From the peaks of success to the pits of failure
Venizélos in 1919
Venizélos went to the peace talks in Paris at the head of his country’s delegation. Given full credit for his loyalty to the allies as well as his abilities as a leader and statesman, he made a strongly favorable impression on the allied negotiators in general—especially David Lloyd George, the British prime minister.

Settling the peace between the allies and the Turks was the most complicated of the peace negotiations, and took the longest time. The talks stretched out over a couple of years, most of which the prime minister of Greece spent in Paris and environs, rather than at home. Venizélos was bargaining to get as much as possible of the territory embraced by the Great Idea. As Woodhouse notes, the prudent statesmanship he had shown when making peace with the Turks and Bulgarians after the Balkan wars was now absent. It may have fallen victim to the importance Venizélos had newly assumed on the European scene.
David Lloyd George in 1919
With Lloyd George in his corner, however, it appeared that he had a fair chance of success. Venizélos got Greece involved in a French invasion of southern Russia to support the anti-Bolshevik counterrevolution. This futile effort, which lasted only a few months in early 1919, had no result for Greece except lengthening the list of casualties and contributing to a growing war-weariness. According to Woodhouse, Lloyd George “seduced” Venizélos into this adventure, although I’ve seen in a Greek account that the principal seducer was the French prime minister Clemenceau, who dangled a promise of support for the Greeks’ territorial claims in return for their help in defeating Bolshevism.

Supported by Lloyd George, Venizélos was authorized to occupy Smyrna in May, 1919, just as the ineffectual expedition in southern Russia was ending. Greek troops were shifted from there to Smyrna (despite objections from the Italians, who protested that the city—Turkey’s second largest—was within the “sphere of influence” they had been promised in Asia Minor as one of the prizes for getting into the war).
Greece according to the Treaty of Sèvres, 1920
The Treaty of Sèvres, the final product of the long negotiations over the terms of peace with Turkey, was not ready for signing until August of 1920. It gave Greece nearly everything Venizélos had been asking for. As Woodhouse says, “[the settlement] may well have seemed to the Greeks too good to be true, and so it proved.” This triumphal map, produced during the heady days that followed the signing of the treaty, shows “Great Greece,” including the new territories it was to gain outright, in solid red, and territories over which it was to have some shared measure of control in diagonal red stripes. Bulgaria, having fought on the wrong side, lost its little strip of Aegean coastline to Greece, and the seaport town of Dedeagach was renamed Alexandroúpolis when the young king paid the town a visit soon after the Bulgarians handed it over in 1920.

The victorious prime minister overlooks his handiwork from the upper left corner of the map, and a curvaceous personification of Greece supports both the national flag and a tablet bearing the triumphant inscription “Greece is destined to live, and it will live.” The source is Charílaos Trikoúpis, the same 19th-century statesman whose campaign had induced King George I to start appointing governments based on their success at the polls.
Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk)
But, unfortunately for Greece, the Treaty of Sèvres was soon a dead issue. While the allies had been taking their time over plans for the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, another force was at work. Mustafa Kemal, an army officer who had helped organize the Young Turks in 1908, founded a national movement in reaction against the Turkish humiliation in the Balkan wars and the Great War. Starting in the middle of 1919, he gathered his forces in the center of what is now Turkey, making Ankara the seat of a new provisional government. By the following summer, when the Sèvres treaty was signed, Kemal was a power that no one could ignore. He had raised and trained an army, procured weapons and gold through an alliance with Lenin’s Russia, and fought a successful campaign to deny the new Democratic Republic of Armenia the Ottoman provinces it had been granted in the treaty. Kemal made no secret of his intention to get all foreign troops out of Turkey.

Neither Lloyd George nor Venizélos took an accurate measure of Kemal and his movement, but the Greek prime minister could see the potential threat to his territorial achievements. In October, 1920, with Lloyd George’s encouragement, he ordered his troops in Smyrna to invade central Turkey, intending to put a stop to Kemal’s interference. Woodhouse justly describes this as a “disastrous blunder.” It would soon lead to catastrophe for Greece.

What came first, however, was a personal catastrophe for Venizélos. On October 25, 1920, King Alexander of Greece died of blood poisoning, contracted a few weeks earlier when he tried to defend his pet dog from the bites of two monkeys who attacked it in the royal gardens.

The first parliamentary elections since 1915 had been scheduled for October 25, but were postponed until November 1 because of the king’s death. Venizélos, riding on his military and diplomatic successes, expected an easy victory for the Liberals, but the election results dramatically overturned his expectation. The United Opposition, a coalition of right-wing and royalist parties, won 251 of the 369 seats, the Liberals (despite a slight edge in the popular vote) won only 118, and Venizélos lost his own seat.

Several reasons have been suggested for this upset:
  • The opposition united several anti-Venezelist parties under the leadership of Dimítrios Gounáris, a popular right-wing politician who had been exiled during the Venizelist ascendency in 1917.
  • The throne was vacant. Alexander’s younger brother, Prince Paul, responded to the government’s invitation to return from exile with a dramatic message declaring “[…] The throne does not belong to me; it belongs to my august father King Constantine, and, constitutionally, my eldest brother is his successor. Neither of them has ever renounced his rights, but both have been obliged to leave Greece in obedience to the dictates of their patriotic duty." This caused a sensation when it was read in parliament, and the opposition managed to turn the election into a referendum on the return of King Constantine, whose 1917 decision to depart without formally abdicating proved to have been a shrewd one. He was still very popular in “Old Greece” (i.e., the part inside the 1821 borders).
  • In “New Greece,” Venizélos was Crete's hero, but in Macedonia and Thrace there were thousands of Muslims and Jews who had, by his efforts, become Geek citizens through no wish of their own. Unsurprisingly, they voted against him.
1920 election cartoon
  • Perhaps most significantly, during the election campaign, the opposition appealed strongly to the general war-weariness of the country, implying that they would end Venizélos’ adventure in Asia Minor and bring the troops home. In this cartoon, a voter (wearing a foustanella so that we’ll know he’s a typical Greek) approaches a ballot box. An armed and armored figure with black wings and the face of a loony old man represents war (pólemos), as the inscription on his black-plumed helmet verifies. So that’s the issue under consideration. Venizélos points to the white side of the box, labeled ‘yes,’ while Gounaris indicates the black side, labeled ‘no.’ The voter holds his ballot, a small lead ball, and is about to stick his arm into a cylindrical chute, where he can drop the ballot into either the Yes or the No side of the box.
Constantine and Sophia (with deceased Alexander) after resuming the monarchy
In the aftermath of this electoral disaster for himself and his party, Venizélos announced his intention to return to private life, and left Greece for France. This sudden decision left the Liberals without leadership. Not long afterwards, in December, 1920, a plebiscite returned King Constantine to the throne by a large majority. This print was probably made then, or not long afterwards. The printing at the bottom is too blurred to read, but the time is suggested by the inset portrait of their son, the recently deceased King Alexander. Also, Constantine seems to have aged a bit, compared with earlier prints. (Sophia doesn’t look much older, but perhaps popular printmakers dealt more chivalrously with queens.)

The allied powers were dismayed by Constantine's return. France wanted to forbid it outright, but other governments were reluctant to contravene the clearly expressed wish of the Greek people in a matter that was, after all, their business. (An early sign, perhaps, that the tradition of great power high-handedness was beginning to falter.) However, the allied powers declined to recognize Constantine as king, and they withdrew the economic subsidies they had been giving to Greece.
Greek infantry in an Asia Minor desert, August 1921
Considering the importance of the war-weariness issue in the election that brought him back to power, it would have been wise for the king and his government to extinguish the offensive in Turkey, but instead they listened to Constantine’s military advisors and decided to go ahead with it. Remarks in a Wikipedia article suggest that the problem was finding a way out that was ‘honorable’—i.e., saved Greece’s face. (If I remember correctly, we had a similar problem with the Viet Nam war.)

So, contrary to campaign promises, the war went on. The king and his government purged the army of Venizelist officers and replaced them with commanders selected for staunch royalism rather than experience in the field. The advance into central Asia Minor continued. In June, 1921, Constantine—intent, as always, on demonstrating his generalship—moved into the Greek GHQ in Smyrna and took personal command of the campaign. The advance into central Asia Minor continued, and by August the Turks had pulled back to a defensive line on the Sakarya River, only 50 miles west of Ankara, but strongly protected by the river and steep, rocky terrain beyond it. Constantine and his advisers had to decide whether to dig in where they were, or push on in the hope of fighting a battle that would settle the Kemal business decisively. They ultimately decided to go for it, but they took so long to come to this decision that the Turks had plenty of time to prepare.
Greek popular print of the Battle of Sakarya, September 1921
The Greek army made contact with the Turkish lines on August 23, and an intense battle began that went on for three weeks. In the first days of fighting, the Greeks succeeded in pushing forward under heavy fire, and captured an important mountaintop position. On September 2 they launched a fierce assault in the center, and some units got through the Turkish second line of defense and came as close as 31 miles to Ankara. But that advance, like the rail fence that Pickett's charge reached at Gettysburg, was their high-water mark in the war. This print proclaims the Battle of Sakarya a defeat for the Turks. That might have had some accuracy on September 2, but the battle still had eleven days to run. (It wouldn't be a good idea to take this print as a historical document. Contrary to the Greek and French subtitles, the battlefield was nowhere near the sources of the river.)

The Greeks received neither supplies nor reinforcements after the battle began, because Turkish cavalry and other forces were able to disrupt their long supply line. The Turks, though not lavishly equipped, were on their own turf, and small detachments of fresh troops continued to join them. Several days passed in which neither army had the strength to attack the other.

On September 8, Kemal, taking personal command, led a counterattack. Although its success was limited, it apparently caused Constantine to reflect that the tide of events was turning against him. His army wasn't up to a further offensive push, and it would be a bad thing for them to be caught in this advanced but also exposed position by the coming winter.

So the Greeks backed out and moved 150 miles back toward Smyrna. The army retreated slowly and in good order, but it was clear that victory was no longer in sight. Greek printmakers might have declared the Battle of Sangarios (the Greek name for the Sakarya) a defeat for the Turks, but the Turks call it the turning point in their war of independence.

The allies, having finally taken note of Kemal’s power, announced that the Treaty of Sèvres would have to be superseded by a new treaty. France and Italy, having no love for Constantine, had deserted the Greek cause already—France had signed an agreement with Kemal and was selling him arms and ammunition. Britain, Greece’s last hope, said that nothing could be done until a new peace conference was organized, and advised the Greeks to dig in until then.

They managed to hold on through the winter. In the spring of 1922, a conference of allied foreign ministers, held in Paris, tried to arrange a cease-fire. The Greeks were willing, but Kemal would assent only on condition that their army first get out of Asia Minor. Although Constantine's government didn’t refuse point-blank, it began working on plans that would enable Greece to keep Smyrna and environs. Meanwhile, the out-of-power Venizelists were appealing to Greeks all over the world to stand firm against abandoning any of the territory that rightfully belonged to Greece.
Turkish offensive, August 1922 (from a panorama)
As a result, nothing was done until late summer. The Greek army had been sitting still, on the defensive, for nearly a year, and its morale was poor. In August, 1922, Kemal unleashed an overwhelming attack all along the line. It took only ten days to crush the Greeks thoroughly. The Turks captured half their army (and all of its heavy equipment) and drove the remainder back to Smyrna and out of Turkey. I found this picture on a site that provided no information, other than “Panorama The Greco-Turkish War 1921–1922” in the title. It’s apparently part of a Turkish panorama, and the chances are good that it represents some part of the triumphant assault that finished the war.

Ernest Hemingway, who was present as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, included the following fragment in the recollections of the hero of his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”:
That same night he left for Anatolia and he remembered, later on that trip, riding all day … to where they had made the attack with the newly arrived Constantine officers, that did not know a god-damned thing, and the artillery had fired into the troops and the British observer had cried like a child.

That was the day he'd first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the officers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever. Later he had seen the things that he could never think of and later still he had seen much worse. So when he got back to Paris that time he could not talk about it or stand to have it mentioned.
Although we can’t know exactly what Hemingway was referring to in those last two sentences, it has been amply reported that the Greek army, during its retreat, burned Turkish villages, and robbed, raped, and/or killed many of the inhabitants. And of course there are countervailing reports that accuse the Turks of treating Greek villages the same way.
The defeated Greek army, having abandoned Smyrna on September 8, retreated westwards, pursued by the Turks, to the port of Çeşme, where, on September 16, Greek naval ships took them aboard. The island of Chios, Greek territory, was only about five miles away, and what was left of the army found its way to this and other nearby Greek islands. The people of Smyrna were left to their fate.
Turkish print of the army entering Izmir, September 1922
The Turkish army arrived in the city on the morning of September 9. It was crowded with refugees who had fled ahead of them, some Armenian, most Greek. They and the city’s Christian residents were terrified, but hoped that the numerous allied warships in the harbor would protect them. This Turkish print makes the army’s entry look a good deal more orderly than it probably was, though the burning building in the background foreshadows what was to follow.

Turkish mobs, at least sometimes including soldiers, began sacking and plundering almost immediately, particularly Armenian homes and businesses. Many Armenians and Greeks—the latter including the Orthodox archbishop—were hacked to death in the streets.

The death of Archbishop Chrysóstomos was apparently the direct responsibility of the Turkish commander Nureddin Pasha. According to Wikipedia, he had the archbishop brought to his headquarters, berated him, and then personally shoved him out the door into the arms of an angry Turkish mob, whom he invited to do as they would with him. The churchman was dragged, beaten, stabbed, mutilated, and ultimately murdered, apparently within the view of French soldiers, whose commander ordered them not to interfere.
Greek painting of the Smyrna disaster
On September 13, a fire began in the Armenian quarter and, driven by a high wind, soon engulfed the Greek quarter as well; the Great Fire of Smyrna, as it’s called, burned for four days. Kemal’s official report blamed Armenian arsonists for starting the fire, but other testimony indicates that Turkish mobs, including members of the liberating army, were to blame; some claimed they saw army officers and men torching and throwing accelerants onto the houses. (As usual in such matters, each version has its true believers to this day.) This contemporary picture expresses the Greek perception of the event, and probably reflects that perception authentically even though the details may come from the artist’s imagination. A portrait of the martyred Archbishop Chrysóstomos is up in the corner.

The quayside was thronged with panic-stricken Christians trying desperately to escape the fire and other manifestations of Turkish wrath, but the British and Americans were now wary of displeasing the winning side, while the French and Italians were already allied with Kemal. So each navy was ordered to help no one but its own nationals. Nevertheless, some captains and crews disregarded this order and did what they could for the victims, though that wasn’t very much.
Asa K. Jennings
An important exception to that last qualification was the work of an American named Asa K. Jennings, a minor employee of the YMCA, who after seeing his family safely aboard an American destroyer, stayed behind in Smyrna to try to help the refugees. After the fire, the Greeks and Armenians of the city had joined the refugees, who now numbered about 300,000 Greeks and 50,000 Armenians. He went to Mustafa Kemal and got permission to bring in ships to take the refugees off, he went to the island of Mytilíni, where he argued the Greek authorities into letting him commandeer all the merchant ships in the harbor, and he succeeded in bringing out all 350,000 of the refugees in eleven days—except for men of “military age,” 17–45, whom Kemal refused to release for fear that they would return as an invading army. They were marched off to work camps instead. Jennings continued the work of transporting Greeks from Asia Minor to Greece for another year, eventually commanding a fleet of 55 vessels. He was said to have been responsible for the repatriation of 1,250,000 people. His fascinating story (of which this is a scant outline) is told by his grandson on a website that I urge you to visit (which you can do by clicking this green button):
The brown button, as usual, will take you to the next page: