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Historical Observations: General Trikoupis as a POW in Asia Minor

November 28, 2021

This article is based on old Greek newspapers published in Athens in 1923. At the death knell of the Greco-Turkish War, the Kemalists scored a major coup in capturing three Greek generals as prisoners of war. They were interned in a military camp at Kirshehir in central Turkey for five months before their repatriation as part of the prisoners of war and interned civilians exchange to Greece.

On August 23, 1923, the Hesperia arrived at the St. George Island quarantine station from Smyrna with 225 prisoners of war and three generals – Nikolaos Trikoupis (Commander of 1st Corps), Kimon Digenis (Commander of 2nd Corps), and Dimitrios Dimaras (Commander of 4th Division). After undergoing health checks, they were then transferred to Piraeus, where they were greeted by relatives. General Trikoupis outlined his views to journalists that they had underestimated the strength of the enemy throughout the entire conflict, and the Greek people had shown an indifference to the fortunes of the soldiers fighting in Asia Minor. He asserted that the bad political and military decisions impacted greatly on the national psyche and also losing so many fine soldiers.

Trikoupis was asked about his impressions of Turkey. His response highlighted the pitiful conditions of the Turks who faced hunger and poverty. The Turkish attitude changed towards the Greeks when its army landed in Smyrna in May 1919. The Greeks could no longer live in Asia Minor. Before he departed from Asia Minor, Turks expressed to him their desire for the establishment of good relations between Greece and Turkey. Trikoupis mentioned that the recent treatment of prisoners had improved, whereas unlucky ones had been tortured and starved in the past. Many officers perished as well. Trikoupis mentioned there was a time when Mustapha Kemal was unpopular, but his victory over the Greeks made him extremely popular with his people. Mustapha Kemal executed his soldiers and civilians who opposed his rule. Sometimes such executions, whilst unpopular, were justified for the greater good of the nation.

Trikoupis was asked how he was treated by the Turks and his impressions of Mustapha Kemal. Originally, he was taken to Kirshehr, where his movements were greatly restricted, but things improved for him when transferred to a country house in Talas. He went for a walk in the afternoons and was allowed to go to Church. Ismet Pasha and Mustapha Kemal met Trikoupis, both of whom expressed their admiration for the heroism of the Greek army at the battle of Avgkin in March 1921. Trikoupis recounted Mustapha Kemal telling him that he never expected such a major victory. Finally, Trikoupis claimed he learned of his appointment as Commander-in-Chief after his capture from the Turks. Mustapha Kemal is described as a cold, calculating, strong individual with penetrating blue eyes.

Trikoupis arrived at his residence where many of his officer friends visited him, including General Vlachopoulos. Journalists waiting outside his residence asked him what caused the Greek debacle in Asia Minor. Trikoupis told them that he couldn’t divulge such details at present. He had prepared a detailed report of the war that would be submitted to the government. The only thing he was prepared to tell them that the Turkish attack was fierce and the enemy greatly outnumbered the Greeks at Afyon Karahissar. The Turkish attack came as a great surprise with the situation rapidly changing from moment to moment and therefore headquarters’ orders, transmitted by telegraph from Smyrna were useless by the time they reached the front.

Trikoupis declared that on August 16, 1922, he found himself completely isolated and that is was impossible to communicate with Smyrna until August 20, when he was captured by the Kemalists.

In another interview with a repatriated officer, Ioannis Papaioannou recounted his final experience before leaving Turkey. He left Talas on August 13 for Philadelphia and was then taken by train to Smyrna. The Turks were bad and cool towards him. Since the signing of peace, the situation improved, with Greeks receiving better food rations and payment for delayed wages. In the end, the Turks showed them kindness by allowing the officers to travel in third class and the rest of the prisoners in freight wagons with the animals and utensils to Smyrna. On arriving in Smyrna, Captain Ibrahim, the head of the prisoner of war guard, arranged for them to be transported by car through the main streets of Smyrna.

Many were taken to Pounta, a suburb of Smyrna, for their departure to Greece. During the march, two Turkish civilians recognized one of the Greek officers and attacked him with their knives intending to kill him. However, the intervention of a Turkish officer saved his life. Papaioannou mentioned that Major Melas had two thousand pounds stolen from his luggage just before his departure. The trip through the main streets of Smyrna may have been designed by the Turks to remind the Greeks that this would be the last time they would ever see this city and that they were glad to see them leave.

Kimon Digenis didn’t recount his personal experience as a prisoner of war but described the last days of the war. He stated that his force was located north of Afyon Karahissar when the Turks attacked. Troop reinforcements were dispatched to support the 1st army corps but the fierce Turkish assault created a gap in the defense resulting in the first Greek retreat. On August 16, Digenis’ attempts to contact the 2nd division failed as enemy shells destroyed Greek wireless communications.

He, Trikoupis, and the commander of the 13th Division with a force of some 1,000 men retreated slowly back to Usak. On August 20, they found themselves surrounded by a large enemy force and surrendered to Commander of 3rd Kemalist Division of the Caucasus army.

They were taken to Usak where they stayed for 13 days and later met Ismet Pasha and Mustapha Kemal. From there, the captives ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Kirshehr for five months where they were engaged in chores. The journalist doesn’t explain what the term ‘chores’ actually entailed and whether the internees were employed in the labor battalions. It can be assumed that the officers weren’t engaged in heavy work.

Finally, with the exchange of prisoners, they were taken to the village of Talas, where they spent a few days before going to Smyrna and then onto Piraeus.

 

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