Smyrna, 1919: Mustafa Kemal’s Last Chance

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), pp. 240-242:

The armistice was barely a month old when Mustafa Kemal reached Constantinople, after month of fighting the Arabs. He found the enemy everywhere – British warships in the Bosporus, French troops in the capital, Italians guarding the railways. The Ottoman Empire had been smashed, all the leaders of the Young Turks were abroad in hiding, the Government was led by an old pro-British diplomat from the reign of Abdul Hamid called Tewfik Pasha.

Mustafa Kemal should have been in a unique position, for with Enver gone he had no rival as the only successful general in Turkey. He was also kn own to have consistently opposed joining the Germans in the war. Yet political power eluded him, largely because of his own lack of tact. He passionately advocated ‘Turkey for the Turks’ in political speeches, demanding generous peace terms. He publicly attached Tewfik’s government and the occupation forces; he tried to stem the timid acceptance of total defeat; he tried to form a new political party as the months rolled by – until Turkey was shocked by a blow which to them was even graver than defeat.

In February 1919, Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, made a formal claim to the Peace Conference in Paris for the possession of the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. It was the price which Britain and France had already agreed on as a reward for Greek entry into the war. So many Greeks lived on the Aegean coast that Venizelos’ demands seemed reasonably fair, but there was also a more cogent argument in favour of them. Lloyd George regarded Venizelos as ‘the greatest statesman Greece had thrown up since the days of Pericles’ and it seemed to him highly expedient for the Greeks to replace the Turks as protectors of the British route to India. To President Wilson, a Greek occupation of Smyrna would be preferable to Italian threats to make the Mediterranean an Italian lake. According to the American author Edward Hale Bierstadt, ‘at the suggestion of President Wilson Greece was authorised to occupy Smyrna in order to forestall any Italian move in that direction’.

Three months later, on 15 May, 20,000 Greek troops landed at Smyrna, backed by British, American and French warships, and, as Churchill put it, ‘set up their standards of invasion and conquest in Asia Minor’. Delirious crowds of Greeks – for centuries a subject race of the Ottoman Empire – welcomed their ‘liberators’ who immediately sought revenge by massacring as many Turks as they could find in the city and province.

At first the Turks could not believe the Greeks were in Smyrna. It was one thing to suffer the occupation even of Constantinople by alien troops of the victorious Western powers, but for a former subject people to be presented with one of the greatest cities in Anatolia was an altogether different kind of humiliation. A crowd of 50,000 gathered in protest before the mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Constantinople. Under the machine guns of Allied troops, they carried black flags while black curtains shrouded the national flag of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal was there and (as he later wrote) was obsessed with only one thought – somehow to reach Anatolia and organise resistance to the Greeks, and the docile Turkish government which had given Smyrna away.

To Mustafa Kemal, distrusted by both Turks and British, it must have seemed an impossible dream. He was already known to the Allied occupation authorities as an intractable hotthead with dangerous left-wing sympathies. And, though respected for his military prowess, he was at this time hardly a figure to inspire confidence. Furious and impotent, he had let himself run to seed. Down-at-heel, short of money, he was living at the modest Pera Palace Hotel overlooking the Golden Horn. His face was lined and grey from a recurrence of his disease.

Yet, unknown to Mustafa Kemal, the British, even before the Greeks stepped ashore at Smyrna, had suggested that the Sultan should send a high-ranking officer to deal with increasing violence in the area. The request was not exactly a threat, but it masked an alternative distasteful to the Sultan. If the Turks could not keep their Anatolian house in order, the Allies would have to send in troops.

Mustafa Kemal was the last man anyone would have imagined would be nominated to handle the gathering storm in Anatolia. And yet that is exactly what happened, for he was the last man – the only man – available. At their wits’ end, the Sultan and Damad Ferid, the Grand Vizier, turned to him. The British were horrified; they already had evidence that he was concerned with plots to prepare centres of resistance, and his name was on a list for possible deportation to Malta. The Grand Vizier, however, finally persuaded the British that the troubles in Anatolia were due to rebel factions loyal to the memory of Enver and anxious to restore the Committee of Union and Progress….

Mustafa escaped from Constantinople by barely and hour, thanks to the blundering jealousies of the Allies. Urgent orders were certainly sent to intercept him, but the British, French and Italians all played varying parts in the control of passenger vessels, and each distrusted the others. While they were bickering, Mustafa Kemal slipped through the net.

He landed at Samsun on the Black Sea coast on 19 May 1919 – four days after the Greeks had occupied Smyrna. His orders were to disband the Turkish forces in the area. Instead he immediately started to organise a resistance movement and raise an army.

The Anatolian Greeks and Armenians would pay an especially dear price for these external interventions.

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Filed under Armenia, democracy, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mediterranean, nationalism, Turkey, U.S., war

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