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A French Consul in Gallipoli

Ευρωκίνηση

The Great Fire of Smyrna, also known as the Catastrophe, of 1922. Photo: (EUROKINISSI)

I was the honorary French Consul in Gallipoli just before the allied landing on April 25, 1915. My name is Avram Spanoudis and I was born in Maidos in Gallipoli. I was appointed as the honorary consul by the French government before the outbreak of the Great War. I spoke fluent French and my family had business interests in Paris. Our grandfather was a prominent businessman in Constantinople who also created an import/export agency in Paris during the 1870s. Our family business employed both Greeks and Turks in Maidos.

My consular role was to represent French interests in the region. I issued visas to French citizens, handled passport inquiries, and trade matters. I translated official Ottoman and Greek documents into French and collected intelligence information through my local contacts, which I passed onto our ambassador in Constantinople.

Before the start of hostilities, I visited Athens and took the opportunity to visit the interior ministry. I requested an appointment with the interior minister, Ioannis Filopoulos to discuss the possibility of becoming a Greek subject. His secretary arranged a meeting with the minister. Filopoulos was most welcoming towards me and inquired into the nature of my business. I explained that I was the honorary French Consul in Gallipoli and wished to become a dual national. He found my request a strange one.

"Why do you wish to become a Greek subject, you're already an Ottoman citizen," he asked. I told him that I heard a rumor that the Ottoman government had signed a secret treaty with Germany and would enter the war at the time of its choosing. "Becoming a dual citizen, it allows me to leave Turkey and go live either in France or Greece," I said.

I visited our French legation in Athens where I met our minister, M. Avenol. We discussed the conflict on the western front, the current political situation in Greece, and provided him with the last intelligence in the Gallipoli Peninsula. He told me confidentially that our government and the British were planning an expedition there to knock the Turks out of the war. The main target was the occupation of Constantinople.

I returned to my home town of Maidos as an ordinary Ottoman subject. I was no longer the French honorary consul as France and the Ottoman Empire were enemies during the First World War. As an Ottoman Greek, I had a feeling that the Young Turks would deport us into Anatolia since Gallipoli was an important strategic area. The Young Turks feared that the Anglo-French forces would attempt a landing on the Peninsula.

I still had my contacts who supplied me with useful information which unfortunately I couldn't pass on to the French. In the meantime, French diplomatic interests in the Ottoman Empire were handled by the Swedish Embassy in Constantinople. The Swedish connection would prove beneficial for my eventual departure from Turkey. More on that later.

With April 25, 1915 fast approaching, the Ottoman authorities issued orders for the complete ‘evacuation’ of all the Greeks living in the towns and villages of the Gallipoli Peninsula. I wasn't surprised when the local Governor, Mehmet Ali Bey, issued instructions to the gendarmes to go to all the Greek houses to tell them they were being ‘evacuated’ for their safety. The Greeks were told to be ready to leave on short notice and only take clothing with them. I knew what terrible fate awaited our compatriots.

Some 20,000 Greeks left Gallipoli to never return to their homes. Many of them perished from disease, starvation, and malnutrition in Anatolia. I knew that ‘evacuation’ was a euphemism for deportation and certain death. Many asked me how I survived from being deported. Well, being a dual subject and a former consul gave me advantages to be able to leave unmolested from Turkey.

I contacted Henry Larsen of the Swedish Embassy to tell him that I was the former French honorary consul and wanted him to arrange for my passage to leave Turkey. He arranged all the necessary documents for my departure and I decided to go to Greece instead of France. I chose Greece because she wasn't at war yet as King Constantine and his prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, had differing views regarding which horse to back in the conflict.

Before I departed from Maidos, I was moved to tears when I saw our compatriots leaving their homes where they had lived since time immemorial. Some Turks were very sad seeing some of their Greek neighbors leaving whom they had considered as their friends. I know some Turks wanted to speak out about the evacuation order but were afraid of repercussions against their families. True, there were Greeks who enjoyed good personal relations with their Turkish neighbors. However, the vast majority of Turks were glad to see us go. They wanted the infidel to never return to Gallipoli.

I visited Larsen in Constantinople and relayed information given by my informants regarding Ottoman troop movements in Gallipoli. I told him to pass these details onto the French government. After leaving Larsen, I met the U.S. ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, who was pleased to learn about the Greeks in Gallipoli. He knew of the deportations and protested to Enver Pasha regarding the actions of the Ottoman government. Enver was unfazed by Morgenthau's protest.

I finally departed Constantinople bound for Salonika on the Orient Express. The journey was pleasant and comfortable with excellent dining service. At last, I arrived in Salonika spent a couple of days there before heading off to Athens. I spent the remainder of the war there.

I connected with the French legation who provided me with information about the Gallipoli campaign. They told me it was a bloodbath costing many lives against a determined Ottoman foe who refused to capitulate. I learned that some of our fellow Greeks who escaped evacuation provided food, clothing, and dug trenches for the Anglo-French force. I heard that Mustapha Kemal was the commander responsible for spurring on his troops to fight to the death. Yes, his message resonated with his soldiers!

This is my story as an honorary consul who used his diplomatic credentials to leave Turkey when my compatriots were being deported.