It’s August 1920, and in the exhibition hall of a porcelain factory in Sèvres, what is supposed to be the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Allies is signed – even as the Greco-Turkish War rages on. But the Treaty of Sèvres would soon prove to be as fragile as the porcelain displayed around it.
By the summer of 1920, the political and military situation in Asia Minor had become increasingly complex. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the war, The arrival of the Greeks at Smyrna caused a nationalist uprising in Anatolia led by Ottoman officer Mustafa Kemal, which soon gained momentum and a powerful presence in the Ottoman parliament in Constantinople – hardly the conditions for peace. You can find out more about events in 1919 in our previous episode about the Greco-Turkish War. In this episode we’ll take a look at the Treaty’s negotiation and signing, and the escalation of the Greco-Turkish War that went along with it until the end of 1920 – and it all happened 100 years ago.
So, by early 1920 a state of war - albeit a low intensity one - effectively existed in Anatolia, as Greece sought to take advantage of the weakness of the Turks to extend its borders across the Aegean and realize their dream of Greater Greece. But although the Ottoman government in British-occupied Constantinople had generally gone along with Allied demands, Kemal’s nationalists now represented what amounted to a second Turkish government: with political influence in the old parliament, and growing military strength in the interior of the country, out of reach of the Allied and Greek forces along the coast.
Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos now looked towards the Allied powers, which Greece had joined in 1917 to deliver a peace treaty that would solidify Greek claims, and maybe even more.
When negotiations on an Ottoman peace treaty finally started in earnest at the London Conference of February 1920, the Entente alliance was increasingly strained. Old colonial rivalries, especially between Britain and France, were once again coming to the surface. These issues had been partly smoothed over with agreements on influence in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, but the situation there was also tense and unstable.
For British foreign secretary Lord Curzon, limiting French influence was a major priority: “We have been brought, for reasons of national safety, into an alliance with the French, which I hope will last, but their national character is different from ours, and their political interests collide with our own in many cases. I am seriously afraid that the great Power from whom we may have most to fear in the future is France.” (Macmillan, 373)
For Britain, the war against the Ottomans had been costly, and they had borne the brunt of the fighting. Now, Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted the spoils of war. He wanted Britain’s vital lines of transport and communication to India to be secured, and to gain access to the Black Sea. The way to achieve this was internationalizing the Bosphorus Straits, and supporting a strong Greek state which would support Britain in the Mediterranean.
The opening of the Straits would also make possible other British demands - the creation of Armenian and Kurdish states in Asia Minor. The memory of the recent Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks was a motivating factor, as Lloyd George explained: “There was not a British statesman of any party who did not have it in mind that if we succeeded in defeating this inhuman [Ottoman] Empire, our essential condition of the peace we should impose was the redemption of the Armenian valleys for ever from the bloody misrule with which they had been stained by the infamies of the Turks.” (Macmillan, 378)
It was hoped that the United States would become the mandate for a new Armenia. Protestant Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, had heard stories of Muslim oppression brought back by missionaries, and millions of dollars had been raised for Armenians. But any western-supported Armenia was impossible without access to the Black Sea.
For new French Premier Alexandre Millerand, the big issues were financial. The Ottoman Empire still owed France significant sums of money, and with new war debts of its own, France was eager to get its money back and gain extensive controls of Ottoman finances. To Millerand, the Greek presence in Anatolia was a problem. The instability that resulted from the Smyrna landing put Ottoman payments to France in danger, since the city was a major economic centre and port now outside Ottoman control. Eventually, France called for Greek troops to be removed and replaced by an international force. Italy, which by 1920 was abandoning its initial plans for expansion, agreed.
And even though Lloyd George favoured the Greeks, many of countrymen did not. Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, was worried that if Constantinople was given to the Greeks, Muslims in British India might cause trouble, since the city was still home to the Caliph.
Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Henry Wilson also felt Greek forces should be removed, as no treaty was possible while they were in Anatolia. But Lloyd George, who was in the Liberal Party, dismissed these concerns on partisan grounds : “We must secure Constantinople and the Dardanelles. You cannot do that effectively without crushing the Turkish power. Of course the military are against the Greeks. They always have been. They favour the Turks. The military are confirmed Tories. It is the Tory policy to support the Turks. That is why Henry Wilson, who is a Tory of the most crusted kind, is so much opposed to what we have done.” (Riddell 208)
For Venizelos, the whole problem of instability in the region was not because the Greeks were in Anatolia, but because there was no peace treaty. Once the peace was signed, the Turks would become quote “conscious of their defeat” and the situation would calm down. He advocated for a severe treaty, giving Smyrna to Greece, creating French and Italian mandates, as well as a large Armenian state. If Turkey was not reduced to a small, weak state, he was of the opinion that, millions of Christians would be exterminated.
Despite his public bravado, in private, Venizelos was pessimistic. He had the support of Lloyd George, but not much more, and he knew it. Henry Wilson recalled a dramatic meeting with Venizelos: “I told him straight out that he had ruined his country and himself by going to Smyrna; and the poor man agreed, but he said the reason was because Paris had not finished off the Turk and had made peace with him... He begged me to tell Lloyd George that both he [Venizelos] and Greece were done. I said I would. The old boy is done.” (Llewellyn Smith, 116)
So as the Entente powers debated the treaty amongst themselves, and the Greeks waited anxiously for the result, events in Constantinople soon complicated issues further.
Since the elections of January 1920, Turkish nationalists had a powerful voice in the Ottoman parliament. The British realized that the assembly would be unlikely to agree to the kind of peace the Allies were planning, and so they formally occupied Constantinople in March 1920 – although informally they had been there since 1918. Government buildings were occupied and some nationalists arrested. The Ottoman government could now be relied upon to sign whatever peace treaty the Allies wanted.
The terms of the Treaty of Sevres were finalized in April. Britain got most of what it wanted, including internationalisation of the Straits and a guarantee of Armenian and Kurdish states. France and Italy were to gain spheres of influence in Anatolia, and more importantly, strong financial concessions. The Greeks were to gain the region of Eastern Thrace, while Smyrna was to be administered by Greece but formally remain part of Turkey. After five years, a referendum would decide on its final fate. Like the other peace treaties, the Ottomans would pay reparations, and had to reduce their armed forces to 50,000 men and a handful of small boats. No air force was allowed.
For Mustafa Kemal and the nationalists, the proposed treaty was political gold. They could now even more strongly frame their struggle as one against foreign occupation. No sooner had the draft proposal become public, than reports began to emerge of British outposts coming under attack from nationalist forces.
The question of enforcing the treaty now arose in earnest. Marshall Foch estimated 27 divisions would be needed to defeat the nationalists and impose the treaty – far beyond the forces the Allies had available in the region. Meanwhile, public opinion in Britain, France and Italy generally opposed reinforcement.
He hoped that if he promised Greek forces to help defeat Kemal, he could perhaps convince the Allies to grant Greece what it wanted. A clear victory would also relieve political pressure he was facing at home to show results from the costly and dangerous Smyrna operation. The British and French agreed to give the Greeks their chance, and Venizelos seemed to gain renewed confidence in Greek victory .
So it was under these fragile circumstances and an impending escalation of the Greco-Turkish War that the treaty was signed on August 10, 1920, in Sevres, outside Paris. But even though the Sultan’s government had signed, it was clear to all that the real power in Turkey lay with Kemal, who refused to accept the terms. It would be military force, rather than a peace treaty, which would decide the fate of Asia Minor.
The lines of military control in Asia Minor had been more or less static since the Greek and Allied landings in the first half of 1919. The Greeks remained, for the most part, within the Milne Line about 100km around Smyrna. By mid-1920 Greek forces in the Smyrna zone had been reinforced to about 60,000 men, and this force would grow to over 100,000 by the end of the year. The Greek army was joined by auxiliary and paramilitary units made of up of local Greek and Armenian militias. Generally, these bands could number as small as 50 men, although the Mauri Mari - or ‘Black Fate’ guerrillas - numbered around 5,000. The militias fought as light cavalry or engaged in guerilla war in the countryside against Turkish villagers.
The Turkish forces, many of them also irregular militia, operated freely in the Anatolian plateau, and local commanders often decided when and where they would strike. They harassed Greek units, but also attacked Greek and Armenian villages. But Kemal knew he needed more than militias to win, and he tried in 1920 to absorb these irregular forces into a regular army – which did not always go well, as Turkish writer Halide Edib Adivar explained: “The privates of this irregular army received from fifteen pounds to thirty pounds a month, which was three times as much as what was paid to those of the regular army. And the regulars were badly clad and irregularly paid, besides being under a rigid discipline. Any poor and shabby private could desert his battalion and join the irregulars, where excellent equipment, a good horse, a silver-mounted whip, a belt of shining cartridges, a better and regular pay, as well as an easier life, awaited him. Why should anyone be a regular soldier under such conditions?” (Adivar, 231)
Despite these struggles, by late 1920, the regular Turkish army numbered around 86,500 men with the conscription of men aged 16 to 60 filling the ranks.
Both the Greek and Turkish forces were armed with a mixture of weapons of different ages and national manufacture. Kemal even claimed to have intercepted 40,000 British Lee Enfield rifles destined for Armenian and White Russian units, and after the war, Kemal would send Lloyd George a sarcastic letter thanking him for the contribution. Armoured cars and aircraft were of limited use on the battlefields of Anatolia, though the 55-plane Greek air force was used for reconnaissance. Cavalry, however, was key – especially for the Turks, who used the small, hardy Anatolian ponies to strike Greek supply trains and rear areas.
So it was these two forces that would clash in the coming Greek offensive in summer 1920. Greek morale had been suffering up until now, since they had to stay behind the Milne Line and were frustrated at not being able to strike back when attacked by Turkish irregulars, who could escape eastwards across the line. In June, that would all change.
Although the Allies and Greeks had agreed to a Greek attack to defeat Kemal, there were still political concerns about how to justify it, especially since most western publics had little stomach for more fighting. A clash between British troops and Turkish irregulars on June 14 near Izmit provided a suitable justification. British General Milne called for reinforcements, but with none available, the Greeks offered to help. Britain and France gave tacit approval for the Greeks to cross the Milne Line and strike into the Anatolian interior to defeat Kemal. The Greeks were to claim that they were simply responding to Turkish provocations, which would justify the offensive to Allied publics. This plan did not impress everyone though. Lord Curzon, now increasingly opposed to Lloyd George, was not optimistic: “Venizelos thinks his men will sweep the Turks into the mountains. I doubt it will be so.” (Dockrill, 210)
On June 22, Greek forces crossed the Milne Line in two main thrusts, and at first, their objectives were relatively conservative. This was not yet an all out push for the nationalist base at Ankara. The main attack was to advance northeast towards Bandirma
But at this stage, Italian and French delegates were calling for the campaign to be stopped.
Militarily speaking, Greece now had two options. They could hold fast in Anatolia and complete the capture of Eastern Thrace, or ignore Thrace and concentrate on Anatolia. Greek commander Leonidas Paraskevopoulos suggested advancing in Anatolia, towards Ankara and Konya. By capturing the major railways in this area, the Greeks could deprive Kemal of logistical support, while also splitting his forces on either side of the central Anatolian desert. Paraskevopoulos felt that many locals did not fully support Kemal and a rapid advance was required to take advantage of Turkish disorganisation.
Venizelos, on the other hand, was hesitant. He had hoped that Greek troops would be placed under British command, but this had not happened. He had also hoped that the Sultan’s small army, the Army of the Caliphate, would fight alongside the Greeks, but it had disintegrated and mostly joined the nationalists. And with an election looming in Greece, Venizelos was under domestic pressure to demobilise the army. So he appealed to Lloyd George to commit more British troops, and occupy more of Turkey - but this too, did not come to pass.
So, by early fall, Greece seemed to have the Turks on the run – and during the fighting, both sides accused the other of committing atrocities against civilians. Turkish forces offered sporadic resistance to the Greek army before the fall of Usak, but after that, Kemal himself took over command prepared to strike back.
For the most part, during the Greek offensive the Turkish irregular forces had withdrawn in the face of superior Greek firepower, and limited themselves to opportunistic counterattacks. Even so, nationalist forces raided the summer resort of Beykoz just next to Constantinople on July 5th, taking a British officer prisoner. Incidents like this one led to dramatic reports in the media: the New York Times, for example, accused the Turks of taking dozens of female hostages, and the British of threatening to destroy mosques by aerial bombing.
By the start of fall 1920, Turkish forces had been cleared out of much of western Anatolia and pushed back to the central plateau. But this was by no means a disaster, because the Turks had suffered minimal losses, and still had plenty of territory in their rear for strategic depth. And the further the Greeks advanced, the more their vulnerable supply lines became stretched. On October 24th, Kemal launched a counterattack at the Gediz river with around 7,300 men, 29 machine guns and 18 artillery pieces. Although the Greeks were able to withstand the pressure, it showed Kemal was not beaten and his army was growing stronger.
With the Greek advance halted, Kemal turned his attention to securing his eastern border, where Armenian forces were also fighting the nationalist Turks in the Turkish-Armenian War. In October, Turkish forces crossed the old Tsarist frontier, capturing Kars. This renewed the cycle of ethnic violence that had devastated the region during the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks, and again when Armenian forces returned after 1918 and took revenge. Kemal’s understanding with Bolshevik Russia was successful, and Armenia was crushed between Turkish and Bolshevik forces in November. Despite Allied plans for a large Armenian state in the Treaty of Sevres, they provided little assistance as Armenia was defeated. The US had failed to join the League of Nations, which made the idea of an American protectorate over Armenia a pipe dream, and it was soon forced to become a Soviet Republic.
With Kemal’s northern and eastern flanks now secure, he could now concentrate all of his forces, including his new regular army, on the front with Greece. As winter approached, both sides dug in and planned their next move. Venizelos had scored a military victory, but Kemal had retained his base and was improving and enlarging his army at a pace the Greeks could not hope to match in the long term. The future was uncertain – but one thing was for sure, there was no peace treaty in sight.
That the Treaty of Sevres was failing was not lost on the Allied powers. Lloyd George still supported the Greeks, but the French and Italians did not, and distanced themselves from Greece even before the summer offensive began. French troops had been fighting Kemal in the French occupation zone on Turkey’s southern coast, but now wanted out so it could concentrate on Syria. The French hoped that they could get the economic and financial concessions they wanted from Kemal in exchange for withdrawing their forces. Italy was struggling with violent internal political problems, and did not want to see a strong Greek rival in the Mediterranean – in fact, the Italians even considered helping Kemal to prevent the Greeks from getting too strong. Supporting Greece and the Treaty of Sevres was no longer in the national interests of Italy or France. With the British divided and the Americans absent – Sevres was bound to fail.
The Treaty of Sevres became the peace that never was. It was surpassed by events, not only the shifting interests of the Allies, but the growing power of Kemal and nationalist Turkey. The treaty was clearly unenforceable and was never ratified after it was signed: in the words of historian A.E. Montgomery: “The Treaty of Sèvres was stillborn.”
the Allies no longer committed to a common policy, and the Greeks isolated and exposed. He had survived the summer offensive, and was now ready to gather his force and strike back against the Greeks the following year.
Despite the difficulties for the Greeks, they still clung to the hope that their victories in 1920 and the continued support of Britain might still save the Greek cause. Unfortunately for Venizelos, a fight between a dog and a monkey would soon have unintended and disastrous consequences for his vision of Greater Greece.
Halide Edib Adivar, The Turkish Ordeal: Being the Further Memoirs of Halidé Edib, (Piscataway : Gorgias Press, 2012)
John Darwin, Britain, Egypt and the Middle East, (London : Macmillan Press, 1981)
M.L. Dockrill and J. D. Goold. Peace Without Promise: Britain and the Peace Conferences, 1919-1923 (Connecticut : Hamden, 1981)
T G Fraser, Andrew Mango and Robert McNamara, The Makers of the Modern Middle East, (London : Gingko Library, 2015)
Phillip S Jowett, “Armies of the Greek-Turkish War: 1919-122” Men at Arms, no 501, (2015)
Michael Llewellyn Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, (London : Allen Lane, 1973)
Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, (London : Macmillan,2019)
A.E. Montgomery, “The Making of the Treaty of Sevres of 10 August 1920” The Historical Journal Vol. 15, No. 4 (December, 1972)
New York Times, “Turk Nationalists Capture Beicos” (July 6, 1920) https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1920/07/07/102866909.pdf
George Riddell, Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After: 1918-1923, (London : Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)