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General News

The “Foreigners”: Their Part in the Asia Minor Tragedy

September 24, 2022
By Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith

The setting is Paris in early 1919 The great and the good from many European countries are gathering President Woodrow Wilson arrives from the United States of America, with a great team of expert advisers He is the hope of a fresh start in international relations: a breath of fresh air in the musty corridors of old time European diplomacy.

The event, the Paris Peace Conference, is the culmination of four years of war and trouble involving most of the states of Europe and bringing major social and economic change to the lives of Europe’s citizens. Its primary purpose is to make peace with Germany. A subsidiary purpose is to make peace with the Ottoman Empire.

The armistice of 11 November 1918 did not bring an easy transition from war to peace. On the contrary, the years 1918 to 1923 were themselves turbulent, and had many battle grounds. Of these, the area of prime interest to Greece and Turkey was Asia Minor. The chief allied Powers of the Entente, Britain, France and Italy, and the ‘Associated Power’ the United States of America, each played a part in this area. The most important was Britain, under prime minister David Lloyd George.

Lloyd George at the Peace Conference

David Lloyd George.

LG, as I shall call him, became prime minister in 1916 and has dominated British politics since then. He is a liberal, presiding over a coalition government, including the heavyweight conservatives Lord Curzon, a foreign policy expert and a former Viceroy of India, and Arthur Balfour, a former prime minister. LG saw that for his purposes as peace maker he needed a new popular mandate, which he obtained at the general election of 14 December 1918, renewing the coalition government of conservatives – by a long way the largest element – and liberals who had abandoned former prime minister Asquith.

When he arrived in Paris to lead the British delegation, LG seemed all powerful. He could do what he wanted. (Of course, this was not to last.) And one of the things he wanted to do, was to help the Greek leader Eleftherios Venizelos achieve his main aim, which was to occupy and eventually incorporate western Asia Minor in the Greek kingdom. For Venizelos, that would be the foundation of a new and greater Greece, adding wealth and an active and productive population to the Greece of the early 20th century. To see how and why these two men came together in this aim we need to go back in time to the early days of the great war.

1915: Α tempting offer by Britain

1915 was a year in which the big powers for strategic reasons tried to attract lesser powers to join their ranks. To do so they had to offer tangible rewards including future territorial gains. Britain aimed to win over Greece, but also Bulgaria, to the cause of the Entente. In the case of Bulgaria, she failed. In the case of Greece Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, approached prime minister Venizelos offering important territorial gains in Asia Minor if Greece would join the Entente and come to the aid of Serbia. This offer gave rise to difficult consultations between Venizelos, who strongly favoured acceptance (his overriding aim was to bring Greece in on the British side), and King Constantine, who favoured neutrality for Greece, and thought Germany likely to win the war. The story, a dramatic one, is reflected in the exchanges of memoranda between Venizelos and the King.

Because of the King’s opposition, Venizelos was unable to accept Grey’s offer. That was a setback, but not the end of the story. The very offer of Ottoman territory was itself a political fact of high importance. It showed that for Britain Western Asia Minor was negotiable territory. For Lloyd George and for Venizelos the fate of Asia Minor was from then on an open question.

Paris, 1919

Woodrow Wilson.

LG took Balfour with him to Paris, leaving Curzon to look after the Foreign Office at home. It is not too much to say that he dominated the conference. The historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote, ‘In practice LG handled every big question himself, using his colleagues as reinforcement in disputed issues.’ He worked on his colleagues of the ‘Big Four’, Georges Clemenceau of France, who chaired the conference, President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, and Vittorio Orlando, prime minister of Italy. But there was no charming Orlando since Italy was opposed to every demand of Greece; Italy had her own claims in the south of Asia Minor to make good.

LG did his best to promote Greece’s interest, especially in Asia Minor. Why so? It dated back to late 1912 when Venizelos and LG, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, first met in London after the First Balkan War. They took to each other. For Greece, Britain was the ideal ‘patron’: the most powerful, still, of the great powers, and supreme at sea. For Britain, patronage of Greece offered a prospect of political cooperation in the Aegean area, with advantage in particular in the area of Constantinople and the Straits. Beyond this LG saw Greece as the coming power in the wider area, which could support and serve British interests. This conception had survived the war years and seemed ready to come to fruition in the post war struggle for territory and maritime domination.

LG had set out some of his war aims on 5 January 1918 in a speech to trade union leaders: ‘We are not fighting a war of aggression against the German people … Nor are we fighting to destroy Austria-Hungary or to deprive Turkey of its capital, or of the rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace …’ The rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace were exactly what Venizelos wanted for Greece. So how to reconcile this pledge of LG with Greece’s territorial interests? All that could be said was that it was early days, and much could change!

The Other ‘Foreigners’

Britain was, for Greece, the most important of the foreign powers, bolstered by the ingenious and flexible presence of LG. France, the United States, and Italy each played a distinctive part in the struggles for Asia Minor, but none with the resources and political drive of Britain. France was on home ground, with the advantage of being chair of the peace conference. Her losses in manpower and economic resources were greater in proportion to population than those of Britain or the United States. The elderly Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, had the advantage of a single overriding aim, to ensure France’s security from Germany for the indefinite future. In comparison with this, Asia Minor counted for little. As always there were tensions in Anglo-French relations, but for the most part LG and Clemenceau got on well enough personally.

As to the Americans, President Wilson was a complex character, stubborn and opinionated, idealistic but ready to stoop to the pragmatic where necessary. For the early part of the conference, he kept his eye firmly fixed on his own conception for ensuring peace in Europe and the world, the League of Nations. It was clear to the other delegates that to keep America on board it was necessary to agree at an early stage on a formula for such a League. The noble aim was to put an end to war. Wilson’s aim was accomplished with the help of the British minister Lord Robert Cecil and the South African Jan Smuts. The French in a hard-headed way argued for military stiffening of the League. But time was pressing, and Wilson could not wait. He announced agreement on the establishment of the League on 10 January 1919. How much had all this to do with Asia Minor and the Greeks? Not much, except that Venizelos saw it as his interest to do all he could to help President Wilson achieve his aim. He became a stalwart member of the League Council.

The fourth of the Powers was Italy. The Italians had little positive to contribute to the Asia Minor question. They had claims on parts of Asia Minor in the south, which were derived from the war time agreements between the allies, and which conflicted with the Greek claims. By May 1919 their allies had lost patience with Italian diplomacy, and the Italians had lost patience with them. Frustrated by an impasse over the future of Fiume in the Adriatic, prime minister Orlando walked out of the supreme Council of the allies, the council of four. This left the remaining three, Clemenceau, LG and Wilson, a free hand, which LG was only too ready to exercise.

Vittorio Emanuele Orlando.

The Occupation of Smyrna

To read the official accounts of the Powers’ decision to authorise Greece to occupy Smyrna is to be taken aback by the almost casual nature of the decision. Lloyd George seized the initiative and complained to Wilson and Clemenceau about Italian plans apparently to make landings in southern Asia Minor. The answer to this was to unleash the Greeks. I quote from the official records of the meetings.

“Mr Lloyd George: I must insist again that we do not let Italy confront us with a fait accompli in Asia. We must allow the Greeks to land troops at Smyrna.” President Wilson interjected that the best means of stopping the Italians’ ventures were financial. LG was having none of this.

“Mr Lloyd George: My opinion is that we should tell Mr Venizelos to send troops to Smyrna. We will instruct our admirals to let the Greeks land wherever there is a threat of trouble or massacre.

President Wilson: Why not tell them to land as of now? Have you any objection to that?

Mr Lloyd George: None.

Clemenceau: Nor have I. But should we warn the Italians.

Mr Lloyd George: In my opinion, no.”

And so, the decision was taken by the three men. It was rapidly and effectively implemented by the military of the Powers, with the willing cooperation of Venizelos. It would be difficult to find a decision with such fateful consequences taken with so little regard to official advice or to the likely long-term consequences. As Balfour put it, ‘Those three all-powerful, all-ignorant men sitting there and carving continents, with only a child to lead them.”

Georges Clemenceau.

The Effects of the Landing

 Much followed from the fateful decision of the Big Three. Most of it was bad news for Greece, though this was not easy to see for a long time because of the power of the Greek army and the relative impotence of Mustafa Kemal’s forces while he concentrated on building up his military and political strength in the eastern provinces of Anatolia.

Some of the significant developments were:

– Greece was put on the defensive in Paris because of the violence which accompanied the Greek landing at Smyrna.

– The Greek occupation of western Asia Minor was hampered by tension and disagreement between the Greek Army, which saw its task as to suppress Turkish nationalist action, and the civilian administration of the region under High Commissioner Aristeidis Stergiadis. Venizelos and Stergiadis wanted Greece to conduct a ‘civilising mission’. That was not how the Greek military saw things.

– As time passed it became evident that Kemal, against great difficulties, was successfully moulding in the east a Turkish Nationalist regime which replaced the ‘official’ government of the Sultan in Constantinople.

By the second half of 1920 it was clear to most observers that the Greek position in Asia Minor was precarious. Venizelos’s response to this was a military one, for which however he required British help in war materials. A veil of legitimacy was put over the situation by the signature of the Treaty of Sèvres between the Entente allies and the Ottoman government on 10 August. This brought an end, in theory, to the state of war between the allies and the Ottoman empire and contained provisions assigning large stretches of Ottoman territory to France and Italy as well as Greece. But the treaty was still born. It was not recognised by Kemal, and it was never ratified.

Eleftherios Venizelos.

Venizelos falls from power: The King returns

Having achieved a peace settlement, however fragile, Venizelos felt bound by his pledges to proclaim general elections in Greece. He expected to win, on the back of his foreign policy successes. But he lost, in my view largely because of the resentment of the electorate at allied interference with Greek sovereignty during the great war. To the dismay of the allies, the anti-Venizelists lost no time in bringing the exiled King Constantine back to Greece. This was a further blow to the frail unity of the allies; the French in particular, having not forgiven the King for his behaviour towards the allies during the Great War.

Towards Disaster

 The situation could hardly be worse for the new Greek government of Dimitrios Gounaris. They had lost the confidence of the allies; their military leaders were out of practice and overconfident; the financial and economic situation was dire; and they faced warfare against an enemy growing in confidence.

They had two resorts: first, to put their fate in the hands of the British (Lord Curzon) in the hope that he could do some deal with Kemal that would save Greek face. Second, to seek a military solution: the elusive ‘knock out blow’ that would destroy the Turkish Nationalist army or at least force it to the table. The first of these failed because Kemal would not accept any ‘solution’ that allowed a continuing Greek presence in Asia Minor. So following the second course, the Greek government and army attempted to force a military solution by advancing deep into Asia Minor and fighting the Kemalist army on the Sakarya river. After a great battle, in conditions of heat and exhaustion, The Greeks were forced to retreat. This was the end of their offensive hopes.

The disaster followed in August-September 1922, with all its tragic consequences for the Greek communities of Asia Minor. The Greek army collapsed in the face of a determined assault by the Turkish nationalists. But the seeds of defeat had been sown long before.

Sir Michael Llewellyn Smith is a British diplomat and academic. He served as ambassador to Greecefrom 1996 to 1999. He is author of several important books on Modern Greek history including Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919–1922 and Venizelos The Making of a Greek Statesman.

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