Ups and downs: the perilous path from 1914 to 1918
The end of the Balkan wars saw Venizélos at the peak of his success. According to C. M. Woodhouse (in Modern Greece: A Short History):
Despite some friction in the past, Venizélos and the king were reconciled by the triumphs of the war and the circumstances of the succession. Venizélos was the dominant figure of south-east Europe. A master of compromise, he had succeeded not only in establishing a genuine friendship with the Serbs, but also in making peace with Bulgaria and Turkey on terms which avoided humiliating the enemy without exacerbating nationalistic feeling in Greece. It was an achievement that would have been beyond the grasp of any Greek who was not at the same time a genius in diplomacy, a humane and far-seeing statesman, and an unchallenged leader of his countrymen. The disasters which were to follow within a year or two, and the errors of judgment which Venizélos committed later in life should not be allowed to diminish the brilliant reputation which he rightly enjoyed in the fiftieth year of his life.
Prime Minister Venizélos and King Constantine, 1913
This photo shows Venizélos and Constantine in a friendly conversation just before or during the second Balkan war. (The mourning band on the king's arm indicates that this was after his father's death, which occurred between the two wars.) But, as Woodhouse’s last sentence indicates, bad times were ahead. When World War I broke out only a year after the Balkan peace was signed, the prime minister and the king reacted in opposite directions. Venizélos wanted to join the allies (Britain, France, Russia, and Serbia), especially after Turkey came in on the opposite side, and attempts to keep Bulgaria from doing the same proved unsuccessful. Given his liberal politics, he had a natural affinity for Britain, but his main interest was to defend Greece’s recent territorial gains from the Bulgarians, who believed they'd been robbed by the Treaty of Bucharest. Venizélos also expected that an allied victory would finish the Ottoman empire, and hoped that if Greece fought on the allies' side, it might earn a share of the territorial rewards and so bring the Great Idea closer to full realization.
King Constantine and Queen Sophia
King Constantine’s family background was Danish, but education in Germany had made him a strong admirer of its culture, and his queen (born Sophia of Prussia) was the Kaiser’s sister. Some feel that this is sufficient to explain his preference for the German side, but more feel that the king’s motives were in fact less personal. He genuinely believed that making war against Germany would end in disaster for Greece. On the other hand, there was no point in joining the central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), because Germany had for some time been aligned with the Ottoman empire, and (as the king’s brother-in-law the Kaiser informed him) it therefore had nothing to offer Greece.

So Constantine only wanted Greece to remain neutral instead of joining the allies. He had the support of the Greek general staff, some of whom had received military education in Germany and become familiar enough with that country’s war machine to consider it invincible. However, even though the king felt his neutrality policy to be in Greece’s best interest, it had the effect of being pro-German.
Cartoon of Venizélos losing an Easter game to Constantine
Unable to overcome Venizélos politically, Constantine resorted to high-handed methods, including using his position as commander-in-chief to prevent the army from fulfilling commitments that the parliamentary government had made to the allies. This provoked Venizélos’ resignation on one occasion and later his refusal to participate in an election called by the king). Constantine dismissed one elected government headed by Venizélos (which the Greek constitution permitted a monarch to do), and twice dissolved parliaments in which Venizélos’ Liberal party had a majority and a clear mandate—an act on the king’s part which, though not explicitly illegal, was starkly contrary to precedent and widely considered unconstitutional). This cartoon, obviously royalist in sympathy, shows Constantine as the winner of a Greek game in which the contestants knock Easter eggs end-against-end until the winner’s egg cracks that of the loser (in this case a weeping Venizélos). Constantine says “I broke you, Mr. Chairman, but don’t cry, because it may turn out for the best.”
In Woodhouse’s words, “Constantine … treated with undisguised contempt the constitutional principle of the parliamentary mandate, which Trikoúpis had obliged his father to accept in 1875.” The parliamentary mandate is the principle that the monarch must ask the party that wins the greatest number of seats in parliament to form a government. It is taken for granted in modern parliamentary democracies, but it had not been the practice during the first half century of Greek independence—the king could invite whomever he pleased to head a government, regardless of election results. George I began his reign in the same style, but while still young he was influenced by democratic politicians to take the voice of the people more seriously. In time he became a model constitutional monarch.

The quarrel between King Constantine and his prime minister came to a head in October 1915, when Serbia, with which Venizélos had established a close relationship, was overwhelmed by a German and Bulgarian invasion. The prime minister insisted that Greece must fulfill its treaty obligation to aid Serbia if Bulgaria attacked it.

Bulgaria had mobilized its army during the previous month. Although it hadn’t yet declared for the central powers, it was clear which way the country was moving, and Venizélos had, by threatening to resign, compelled the king to order a Greek mobilization also. But the king insisted that its purpose was defensive only, and involved no commitment to Serbia. Venizélos’ response was to invite Britain and France to send an expeditionary force to Salonika, which he was very much afraid of losing to the Bulgarians.
French troops in Salonika, 1915
Now, a month later, Bulgaria was making war on Serbia, and Greece was bound by treaty to come to Serbia’s aid. But the king refused to order the troops to move. Venizélos forced a vote through parliament declaring war on Bulgaria; the king’s response was to dismiss his government. Many Greeks, military and civilian, were disgusted by this royal recalcitrance, as were the allies. On the same day Constantine dismissed Venizelos’ government, the first British and French troops arrived in Salonika.
Austrian postcard picture of the Serbian army retreating through Albania
The Serbian army was overwhelmed by the forces thrown against it, but retreated from its own homeland rather than surrender. A French expedition from Salonika was too little and too late. The Serbs made a grueling winter retreat through the mountains of Albania, as shown in this postcard, titled “The Serbian army in flight.” Interestingly enough, it’s an Austrian production, apparently designed to cheer up the home front with a bit of gloating. (The Austrians had been beaten three times by the Serbs before finally sharing in what was really a German and Bulgarian victory.)

The remnants of the Serbian army ended up reduced, exhausted, and helpless on the Adriatic coast. Allied ships transported them to Corfu and other Greek islands, where some died and the rest recovered. (Constantine’s government lodged an official protest against these allied actions.) The survivors were later conveyed to Salonika, where they were reorganized and joined to the Allied force there—still a Serbian army under Serbian command.
Italian propaganda cartoon of the betrayal of Serbia
Public opinion in the countries of the allies was outraged by Greece’s behavior. This Italian postcard has to be classified as pro-war propaganda, since Italy had just decided to throw in its lot with the allies after they outbid the central powers (with whom Italy had been allied before the war) and doubtless had to work up some popular enthusiasm for the adventure. Titled “The Martyred Serbs,” it shows a Serb facing a frontal attack by Germany and Austria while Bulgaria prepares to stab him in the back. Greece looks on from the sidelines, one foot on what must be the treaty it had broken. Although the caricatures are none too accurate, the faces of the attackers seem intended to be those of the monarchs. Franz-Joseph of Austria is recognizable by his whiskers; Bulgaria has a beard like Tsar Ferdinand’s (and carries an imperial cloak); and the Greek evzone might well be Constantine, although his mustache is much less impressive than the king’s.
British cartoon: Athena, degraded, polishes Germanophile Constantine's boots
This British cartoon takes a somewhat loftier view: under the heading “Pallas Athene: ‘Has it come to this?'” it shows the ancient patroness of Athens not upholding Greece’s honor on the field of battle, but instead reduced to polishing Constantine’s boots while he sits reading a German newspaper. The cartoonist, a Germanophobic Dutchman named Louis Raemaekers, had fled to England because, even though Holland was neutral, the Germans, outraged by his savagely critical cartoons in Dutch papers, had offered a reward for him, dead or alive.

Constantine had appointed a supportive government after dismissing Venizélos in October, but after December, 1915 it spoke for a newly elected parliament. Venizélos had refused to run, on the grounds that the king’s dissolution of the sitting parliament was unconstitutional. He also feared that his supporters would be subjected to threats and possibly more by the pro-German party—politics in Athens was becoming a rough game at the time—and advised them to sit the election out. The total number of votes cast was a quarter of the total in the previous election that had chosen the parliament Constantine dissolved. With Liberals boycotting the polls, the king’s supporters of course won a majority. The prime minister the king had appointed in October failed to win his own seat, but this didn’t stop Constantine from keeping him in place as the head of government.

The royalist government showed pro-German tendencies that went well beyond neutrality. They ordered the army not to oppose Bulgarian advances, and in May, 1916 (in an act remembered with bitterness by generations of Greeks) Fort Rupel, a major defensive stronghold on the frontier, was unconditionally surrendered when Bulgarian and German troops approached it. A German officer signed the surrender, but it was the Bulgarians who took over the fort. Constantine’s government also handed them Kavalla, the second-largest port on the Macedonian coast. According to some Greek accounts, the Bulgarians soon set about the business of ethnic cleansing in the areas of Greek Macedonia that they occupied. (All the Balkan countries, including Greece, have been accused of similar behavior. Considering its obvious relevance to the process of establishing territorial rights, a booming business at the time, I’m inclined to believe that every country did at least some of this, but probably none did quite as much as the others claimed.)

The allies, unwilling to put up with any more of Constantine’s shenanigans, demanded that he demobilize the Greek army, dismiss the bogus government, and dissolve the new parliament. The king gave in, but to no practical effect: his general staff never carried out the demobilization order, and the election of a new parliament kept getting postponed.

Venizélos declared publicly that it was no longer possible for his party to participate in governing the country. In September, he returned to Crete, accompanied by the naval chief of staff, Admiral Koundouriótis, who was offended by the policy of the current government even though he had been a minister in it. In his home city of Chaniá, Venizelos proclaimed a revolutionary movement that drew enthusiastic support. Throughout his career, his strongest support came consistently from those areas that had only recently become officially Greek, including not only his native Crete but also Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace. In districts that lay within the boundaries of the original Greek kingdom of 1821, people had a stronger attachment to the monarchy, although Venizélos wasn’t without followers there. And, as the admiral’s presence demonstrates, his military support included members of the high command as well as the rank and file.
The Triumverate of National Defense: Koundouriótis, Venizélos, and Danglís, 1916
At around the same time that Venizélos left Athens for Crete, a group of Venizelist officers, calling themselves the Revolutionary Committee of National Defense, exectuted a coup within the Greek forces stationed in Salonika. They got their support mainly from members of the large Cretan unit. Some troops commanded by officers loyal to the king resisted, and a few casualties ensued, but the French General Sarrail, commanding the allied troops in the city, saw to it that the fighting was stopped and the royalist officers dismissed and sent back to Athens. This was the revolutionary movement Venizélos had proclaimed in Chaniá, and he and Admiral Koundouriótis went to Salonika in early October, where they assembled a provisional government led by a “Triumvirate of National Defense,” which consisted of Venizélos, Koundouriótis, and army General Panayiótis Danglís, one of the coup leaders. Many supporters—some of them Liberal politicians, but a great number members of the military, including officers and soldiers of all ranks—joined them in Salonika.

The allies were not exactly displeased, but their emotions were mixed. Britain and France sympathized with Venizélos, but were reluctant to recognize his movement because they feared the outbreak of a Greek civil war that could draw resources away from their struggle against the central powers. The Italians (recent “converts” to the allied cause) saw Venizélos as a rival claimant for various territories they coveted. To the Tsar of Russia he was nothing but an anti-monarchist. So official recognition was not extended.
French gunners in Athens at the time of the Noemvrianá,
Constantine’s behavior, however, had got him in the allies’ doghouse. They pressured him to retreat from any military actions or positions that threatened their interests. Once again, he caved in, and, in the hope of getting back into the Allies’ good graces, even offered to surrender some of Greece’s arms. But the pro-German faction in Athens raised such a storm of protest that the king quickly went back on this offer. The French admiral then in command at Salonika decided that dispatching a small force to Athens would bring Constantine to his senses, but in the event the Allied troops were fired upon, and returned to Salonika only after blood had been shed on both sides. There followed three days of rioting by a royalist mob that went after the local Venezelists. The fighting took place on November 30 and the rioting on the first three days of December, but for the Greeks, still using the old Julian calendar, all of these events happened in November, and so they are remembered by the name Noemvrianá, based on the Greek name of that month. The French artillerymen in the picture were part of the expedition, but I’m not sure why they were outfitted with pith helmets at the end of November. Perhaps it had something to do with protecting their hearing, but it may be that the French General staff had issued only summer uniforms under the impression that Greece was semitropical.
Colors are presented to newly recruited Greek regiments in Salonika as the Triumvirate looks on, December 1916
The allies retaliated by recognizing Venizélos’ provisional government (seen here presiding over a presentation of colors in December, 1916). The French and British accredited ambassadors to it in Salonika. But Italy and Russia were still not on board, and none of the allies broke off official relations with Constantine’s government in Athens. Illogical as it seems, both governments were officially recognized at the same time. The French, meanwhile, impounded the Greek fleet.

Greek officers and men continued to rally to the support of the provisional government in Salonika; by 1917 they numbered 60,000. The Russian revolution that broke out in March of that year changed the diplomatic situation: after the Tsar was overthrown, it no longer mattered what he thought of Venizélos. Italy, appeased with the promise of additional postwar plums in the Adriatic and Asia Minor, tempered its antagonism. Venizélos’ many supporters rallied in Salonika to demand that the allies repudiate and depose Constantine.
The Spirit of Greece dismisses King Constantine
The allies had indeed run out of patience with the king, and in June, 1917 they finally demanded his abdication, on the incontestable grounds that he had not ruled as a constitutional monarch. They had legal standing to do this because, in the treaty that established Greek independence, way back in 1821, Britain, France, and Russia (which was now out of the game) were named as the country’s protecting powers. The cartoon, another Raemaekers production, replaces Pallas Athene with a personified Hellas (obviously a near relative of Britannia), who clearly indicates to Constantine that it’s time for him to go. If she had a sense of humor, she might be snarling “Heraus!” But Raemaekers was an angry man, and humor appears to be rare in his work.
King Alexander of Greece
Constantine, knowing that his run was over, announced that he and his oldest son, Crown Prince George, who didn’t want the job of successor, were leaving the country. He didn’t explicitly abdicate, but the Allies accepted his action as a reasonable facsimile. The king’s second son, Alexander, who had been educated in England and was thus more inclined to sympathize with the allies than were his father and brother, stepped into the latter’s place. He apparently considered it a temporary arrangement at first, but later became impressed with the way postwar developments seemed to be favoring the Great Idea.
Venizélos, Koundouriótis, and Sarrail inspecting Greek troops in Macedonia
At the end of June, Venizélos moved his government to Athens, where instead of holding an election he recalled the parliament he had headed two years earlier, the one Constantine had dissolved without legitimate cause. A few days later, Greece declared war on the central powers. But it couldn’t join the war effort immediately; the army was in a state of disorganized confusion. According to Woodhouse, it “was full of officers who were at best defeatist, at worst pro-German.” Some had to be exiled. It was nearly a year before the entire Greek army was in fighting shape. In this photo, taken during 1917, Venizélos and Koundouriótis inspect Greek troops in Macedonia with General Sarrail.
Greek army battle flag
At the end of May, 1918, three Greek divisions did most of the fighting in a minor battle that captured a strongly fortified Macedonian site named Skra-di-Legen from the Bulgarians. By the end of that summer, nine Greek divisions were ready to join the allies’ Salonika army in a final push against the enemy in Macedonia. In September and October, the allied force, with Greece's nine divisions now the largest component, broke a German-Bulgarian front that had been nearly stationary for the past two years. The British and Greeks turned east, toward Constantinople, and the French and Serbs drove north through Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia, almost to Hungary. This advance cut Bulgaria and Turkey off from the central powers, and both countries sued for peace. Within a few weeks Austria-Hungary had surrendered to the Italians, an armistice was signed on the Western Front, and the war was over.
Greek soldiers on parade in Paris, 1919
The prospects for Greece and for Venizélos himself had brightened a good deal. No one on the winning side cared to recall the country's long period of neutrality or even its dangerous leanings in the wrong direction. That had all been Constantine’s fault, and he was gone now. The victorious allies had no intention of blaming the king's misdeeds on Venizélos, who had clearly done his best to oppose them, and had ultimately succeeded (with a little help from his friends). Greek soldiers were welcome in the victory parades.

But Greece wasn't the same country it had been before the war. The bitter political divide that was opened between the two newly defined parties of royalists and Venizelists affected Greek politics for decades to come. When the royalists controlled the government, their supporters persecuted the Venezelists (at least in Athens); when the Venezelists returned to power, they didn’t hesitate to give as good as they’d gotten. Politics in Greece was no longer a simple question of which party got to reap the material rewards of holding power.