Clockwise: The camp of Georgios Karaiskakis at Kastella, burning of a Turkish frigate by a Greek fire ship, Battle of Navarino, Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt at the Third Siege of Missolonghi

Greece, along with the rest of the Balkans of southeast Europe, had fallen under Ottoman occupation when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. The Turkish empire also made a series of offensives deeper into central Europe and twice besieged Vienna. It was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the European states could begin to push the Turks back, and it was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that the Ottomans were driven out of the Balkans.

Europeans came to regard the occupation of Greece with hostility for a number of reasons. During the eighteenth century, Greece and Macedonia were increasingly seen as the cradle of Western civilization, and some were bitter that such an important region languished under Muslim rulers. The Turks had, for example, built a small mosque within the ruins of the Parthenon, both the symbol of Athens’ former glory, and, following its conversion to a church in the fifth century, a popular Christian site. After an accident involving gunpowder stored there during a Venetian bombardment, the Turks were also blamed for causing additional damage to the building. The Ottomans controlled many sites of religious significance in the Near East, including Jerusalem and Constantinople, however, the occupation of Constantinople was most significant for the Greeks. Not only had the city been the centre of the Byzantine empire (and therefore the last link with the Roman civilization held in such great esteem by the Europeans) but it was also the seat of the Christian Orthodox Church, and so particularly venerated by the Greeks. It was the clergy of Greece who preserved a sense of national identity, and furthermore their leadership of the Orthodox Church also provided an important conduit through which ideas could pass to the other Balkan peoples who belonged to the Orthodox denomination. A sense of separate identity was also fostered by the mistreatment of Greeks by Turkish governors. Although Greeks were able to develop their commerce and join the ranks of the administration, they were generally treated as second-class citizens or rayas. During periods of unrest Turkish irregulars earned a reputation for hideous reprisals, and all attempts at keeping order were immediately regarded with loathing by the Greek population. In 1770 Count Alexei Orlov mounted a Russian military expedition to liberate Greece, but its failure led to widespread repression, often by Albanian auxiliaries.

By the nineteenth century, Western European ideas of insurrection and liberty, kindled by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, had spread across the continent. As Western Europeans rediscovered the classical Greek works, Greek scholars read of the inspiring virtues of constitutional governance – although intellectuals ran considerable risks if they attempted to disseminate these concepts. Rigas Feraios and his colleagues were executed in 1798 for advocating an independent Balkan Republic. Unwittingly the Turks themselves also contributed to the growth of Greek resistance by employing Christian auxiliaries (Armatoloi). These bands of fighters were recruited to combat the bandits (or klephts), of mainland Greece, though the relationship between the Armatoloi and the bandits was ambiguous. It was not unknown for local deals to be struck between them, not least because many impoverished rural communities relied on klepht raiders, or admired their long-standing defiance of the Turkish authorities. At times the Armatoloi were known to change sides in order to make greater financial gains, or to justify their continuing pay from the Turks. Armatoloi officers were also appointed to administer their own areas of operations, and by the time of the outbreak of the War for Independence they could, unaided by the Turkish rulers, provide trained military forces in Rumeli, Thessaly, southern Macedonia and Epirus. A more clandestine supporter of the independence struggle was the Philikí Etaireía (Friendly Society), a secret organization dedicated to liberation established in Russian Odessa in 1814. The society was founded by wealthy benefactors in Europe and America, and originally aimed to restore the Byzantine empire by seizing Constantinople, though the core of its supporters were Greeks with more modest aims.

The opportunity for revolt came in 1821, when the Turkish army was preoccupied with a war against Persia and the rebellion of a Turkish governor in Epirus. Under the guidance of Alexander Ypsilantis (a Greek officer in Russian service and leader of the Philikí Etaireía) uprisings were staged in Peloponnese districts, in the Danubian principalities and in Constantinople itself. Ypsilantis aimed to support the revolts by marching into the Danube Valley and calling upon the people of the Balkans to rise up and join him. Unfortunately Ypsilantis clashed with the Wallachian and Romanian leaders of the rising, and suffered the ignominy of being officially excommunicated by a cautious and conservative Orthodox clergy. The Russian foreign ministry, which disapproved of revolutionary movements across Europe, quickly disowned their officer too. Ypsilantis was soon isolated without his Romanian allies, and the Ottoman army moved to intercept him, finally crushing his battalion, ‘The Sacred Band’, at the Battle of Dragashani on 19 June 1821. Ypsilantis was forced to flee to Austria where he was imprisoned, and the Moldovan rebels who had supported the Balkan uprising were suppressed after a year of fighting.

In the Peloponnese, Ypsilantis’ advance into the Danubian principalities was eagerly awaited, but there were significant divisions between those in favour of revolt and the more conservative senior clergy. Isolated attacks on Muslims in March 1821 indicated the general mood, even though the risks of a failed rebellion, namely harsh repression by the Turkish authorities, were understood by all. In Kalamata in Messenia, a force of 2,000 Maniot rebels gathered to strike against the Turkish garrison and the town was taken after four days of fighting. Settlements in Achaea were then taken over by the Greek rebels, and when the Turks launched a counter-attack from Patras on the northern coast of the Peloponnese they were driven back into their fortress. These early successes encouraged resistance elsewhere, and, by the end of the month, all the rural districts of the peninsula were in the hands of the revolutionaries. The Turks were nevertheless able to hold on to their fortresses in many of the ports, therefore retaining the opportunity to bring in reinforcements to take back the Peloponnese. The Greeks possessed no artillery to reduce the fortress walls and had to be content to lay siege, but this squandered the initiative. The provincial capital of Tripolitsa was the only landlocked garrison held by the Turks, and all their attempts to break the besieging ring there ended in failure. The Greeks contained them, and on 23 September the city fell to the rebels.

In Macedonia, Emmanouel Pappas, another member of the Philikí Etaireía, brought arms and ammunition secured from Constantinople to Mount Athos, where he planned to establish a base that could spread insurrection in support of Ypsilantis’ expedition. The initial attempt by his forces to seize Turkish merchants’ goods in Serres merely initiated reprisals by the Ottoman authorities. Some 400 civilians were taken hostage, including 100 monks from Macedonian monasteries, and the Turkish governor, Yusuf Bey, planned to capture more from Polygyros to ensure quiescence. When the villages of Polygyros and Chalkidiki rose in revolt, however, Yusuf Bey ordered the execution of his prisoners. This action so enraged the local population that more joined the revolt and attempts were made to sever communications between the Turkish forces at Thrace in the east, and those further south at Thessalonika. The Turks recovered and defeated the rebels at Rentina and then again more decisively at Kassandra. Pappas was forced to abandon his base area, and after further operations the Turks secured the surrender of the remaining rebel forces. Despite this, in central and western Macedonia the rebellion continued to flourish, not least because the Armatoloi joined the revolt and provided the military experience the rebels so desperately needed. General Mehmed Emin decided to march against this new threat with 10,000 regular Turkish troops and another 10,000 irregulars. Emin took Naousa in April 1822 after defeating determined resistance and punished the town’s inhabitants brutally.

Revolts in central Greece spread from the southern provinces and several towns were captured. In April, the Greeks broke into Athens and drove the Turkish garrison onto the plateau of the Acropolis. By May, central Greece was in tumult and everywhere the Turks appeared to be losing control of the situation. Commander Omer Vrioni and his Turkish force managed to inflict two defeats on the rebels at Alamana and Eleftherohori, but he was checked at the Battle of Gravia (8 May 1821). Having marched to relieve the garrison at Athens, he evacuated Attica in September, leaving the region in Greek hands.

espite the creation of a national assembly, there was little coordination of the Greek forces. Having ejected the Ottomans, there seemed to be no overall strategy for the consolidation of their gains, and it was fortunate for them that the Turks were unable to bring sufficient strength to bear and destroy the rebellion. Crucially, Turkish logistical chains were vulnerable to attack by rebels, limiting the size of the forces that they could deploy, and the two main counter-offensives launched by the Turks were defeated at Dervenakia and Karpenisi. The rebellion thus continued to spread. Cypriot volunteers sailed to join the fighting on the Greek mainland and there was similar enthusiasm amongst the Cretans. The Turkish authorities believed the Orthodox clergy were the ringleaders, and executed those they suspected of supporting the revolt, though this only served to galvanize further resistance.

An unusual feature of the conflict was the Greeks use of a rebel fleet, which, despite the large size of the Turkish navy, enjoyed some successes. The aim was to disrupt the Ottoman supply and reinforcement routes from Asia Minor so as to cut off the Turkish garrisons entirely and make counter-offensives impossible. Each of the Greek islands possessed some light vessels upon which could be mounted small calibre guns, but there was no centralized command structure, and the Greeks had to rely on raiding techniques to escape the full might of the Ottoman battle fleets. The Turks could deploy more than 75 warships, all of which outgunned the Greek flotillas. To combat this overwhelming firepower, the Greeks employed fire ships, with the first successful attack being made at Eresos on 27 May 1821. This was followed by 59 further assaults, of which 39 succeeded. Greek captains showed remarkable courage in confronting the Turkish navy, and scored local successes off Patras and Spetses in the first months of the war.

But soon this courage would be tested further. The Sultan of Turkey had appealed to the Egyptians for military assistance in Crete, offering in return possession of the island in the future. On 28 May 1822, a fleet of 30 warships and 80 transports arrived with a 12,000-strong Egyptian expeditionary force, which soon swept through the Cretan hills, torching villages that showed any signs of resistance. When the Cretans tried to concentrate their forces, mustering 3,000 at Amourgelles on 23 August 1823, they were crippled by Egyptian artillery and overwhelmed by greater numbers. So far the Greeks had shown unity in the face of Ottoman opposition, however the rivalries of the various districts, factions and elites soon spilled over into conflict and in April and May 1824 a veritable civil war broke out. Even though funds were offered by the British to sustain the War for Independence, the arrival of the money seemed to deepen the rivalries and suspicions of the various factions.

In 1825, though the resistance in Crete appeared to have been crushed, a force of 300 returned from the mainland to start a guerrilla war. This succeeded in taking Gramvousa but was then contained. A similar attempt to restart resistance was made by Epirote Dalianis with 700 followers in 1828, but again, the Ottomans and their allies overwhelmed the smaller rebel band at Frangokastello and the entire Cretan resistance garrison was wiped out. The Egyptian intervention had provided the Ottomans with an opportunity to crush the Greeks elsewhere, and the divisions among the revolutionaries only seemed to increase the Turks’ chances of success.

The Egyptians, led by Ibrahim Pasha, landed at Methoni on 24 February 1825 and soon mustered an army of 11,000 men. They quickly retook the island of Sphacteria, off Messenia, causing panic among the revolutionaries on the mainland. Next the Egyptians marched through the western Peloponnese, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. By June, the Greeks had been defeated at Maniaki and Argos. At Messolonghi, where the British poet Byron died supporting the cause of independence, the Turkish army was able to mount its third siege attempt, which began in April 1825. The same month also saw the town of Navarino captured by an Egyptian force. The Greeks had not yet given up, however. A Greek flotilla managed to attack the Turks in the Gulf of Corinth and temporarily drove them off with fire ships. Fresh attempts were also made to relieve Messolonghi, and on 22 April the Greeks tried to cut a path through the Egypto-Turkish lines in order to carry away some 6,000 civilians by ship. Unbeknown to the rebels, a Bulgarian deserter had betrayed the mission and the Egyptians were waiting when the sortie materialized. Although almost 2,000 rebels managed to fight their way through, about 4,000 civilians were captured and enslaved. An attempt was made by the remaining garrison to blow themselves up with a gunpowder arsenal rather than be taken captive in this way.

Further south, Mani also held out despite Ottoman threats that a failure to capitulate would result in the town being stormed and all its inhabitants put to death. Not only did the Maniots remain defiant, they repulsed a major attack in June 1826 and then managed to check subsequent offensives. A relief force from the central Peloponnese also provided some support for a time, however elsewhere, the overwhelming strength of Turkish and Egyptian forces was too great. Greek civilians were unable to prevent reprisals or offer much resistance. The revolt was in danger of complete collapse.

Foreign intervention appeared to be the only way to save the cause of Greek independence, but little seemed forthcoming. The Holy Alliance partners of Austria, Russia and Prussia continued to view the revolt with displeasure, and could not be seen to be encouraging this type of resistance lest it flourish against their own regimes at home. The Tsar himself did feel compelled to support the Orthodox Church, and he regarded the Turks as his enemies, not least because they controlled the Straits of Constantinople (the Bosphorus) – the strategic waterway to all the warm-water ports of the Black Sea. The British, by contrast, were unwilling to see the Turkish empire collapse, but, at the same time, they applauded the efforts of the Greeks to break free of Ottoman tyranny. By 1826, it was clear to the British that a negotiated settlement might avoid reprisals and disruption in the region and preserve peace between the European states. A delegation was sent to Russia to arrange a compromise and start mediation between the Greeks and the Turks under a joint Anglo-Russian supervision. Although the Greeks were willing to negotiate, the Turks and Egyptians believed themselves on the verge of victory and the Ottomans, therefore, stepped up their efforts to conclude the conflict by force.

When, in July 1827, news arrived that a fresh Egyptian naval expedition had left Alexandria for Navarino, British and French fleets were despatched to intercept it, and they were soon joined by the Russians. After a stand-off in which the Egyptians argued they were obeying their orders to crush the revolt, there appeared to be a compromise whereby the Western powers would prevent Greek raids if the Egyptians stopped their own offensive. Following a Greek surprise assault, however, the Egyptians moved out of Navarino to counter-attack, and the British felt compelled to act to prevent it. After skirmishes, a full-scale naval battle broke out, which resulted in the decimation of the Egyptian fleet. Only 14 of the original 89 ships survived the battle. The engagement prompted the Russians to declare war on Turkey, and France offered to send an army to clear the Peloponnese of Egyptian and Ottoman forces. The shift of power was not lost on the Greek rebels, who regrouped and marched on Athens. In Attica, the Greeks, fighting as a regular army for the first time, defeated a Turkish army at the Battle of Petra, marking the end of military operations in the region. The Turks conceded defeat and Greece was recognized as independent in 1830.

The Greek War for Independence had been a bitter struggle, scarred by massacres on both sides and protracted in its nature. Given the small size of the Greek forces and the sheer military power at the disposal of the Ottomans and the Egyptians, the success of the revolt is remarkable. Of course, one should acknowledge the importance of the terrain, which favoured guerrilla actions, and the significance of the intervention by foreign forces, but the Greeks had shown great resourcefulness and endurance. They had created a navy and an army from scratch, with limited funds or munitions, and sustained resistance for almost a decade. On several occasions their defeat seemed imminent, especially as they descended into faction-fighting in 1824, but their eventual victory acted as an inspiration to the peoples of the Balkans and was celebrated across Western Europe. It was essentially the first great rent in the rotting fabric of the Ottoman empire, and it was achieved against considerable odds.