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  • James Houser

May 15, 1919 - The Greeks Land at Smyrna, beginning Turkish War of Independence

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

May 15, 1919. The dust from World War I has barely settled when Greek soldiers land at Smyrna, on the western coast of Turkey. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire has resulted in an imperialist free for all, and the Turkish people are besieged on all sides. Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, is about to start the Turkish War of Independence, and the future of the Middle East hangs in the balance.

So after yesterday’s Israel post, you could really call this Part II of “Why the Middle East is the way it is.” In both cases, the root cause was World War I.

The aftermath of World War I should be a chapter in every high school history textbook on its own. More people may have died from 1918-1924 than died in the First World War itself from the various aftershocks, civil wars, insurgencies, and ethnic struggles that broke out across a devastated continent. Four empires – the German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian – collapsed in 1917 and 1918, spilling nationalist struggle out across all of eastern Europe. As nations died, were born, were reborn and transfigured in the crisis, the whole area between the Rhine and the Volga, along with the land between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, became the cockpit of chaos. The Russian Civil War alone was a whirlwind of mayhem, and it collided with and merged with all the other craziness. Post-Great War Europe was the nuthouse of history.

In 1914, the Ottoman Empire was widely regarded as “the sick man of Europe.” Only in the last ten years, it had lost most of its European and North African possessions to European conquerors, and its only real territories were Turkey, the Arab lands of Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Arabia, and the Caucasian frontier. Despite attempts at reform, the Ottomans were teetering on the brink of destruction. The major ethnic groups of the empire, including Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Armenians, and Kurds all looked to their own concerns rather than the Empire as a whole. From its capital at Constantinople, the Ottoman elite surveyed the situation and saw the need for reform.

In 1908, the autocratic Sultan Abdul-Hamid II was overthrown and deposed by a group of revolutionaries known as the Young Turks, who held the reigns of power from then on. The Young Turks tried to reform and restructure the empire around an idea of “Ottomanism” – an artificial identity based on imperial loyalty to the idea of the Ottoman Empire, which was supposed to transcend Arabic, Turkish, Armenian or Jewish nationality. Ottomanism never really caught on, and its failure was to be the death knell of the Ottoman Empire. By 1914 all these nations were on their own journeys, and even if World War I had not happened the Ottoman Empire would not last much longer.

The Ottomans did enter World War I, though. Realizing that their major threat was the possibility that the British, French and Russians would carve up their remaining lands, the Young Turks decided to throw in with the Germans, their only remaining hope of salvation. Of course, we know how that all turned out. Though the Ottomans had major successes, including the defeat of Allied forces at Gallipoli and the destruction of a British Indian army at Kut in Iraq, they were doomed. By 1917, the British had taken both Jerusalem and Baghdad, and were steadily pressing northwards into the core of the Empire.

The ideology of Ottomanism had also failed. The Armenians showed close to zero enthusiasm for fighting their fellow Orthodox Christians in Russia, and many Armenians in the Ottoman army deserted or defected. This led to the first large-scale genocide of the 20th Century, the Armenian Genocide, where at the command of Young Turk leadership almost 1.5 million Armenian Christians were slaughtered, and many more enslaved. The Arabs, too, broke out in revolt against the Empire, and in 1916 sided with the British in the hope of gaining an independent kingdom. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, severing any loyalty the Jews of the Ottoman Empire may have had towards their overlords.

By the time that the Ottoman Empire sued for peace in 1918, then, the network of ethnicities and cultures that the Young Turks termed “Ottomanism” had utterly fallen apart, and many of the Young Turks themselves would be hunted down and murdered over the next several years by vengeful Armenians. This combination of events, however, left the last remaining ethnic group of the Empire – the Turks – high and dry, even as events closed in around them.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, of course, had consequences far beyond the Turks. The rise of Arab nationalism, the emerging dominance of the Saudi clan in Arabia, the idea of a Jewish state, ethnic strife in the Caucasus and the shattering of Islamic unity are still felt today. For the Turks, however, there was a very real chance that their independence would be snuffed out completely in the years following World War I.

The League of Nations approved the carving up of the Ottoman Empire. The French would receive a “Mandate” over Syria and Lebanon, and the British would receive one for Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. The Arabian Peninsula was split up into kingdoms.

Constantinople itself was occupied by the British. Taking advantage of the turmoil, multiple European nations invaded Turkey without a mandate at all: the Italians on the southern coast, the French in the south near Syria, the Armenians and Russians from the east.

On May 15, 1919, the Greeks landed at Smyrna on the west coast of Turkey. The Greeks in particular saw great opportunity in the collapse of the Ottomans. There were still large Greek minorities along the west and north coasts of Turkey, relics of the classical Greek settlements from the age of Athens and Sparta. The Greeks also had a long-standing bone to pick with the Ottomans, ever since the Greek War of Independence when many Greek communities in Turkey had been massacred in revenge killings. The Greeks were looking to take as much of the Turkish homeland as they could.

The Ottoman government – basically a lonely, aged Sultan - was virtually a puppet of the British after World War I, and in 1920 he signed the Treaty of Sevres. This document virtually split up what was left of the Ottoman Empire into zones of occupation, including slices for the Greeks, Italians, French, British and Armenians. A mangled Turkish rump state would be left in the center with virtually no means of defense.

To one man this was intolerable. Mustafa Kemal was an Ottoman Turkish general, the “hero of Gallipoli” who had possibly saved the Empire in 1915. He had held later commands against the British in Palestine, and by 1919 he was one of the only remaining Turkish leaders with any sort of reputation. In that year he became the Inspector General of the Ottoman Army, tasked with overseeing the disbanding of the Ottoman Army. In reality, he was scheming to resist the invasion of his homeland.

Kemal oversaw the smuggling of Ottoman arms caches into the Turkish interior, where he made his temporary headquarters in the minor city of Ankara. With the Sultan in Constantinople under the watchful eyes of the British occupiers, Kemal could build up his forces undisturbed, while making contacts and agreements across the chaos of the shattered Ottoman Empire.

In the meantime, further events had alarmed the Turkish population. The Greek occupation at Smyrna, it turned out, had been accompanied by multiple acts of brutality. As the Greek Army’s troops entered the coastal town, the Ottoman soldiers stationed there surrendered. What happened next is a matter of dispute – some say a shot was fired – but soon the Greek soldiers were bayoneting Turks and throwing them into the sea. The depredations spread as Greek soldiers began looting Turkish houses and villages. As the Greek occupiers spread into western Turkey, they carried ethnic vengeance with them, and multiple sackings and atrocities were committed by both Greeks and Turks, both local and national groups. The ethnic violence caused refugee columns to stream from the coast into the interior.

The Smyrna incidents helped to rally support behind Kemal’s faction; the Ottoman Sultan was increasingly seen not as a leader of his nation, but as a useless puppet to the British imperialists. By July 1919, Kemal had begun to form a government in Ankara; when the Sultan tried to recall him to Constantinople, he took a leave of absence from which he would never return, staying in Ankara to plan and prepare for the war he knew was coming. The final break came on January 12, 1920, when the last Ottoman Parliament met in Constantinople. Kemal sent a telegram proclaiming the rightful government of Turkey to be in Ankara, and calling on all loyal Turks to join it.

With this proclamation, the Turkish War of Independence had begun. It would take place on three fronts, with the Turks fighting the Greeks to the west, the French and Italians to the south, and the Bolsheviks and Armenians to the east. Against all odds, the Turks would come out victorious, establishing the modern nation of Turkey from the final wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

In so doing, they would seal a bitter tension between Greek and Turk that remains to this very day. Their hero of this struggle – Mustafa Kemal – would forever after be remembered in Turkey as “Ataturk.”

Tune in on August 27 to find out what happened and how the Turks would fight, and win, their War of Independence.

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