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Historical Fiction: Eric Sommers Part 7 – 1914-18: The War Years

The last three years in Salonika were exciting from a political, cultural, social, and diplomatic standpoint. I saw the Ottoman Empire lose territory, whereas some of the Balkan States, especially, Greece doubled its area and population. I made friends with some of the prominent families of Salonika.

I left Salonika on November 30, 1913, and took a short break visiting Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London. In London, I had lunch with our Ambassador and caught up with an old friend, Sir Harry Davenport. Harry and I reminisced about our days as serving diplomats in Salonika.  On my return, I stopped off in Rome visited St Peters Basilica, the Coliseum, and other ancient sites appreciating this city's contribution to western civilization. My next stop was a brief stopover in Piraeus before heading off to Smyrna to commence my appointment as US Consul-General on January 1, 1914.

I immediately took a liking to this cosmopolitan city with its rich cultural and social life. It had department stores selling the latest Parisienne women's fashions, fine restaurants where wealthy Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines intermingled with Turkish Pashas, and with its social clubs. Only the rich could afford the annual fees to these social clubs where people in business gathered to socialize and discuss their latest business dealings. Smyrna had many beautiful Christian churches of various denominations, mosques, and synagogues. The market places (bazaars) were a hive of activity with vendors selling fruit, vegetables, clothing, carpets, and rugs. You could hear a babble of foreign languages, which made me feel comfortable as I could speak Greek, Turkish, and French.

When I arrived, the atmosphere was agitated in Smyrna, but the different ethnic groups seemed to have gotten well with each other. Outside Smyrna, in Phocaea, tensions between Greeks and Turks were very high. The influx of Muslim refugees from the Balkan Wars seeking accommodation complicated the situation. Local Turks attacked nearby villages, killing, pillaging, and robbing the Greek inhabitants who some fled to the islands off the Anatolian coast, and others sought refuge in Phocaea. Even in Phocaea, the Greeks suffered at the hands of the Turkish mobs.

Rumors of war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire appeared in the daily Smyrna multilingual press. I sent newspaper cuttings of these reports to our ambassador in Constantinople who then forwarded them to Washington. The Greek Premier, Eleftherios Venizelos, proposed a voluntary exchange of populations with Ottoman Grand Vizier in June 1914 who thought it was an excellent solution. The scheme was to go into effect, but the intervention of hostilities in Europe put an end to that. Turkey remained neutral until the end of October.

Once Turkey officially entered the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the British, Russian, and French Consuls immediately asked for their passports. I became the Dean of the diplomatic corps in Smyrna, representing British, Russian, and French interests and also assisting their nationals to leave Smyrna. I had a hefty workload trying to do my consular duties plus those of other nations whose interests I represented. I intervened on several occasions on behalf of British or French citizens who were mistreated by the Turkish authorities. The Ottoman Governor, Rahmi Bey, was an amiable person who did everything to protect non-Muslim citizens and foreign nationals in Smyrna. He didn't get on too well with his masters in Constantinople. I struck up a good relationship with him, who protected our American interests.

During 1915, I received reports from our Ambassador in Constantinople with the struggle taking place between the Turks and British Empire at Gallipoli. The death toll was staggering with fierce hand-to-hand fighting to occupy a particular strategic point or hill. I learned that the German General Liman Von Sanders, who commanded the Ottoman army, didn't get on with the Turkish commander, Mustapha Kemal Pasha. Despite their differences, they cooperated to defeat their enemy, which they accomplished in the end.

The Anglo-French navy blockaded the entrance to the Gulf of Smyrna, preventing the Ottoman naval fleet from going to the Dardanelles. Occasionally, the Anglo-French shelled Smyrna, but the Turkish guns returned fire from the outer forts to the entrance of Smyrna harbor. Other parts of the Ottoman Empire suffered severe food shortages, but Smyrna, with its rich hinterland, was spared hunger during the entire war.

I had a heated encounter with Liman Von Sanders in the presence of Rahmi Bey at Government House. He tried to justify the deportation of Greeks and Armenians on the grounds they were traitors to the Ottoman State. I found him to be an arrogant, repulsive, and unsympathetic individual who cared very little for ordinary people. I argued that the Greeks and Armenians were critical to the economy of Smyrna and should be allowed to return to their homes. Rahmi Bey agreed with me. Von Sanders was angry with his deportation order rescinded by Rahmi Bey. The German responded arrogantly that "how dare a Turk to cancel an order of a German officer"  and stormed out, shaking his head. I kept my cool throughout our exchange. "Good riddance," I said and never saw him again.

In April 1917, the US declared war against Germany but severed our relations with the Ottoman Empire. We needed to protect our institutions and missionaries operating in Turkey during the war. I hoped Germany would receive a military whipping from us and never forgot my exchange with Von Sanders. I believed that all German officers were like him, but my views changed at the end of hostilities. I met some German POW officers in Salonika who told me that they were disgusted with some of their colleagues who did nothing to stop the massacres of Christians in Turkey. They said to me that such action gave Germany a bad name.

When I arrived in Salonika in late April 1917, Greece had two rival governments: the Venizelists in Salonika and King Constantine's government in Athens. Both sides hated each other passionately. In June 1917, the French deposed Constantine, and Venizelos quickly reunited the country by declaring war against the Central Powers. The Greek army fought magnificently on the Macedonian front achieving a series of stunning victories against the Bulgarians who finally capitulated in September 1918. A month later, the Ottomans surrendered.

The war finally ended and requested a long overdue vacation from the State Department. During the last four years, I couldn't return to the US due to the German submarine activity in the Atlantic. At least, I was alive and safe. In November 1918, I returned to the US and was encouraged seeing the Statue of Liberty once again. I spent the next few months relaxing and catching up with family and friends before my next diplomatic mission.

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