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Historical Observations: The Impact of King Alexander’s Death on Greek History

February 20, 2022

One of our readers recently asked some questions regarding the impact of King Alexander’s death on modern Greek history. Strangely, it was a monkey bite that ended the life of this popular young Greek King who worked very well with the prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. Yes! the monkey bite launched a series of events that would contribute to the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922.

Prince Alexander ascended to the Greek throne in June 1917, after the abdication of his father, King Constantine, at the hands of the allied envoy, Jonnart. There was another candidate for the Greek throne, Prince George who proved unacceptable to the Anglo-French because they considered him a Germanophile. The young King was more interested in fast cars and having a good time. Initially, he disliked Venizelos but came to admire and respect him for his achievements at the peace conferences.

On May 15, 1919, the Greek army landed in Smyrna, taking charge of the city on behalf of the Entente (Britain and France) and the Associated power (the United States). Some individuals describe the Greek occupation as an invasion – which is incorrect. In early May 1919, the Big Three – Lloyd George (British premier), George Clemenceau (French premier), and Woodrow Wilson (U.S. President) permitted Venizelos to take charge of the city on their behalf. The reason behind this decision by the Big Three was to forestall an Italian occupation of the city, because the Italians landed troops in southwest Turkey without the permission of its allied partners – Britain and France. It should also be noted that Venizelos had told the Big Three that he had received reports that the Greeks feared reprisals from the Turks who were being encouraged by the Italians. The future of Smyrna was discussed at the London and San Remo Conferences in February/March and April 1920 respectively. Text about the city would be embodied in Articles 65-83 of the Treaty of Sevres signed on August 10, 1920.

The Ottoman government disliked the idea of Smyrna eventually uniting with Greece. A plebiscite was to be staged after five years under the auspices of the League of Nations, allowing the local citizenry the opportunity to vote for union with Greece. On the other hand, the Turkish nationalist leader, Mustapha Kemal Pasha regarded this treaty as a mere scrap of paper that needed to be torn up. The Treaty of Sevres was unratified, with the Entente (Britain, France, and Italy) making modifications and concessions to the Turks in 1921.

The electoral defeat of Venizelos in November 1920 and the return of King Constantine a month later resulted in the allies changing their attitude towards Greece. They distrusted Constantine due to his German sympathies during the 1914-18 war. They became neutral in the Greek-Turkish war, cut off their financial aid. In effect, Greece was left to fend for itself in Asia Minor and she was now diplomatically isolated. The declared neutral stance of the French and Italians was a sham, as they supported the Kemalists, whereas the British tried to be neutral – Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, tried unsuccessfully to find a peaceful solution to the war in Asia Minor.

The future of the Greek monarchy came under a dark cloud as Alexander lay on his death bed. A suitable candidate needed to be found to ensure the survival of the monarchy and who would be acceptable to the Entente. Venizelos suggested Prince Paul (a son of Constantine) as a candidate to replace Alexander, but the young Prince declined the offer by arguing that his father was still the lawful sovereign.

With Constantine ensconced on his throne, he wanted to show the Entente that he was continuing Venizelos’s policy in Asia Minor. Despite a military reversal at the hands of the Kemalists in late March 1921, he prepared the Greek army in consultation with his military advisers for the eventual attack on Angora (Ankara) in August-September 1921. The Greek army was being reorganized, re-equipped with war material, and increased troop numbers ready to knock out the Kemalists.

Initially, the Greek army achieved a series of stunning victories at Afion-Karahissar and Eskishehir against the Kemalists. The road was clear for Angora. The Greeks came within 60 miles of Attaturk’s headquarters there in a series of fierce counter-attacks and counter-counter-attacks along the Sangarios River that resulted in a military stalemate. The Greeks retreated to the Afion-Karahissar-Eskishehir defensive line which they held until August 1922.

Despite the bravery of the Greek soldiers, they were led by inexperienced Royalist officers who had no military involvement during the World War I. One of the biggest mistakes the Royalists made was the dismissal of 1500 experienced Venizelist officers whose combat experience would have been invaluable in the assault of Angora. This dismissal reflected the political divisions existing between Royalists and Venizelists in Greece. The Commander-in-Chief (C-I-C) of the Asia Minor army, General Leonidas Paraskevopoulos, achieved a series of military successes in 1920 but he resigned his post after the defeat of Venizelos. General Papoulas replaced Paraskevopoulos as C-I-C until May 1922.

During the stalemate, the soldiers were growing weary and wanted to return to their homes. In March 1922, the Entente proposed an armistice and a withdrawal of the Greek army from Asia Minor. This proposal was acceptable to the Kemalists but Athens needed Allied guarantees that the Greeks in Asia Minor would be safe from Turkish reprisals once its army had been withdrawn. The French were encouraging the Kemalists to delay the armistice as long as possible so the Greek army could be ejected from Asia Minor.

In May 1922, General Hadjianestis replaced Papoulas as C-I-C and ordered the transfer of two troop divisions from Smyrna to Eastern Thrace. This weakened the Asia Minor front. During late July, the Greeks asked the Entente to occupy Constantinople as a means of ending the war and forcing the Kemal to the negotiating table. The British threatened to shell Piraeus if the Greeks occupied the city. They outnumbered the Entente forces by a factor of 2-1 but never implemented their plan.

Finally, the Kemalists attacked the Greeks on a wide front forcing them to retreat towards Smyrna with many thousands of refugees following them behind. The Greek army evacuated Smyrna in early September 1922 leaving the refugees to fend for themselves along the Smyrna quay. Many of them perished in the
Great Fire while others were rescued, ending up in refugee camps on the Greek islands and mainland Greece.

The monkey-bite that caused King Alexander’s death had unintended and unimaginable consequences, most importantly, the death of Hellenism in Asia Minor some two years later.

 

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