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F - 176 : 25 Years of Greco-Turkish Wars

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

The Balkan War 1912 - 1913 was a Precursor to the First World War 1914 - 1918

When we sail in the Aegean, we have to carefully respect the Greek-Turkish border. Border violations are not a cavaliere delict here. Drawn in 1913, it separates territories which were united and part of a single political and cultural entity for thousands of years. Unified under Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the Aegean and its islands remained united under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule until the early 20th century.

Ethnic Groups in the Balkan 1903 - History mixed all of them over Centuries

The new border was a result of the First Balkan War (1912 - 1913). Ever since drawn, it was disputed. For the last two years it was closed with covid as pretext. Ferry operations from Greek islands to Turkey were suspended – the virus travelled anyway. But tensions resurfaced since the refugee crises and Erdogan’s claims on hydrocarbons in Greek territorial waters.

Between 1897 and 1922, Greece and Turkey were at wars for three times. If you add the First World War it is even four times. The result was the forced exodus of over 1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia and 0.5 million Muslims from Europe. It was called “people exchange”. As if you could take your home with you. Countless lives and businesses were destroyed and hundreds of thousands people impoverished. A horrible precedent of ethnic cleansing was set. After 25 years of war, Turkey was ruined and a shadow of its former glory. So was Greece. Recovery did not start until the 1970.

Greek Infantry in 1897 trying unsuccessfully to hold back the advancing Ottoman Army

The first Greco-Turkish war in 1897 did not go well for Greece. The war goal was to force the Ottoman Empire to cede the Island of Crete. With more enthusiasm than competence, the nationalist government launched an invasion of 2’000 Greek volunteers aiming to “liberate” Turkish Thessaloniki. But learning from previous Russo-Turkish wars, the Ottoman Army was ready. Equipped with smokeless riffles, it had adopted flexible infantry tactics from Germany. Within a month, not only the volunteers but the entire Greek Army was routed. The Ottoman could have marched on Athens. But European Powers intervened. An armistice was signed.

Greece got away lightly. It had to drop its territorial claims against the Ottoman. The island of Crete became an independent state though still under Ottoman sovereignty – a status similar to Egypt, which was an independent state “enjoying” English protection but was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Sounds complicated? Not really. The British Empire called the shots. It was happy that the Ottoman Empire lost another naval base after losing Cyprus in 1881. Made the control of the Mediterranean by the Royal Navy so much easier!

The Balkan in 1911 with the Ottoman Empire still controlling Thrace, Macedonia and Albania

Greece learned three lessons from 1897. A) That the European Powers let it get away with belligerent behavior. B) That alone it could not take on the Ottoman Empire. C) That its military forces had to be modernized. Over the next 15 years, under the energetic leadership of Prime Minister Venizelos, it made progress on all three fronts. Greece joined the Balkan Alliance with Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, restated its territorial claims to “unit all Greek people” and modernized its armed forces, primarily its fleet.

The modern Battlecruiser G. Averof almost single-handedly defeated the Ottoman Fleet and enforced the naval Blockade which prevented Turkey from reinforcing its Army in Europe

The First Balkan War (1912 – 1913) yielded the expected results. Greece left the heavy fighting to the Bulgarian and Serbian Army and had fewer soldiers killed in action than little Montenegro. (KIA Turkey: 50k, Bulgaria: 9k, Serbia: 5k, Montenegro: 2.4k, Greece 2.4k). Its main contribution was the naval blockade in the Aegean. At the war's outset, the Greek Navy occupied the islands of Chios, Samos and Lesbos and defeated the Ottoman Navy three times. The acquisition of a modern battle cruiser from Italy paid off. The Ottoman Empire could not reinforce its European Army – there was no railway yet through Anatolia. In May 1913, the Bulgarian Army reached the gates of Istanbul. The Armistice line in the Aegean became the new border between Greece and Turkey. Greece also gained territories in southern Macedonia, Trace and finally got the Island of Crete .

In the First World War (1914 – 1918), Greece stayed neutral for the first two years But its neutrality was never respected by France and England. Both used Greek islands for the Gallipoli campaign. Based on promises for more territories, Greece joined the Western Allies in 1916. Greek soldiers fought primarily on the northern front against Bulgaria. The Aegean islands saw few hostilities. However, the war awakened Greece’s appetite for more. Now, the Greek government claimed lands where no Greek speakers had lived for centuries.

The Greek Plans for Enosis, the Establishment of a Powerful Greek State in the Aegean

It all came to head in May 1919 when Greek Troops occupied Smyrna (today’s Izmir) which was promised to Greece as part of the Versailles peace treaties (Treaty of Sevres). The Ottoman Army was in disarray and could not check the Greek advance. But over the years, Kemal Ataturk, the winner of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, was able to build a new national army and launched a counterattack from Ankara in 1922. The Greek forces with no money and no support from France, Italy and England were routed.

The neverr implemented Treaty of Sevres from 1920 which would have carved up the Ottoman Empire but was fiercely opposed by Kamel Ataturk and the Turk Nationalists

On their retreat from central Anatolia, the Greek Army scorched every town they passed through. Both sides committed atrocities, massacres and pillaged everything. The chaos was horrible. On the 22 September 1922, the Turkish Army was back in Smyrna. An armistice was signed the following months.

The Burning of Smyrna 13 - 14 Sept 1922, a few days after the Arrival of Turkish Nationalist Troops. Both sides still blame each other.

The “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” in Jan 1923 followed. Two million people were uprooted. 1.5 m Orthodox Christians, 0.5 m Muslims. Most people were taken by surprise when soldiers knocked on their doors in the morning and gave them one hour to pack and leave. Many had to walk for days to the next port where cargo vessels were waiting. People had to leave with nothing except their clothes. The human drama was heart breaking. The scares left in peoples’ minds and souls lasted for decades. For the first time in history, Western Anatolia and Greece became ethnically pure. The Peace Treaty of Lausanne in June 1923 ratified the facts on the ground.

The Infamous People Exchange in 1923 in the Aegean

The 25 years of war from 1897 – 1922 created a bigger Greece and a new Turkish nation. Albeit at an enormous cost. Both currencies were ruined and had to depreciate again and again over the next five decades. Who does not remember the numerous zeros on Lira and Drachma bank notes? Millions of Turkish and Greek people had no way to live and had to emigrate. It is not by chance that both countries have such large diasporas.

Turkish Manufacturing Index 1060 - 2020 with USD 1.06 bn in 1960 & USD 157.48 bn in 2020

The remittances, the return of educated diaspora members and the membership of both countries in the NATO finally created the stability necessary to get out of the downside spiral. Globalization and EU were other factors. With Greece’s ascent to the EU, significant capital flowed into the country. For Europe, Turkey became the manufacturing site of choice. For both nations, prosperity and peace went hand in hand. The recent saber rattling does not bode well for the region. The 25 years of war was a disaster. It is to hope that today’s politicians do not forget that nationalism is an easy way to stir up emotions and mobilise people for conflict. It is also history’s biggest killer – closely followed by socialism.

The Aegean is still one Cultural Entity - you only need to travel to find out

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