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Historical Observations: Greek-British Relations in November-December, 1922

January 23, 2022

The trial and execution of the ex-Royalist politicians and military (also known as Trial of the six) in November 1922 led to Great Britain severing its diplomatic ties with Greece for a short time. The next individual on the list for possible execution was Prince Andrew, whose life was spared through foreign intervention. Others were facing a similar fate like Andrew.

The British Minister in Athens, Sir Francis Lindley tried unsuccessfully to prevent the executions from taking place. Upon learning of the slayings, he immediately left Athens with Britain severing its ties with Greece. Charles Bentinck was left behind to represent British interests in Athens and he also was a member of the International Financial Commission.

The American, Swedish, Dutch, Belgian, and Spanish ministers were instructed by their respective governments to avoid contact with the Revolutionary Committee (RC). The Italian minister was instructed to maintain close contact with Bentinck. In an interesting conversation, the Bulgarian Minister told Bentinck that his country wanted closer relations with Britain since Greece had forfeited this due to the recent executions.

The British government sent its former Naval Attache in Athens, Commander Gerald Francis Talbot (1881-1945) in a last-ditched attempt to prevent the executions from taking place. He arrived too late in Athens on November 30 but his next task was to try to save Prince Andrew and others from the firing squad. It should be noted that Talbot was a personal friend of ex-premier, Eleftherios Venizelos.

Before departing Athens, Talbot held talks with members of the RC: Generals Stylianos Gonatas (Prime Minister), Theodoros Pangalos (War Minister), Colonel Nikolaos Plastiras, and Constantine Rentis, the Acting Foreign Minister, to obtain assurances that no further executions would occur. Confirmation was delivered to Talbot at Rentis’s private residence. However, there were persons whose safety couldn’t be guaranteed who faced charges of inciting murder, i.e. for journalists Giorgios Vlachos and Aristos Kambanis and military officers generals Giorgios Valletas and Athanasios Exadactylos.

There was talk of executing former premier, Nikolaos Kalogeropoulos, who shared responsibility with Dimitrios Gounaris for the Asia Minor debacle but the RC promised Talbot that he wouldn’t be executed. RC assurances were given that General Ioannis Metaxas wouldn’t be arrested since he was now a politician rather than a military person. It seemed that the RC wished to give the impression that it wasn’t removing all political opposition.

Talbot informed the RC to keep the Venizelists under control as they could create problems and rancor and that the RC should be a nationalist movement rather than a Venizelist one. The RC commented that the executions had finished and the aim now was to establish order and discipline and to demonstrate they were in control of the internal situation.

Guarantees were given to Talbot that the position of King George II was safe. The RC had placed the King on the throne and intended to keep him there. George was viewed differently as he didn’t interfere in politics and decided it was more prudent to follow the example of his grandfather George I by ruling as a constitutional monarch. George II was in seclusion and the RC arranged for him to review the troops and possibly later visit the troops in Thrace. The Minister of War visited the King on December 2, 1922, assuring him that his position was safe. Talbot was reassured of this after having seen the King as well.

Talbot obtained promises from the RC that Prince Andrew wouldn’t be executed but would be permitted to leave Greece in his charge. Andrew would face a military court-martial and would be sentenced to penal servitude or possibly be sentenced to death. However, Plastiras would grant pardon and then hand him over immediately to Talbot for removal with his family to be taken by a British warship to England.

The British warship had to be at Phaleron bay by noon on December 3 and the captain had to report immediately to the Legation to receive his orders. The operation was conducted in the utmost secrecy with the captain not told the reason for the voyage.

Talbot extracted the promise from the RC with the greatest difficulty and thought secrecy was essential to save the Prince’s life. Andrew and his family did not need to be told of this arrangement. Any leak would cause problems for the RC, imperil Andrew’s life, and offer some disgruntled Venizelist officers the opportunity to execute Andrew. The entire situation rested on secrecy and the warship arriving at the designated time.

The San Francisco Chronicle on December 5, 1922 published a telegram sent by Cardinal Gasparri, the Vatican Secretary of State, to the Greek Premier regarding the fate of Prince Andrew. In his communication, Gasparri stated that, “the Holy Father is seriously preoccupied about the safety of the royal family and Prince Andrew and other accused personages. He prays your excellency for the interest of the noble Greek nation whose desire is to keep the esteem of the world, to induce your government to use clemency.” Premier Gonatas responded: “From the depths of my heart I thank His Holiness and the Holy See for the interest they take in our country. Whilst I asked for Holy Father’s blessing upon our motherland, I take pleasure in advising you that [the sentence] by the court-martial against Prince Andrew corresponds fully with the desires expressed by his Holiness.”

Prince Andrew arrived at Brindisi and then proceeded to Rome where he had an audience with the Pope and Cardinal Gasparri, thanking both of them for saving his life. He spent a short time with his brother Prince Christopher in Paris before arriving in London where he would spend the remainder of his life.

Bentinck believed that Talbot’s brief stay in Athens had played an important part in starving off more executions and had brought the Greek government to its senses. On the other hand, Rentis and Gonatas declared their deep regret at the rupture of diplomatic relations between Greece and Britain. Both assured Bentinck that they would be ready to take advice from Britain.

 

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