position.
Ismet’s own attack of July 21 focused on the Greek left and center, hoping to cut the Greek line of communications with both Bursa and Kutahya. The Greeks were ready, however, and they checked the Turkish advance all along the line, following up with a counterattack that sent their opponents retiring in disorder. Watching from the top of a hill, Prince Andrew described long columns of retreating Turks “raising clouds of dust crossing the plain far to the east of Eskisehir.”
Once again the Turkish desertion rate was high, totaling about 31,000 when combined with the earlier battle at Kutahya. Altogether the Nationalist army had lost some 40,000 men in the two battles, compared with about 8,000 Greeks (1,491 dead, 6,454 wounded and 110 missing). The remaining Turks retired in good order toward Ankara, where the government immediately made provisions to move the capital farther east to Kayseri if that became necessary. Offices and records were sent to Kayseri, in fact, but the Grand National Assembly remained in session in Ankara, where it voted on August 5 to appoint its president, Mustafa Kemal, as commander in chief for three months. Control of the army helped strengthen Kemal’s political position at a point when he was under criticism for abandoning his country’s most fertile territory to the Greeks.
One of Kemal’s first acts as commander in chief was to proclaim to the nation that the enemy would be “throttled in the inner sanctuary of the fatherland.” He followed that with draconian requisitions levied on a Turkish population that had been more or less continuously at war since 1912 (the beginning of the Balkan Wars), commandeering nearly half the available supplies of cloth, leather, flour, soap and candles, along with onefifth of the horses, carts and carriages. Fresh levies mobilized from the provinces soon restored the army’s strength to about 90,000 men, who now faced about 100,000 Greeks in western Anatolia.
The Greek high command had to decide whether to rest on its laurels or press on to Ankara. The victory at Eskisehir had improved the Greeks’ strategic position, though it also saddled them with even longer and more vulnerable supply lines back to Smyrna. Yet advancing on Ankara risked the army’s destruction in the open steppes of Anatolia.
In late July King Constantine, Prime Minister Dimitrios Gounaris, General Papoulas and other key political and military figures met in Kutahya to plot their next move. It is testimony to the strong differences of opinion among those men that the orders emerging on July 28 were ambiguous and indecisive, as if trying to placate all factions. On the one hand the army was instructed to advance to the Sakarya River and, if “it meets the enemy and defeats him,” to continue on to Ankara. On the other hand, if the Turkish forces retreated across the Sakarya, the Greek soldiers were instructed to “advance or halt according to the circumstances at that time.” If those circumstances proved unfavorable, the army was to return to Eskisehir after tearing up about 60 miles of railroad track.
“What a confusion of aims is here,” marveled historian Michael Llewellyn Smith in his summing up of the situation. He went on to query, “Was the advance on Ankara to be the final knock-out blow, or simply a punitive raid?” The answer apparently depended on whether the Nationalist army would allow itself to be destroyed in the open plain, as the Greeks hoped, or entrench behind the Sakarya.
Although Papoulas initially opposed the campaign, he ultimately went along with advocates such as Colonel S. Sariyannis, the army’s deputy chief of staff, General Xenophon Stratigos, deputy chief of the general staff, and Prime Minister Gounaris because of the political cover afforded by the July 28 orders. As Smith pointed out in his analysis, “Papoulas allowed himself to be persuaded into launching an attack in which he only half believed, and whose object was imprecisely formulated, in the conviction that if the army ran into difficulties it could simply retire with no harm done.”
The distance to Ankara from Eskisehir is some 120 miles by the most direct rail route. The sparsely populated landscape in between is dominated by mountains to the north and desert-like landscape to the south. Since an advance north of the railroad line would be slowed down by the mountainous terrain, the Greeks decided to march through the arid region to the south, which was flat enough to permit the use of motor transport. But 45 miles west of Ankara lies the Sakarya River, behind whose steep banks the Nationalist army, under Kemal’s personal direction, was digging in.
The natural barrier afforded by the Sakarya, however, ends about 25 miles south of the rail line, where the river veers off to the west. From that point south there is only open ground. So the Nationalists placed their left flank on the Ilicaozu River, which flows into the Sakarya at a right angle from the east, and then the Katrandji River, which connects with the Ilicaozu, also from the east. The Turkish line, then, resembled a right angle, with the right flank along the Sakarya and the refused left flank along the Ilicaozu and Katrandji. Kemal later commented that the pressure of the Greek attack on these two sides eventually forced his own front line back to the hypotenuse, producing (for him) a more compact front.
The Greeks would experience the opposite effect. Since the Ilicaozu and Katrandji were much shallower than the Sakarya, they became the target of the advance. But that meant sending the Greek right wing on a wide swing away from its supply depots through very difficult country, part of which included the fringe of the great Anatolian Salt Desert.
The Greek advance began on August 14 in three columns, each comprising three divisions. Already the logistical calculus was working against the Greeks. Although they had commenced the campaign in July with 11 divisions, two now had to be left behind to guard the supply lines—the 4th Division near Afyon and the 11th Division east of Bursa.
In the north, the III Corps proceeded along the course of the Porsuk River and Eskisehir rail line, which paralleled each other for 75 miles until the Porsuk joined with the Sakarya 45 miles west of Ankara. This force constituted the Greek left wing, whose job was to cover Sivrihisar (a key town on the road to Eskisehir) before later shifting two of its three divisions south to support the right wing, which comprised the I and II corps.
Prince Andrew, now commanding the II Corps on the far right wing, had the hardest time of it, as his men had to march through part of the Anatolian Salt Desert under a scorching summer sun. He described “a waterless desert country, where all the villages were seven or eight hours apart, and their inhabitants had not even enough to feed themselves.”
By August 23, after nine days of hard marching, the Greek right wing with seven divisions (the I and II corps, and most of the III Corps) was in position south of the Ilicaozu. Only the 7th Division of the III Corps remained in the bend of the Sakarya facing the Turkish right flank. Papoulas’ original plan was to use that division to pin down the Turks on the Sakarya line while his main force outflanked the Turkish left. But he was relying on faulty intelligence that placed the bulk of the Nationalist army farther north around the railroad depot at Polatli. In fact, Kemal had expected the main Greek effort to come from the south and had the bulk of his forces along the Ilicaozu.
The battle took place on the Haymana Plateau, a rolling plain some 3,000 feet above sea level that is dominated by several mountains (dags), the most prominent being Mangal, Yildiz, Ardiz and Cal. The Greeks achieved an important success on the first day when the I Corps captured Mangal Dag south of the Ilicaozu against light opposition. A furious Kemal threatened his commanders with court-martial if they failed to hold fast to their new positions behind the Ilicaozu. Indeed, what had been a campaign of movement now devolved into a grinding slugfest, as the Turks fought back from every hill and ridgeline.
Papoulas’ plan of outflanking the Turkish left proved beyond the capabilities of Andrew’s II Corps, which got held up in a mountainous area known as the Kale Grotto. His strategy then shifted to an attack up the middle, led by the I and III corps. Andrew observed that the entire Greek advance soon became fragmented in the mountainous, broken terrain, with units often unable to support each other. He noted, “The battle had been transformed into local engagements, each corps fighting on its own account, and it often happened that one corps found itself involved in a fierce struggle while its neighbor was idle.”
In hindsight, Papoulas probably stripped too many troops from his left wing, which could have achieved more than it did. Since the Turks had likewise shifted so many men to the south, the Greek 7th Division managed to cross the Sakarya with surprising ease to press on the main Turkish supply depot at Polatli. The 7th eventually reunited with the III Corps, which captured Yildiz Dag north of the Ilicaozu on August 30.
The I Corps in the center captured Ardiz Dag on that same day and pressed on to Cal Dag, an alarming development for the Turks. Cal Dag rose 1,000 feet from the plain and commanded the battlefield, but was hard to defend because of the lack of covering vegetation (Cal means “bare, stony” in Turkish.) On August 26, Ismet actually proposed a retreat to a new line, but Mustafa Fevzi, the chief of the general staff, decided to hold the Cal Dag position and brought in reinforcements from the northern flank. Kemal continued to demand that every piece of ground be defended; he nonetheless ordered work to begin on a new defensive line on the outskirts of Ankara, whose citizens could hear the distant artillery.
The climax came on September 2, when the 2nd Division of the Greek I Corps took the eastern slope of Cal Dag; the 10th Division of the III Corps took the western side the next day. Turkish journalist Halide Edip recalled that when Kemal learned of it, “He fumed, swore, walked up and down, talked loudly…and tormented himself with indecision as to whether he should order the retreat or not.”
This is the “what if?” moment of the campaign. What if Kemal had lost heart, or if Papoulas had been able to throw a fresh division into the battle? Only 35 miles separated Cal Dag from the outskirts of Ankara. But Papoulas could not exploit the victory. The 10th Division tried to advance past Cal Dag, but was pushed back on September 7. Heavy losses, lack of supplies and general exhaustion had all taken their toll on the Greeks while Turkish cavalry was wreaking havoc in their rear areas, nearly capturing Papoulas himself on August 26.
Panteles Priniotakis, a lieutenant in the 3rd Division, recalled how food supplies started running low by mid-August because all the trucks were being used to transport ammunition and wounded. His regiment, the 6th Infantry, was ordered to repair a half-ruined watermill to make flour out of whatever grain could be confiscated in the vicinity. “I will never forget,” Priniotakis wrote, “how the supply officer…found three sacks of cement, which he mistook for flour, and transported them to regimental headquarters, where his gaffe was discovered.”
“Hunger is constant,” wrote Nikos Vasilikos, an officer of the 7th Division on September 3. “My strength has been sapped by the day’s heat, the night’s unbearable cold, pitiless thirst, and annoying lice that greedily suck the little blood I have left….The more the days go by with more death and distress, the quicker our hopes evaporate for a quick entry into Ankara.”
Papoulas sought guidance from his government on whether to continue. An aborted attempt to shorten the front by shifting the II Corps to the left flank spread confusion in the Greek ranks, where it was perceived as a withdrawal; Prince Andrew’s political enemies later used this incident to blame him for the defeat. As the Greeks hesitated, the Turks counterattacked and recaptured Cal Dag on September 8. They also began exerting pressure on the III Corps, which was protecting the thinly held Greek left flank. On September 9, the Greek general staff announced it had decided, for the time being, “to suspend the effort of the Greek armies.” That same day, Kemal confidently moved his headquarters from Alagöz to Polatli, closer to the front, signaling his own growing confidence.
Papoulas finally threw in the towel on September 11, ordering all three army corps back across the Sakarya. King Constantine’s official proclamation assured the army that “the work you have done so far is sufficient for our purposes.” But there was no disguising the fact that Greece had just lost its best chance to win the war. Ismet later appraised Papoulas as a competent commander but overly prone to discouragement when things didn’t go as planned. “Papoulas avoided disaster,” he said, adding, “But he never won a battle.”
The withdrawal could have been a disaster. Prince Andrew was horrified to find retreating Greek troops tangled up with their transport columns at the river crossings and some units wandering about forlornly on the other side. If the Turks had brought up machine guns to their side of the river, he wrote, “the destruction would have been utter and complete.”
The only thing that saved the Greeks was the nearly equal exhaustion on the Turkish side. By the time the Turkish pursuit began on September 13, there were no more Greeks east of the Sakarya. Harried only by cavalry, the Army of Asia Minor straggled back into its defensive line east of Eskisehir on the 22nd.
In strictly military terms, the Battle of the Sakarya could be described as a draw. By the standards of major European wars, casualties were low and relatively equal: 3,700 dead and 18,000 wounded for the Turks, compared with 4,000 and 19,000 Greeks, although the Greeks also left behind nearly 15,000 prisoners and deserters, compared with only 1,000 for the Turks. The Greeks’ retreat left them in a stronger strategic position, since they still controlled the Eskisehir–Afyon rail line.
Yet like the Germans at Kursk in 1943, the Greeks had lost the strategic initiative, never to regain it. The slopes of Cal Dag turned out to be the high-water mark of their Anatolian adventure. Although the war was to continue for another 12 months, the Greek army would never mount another major offensive.
The Turkish Nationalists, however, were revitalized. In the aftermath of the battle, Mustafa Kemal was able to declare a general mobilization, a step he had never felt politically strong enough to take before. The Grand National Assembly also promoted him to marshal and gave him the honorary title of gazi, which signified a heroic Islamic warrior. He would ultimately use that military and political capital to modernize his country under the adopted sobriquet of Ataturk (father of the Turks).
On the Greek side, Papoulas hung on as commander in chief until May 1922, when he resigned and was replaced by General Georgios Hatzianestis, on whose hapless head the deluge would fall. The deluge ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, with Greece forced to accept the Martiza River as the western boundary of a new Turkish Republic.
First-time contributor Kenneth Cline writes from Atlanta, Ga. For further reading, he recommends: Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922, by Michael Llewellyn Smith; and Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, by Andrew Mango.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.