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Greco-Turkish War - 1897

The sanguinary war between Turkey and Greece, arising out of the revolt in Crete and the subsequent conflicts there, was suddenly and rapidly brought to an end through the intervention of the Great European Powers. Nevertheless, in consequence of the community of European interests concerned in the preservation of peace, the hostile encounter between the two nations roused the sympathy and attracted the attention of all Europe in a very remarkable degree, it being felt that every complication in the East contained the germ of further conflict.

The numerous military successes achieved by the Turkish Army during the campaign, and the rapid and energetic blows delivered which crushed the military opposition of the enemy, were fully appreciated in Germany, and confirmed the opinion that the thoroughness which characterised the conduct as well as the operations of the war, is largely to be attributed to the careful and laborious work of German Officers. In the Ottoman Army this has been repeatedly admitted and acknowledged. The numerous distinctions and signs of deference which greet the German Officer, the missions entrusted to him, the spheres of influence accorded to him, the support given in laying the foundation of reforms dictated by the spirit of modern times, have secured Germans a highly honorable and important position on the Bosphorus.

When the German reformers entered the Turkish service in 1883, they found the people in the same military condition in which they had fought the Russians six years before. The Moslem soldiers, who formed excellent material for an army, were without suitable or trained leaders; they stood in need of the systematic, practical, application of the arts of war during a period of peace. The machinery of administration was clumsy, the cog-wheels had no grip. Opportunism, belief in a blind Fate, and the habits of contemplation and of procrastination regulated their actions. . The plan of Army Reform drawn up by von der Goltz in 1886 was approved by the Sultan and was carried out in all its essentials before the end of the year 1893.

Probably no state ever entered upon a conflict under more difficult and trying circumstances, than did Greece in the year 1897. Ruined finances at home, shaken national credit abroad, a party-system divided by faction; the army totally unprepared, without officers or leaders trained either in the art or the conduct of war; in this condition the country rushed into danger. There was an entire absence of all calculation of the resources to be placed in the balance against Turkey. Doubtless a less numerous army animated by courage and resolution may, when acting on the defensive, achieve great results and hold mighty armies in check. This is proved by the struggles of the Spaniards and the Tyrolese in the beginning of the century against the French and their experienced Marshals; but in modern warfare numbers, above ah1, play a decisive part in the attack.

In their jeering defiance of the Turks, the Greeks certainly expected that after the first victorious conflicts they would find allies in the Servians, Bulgarians, and Montenegrins. The King, the leading Minister in the Chamber, the Greek press, and the Phil-Hellenic journals in England were all of this opinion. They declared quite openly that Greece would rouse the whole Balkan Peninsula at one stroke if Crete were not made over to them. According to universal opinion, the mobilised army was to be the nucleus and the point d'appui of a general rising against Turkish rule, to be brought about among the Christians of the Greek Church in Macedonia and Albania.

A Turkish army, reported at 150,000 strong, lay along the extended Macedonian frontier, seasoned troops, under good discipline, and well equipped. Edhem Pasha, commander-in-chief, who gained distinction at the head of a brigade at Plevna, now at 45 years of age a field-marshal, had his headquarters at Elassona, where in five hours half of his force could be concentrated. The Turkish batteries were posted at points on the mountain-line which in large degree commanded the passes — Turkish wiles having secured in 1881 the consent of the powers to a new delineation of the frontier, which assigned nearly a 11 the most defensible positions to their side. Thus their forces at Elassona and Janina were several miles on the Greek side of the boundary agreed on by the powers in the treaty of 1878.

The Greek army, whose main positions were Larissa and Trikhala, had a strength variously reported, inasmuch as it was still in process of formation by new recruits. Probably its number approximated 80,000 designated as regulars, but of whom a portion shewed the characteristics of volunteers, enthusiastic, self-confident, and undisciplined. Also, there were in the field a few thousand irregulars, called volunteers, some of whose methods in war were those of brigands.

The great plains of Thessaly lay open behind the Grecian army, giving an invading foe easy access to the interior. The situation on the northern frontier presented far greater menace of war than the powers had seen in Crete in the month preceding, especially as the allied fleets could do but little to hold the threatened conflict within narrow limits. Fearing lest either Greece or Turkey should declare war, or that a state of actual war should arise any day through an accidental collision of the frowning forces, the powers redoubled their notes of protest to both, pledging themselves to prevent any advantage from being retained by the aggressor.

A popular sympathy with Greece still found utterance in the British press and parliament, but almost entirely through the radicals and a section of the liberal party: it was ineffective because it was unable to point out any practicable line of intervention except by straightway ending the Turkish empire—a remedy whose attempt was seen, by considerations not only military and financial but also humane, to be worse than the case which it sought to mend: it would be the opening of a European war. France showed similar sympathy in much less degree; Italy, still less. It was evident that this was not a day of crusades. It was evident to nearly all the world excepting the people of Greece, that if Greece attacked Turkey, forcing the crisis at this juncture, it would practically be attacking all Europe as far as it involved any serious repression of the dark and dismal anachronism on the Bosphorus.

Greece soon enabled to show Turkey to the world in the attitude of the party first declaring war. Greece had done acts of war in Crete, a Turkish possession, but had labelled her action tbere as a restoration of order, like an interference for quelling law breakers who were committing violent crimes in a friend's house. The powers, while quite ready to allow this or any other denial of a state of war to stand uncontradicted, had hastened to send in their fleets to relieve Greece as soon as possible from such peacemaking. They had even blockaded the island, and had declared their intention to blockade the gulf of Athens itself, lest Greek citizens might further trouble themselves to regulate affairs in Crete. All this showed a hard-worked, thinly veiled diplomacy.

On 09 April 1897 all was thrown into confusion by 1,500 (soma say 3,000) "Greek irregulars"—brigands who had long been known as in process of military organization aud equipment by the "Ethnike Helairiii" or National League. They crossed the frontier near Grevena, and soon came into conflict with the Turkish outposts. Within three days several other bands entered Macedonia and Epirus at various points. With the Greeks were a large number of Italian volunteers. The invaders — they were called "insurgents" — were commanded by three ex-officers of the Greek army. Their purpose was to push northward to the Turkish rear.

The Greek government, the legislature, and the people of the little kingdom—still clinging to the theory that Europe would finally prevent any great damage to it by the Moslem power, and probably still cherishing their early hopes of a helpful rising in Macedonia and of a warlike movement in the Balkan states against their ancient oppressor on the Bosphorus—kept their self -confidence, and greeted with wild cheers Premier Delyannis's announcement in the chambers that the war had actually begun.

Immediately war began. The first great struggle was on April 17-19 for the possession of Milouna pass in the Olympian range near Tyrnavo—a gateway to the great Thessalian plain. At Milouna pass it was reported that "the Turks fought like lions" —another correspondent says "like devils;" and, later, after "thirtysix hours without food or drink" "charged with the bayonet with splendid dash," assaulting "the blockhouse which was held by the Greeks with magnificent courage," in which last desperate and tremendous assault "the Turks had 16 men killed and 17 wounded." While the bloodshed fortunately fell far below the usual oriental standard, the style of this specimen report rose fully to it.

In three days of severe fighting, the Turks evidently in greatly heavier force gradually won their way through this important pass till they had dislodged theOreeksfrom all but the last height commanding Tyrnavo. Later tidings concerning the retreat of the Greeks to Larissa showed that — whether through misunderstanding of orders, or inefficient generalship, or a frenzied fright and flight of the population, which blocked the roads that night with a crowd of fugitives and their household goods — the retreat from Tyrnavo in utter darkness soon became a rout in panic and helpless confusion. The next day (April 24) the retreat of the whole army from Larissa southward to Volo and Pharsalos was accompanied by nearly all the inhabitants of the city, and was made in such fear and haste that immense quantities of war material and supplies, together with many guns, were abandoned.

The Greek retreat from Larissa to Pharsalos occurred one week after the declaration of war. It was a fearful humiliation, a rude awakening from a brief dream of glory and conquest. One week had shown that the Greek cause was hopeless in its military aspect, and that, if the existence of the kingdom depended on its success in the field of war, it was likely to disappear from the map of Europe within a month. Indeed, the case had practically been decided in the first three days by the loss of Milouna pass, which left on the road to Athens no position defensible in modern warfare against a superior force. The great plain of Thessaly could be swept by cavalry without check. Pharsalia, Marathon, Thermopyla1 — immortal names that stand as symbols of the Greek valor that guarded Athens in days of old when battle was hand to hand with sword and shield — would give no pause to Krupp artillery raining shot and shell from miles away.

When the knowledge of the peril reached the capital, the city was wild with rage in extreme reaction from the enthusiastic and boastful elation of a week bofore. The generals were declared incompetent or cowardly, or even traitorous; the ministry were denounced; a muttering mob surged round the royal palace; and the political opposition, patriotically joining hitherto in furthering a war policy, instantly reappeared in full strength and witli fierce criticism. The ministry, on the evening of April 26, announced the recall of all the officers on Prince Constantino's general staff, and the appointment of General Smolenski as chief of staff. . On April 27, the cabinet and the chief opposition leaders were called to the palace in conference witli King George; and the result, though delayed for a few hours, was the resignation of Premier Delyannis and his cabinet, and a call of the legislative assembly to meet immediately in extraordinary session.

For several days near the end of April and in the beginning of May, there was fighting at and near Velestino. The bloodiest battle was on April 30, when a Turkish attack by 14,000 troops on strong positions held by General Smolenski with alxmt 12,000 was repulsed with heavy loss. In an engagement on May 2 the Turks again failed to drive the Greeks from their entrenchments—the Greeks being reinforced from the main army at Pharsalos: on this occasion the conflict seems to have been less severe. The aim of the Turks was to cut the railway between the seaport, Volo, where a Greek squadron lay, and Pharsalos. On May 5 the attack was renewed nearer Pharsalos; and, though the fighting was not decisive, the Greeks were outnumbered (about 23,000 against 50,000) and could not hold all their positions.

Thus, within less than three weeks from the declaration of war, the Greek army had collapsed, the soldiers were discouraged, the Greek navy had proved useless, the treasury was empty, and the road to Athens lay open to the enemy. The opinion of military critics tends to ascribe the almost continuous reverse in the field not so much to the inferior soldierly qualities and capacities of the Greeks as to various other causes: first, to the surprising incompleteness in the preparation of military supplies and in equipment, chargeable to an almost incredible administrative ignorance or neglect; then to the inferiority of the Greek rifles and artillery in accuracy and range of fire; then, to the lack of discipline, rendering the array incoherent and devoid of that consciousness of united strength which keeps troops from losing their spirit under a merely partial reverse; then, to incapacity in generalship—planning the campaign to cover too large a territory with too thin a line. Points of this sort must be left to the decision of experts and to a day when trustworthy reports are accessible.

Three things were plain even to the common observer. First — the Greeks were so largely outnumbered that their case from the start was hopeless unless all their plans, supplies, weapons, troops, strategy, and generalship were without fault; they could not afford a serious mistake at any time. Second - their officers had had almost no military experience except in guerrilla fighting. Third — while the Turkish soldier went into action as a fatalist and a fanatic, serving God by exterminating the unbelievers, the Greek went in gaily and with an overweening sense of his own national importance and military superiority.

By all the great powers except Germany the Greek withdrawal from Crete was deemed to remove the one obstacle to European intervention. Germany added the demand of a further preliminary from Greece, a formal assent to the establishment of autonomy in Crete. This German demand was considered essential doubtless in view of Germany's belief that the Greek policy had long been opposed to the plan of the powers for a Cretan autonomy under Turkish suzerainty, and had aimed instead at the annexation of the island to Greece. Indeed, even within a few days, the Cretan insurgent leaders, in a conference with the foreign admirals blockading the island, had refused to lay down their arms under Europe's pledge of autonomy, saying that their choice was annexation or death, inasmuch as former pledges of the powers to relieve them from Turkish tyranny had not been fulfilled.

The air of Europe was full of rumors, mostly baseless, of independent action by different governments, favoring cither Turkey or Greece in respect to the terms on which permanent peace should be arranged. Dispatches were numerous also respecting the exactions which Turkey as the victor would insist on in the contemplated treaty.

Meanwhile, visible signs of peace were few. On May 10 and thereafter, Turkish reinforcements were pressing into Thessaly; the Ottoman army was closing in around Domoko; Turkish governors were appointed to administer Ottoman law in Thessalian districts; and preparations were made to harvest the crops in the province. Meanwhile Greek irregulars were raiding the territory which Greece had lost. Westward in Epirus, on May 14 and 15, an attack by 15,000 Greeks opened a severe battle with ultimate Greek repulse at Griboro; there was an attack by land and sea on the Turks at Nicopolis, and a desperate conflict near Arta. These Greek attacks, attributed to Colonel Manos's desire to regain the army's lost prestige, complicated the situation as to a proposed armistice.

On May 26 it was reported, professedly on high authority, yet not with full official sanction, that the powers and Turkey had assented to the appointment of Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg as governor-general of Crete. He was a colonel of Bulgarian cavalry, has recently married Princess Anna of Montenegro, and is a favorite witli Queen Victoria and the czar of Kussia. Several correspondents picture the disorder in Crete as frightful.

The presence of the Turkish garrisons, after the Greek evacuation, emboldened Mohammedan mobs to engage in pillage and murder in some Christian villages. It must be remembered, however, that the Greek Christians, in their repeated revolts through many years against the unendurable barbarities of Turkish rule, were led into equally barbarous acts of reprisal. In the insurrection which was the introduction to the war, the Cretan Christians were reported by trustworthy witnesses to have wreaked their ancient revenge on their Mohammedan neighbors not only in plunder but in many atrocities of murder and torture on even defenseless women and children which words can scarcely depict.

The Sheik-ul-Islam issued a theological dictum to the effect that the sultan had no right as caliph to give up territory conquered from the infidel in war. While the sultan, not lacking in shrewdness, probably saw that the policy thus prescribed was not practicable in its full extent, still he may have been encouraged to go as far as possible on its line, especially as he might have counted on a weakening of the opposition by the diversity of interests among the powers.

Greece made a dreadful mistake, and must expect to suffer. It was pointed out that even had Greece chosen to risk the consequences of defying the powers, her only course under international law was to declare war on Turkey before sending her troops into Crete, a Turkish possession. It was an evasive course which she chose for the doing of a foolish thing, when she ensconced herself behind the powers that from that vantage she might strike a blow.

It was now a new and unfamiliar Europe. The weak, decayed, and tottering old despotism of the East had suddenly become one of the great powers, if not to be so dealt with in council, yet likely to present itself uncalled to be so dealt with in some sudden crisis. Its monarch had been reinstated in the regard of his people; its repressed and smoldering pride had been kindled into flame; its martial spirit had been evoked; its three-quarters of a million troops now in the field, flushed with victory over a Christian foe, gave it appreciable value as an ally in arms. None could tell what strange combinations may ensue. Europe may possibly be driven to enter on the work of dividing and ending the Moslem empire more hastily than it had intended.

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Page last modified: 03-09-2016 14:46:11 ZULU