Historical Observations: The French Press and Smyrna, May 1919

The French press covered the Greek landing in May 1919 in some detail. Two French journalists wrote front page articles regarding the future of Turkey and French policy in the Near East. Their articles focused on France’s interest in Syria and the importance of maintaining French interests in the Ottoman Empire. As an imperial power, France needed to balance its interests against those of Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States.

Raymond Recouly (1876-1950) of Le Figaro and Jacques Bainville (1879-1936) of L’Action Francaise were two experienced French journalists who covered military affairs and were also historians. The former published a book titled M. Jonnart en Grece et l’abdication de Constantin (1918) which describes the actions of French envoy, Charles Jonnart who forced King Constantine to abdicate in June 1917. He also was war correspondent who reported on the Russo-Japanese (1904-05) and Balkan (1912-13) conflicts. Both newspapers appealed to the French upper and middle classes who supported the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Their editorial policies tended to be conservative.

The news articles have been edited and are reproduced below:

1. France and the Liquidation of Turkey – Jacques Bainville., published May 17, 1919 , L’Action Francaise.

“After a few days of a mystery which had its compelling reasons, it is fair to announce that the allies have resolved to occupy Smyrna. It is probably the preface of a settlement of the questions of Turkey and Asia Minor, a rule that the conference had deferred until now.

How will these great affairs be settled? What principles will we follow? What will we do with Constantinople and the Turks in the end? We don't see that there is a well-established doctrine. We do not see either that the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire, if really it is credited in the minds of the allies, is considered under any aspect other than this one. Each is trying to take a piece of the inheritance and keep the neighbor from taking more than him.

We will look for French policy there and it does not appear to us to be well defined. Driving out the Turks from Europe is a phrase. And then after? What will become of Constantinople? Deep down, everyone knows that a city like this cannot be attributed to anyone. And everyone also feels that what is nobody’s falls sooner or later into someone's hands. That is why Constantinople to the Turks was the most convenient solution. The beaten Turks would still like to hold onto the Dardanelles. We realize it in England since the united states have expressed the desire to settle on the Bosphorus.

As for France, as we have said a hundred times, the disappearance of the Turkish Empire means the end of its incomparable privileges in the countries of the Levant. By falling back on Syria we are changing an ox for an egg. From an egg, Syria has all the fragility. From whatever side we turn, we see that it is threatened and contested by desires which announce multiple internal and external difficulties for the French protector. The capitulations are very advantageous for us.

France must maintain its influence in Mediterranean ports in the Levant, otherwise we don’t know what we would lose with the end of the Turkish regime. What compensation would we receive for our losses? France before consenting, if it is forced (and why would it be?) to renounce its old privileges, must ensure what it will receive in exchange. It is hard to see what kind of Syria we will get.

And no answer has yet come to reassure the French who asked ‘Are we going to lose the Orient?’”

2. The Ottoman Heritage – Raymond Recouly, published May 18, 1919, Le Figaro

“The occupation of Smyrna by the Allied troops raises the complex question of Ottoman heritage. It is the old Turkey as it is the old Austria-Hungary. At the end of the current war, its maintenance appears impossible. Both governments had linked their cause to that of Germany. The military collapse of the latter leads to the fall of both and at the same time frees populations who no longer want, who can no longer undergo an odious domination to which they have been subjected for centuries.

This is the essential, irrevocable fact, from which necessary consequences flow. The heirs of the Turk are above all the Greeks who, from the admirable blow of Monsieur Jonnart, removed a traitorous sovereign who worked against the aspirations of his people. The Greeks backed our energetic action.

The Greeks living in the ancient provinces of European Turkey will be purely and simply reunited with the Hellenic kingdom. The province of Smyrna, where the Hellenic element dominates, will be administered by Greece, under a mandate whose exact future remain to be determined.

We are preparing to create a great Armenia, which, in order to have an indispensable outlet on the Mediterranean, will extend to the region of Adana and Mersina. The United States will receive the mandate to help in its development.

They will receive a similar mandate, it seems, with regard to Constantinople and the Straits. If President Wilson accepts such a mandate, this acceptance will have to be ratified by the American Senate. Will he approve the project? President Wilson will obviously exercise all his influence in this direction. But it should be noted that a good number of Americans do not see their country without apprehension engaging so far in European politics. These resistances will probably be overcome; but there will be resistance.

France will have the mandate for Syria, to which we attach secular ties. But it is essential that it be a whole Syria, but not a dismembered one.

Negotiations on this subject have not always been very well conducted on our part. It is high time that we gave them a more vigorous and more logical direction. Italy would be in charge of southern Anatolia with Adalia as its the main part. England will have the mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Such appear roughly, at the present time, the broad outlines of these attributions. In Northern Asia Minor there would remain a part of Turkey, including Brusa and  Angora. It was a question of asking France to ensure its safeguard. The sultan would reside in Brusa, which would become the capital of this Ottoman state.

All of this is still vague. It is to be hoped that, as far as Asia Minor is concerned, the allies do not engage in a policy of excessive division and fragmentation. A Turkish state, the government and administration of which would be exercised with the help of European advisers, appears to us to be by far the solution which will present, in all respects, the least inconvenience.”


A number of friends and colleagues who are intensely interested in Middle Eastern matters took issue with my National Herald article (‘Middle East History’, May 18, 2024), arguing that Israel is a colonial enterprise that has failed to integrate into the Middle East, like the Crusader states of yore.

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