It’s August 1921, and the Greco-Turkish War is in its third year. Diplomacy has failed, and the Greek army advances on Ankara to strike the fatal blow: it’s the Battle of Sakarya: https://youtu.be/M_WG0nHUsEE
By the end of 1920 the end of the Greco-Turkish War, also known as the Turkish War of Liberation, was nowhere in sight. The Greeks had moved into large parts of Anatolia and Thrace since the war began in 1919, but Turkish nationalist forces continued to resist and Allied support for Greece was weakening. The powerless Ottoman government in Constantinople had signed the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920, but the Turkish nationalist government in Ankara refused to accept it because it gave large territories to Armenia and Greece. The Greeks decided their only chance was to strike at the capital of Nationalist Turkey. In this episode, we’ll take a looks at the Greco-Turkish War from October 1920 to the end of the Battle of Sakarya in September 1921, and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.
In the fall of 1920, Greece was a nation that was nearly exhausted by four years of war and political and economic crises. Greece did have a friend in Britain, but the war with Turkey was financially unsutainable. There were also domestic tensions. The young King Alexander was considered by some to be a puppet of influential Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, but Venizelos still felt optimistic about the upcoing elections set for the end of October. That’s when a monkey stepped in. King Alexander was out for a walk in the palace gadens when he heard his dog fighting a Barbary macaque. As he tried to separate them, the monkey bit him on the calf, and the King died of infection on October 30.
The death of the king threatened to revive the great political schism that had divided Greece between supporters of the now-exiled King Constantine and Venizelos. Venizelos tried to have Alexander’s son Paul crowned king but failed. Venizelos’ political rivals like Demetrius Gunares returned from exile and campigned for the return of King Constantine. Despite the trouble, Venizelos expected to win the election and was shocked when the opposition won.
He later reflected on his defeat:
“My mistake was that when the death of Alexander occurred, I failed to postpone the elections in order to negotiate with Constantine and the Powers for the accession to the throne of the constitutional heir. […] This was my great and, you might say, unforgivable error. Because this solution, if it had been achieved, would have restored national unity […]” (Danglis 396)
Greek authorities planned a referendum on the return of King Constantine, who was popular in Greece but distrusted by the Allies because of his pro-German stance in the First World War. Italy and France had been lukewarm about supporting Greece, but now even Britain took a step back in a joint declaration on December 2:
“The British, French and Italian governments have no wish to interfere in the internal affairs of Greece. But they feel […] that the restoration to the throne of Greece of a King, whose disloyal attitude and conduct towards the Allies during the war caused them great embarrassment and loss, could only be regarded by them as a ratification by Greece of his hostile acts. (Llewelyn Smith 166)
A Greek coalition government of took power and despite the Allies’ opposition, Constantine became King of Greece for the second time on December 19, 1920. Even before his return, Italy and France were already interested in the Turkish Nationalist movement acting as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia, and they were keen on receiving war reparations. So the Italian and French governments struck an agreement with Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Pasha, and withdrew their forces from Anatolia. The British still provided some support for Greece but it was now minimal.
The return of Constantine, the loss of Allied support, the apparent failure of the Treaty of Sèvres, and financial ruin all left Greece in a precarious position. And of course the country was still at war with the Turkish Nationalists.
Constantine and the coalition government felt an aggressive move was required because Greece could no longer pay for the war, and they hoped to save Greece’s gains from the Treaty of Sèvres.
Greek reinforcements were sent to Anatolia, Venizelist officers were replaced with Constantinists, and General Anastasios Papoulas took command of the Army of Asia Minor. Greek strength in Anatolia grew to over 100,000 men, and with the new recruits came reports of plunder and violence against the local population in the areas under Greek control. Both Greeks and Turks had already committed atrocities in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and the First World War, with some Greeks accusing the Turks of genocide. This cycle of violence continued in the Greco-Turkish War, which caused many Greeks and Turks to develop a bitter hatred of one another. The Archbishop of Nicaea, a city where Turks had massacred Greeks in June 1920, told the Red Cross exactly how he felt:
“The Greek Army has been far too gentle in its repression. I am not a military man, but a man of the church, and I wish that one would exterminate all Turks, without leaving a single one alive.” (Gehri 726)
In April 1921, Governor General of Smyrna Aristeidis Stergiadis admitted to a spike in violence against Turkish civilians:
“Till a few months ago, the population of the area under Greek control had been quiet and contented […]. With the arrival, however, of new officers and soldiers from Greece who were ignorant as to how to behave in Asia Minor... trouble started and the Turkish population became incensed at various undesirable incidents which took place.’ (Llewelyn-Smith 201)
An Inter-Allied Commission of Enquiry was more direct:
“There is a systematic plan of destruction of Turkish villages and extinction of the Moslem population. This plan is being carried out by Greek and Armenian bands, which appear to operate under Greek instructions and sometimes even with the assistance of detachments of regular troops.” (Llewelyn-Smith 213)
While the Greeks struggled with domestic politics and ethnic violence continued in Greek-controlled Anatolia, the Turkish Nationalists under Mustafa Kemal Pasha were regrouping to the east. Some irregular Turkish fighters stayed behind to harass Greek troops, protect Turkish villagers, and carry out revenge attacks against local Greek civilians. But the main Turkish army was being shaped into a structured, disciplined force under its new commander Ismet Paşa.
The National Assembly in Ankara was also hard at work creating a new political reality. It passed a new constitution in January 1921, and signed a treaty of friendship with Bolshevik Russia in March – which led to shipments of Russian weapons. The Assembly also condemned the Ottoman government as traitors because it had signed the hated Treaty of Sevres, which gave land the Assembly considered Turkish to Greece and Armenia.
So as 1921 began the situation in Anatolia was tense: the Greek government had decided to gamble on offensive action, and the Turkish Nationalists were gearing up to stop them.
The Greeks launched their first attacks of 1921 in January, with the objective of a probing attack towards the main railway line near Bursa and Eskişehir. About 15, 000 Greek troops with 60 guns faced about 12,000 Turks with just 28 guns, and Greek firepower made itself felt. As the Greeks advanced, Turkish troops stubbornly defended the train station at Inönü while mobile Turkish forces pulled back for a counterattack. But the Greeks had achieved their limited goal and carried out a planned withdrawal, which the Turks interpreted as a defensive victory.
The First Battle of Inönü was a strategic victory for the Turks because it seriously boosted morale. The formerly disorganized Turkish army had shown it could stand toe-to-toe with the professional Greek army in an open fight, and Ismet Pasha was later given the honorific title ‘Inönü’. And the Turkish army had achieved this success even though troops had to be diverted to deal with Circassian military leader Çerkes Ethem’s Islamic Socialists, who had broken away from Kemal.
Back in Britain, the Third London Conference started on February 21, and the Greek delegation felt it had the blessing of the Allies to resume its advance. Greek forces took the offensive on March 23 with the objective of capturing the vital road and rail links between Kütahya and Eskisehir. 61,000 Greek troops launched a two-pronged attack, and initially they made good progress in the north as the Turks struggled to hold the line. But after a brief breakthrough, a Greek division collapsed due to failed coordination and had to pull back. By April 8, they were back where they started.
In the south, the Turks did not oppose the initial Greek advance and simply withdrew to regroup. The Greeks took the town of Afyon Karahisar on March 27, so Kemal sent two more divisions into the line. Turkish commander Refet Pasha now had the men and supplies to counterattack, and he drove the Greeks back. The Turks recaptured Afyon Karahisar on April 1, and tried to cut off the Greek line of retreat but were stopped.
So the two Battles of Inonu were strategic victories for the Turkish nationalists, who gained prestige at home and abroad. But they’d failed to encircle the defeated Greeks at the second battle. The Greeks knew they were running out of time, so the summer offensive continued.
The next Greek attempt to break the stalemate began in July 1921. Prime Minister Gounares sent the ageing King Constantine to take symbolic command of the Army of Asia Minor, which had grown to 200,000 troops, 4000 machine guns, and 410 artillery pieces. The Turks had also reorganized their 122,000 men, 700 machine guns, and 160 artillery pieces guns under Ismet Pasha. The Greeks had the advantage in numbers firepower, aircraft, and vehicles, but there was infighting between Gounares and the King, and the Turks were growing stronger every week. Any Greek advance would stretch vulnerable supply lines through enemy territory.
The Greek plan was to strike at the city of Kütahya, in the hopes the Turkish army would defend it and expose themselves to encirclement. Once again the Greeks attacked in the north and the south. The northern advance began on July 10, and progressed 50km. Two days later the southern Greek drive began, and before long the Greeks had once again taken Afyon Karahisar. Ismet fed reinforcements into the battle to hold the line, but the Greeks managed to break through. On the 18th the Turks retreated across the Sakarya river, the last natural barrier west of the Nationalist capital of Ankara. The same day Kütahya fell to the Greeks, as did Eskişehir on the 20th. The Turks counterattack failed, and they pulled back another 12km towards the interior.
The Greeks had won a clear victory at the Battle of Kütahya-Eskisehir and now stood nearly 200km from their goal at Ankara. But the Army of Asia Minor had failed in its main objective of destroying the Turkish army. The battle had cost the Greeks about 8000 men, and the Turks about 30,000 – though many of these had lost contact with their units and could fight another day.
When news of the Turkish defeat reached Ankara, there was panic. The Council of Ministers ordered the evacuation of the government on July 22, but Mustafa Kemal and Fevzi Paşa intervened and declared the army would defend the capital if the Greeks made it that far. Kemal blamed Ismet Pasha for the disaster, and assumed the role of baş kumandan, or commander-in chief. The Assembly voted to remain in Ankara, though it’s possible the opposition voted in favour in the hopes of ousting Kemal if he lost the battle for the capital.
So the Greek army had won a major victory and was now marching east, but the Turkish army had not been destroyed. Both sides gathered their breath for the coming storm.
Due to political pressure, the Greek command reluctantly decided for a final push towards Ankara, even though taking it was likely beyond the strength of the Army of Asia Minor. Greek corps commanders worried about extending supply lines through the dry Anatolian plateau, but the September rainy season meant that if the Greeks were going to attack, they had to attack in August.
British observer Arnold Toynbee felt the Greeks had no chance:
“It was a crazy enterprise, for every rational objective had disappeared. The annihilation of the enemy? Three times already that stroke had missed its aim. The occupation of his temporary capital? As if the loss of An[ka]ra would break a Turkish moral which had survived the loss of Constantinople, or would prevent the Great National Assembly from resuming its activities [elsewhere]. Everything was against the invaders.” (Toynbee 476)
The Greek plan had two phases: in Phase 1 they would distract Ismet’s forces at the Sakarya River around Polatlı, while in Phase 2, they would outflank, encircle, and destroy the Turkish forces. To achieve this goal, the Greeks had some 124, 000 men, 684 machine guns, 2085 light machine guns, and 296 artillery pieces. The defending Turks had around 100, 000 soldiers, 826 machine guns and 169 artillery pieces.
The Greek offensive started on August 13, 1921. Once again, Greek forces advanced quickly, which alarmed Mustafa Kemal, who took over field command on the 17th. Turkish divisions stabilized their line of defence along the Gök river, while the Greek army began to suffer from exhaustion and supply shortages. Ismet was now able to reorganize his forces on the high ground west of Ankara, and to gather a large cavalry force on his left wing.
Papoulas renewed his attack against the advice of his corps commanders on the 23rd after reports from Greek air intelligence falsely claimed Turkish forces were withdrawing. The advance was rushed but the Greeks were able to capture several hills in the first few days.
Kemal later stated that at this point he issued a dramatic order: “I said there was no line of defense but an area of defense, and that this area was the whole country. Not an inch of the country should be abandoned until it was drenched with the blood of the citizens.” (Gazi 826)
On the 27th Turkish cavalry managed to reach Uzunbey and surprise Greek headquarters. Papoulas relocated but the Greek Army’s command and control was briefly interrupted.
By August 30, the Turkish nationalist army was running low on supplies and was feeling the pressure – but so were the Greeks. On September 1, the Greeks attacked yet again but were unable to capture their objectives on the high ground.
Greek efforts continued on the 3rd but these also failed as coordination between commanders was breaking down, and General Papoulas ordered a withdrawal. Retreating on the low-lying plain put the army in danger, so Papoulas ordered more attacks on the hills to protect the pullback. At that moment, the Turkish cavalry struck the Greeks in the right flank. This disrupted Greek efforts to safeguard the coming retreat, and many Greeks were made prisoner.
Turkish nationalist Halide Edib Edivar later recounted the scene:
“Through the information we obtained from the Greek prisoners we learned that they had lost one third of their forces already, and that their [modern] transport was no good in the wilderness of the [soft] and dangerous marshes. (…) A young prisoner told me with a grin: ‘They tell us that Angora is behind every mountain we attack: but sixteen days have passed and no Angora. They tell us that if we fall into the hands of the Turks we’ll be killed, and they drive us on with machine-guns.’” (Edib 220)
On September 9, the Turks went over to the counteroffensive. They harassed the Army of Asia Minor as it crossed the Sakarya river on the 12th. Over the following weeks, mobile Turkish forces relentlessly pressured the Greeks as they moved west. The Greek army’s policy of scorched earth to slow the Turkish pursuit left a trail of destruction and burning Turkish villages in their wake.
Papoulas managed to keep his battered army intact in spite of its open flanks, and intended to make a stand at Eskişehir. The offensive spirit of the Greek army was broken, as historian Michael Llewelyn-Smith explained:
“The Greek army had shot its bolt. The retreat from the Sakarya marked the end of the Greek hopes of imposing a settlement on Turkey by force of arms, and the beginning of a new period in which the Government recognized that a face-saving settlement must come through the diplomacy of the Powers.” (Llewelyn-Smith 234)
The month-long battle of Sakarya had ended in a victory for the Turkish nationalist army. 3700 Turkish troops were killed and 18,000 wounded, while the Greeks lost 4000 killed and 19,000 wounded.
So after a long summer of hard-fought campaigning in 1921, Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish forces had gotten the better of the Greek Army of Asia Minor. The Greeks had exhausted their offensive capabilities and were no longer confident of forcing a military solution to the situation in Asia Minor. The Turkish Nationalists were in a position to launch a powerful counteroffensive in the coming year, and politically they were much closer to killing the Treaty of Sevres for good and forcing the Great Powers back to the negotiating table. But before that would happen, the Anatolian tragedy would continue in 1922.
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- Danglis, Panagiotis: Memoirs, ii.
- Edib, Halide: The Turkish Ordeal. Being the further memoirs of Halide Edib.
- Gazi M. Kemal, Nutuk-Söylev, Cilt II: 1920–1927, Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi
- Gehri, Maurice: « Mission d'enquête en Anatolie (12-22 mai 1921) », Revue internationale de la Croix rouge, tome LII, no 227, 15 juillet 1921, p. 721-735.
- Toynbee, Arnold: The Western Question in Greece and Turkey. A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, Boston 1922.
- Erickson, Edward J.: The Turkish War of Independence. A Military History, 1919-1923, Santa Barbara 2021.
- Gedeon, Paschalidou, and Dima-Dimitrou: A Concise History of the Campaign in Asia Minor.
- Glasneck, Johannes: Kemal Atatürk und die moderne Türkei, Freiburg im Breisgau 2010.
- Llewelyn-Smith, Michael: Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922, 1973.
- Shaw, Bernard: From Empire to Republic, vol. 2, part 1, 1977.