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Historical Fiction: The Elias Panoussos Story – Part 3

Εθνικός Κήρυξ

Celebration in 1920 at the Athens Panathenaic Stadium with Eleftherios Venizelos, King Alexander I of Greece, and Themistoklis Sofoulis following the signing of the Treaty of Sevres. Photo: Enosi Demokratikou Kentrou (Democratic Center Union), via Wikimedia Commons

I returned to Smyrna after King Constantine inspected our army. The next two weeks were filled with visiting different archaeological sites outside Smyrna at Sardis, Philadelphia, and Ephesus. One could see the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine influences in the architecture of the surviving buildings. I hoped tourists would come after the war to see and marvel at these magnificent structures.

Along my travels, I met both Greek and Turkish villagers who were friendly towards me. I got the opportunity to ask both sides of what they thought of the war and whether they were happy under the Greek administration. Most Turkish villagers seemed pleased with the Greek administration and considered Sterghiadis a good administrator. I don't know whether their feelings towards us were sincere or not and whether they secretly desired a Kemalist victory. Our Greek villagers wanted Kemal's army destroyed for safety and security reasons. Asia Minor was the homeland of both Greeks and Turks.

In early July 1921, Constantine had discussions with his military advisers on the assault of Ankara. I learned that we were ready to launch our offensive what I term OPERATION ANKARA. A British officer named Colonel Johnson who followed our army commented that we were in a strong position to achieve our military objective. I agreed with his view. Confidence was overflowing.

Our army was divided into North and South groups. The former covered Bursa whereas the latter, the Ousak fronts. Sweeping victories led to the occupation of the towns of Genishehr, Hasan Pasha, and Brusa in the northern sector. The southern army swept through Kutahia, Afion Karahissar, and Eskishehr like a steam train. The Turks suffered heavy losses in both northern and southern battlegrounds. Our casualty figures were low at this stage. We took a large number of Turkish prisoners of war. Witnessing these battles, the determination of our officers and troops to defeat Kemal were key factors in our victories. The Turks proved a formidable opponent who fought with tenacity in trying to stop our march onto Ankara. At this stage, our army held the upper hand.

At Kutahia, we had large quantities of local supplies, and bakeries produced 35,000 bread rations daily. The railway shops at Eskishehr were undamaged. This railway line was vital for moving our troops and supplies to the Ankara theater. The Turks damaged railway lines in the hope of slowing down our movement. However, our army engineers were able to quickly repair these lines.

I sent news reports from the occupied towns to the Smyrna Bugle who then forwarded them to our Athens office. My glowing reports of our successes and praising the heroism of our army were approved by the inter-allied censorship commission in Smyrna. Our readers wrote letters to the editor ecstatic over our victories in Asia Minor. It seemed our Megali Idea was finally within our grasp.

In late July, our army commenced its long march over the salt desert for Angora. For several days, we didn't see a living soul or a wild beast. I thought the Kemalists would fight to the death to defend their capital. Our lines of communication were overextended making us vulnerable to attacks by chettes in our rear. Our army easily repulsed these attacks with Ankara only two days away. Rumors circulated that the Kemalists were calling upon Bolsheviks assistance which never materialized. Some of the Kemalist leadership were suspicious of Bolshevik intentions in Asia Minor.

I watched the battle for Ankara during the next ten days (late August-September) perched on top of a hill along the bank of the Sangarios River. Through my binoculars, I could see both sides attacking, counter-attacking, counter-counter-attacking with great ferocity resulting in heavy loss of life on both sides. There were moments when I thought Ankara was ready to fall into our possession only to witness a Turkish counter-attack. In the end, the Kemalists saved their capital from occupation. We retreated to the Afion Karahissar-Eskishehr defensive line holding it for the next 12 months. Our soldiers were devastated for failing in their mission.

When filing my last report from Eshishehr, I didn't know how to explain to our readers that our Ankara objective was a disaster. We suffered heavy troop losses including many captured prisoners of war. I couched my story in a way that would pass the censor showing our retreat was merely temporary and that we would come back stronger than ever. I knew deep in my heart that would never happen. My editor changed my report to portray our retreat as a victory. Smart thinking on his part thus avoiding a potential government raid on our offices.

Ankara's confidence was soaring – they were now in an ascendant position to win the war. Our troop morale was low. Colonel Johnson told me confidentially that our troops fought valiantly but was let down due to poor leadership. I agreed with his assessment but couldn't publish it. So I kept this information to myself.

I interviewed many of our soldiers along our new defensive line. These unpublished accounts would appear in a future book. They told me in unison, they were tired of fighting, wanted to return home to their families and their farms. Some had been on continuous active duty since the Balkan wars 1912-13. They were contemptuous of some of their royalist commanders whom they thought were more interested in keeping their epaulets and shining black boots than engaging the enemy. A couple of soldiers stated that the occupation could have been achieved under the command of experienced Venizelist officers. Many of these officers resigned and were replaced by inexperienced royalist appointees in December 1920.

There were rumblings of discontent with our troops in Asia Minor and Thrace due to our failure to occupy Ankara. Some sections of our military spoke of overthrowing the monarchy and the royalist government. Somehow this potential revolt was nipped in the bud. I tried to find out about it but no one was willing to talk about it. I knew the Venizelists were looking for the opportunity to regain power.

 I returned to Athens in late September and took a short vacation. Our newspaper was critical of the royalist's foreign policy in Asia Minor. We supported them for a time but our Ankara debacle changed all that.