History Thread: The Glass General and the Burning City

Eleftherios Venizelos had a vision for Greece. As young man on Crete, he had led a rebellion against its Turkish rulers in 1897, triggering British intervention and the island’s union with Greece. As Foreign Minister in the 1910s, he engineered the Balkan League which humiliated the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars. In 1915, Venizelos pressed for Greece to intervene in the First World War; he chafed at the neutrality of King Constantine, a brother-in-law to Kaiser Wilhelm, and connived with Allied agents to foment war. “I must tell you,” he arrogantly told the King in one meeting, “that you have no right on this occasion to differ from me.”

Their dispute, known to historians as the National Schism, triggered a de facto civil war. Britain and France landed an expeditionary force in Salonika, ostensibly to rescue Serbia from Austrian invasion, then to perpetrate a grinding war of attrition. Constantine was forced to abdicate after nationalist riots in Athens triggered Allied troop landings in the capital; Venizelos and the new King, Alexander, declared war on the Central Powers. Greece contributed nine divisions to the Allied victory, though with no great public enthusiasm; its gains at the peace conference were marginal compared to the 5,000 lives lost and the turmoil it enabled.

Eleftherios Venizelos

Still, in the postwar climate Venizelos spied an opportunity. With Greece’s ancient enemy Turkey now prostrate and its own armies mobilized, now-Prime Minister Venizelos (who described himself as “a revolutionary by profession and a lawyer at intervals”) hoped to enact his long-dreamed “Big Idea.” He imagined a new Hellenic Empire spreading from Athens to Ankara, annexing large chunks of Anatolia with its population of “unredeemed Greeks.” Turkey was in no position to resist, but his erstwhile allies might prove a bigger impediment.

Fortunately, Venizelos charmed Allied leaders. Georges Clemenceau enthused that “the whole of Europe will be speaking of him.” Even more impressed was David Lloyd George, who branded Venizelos “the greatest statesman Greece has thrown up since Pericles.” Lloyd George had complicated motives for assisting Venizelos. The old “Eastern Question” flared up again as the Allies debated how to administer Turkey, particularly Constantinople and the Dardanelles, site of the futile Gallipoli landings that cost 250,000 British and French lives. Fear of a now-hostile Bolshevik Russia, along with distrust of his allies, caused Lloyd George to grope for a solution.

Besides which, the Welsh Wizard hoped that Greece could enforce the Treaty of Sevres dismembering the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France were having a difficult enough time garrisoning their new “mandates” in Iraq, Palestine and Syria; they couldn’t spare any troops of their own. Italy dispatched an expedition to Anatolia, but Lloyd George didn’t trust his mercurial ally, who complained loudly of their “mutilated victory” and hungered for new colonies. A renewal of the Anglo-Greek alliance seemed ideal for both countries.

David Lloyd George

So a deal was reached. As British sailors and French soldiers occupied Constantinople (bloodlessly, this time), Venizelos sent two divisions to seize Smyrna. This was the vanguard of a massive Greek Army which numbered, at its height, a quarter of a million men. No doubt he recalled his stirring exhortation from the earlier Balkan Wars. “Greece expects you not merely to die for her, for that is little, indeed,” he had announced then. “She expects you to conquer.” A decade later, with the apparent backing of Western Europe, the Greek Army would conquer in earnest.

Initially, the hapless Ottomans couldn’t organize effective resistance. The Greeks annexed large portions of territory, including the cosmopolitan port of Smyrna, winning a series of victories in the war’s early days. Accompanying these military triumphs were atrocities against Turkish civilians, with historian Arnold Toynbee witnessing “the unashamed brutality of the Greek officers, soldiers, brigands and civilians” who killed thousands of Turks in the war’s opening months. Venizelos’ Ionian Vision, it seemed, had no place for Muslims.

But as the conflict ground on, Greece’s domestic turmoil reignited. In October 1920, King Alexander was bitten by a pet monkey in his garden; when he died of an infection, Winston Churchill claimed, “a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.” His death led to the reinstatement of King Constantine I, who still harbored suspicions towards the countries who’d earlier ousted him from power. An election in November 1920 removed Venizelos from office, replacing him with pro-Constantine Dimitrios Gounaris. Gounaris initially pledged to end the war, causing Greece’s allies to warily reconsider their support.

Mustafa Kemal

In Turkey, however, a new threat arose: Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli and Turkey’s only undefeated general. He forged an army of nationalists, deposed the impotent Sultan and stymied Greece’s offensive just short of his capital at Ankara. Kemal could match Venizelos in fiery rhetoric: “Not even an inch of the motherland may be abandoned without being soaked in the blood of her citizens,” he ordered. And his men could best the Greeks in bloodletting: when the Armenian town of Marash, protected by French troops, fell in February 1920, the Turks massacred 5,000 of its Armenian inhabitants.

The prejudices which had led the Allies to underestimate Turkey during the war died hard. Certainly the Ottoman Empire had been defeated; their empire dissolved, their armies defeated, Sultan Mohammed V disgraced. But defeat and occupation only seemed to nourish, rather than diminish Turkish nationalism. And for all Kemal’s ruthlessness, it’s easy to see why he commanded such support. After all, Turkish citizens could accept losing fractious Arab provinces as the cost of independence. Their homeland, however, was another story.

French occupation forces

Realizing his own precarious political situation, Gounaris suddenly found enthusiasm for the war. Even so, politics dictated his actions. As Kemal’s resurgent Turks regained ground in Anatolia, Gounaris sacked generals he deemed disloyal or incompetent, leaving the Army without experienced leadership. He first offered command to Ioannis Metaxas, the former Army of Chief of Staff, who declined on the grounds that the war was unwinnable. The Prime Minister’s second option, unfortunately, proved the worst choice imaginable.

There was little in Georgios Hatzianestis’s career which recommended him to lead an army. He served competently in the Balkan Wars as a junior officer, earning a promotion to Colonel and command of the 5th Infantry Division at Drama. During his brief command of this division, however, Hatzianestis proved a martinet of the worst sort; he abused soldiers for unkempt uniforms and improper haircuts, leading subordinates to protest his conduct. Enlisted men, however, had the final say; in 1915, with Greece still neutral in the Great War but preparing for mobilization, the 5th Division mutinied en masse, citing their commander as the reason. The mutiny was crushed by other units, and Hatzianestis was unceremoniously sacked.

Georgios Hatzianestis

A supporter of King Constantine, Hatzianestis found his country in little need of his services after Venizelos took power and Greece entered the war. He spent the war abroad as a military attaché, observing other armies but profiting little from the experience. In the fall of 1920, however, his fortunes changed. At the King’s behest, Gounaris promoted Hatzianestis to Lieutenant General and gave him command of an Army in Turkey. In May 1922, as the war’s tide turned against Greece, he assumed overall command of the Greek Army – and doomed his cause to oblivion.

Hatzianestis’s leadership was, at best, erratic. He resumed his old habits, shouting abuse at his men for improperly maintaining their hygiene and weapons. When his subordinates complained that the Greek Army was overextended in the Anatolian interior, leaving it vulnerable to counterattack, he refused to reorganize his lines while leaving others to handle details. After several months of such behavior, Hatzianestis lost interest in command altogether. He retired to Smyrna, where he took up residence in a private yacht, venturing ashore only to eat elaborate meals at a seaside restaurant.

Hatzianestis at the Front: A rare occurrence

By August 1922, Kemal finally marshalled enough troops for a decisive counterattack. In the Battle of Dumlupinar (August 26-30), the Turkish Army smashed Hatzianestis’s forces in detail, inflicting 12,000 casualties and sending the Greeks in full flight back to Smyrna. King Constantine, who had shielded Hatzianestis from criticism over the past year, finally relieved him of command. Easier said than done: the King named his second-in-command, Nikolaos Trikoupis, as his replacement, only to find that the general had been captured by Kemal.

Soon afterwards, American correspondent Constantine Brown met Hatzianestis in a hotel. The General initially impressed Brown as “a tall, handsome man and the very picture of military correctness and confidence.” With unflagging confidence, he insisted that his troops had won “smashing victories” against Kemal and that reports of Greek defeat were enemy propaganda. Regrettably, however, he wasn’t able to join his men at the front. Because, as he told Brown, “my legs are made of glass and I cannot take the risk of breaking them.” Brown waited for a smirk, a chuckle, some indication that Hatzianestis was joking. Studying the General’s solemn demeanor, Brown recalled, “it suddenly dawned on me that I was talking to a madman.”

Greek soldiers: lions led by lunatics

For Hatzianestis’s inactivity wasn’t merely the result of incompetence; he had lost his mind. Suffering a breakdown under stress, he retreated to his yacht, insisting to his harried staff that even standing might shatter his limbs (though restaurant hopping, apparently, didn’t tax him much). An army doctor, Theodore Stephanides, consulted old comrades of Hatzianestis for advice. He discovered that this delusion wasn’t new; ever since the Drama Mutiny, fellow officers had nicknamed the General gyalopodi (glass legs) for his recurring hallucinations. A common delusion among the mentally ill, it proved fatal in a general.

As the Turkish Army approached Smyrna, Hatzianestis abdicated all responsibility. At one point, an officer tried to rouse Hatzianestis to rally his army and defend the city. He found the General lying in bed, staring wordlessly at the ceiling. He baffled his subordinate by insisting that he couldn’t join his men ashore because he was dead. And how could a dead man give orders? Eventually, Hatzianestis resurrected long enough to order his men to evacuate Smyrna, himself being the first to leave, with his staff, in his yacht.

Kemal and staff enter Smyrna

On September 9th, Smyrna fell to the Turks. Despite Kemal’s assurance that the city would be spared, beginning on the 13th his army initiated a horrifying rampage. Turkish accounts insist that Smyrna was burned either accidentally or by Greeks, claims belied by hundreds of witnesses who recalled Turkish soldiers dousing homes, businesses and even people with gasoline. Survivors’ accounts of this Golgotha recall the ravages of medieval warfare more than the 20th Century; contemporary accounts employed the term “holocaust,” later applied to a more systematic genocide.

The testimony of Sergeant Tchorbadjis, a city fireman, can stand for many. “In one house I found a trail of blood that led me to a cupboard,” he recalled decades later. “Inside was the naked body of a girl, with her breasts cut off.” Emerging from this gruesome scene, he saw a soldier enter another house “where there was an Armenian family hiding and massacred the lot. When he came out his scimitar was dripping with blood,” which he casually wiped off on his trousers. Tchorbadjis later encountered a gang of Turks gouging out an old man’s eyes in the street, and watched others hang a young girl from a lemon tree.

Destruction of Smyrna

In a week-long orgy of arson, rape and murder, Kemal’s army leveled Smyrna. By the time the fires receded, as many as 100,000 Greek and Armenian citizens were killed and over a million displaced, far exceeding the Greek Army’s earlier atrocities. Warships from Greece’s Western allies – Britain, France and the United States – stood by in the harbor, watching in passive horror; under orders not to intervene, only a few American missionaries, a single British warship, a Japanese merchant vessel and a handful of conscience-driven Turks worked to rescue survivors. Soon afterwards, Smyrna was renamed Izmir, and Athens sued for peace.

The Allies now abandoned the Greeks altogether; one disgusted British MP proclaimed the Greek Army “bad at fighting but first class at murder.” France, who had already made peace with Kemal, withdrew their last, token detachments from Anatolia. Italy, who had been covertly arming Kemal to stymy the Greeks, followed suit soon after Smyrna. Italy’s withdraw triggered a nationalist backlash which further corroded their tottering Republican government; this anger contributed to Mussolini’s March on Rome, which occurred several weeks later.

That left Lloyd George, reaping the wind he had sown. In late September, a confrontation between British and Turkish troops at Chanak (Canakkale) threatened wider conflict; Lord Curzon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, warned that Kemal’s offensive spelled “the loss of the whole results of the victory over Turkey in the last war.” Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for Colonies, added that “another Balkan War would be inevitable.” Lloyd George, resolve thus stiffened, declared that “in no circumstance could we allow the Gallipoli Peninsula to be held by the Turks.”

British sailors in Constantinople

Lloyd George did, soon afterwards, send more ships and several regiments of soldiers to Constantinople. But public outcry, resistance from the Empire’s Dominion states and France’s refusal to back England’s play caused Lloyd George to reconsider. Instead, on October 3rd he commenced negotiations with Kemal, who assured British diplomats that he had no designs on Britain or France’s new-won possessions in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Thus Lloyd George withdrew from Constantinople, allowing Kemal (who renamed the city Istanbul) to declare the Turkish Republic.

Soon after, Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition, which had endured since 1916, collapsed; conservatives, infuriated by his capitulation, turned against him. A no-confidence vote resulted in the Welsh Wizard’s ouster from power; he remained active in the Liberal Party, but never held office again. Winston Churchill, too, was sacked for his role in the Crisis; from 1922 through 1924, he was removed from Government altogether. Greece’s defeat, it appeared, was toppling governments all over Europe.

Meanwhile, the search for scapegoats consumed Greece, with Venizelos, his allies and the King’s enemies using Smyrna’s fall to settle scores permanently. Within days, a military junta overthrew King Constantine, instated his son George II on the throne, and returned Venizelos to power. Venizelos and his allies made clear that they weren’t content with this victory. “The Revolution cannot rest with the resignation of Constantine,” the junta proclaimed, “because the political and military Constantinist clique must be neutralized.”

The Trial of the Six

Among those who “must be neutralized” was the General whom Lloyd George branded a “mental defective.” General Hatzianestis, along with Prime Minister Gounaris, Prince Andrew, four government ministers and two other military officers, were arrested for treason. One historian observed that the trial became, in effect, “a wide-ranging discussion about politics,” with Venizelos’ liberals pitted against Gounaris’s nationalists. The trial’s rigged nature showed as Venizelos’ political allies appeared as prosecution witnesses, testifying to the ill-intentions and incompetence of the accused, of which they had little firsthand knowledge.

As the sham trial unfolded, Hatzianestis’s mental state deteriorated further. He repeatedly threatened suicide and complained that he was unfit to stand trial, which he may well have been. But if the General’s decline earned sympathy, his stubborn insistence that he was betrayed by his “army of deserters” eroded it. He wouldn’t accept personal responsibility for his defeat, but neither would he blame his political allies. Unfortunately, blaming his own soldiers failed to salve his reputation.

On November 15th, Gounaris, Hatzianestis and the four ministers were sentenced to death. Thirteen days later, the six were executed by firing squad; Hatzianestis, his legs no longer fragile, stood defiantly at attention before he was shot, his corpse toppling into a pre-dug grave. Two others received life imprisonment; Prince Andrew was exiled along with his wife and one-year son, England’s future Prince Philip.

Turks on the March

With Venizelos’ “Ionian Vision” no longer viable, he recognized Kemal’s government and negotiated a population transfer between Greece and Turkey, denuding the former of its Turkish population and the latter of most of its remaining Greeks. Venizelos’ opponents, however, were not wholly defeated. Ioannis Metaxas, whose refusal of the Anatolian command saved his life, led a coup d’etat in 1936 which banished Venizelos permanently. Metaxas implemented a brutal dictatorship that lasted until Hitler’s invasion in 1941. These rifts in Greek politics, exacerbated by fascist occupation and Cold War geopolitics, remain unhealed long after the war.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey have similarly never fully healed, occasionally causing political, economic and even military confrontations. Modern Turkey is no more willing to accept responsibility for Smyrna’s destruction than they are the genocide of Armenians. But Venizelos, Gounaris and Lloyd George, among others, shared responsibility for Smyrna by starting a pointless, mutually destructive war. If anything, the Glass General might have been the least culpable of its major participants.

Sources and Further Reading

This is a brief overview of a complex subject that’s rarely received detailed treatment in English. For this article I used David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922 (1989); Giles Milton, Paradise Lost: Smyrna, 1922 (2008); Michael Llewelyn Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 (1998), from which I draw my portrait of Hatzianestis; and David Walder, The Chanak Affair (1969).