Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922)

Greek infantry charge near the River Gediz

Mustafa Kemal’s visit to Çay. From left to right: chief of staff of the Western Front Miralay Asim Bey (Gündüz), commander of the Western Front Mirliva Ismet Pasha (İnönü), unknown, military attaché of the Soviet Russia K.K. Zvonarev, ambassador of Soviet Russia S.I. Aralov, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, ambassador of Azerbaijan SSR Ibrahim Abilov, commander of First Army Mirliva Ali Ihsan Pasha (Sâbis), in the morning of 31 March 1922.

The Greco-Turkish War was a conflict fought in Anatolia between the Kingdom of Greece and the new Turkish Republic in the wake of World War I. The war represented both the final stage of disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the culmination of the Greek “Megali [Great] Idea” of uniting all Greeks in the eastern Mediterranean under a single Greek state. Early Greek successes seemed to offer the prospect of a pan-Hellenic Greek state on both sides of the Aegean, but the Turkish revolutionaries’ military successes of 1921-1922 turned victory into catastrophe, resulting in the collapse of Greek irredentist dreams, large refugee flows, and the destruction of both the Greek communities in Anatolia and Turkish communities in Greece. For the Turkish national movement, on the other hand, the war represented a crucial phase of their war of independence. The negotiations that ended the war also mandated state-organized population exchanges which profoundly changed the cultural and ethnic composition of the region.

Greek politics had been incredibly divided about entering World War I, and Greece only officially joined the Entente near the war’s conclusion. It had been party to discussions among the Allies about the division of the post-war Ottoman Empire, as the Entente powers sought to balance their various and competing claims to Ottoman territory. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, the Megali Idea’s best-known advocate and the primary architect of Greece’s joining the Entente, pushed very hard at the Paris Peace Conference for a Greek military occupation of western Anatolia, particularly of the city of Smyrna. The British soon came to view this as a preferable outcome to the region falling under Italian control, as Lloyd George and other British officials feared that the Italians, who had originally been promised Smyrna, were more likely to reach an agreement with the Turks. The British and French both hoped to contain or defeat the Turkish nationalists, and they hoped to impose some version of the zonal agreements reached between themselves, Italy, and Greece. Britain in particular hoped to impose a harsh settlement on the Ottomans and prevent the victory of the nationalists without directly committing its own forces (Bloxham 2005: 154-155). The Entente’s “Anglo-Greek policy” aimed to use the Greeks as a proxy army to enforce their will in Anatolia. Entente interest in maintaining a presence in Asia Minor therefore dovetailed with irredentist Greek demands to “liberate” the areas of Anatolia with large Greek minorities, and a Greek expeditionary force landed at Smyrna on May 15, 1919.

Commanded by High Commissioner Aristidis Stergiadis, the Greek force quickly secured Smyrna and the surrounding areas. While the Greek population, a substantial minority (and by Greek reckonings a majority) in Smyrna welcomed the expeditionary force as liberators, much of the Muslim population reacted with fear and revulsion. The deaths of almost 400 Turkish citizens of Smyrna in the initial landings did not bode well for the campaign to come. Indeed, the Greek landings served as one of the primary catalysts of the emerging Turkish nationalist movement under Mustafa Kemal, and many Turks believed that the Greeks intended to exterminate or drive them out of western Anatolia altogether. Nonetheless, the Turkish response was initially weak (with other Allied armies simultaneously occupying Constantinople and other areas of Anatolia), and Greek forces soon pushed outwards from Smyrna in an offensive that had seized Ushak, Panderma, Bursa, and Adrianople by the end of July 1919. Irregular warfare between Turks and the Greek army and between Turks and Anatolian Greeks continued throughout 1919 and 1920, the harshness of Greek occupation doing much to bolster the nationalists’ cause. At the Conference of London of February-March 1921 – an Allied attempt to mediate the conflict in Anatolia – neither the Greeks nor the Turks were willing to compromise, as the former had committed too much to the cause already, and the latter saw the conflict with the Greeks as a struggle for their very existence.

Over a year after the initial Greek landings, the weak government of Sultan Mehmed VI felt compelled on August 10, 1920, to sign the Treaty of Sevres with the Entente. The dreams of Venizelos and other proponents of the Megali Idea seemed to be on the verge of being realized. The supporters of Venizelos “talked excitedly of his having created a Greece of the two continents and of the five seas,” the two continents being Europe and Asia and the five seas being the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Ionian, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea (Clogg 2002: 95). The aspiration to create Greater Greece, which had led to a military disaster in the previous Greco-Turkish War of 1897, seemed as if it were about to be fulfilled. Two months later, however, King Alexander died, and the election that followed in November turned into an ugly battle between Venizelos’s supporters and those royalists who supported the return of exiled King Constantine (who had been expelled during the National Schism of 1914- 1917). To the astonishment of Venizelos as well as many foreign observers, “Greater Greece’s” main architect was soundly defeated, unable to hold even his own seat in parliament. This result was a clear a sign of the hostility of much of the Greek population toward continued warfare after nearly eight years of constant mobilization. The Anti-Venizelists now formed a majority government, but despite their earlier criticism of the war effort in Asia Minor, it soon became clear that they had no intention of withdrawing from Anatolia. Indeed, they felt strong enough to launch a renewed offensive in January 1921, and both the scale and the violence of the Greco-Turkish War would escalate dramatically in 1921 and 1922.

Greek forces pushed toward Eskisehir, but Turkish nationalist revolutionaries halted their advance at the First Battle of Inönü (January 9-11, 1921). The Turkish army’s defense of Inönü was one of the nationalists’ first military victories, and it did much to bolster the revolutionaries’ legitimacy and in part led to negotiations with the Soviets, resulting in the Treaty of Moscow on March 16, 1921. This agreement secured Turkey’s eastern frontier and allowed the nationalists to concentrate their forces on the invading Greeks. Turkish forces halted the Greeks again at the Second Battle of Inönü (March 26-31, 1921). The Greeks launched yet another offensive that summer, this time seizing Eskisehir on July 17 and reaching the Sakarya River. This push put the Greeks within 80 km of the nationalists’ headquarters at Ankara, but they were unable to advance any further. Both Kemal’s effective leadership and the extreme difficulties of supplying an army spread over such a broad front deep in the interior of Anatolia meant a victory for the Turks at the Battle of the Sakarya River (August 23-September 13, 1921). After holding the line at the Sakarya River through September, the Greeks felt compelled to withdraw to a defensive line just east of Eskisehir and Afyonkarahisar before the onset of winter.

Kemal’s armies consolidated their control over much of Anatolia throughout 1922. Kemal had already secured a French withdrawal from Cilicia on October 20, 1921, and Italy had also renounced its territorial ambitions. Even the British became ever more lukewarm toward continued commitment to the Greek occupation, and by the end of 1921 they were sending neither arms nor financial support to their erstwhile Greek allies. The growing strength of the Turkish nationalists combined with the crumbling commitment of the Great Powers left the Greeks in a highly vulnerable position. By August 26, Kemal felt strong enough to launch a major offensive against the Greek lines, quickly seizing Afyonkarahisar and Bursa. The nationalist army then drove the Greeks back along the rail line to Smyrna. At this point, the Greek army engaged in a scorched-earth policy as it retreated, destroying entire villages and engaging in frequent massacres. Their retreat soon turned into a desperate drive to escape encirclement and annihilation. The advancing Turkish nationalists likewise killed large numbers of Anatolian Christians, creating a massive refugee flow toward Smyrna. Greek forces began their evacuation on September 8, and the Turks finally launched their attack on Smyrna on September 9, 1922. During and after the assault, the Turks killed large numbers of Armenian and Greek civilians, seen as a fifth column that had brought the Greeks into Anatolia. Clogg (2002: 97) states that about 30,000 Greek and Armenian Christians were massacred as the Turkish army and Turkish civilians rampaged through the city. While there is a debate as to who set the fires, the Greek sector of Smyrna was burned to the ground, and Greek soldiers and Anatolian Christian civilians massed on the coast in an attempt to escape the burning wreckage of the city. The frantic evacuation from Smyrna, henceforth known as Izmir, and the events that followed effectively ended both the pan-Hellenic Megali Idea and the more than two-millennia presence of Greek peoples in Asia Minor.

The military debacle in Anatolia was followed by treaty negotiations at Lausanne, Switzerland. There the Allies abandoned the zonal divisions of Asia Minor envisioned by the now defunct Treaty of Sevres. The Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923) recognized Turkey’s current borders (indeed, as Bloxham (2005: 166) points out, it is the only post-war settlement to have survived to the present day) and sought to settle the “demographic” issues that resulted from the Turkish victory. The chaotic and murderous grassroots ethnic cleansing of 1921 and 1922 was to be replaced by a state-sponsored exchange of populations. By Naimark’s (2001: 54) estimate, the treaty aimed to relocate about 350,000 “Turks” and between 1.2 and 1.5 million “Greeks,” both groups defined by their religion rather than their linguistic or cultural identity, in an attempt to create ethnically homogeneous nation-states. As Hirschon (2003: 9) points out, this compulsory population exchange marked a watershed in the history of the eastern Mediterranean. It caused great suffering to those dislocated, but it did seem to create the conditions for more stable relations between Greece and Turkey in the interwar period. The war was nothing short of a catastrophe for the Greeks, and their defeat poisoned post-war politics for decades. For the creators of the new Turkish Republic, on the other hand, the war served as the foundational struggle of their War of Independence. The Treaty of Lausanne may have helped secure better relations between Greece and Turkey, but as Mazower (1999: 41-75) argues, it also served as an ominous precedent for subsequent regimes that sought to solve “ethnic problems” through forced population transfers.

References Bloxham, D. (2005) The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Clogg, R. (2002) A Concise History of Modern Greece, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hirschon, R. (Ed.) (2003) Crossing the Aegean: An Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. New York: Berghan Books. Mazower, M. (1999) Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Knopf. Naimark, N. M. (2001) Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further Reading Clark, B. (2009) Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Fortna, B. C., Katsikas, S., Kamouzis, D., and Konortas, P. (Eds.) (2012) State-Nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey: Orthodox and Muslims, 1830-1945. New York: Routledge. Gingeras, R. (2009) Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire 1912- 1923. New York: Oxford University Press. Mazower, M. (2002) The Balkans: A Short History. New York: Modern Library. Milton, G. (2008) Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World. New York: Basic Books. Panayi, P. and Virdee, P. (Eds.) (2011) Refugees and the End of Empire: Imperial Collapse and Forced Migration in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Smith, M. L. (1998) Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press