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Greece in the Great War

With which shall I dance? Neutral Greece trying to decide whether to align with the Central Powers or Allies. A Greek Evzone, member of an elite light infantry or mountain unit, weighs his options, a German pickelhaube in one hand, French kepi in the other. One of a series of 1916 postcards on neutral nations by Em. Dupuis.
Grèce (Greece, Hellas)
Hellas!. . Hélas! avec lequel danser?
Hellas! Alas! with which shall i dance?
Signed: Em. Dupuis 1916
Visé Paris. No. 115

With which shall I dance? Neutral Greece trying to decide whether to align with the Central Powers or Allies. A Greek Evzone, member of an elite light infantry or mountain unit, weighs his options, a German pickelhaube in one hand, French kepi in the other. One of a series of 1916 postcards on neutral nations by Em. Dupuis.

Image text

Grèce (Greece, Hellas)

Hellas!. . Hélas! avec lequel danser?

Hellas! Alas! with which shall I dance?

Signed: Em. Dupuis 1916


Visé Paris. No. 115

Registered Paris, No. 115

Other views: Larger

Duration of the War


Greek Independence

In a war of independence fought from 1821 to 1832, the Kingdom of Greece wrested southern Greece — the Peloponnese — from the Ottoman Empire. In the 1832 London Conference, Britain, France, and Russia — designating themselves the 'protecting powers' of Greek independence and governance — installed a Bavarian prince as king. An 1843 uprising forced King Otto to agree to a constitution and national assembly. Rebellion in 1862 put Prince Wilhelm of Denmark on the throne as King George I, and Great Britain ceded the Ionian Islands off Greece's west coast as a coronation gift. A new constitution in 1864 transformed the govenment from a constitutional monarchy to a crowned republic, lessening the power of the king. Although Greece took no part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, the 1878 Treaty of Berlin called for 'border rectification' between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. After negotiations over this vague phrase, the Ottomans ceded Thessaly in central Greece in 1881.

The Balkan Wars

In the First Balkan War (October 8, 1912 to May 30, 1913) Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia united against the Ottoman Empire, defeating it, and shrinking its foothold in Europe. Greece expanded north into Macedonia and added the island of Crete.

In the war's aftermath, Serbia and Greece made a separate agreement on the division of the conquered territory of Macedonia, refusing to honor pre-war agreements with Bulgaria on the division of the region. They also signed a defensive pact.

Disatisfied with its spoils from the war, and after border skirmishes in early June 1913, Bulgaria launched offensives against Serbia and Greece on June 29. On July 10, Romania, which had no border with the Ottoman Empire and had played no part in the First Balkan War, attacked the Bulgarian rear. Two days later, Turkey crossed into territory it had lost to Bulgaria in the first war. Surrounded, outnumbered, Bulgaria agreed to negotiations that ended the war. In the two Balkan Wars Greece expanded its territory, adding Epirus and Macedonia in northern Greece, Crete, and islands in the Aegean Sea.

Map showing the territorial gains (darker shades) of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece, primarily at the expense of Turkey, agreed in the Treaty of Bucharest following the Second Balkan War. Despite its gains, Bulgaria also lost territory to both Romania and Turkey.


As the 1914 war began, both the Entente Allies and Central Powers were eager to have neutral Greece on their side, for the strength of its Army for its strategic position on the borders of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Turkey which could provide the Allies with access to support Serbia, to strike at Turkey, and to deter Bulgarian intervention in the war. Their invasion of Gallipoli having been stopped by the Turks, Allied Easterners sought a location other than the Western Front from which to attack Turkey, and were drawn by the Greek port of Salonica less than 50 miles from the Serbian border and the Vardar River valley providing access to that country.

Greece's government was sharply divided. King Constantine — educated in Germany, and married to the sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II — was pro-German. Eleutherios Venizelos, Prime Minister since 1910, favored the Entente Allies. Royalist support was strongest in 'old Greece,' the territory of Greek independence in the 19th century. Venizelos drew his support from the acquisitions of the Balkan Wars, including his homeland of Crete.

On October 1, 1914, Venizelos declared that Greece would remain neutral unless called to assist Serbia.


In January, 1915, Venizelos proposed to Constantine a scheme for acquiring Smyrna (now Izmir) and its large ethnic-Greek population on the Aegean coast of Turkey. His plan called for ceding some of the territory gained in the Balkan Wars to Bulgaria in exchange for re-establishing the Balkan Confederation and gaining Bulgaria's support for seizing Smyrna . Venizelos soon became convinced Bulgaria would join the Central Powers and made no offer, but the King would use the idea of ceding territory against Venizelos in the coming months.

On February 19, 1915 the Allied naval assault on the Dardanelles began and the Allies asked Greece for support in exchange for which it would receive Smyrna. Venizelos was supportive, but the army general staff was not. The king, who was Commander in Chief under the constitution, refused and Venizelos resigned on March 7.

Advertising postcard map of the Balkans from the Amidon Starch company — Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and Turkey in Europe — with images of the Acropolis in Athens and Andrinople in Turkey. The map shows the region after the Second Balkan War.

Three days later, on March 10, Constantine appointed conservative Dimitrios Gounaris, leader of the People's Party, Prime Minister. In March and April and prior to elections, Constantine tried to undermine Venizelos by disclosing the latter's suggestion to cede territory to Bulgaria, with Venizelos countering with the terms of any such concession and noting that no offer was ever made.

Gounaris lost a general election on June 13, delayed opening the Chamber, and finally resigned on August 16. Venizelos held 186 of 316 seats in the Chamber, and Constantine asked him to form a government on August 23.

On September 21, 1915, Bulgaria mobilized, spiking Allied interest in Greek involvement. Four days later, on the 25th, Venizelos ordered mobilization.

According to the Serbo-Greek treaty and mutual defense pact of 1913, Serbia was to contribute at least 150,000 troops in any joint Serbian-Greek action against Bulgaria. Although Serbia had defeated three Austro-Hungarian invasions in 1914,the country faced an Austro-German invasion in September, 1915, and was in no position to offer troops to Greece. Venizelos turned to Serbia's allies, France and Great Britain, asking them to make good on Serbia's commitment. The Allies rushed one French and one British division, 13,000 troops in all, from Gallipoli, landing them at Salonika on October 2. Venizelos formally protested what was — because the mutual defence pact was not yet applicable as Bulgaria had not attacked Serbia — a violation of Greeck neutrality. The Chamber supported Venizelos' policy in a vote of 142 to 104 on October 5, but the king did not, and Venizelos resigned the same day.

On one bank of a river, dismayed French, Russian, Italian, and British soldiers watch Bulgaria drift from its broken Russian leash to the opposite bank where German, Austrian and Turkish soldiers express satisfaction and delight. The river leads, in the distance, to Istanbul. Still held by British tethers (and moneybag) are Greece and Romania.

With no prior declaration of war, Bulgaria joined Germany and Austria-Hungary in their invasion of Serbia on October 14, 1915, attacking from the east, and becoming the fourth and final Central Power. From their base in Salonica, the Allies attempted to advance up the Vardar River valley, but were thwarted by the Bulgarians who stopped at the Greek border so as not to violate neutrality.

Although Alexander Zaimis replaced Venizelos as Prime Minister, Venizelos still controlled a majority of the Chamber. Zaimis refused to enforce the Serbo-Greek treaty and declined Britain's offer of Cyprus for Greek support. On November 4, Venizelos brought down the Zaimis goverment by a vote of 147 to 114. King Constantine asked Stefanos Skouloudis to office, dissolved the Chamber, and called for new elections on December 19.

Greek soldiers could not vote, and many potential voters had been called to service, leading Venizelos to declare the King was ruling arbitrarily and unconstitutionally, and calling on supporters to abstain from voting. Skoulaudis won a majority and he remained Prime Minister, calling for neutrality.

The Allies, agreeing the Greek government was unconstitutional and harkening back to their role as the 'protecting powers', invoked the 1864 treaty in which France, Great Britain, and Russia guaranteed a 'monarchical, independent, and constitutional state.' They demanded formal assurance Allied troops would not be hindered and that railway facilities would be at the disposal of Allied forces. The government agreed to those conditions that would not violate neutrality. In response to this non-capitulation, the Allies established a commercial blockade of the Greek coast.


The Entente Allies continued seizing Greek territory and making demands on the Athens government in 1916. On January 11, the Allies took Corfu as a base for Serbian troops that had retreated from their homeland, across Albania, to evacuation from Adriatic ports. In March, they appropriated the island of Cephalonia as a naval base. In April, the Allies requested transfer of recuperated Serbian soldiers by rail to Salonika to avoid submarines. The Central Powers objected and Greece denied the Allied request.

Relations sharply worsened with the surrender of Greece's Fort Rupel. On May 26, the commander of the fort, which lay in the valley of the Struma River 50 miles northeast of Salonica and seven miles south of the Greco-Bulgarian border, surrendered it to Bulgarian troops under German command after telegrammed instructions from Athens. The Bulgarians said they needed the fort to defend against an Allied attack northwards toward Bulgaria, and Germany promised to ultimately restore the fort in good condition. The Greek government, reluctant hosts to an Allied army, argued that neutrality demanded that it accede to the German-Bulgarian occuption of the fort. From the fort, the Bulgarians would advance in the coming months, eventually reaching the coast at Kavalla.

Salonica, 1916, a watercolor sketch by Anglo-American artist John A. Pittaway.

French General Maurice Sarrail, commander of the Allied forces in Greece, learned of the telegrammed orders on June 3, and responded by occupying government buildings in Salonika and proclaiming martial law in the zone of the Allied Armies. The Allies embargoed Greek vessels in their ports, then demanded demobilization of the Greek army, the turning over of weaponry to the Allies, a new ministry, dissolution of the Chamber to be followed by new elections, and dismissal of police officials who had insulted Allied legations. The government protested, and citizens demonstrated in Athens, but agreed to the demands on June 28. Hedging its bets, the government armed civilians even as it demobilized the army.

Sarrail was a strong republican, with significant political support in France, but also significant opposition. Both King George and Tsar Nicholas mistrusted Sarrail's anti-monarchical impulses and their support was a counterbalance to the general.

Their harsh reaction turned many Greek people against the Allies, but others knew Constantine had received a loan of £3,000,000 from the Germans for the handover of Fort Rupel. In August, the Bulgars continued to advance in both eastern and western Macedonia. In response to the loss of territory to Bulgaria and the entry of Romania into the war, a 'Committee of National Defense' led by Colonels Zimbrakakis and Mazarakis called for Greece to join the allies in placards posted on August 30th. That day the Greek garrison at Salonika established the Provisional Government of Macedonia.

On September 4, the Allies demanded control of telegraph and postal systems and the expulsion of German representatives and agents. On the 12th, Bulgarian troops occupied the Greek port of Kavalla, sending its 10,000 troops to Germany, ostensibly as 'guests'.

Greece divided into Royalist and Nationalist sectors, with the former controlling pre-Balkan Wars' Greece ('old Greece'), and the latter the new territory. On September 20, Venizelos announced he awaited government action against Bulgaria. There was none, and on September 25, Admiral Condouriotis, commander of the Greek navy, with many navy and army officers and civilians, left Athens, toured the Greek islands, reached Salonika, Venizelos, and the Provisional Government.

Watercolor of Mount Olympus from Summerhill camp Salonica, October, 1917. Summerhill (or Summer Hill) Camp was a British infantry training base about five miles from Salonica.

Confusion and danger fell upon Athens as the Military League was reconstituted and reservists were armed. There were street fights in the capital, with Venizelists roughed up and their houses marked out with red circles. Royalist forces, regular and irregular, dug trenches and prepared artillery and machine gun emplacements. The Allies had demanded the handover of weaponry, but 10,000 men prepared to defend the capital and prevent any turnover. Allied representatives, after meeting with the King on November 29 and 30, concluded the King only wanted a show of force to justify his compliance and surrender of arms.

Early on the morning of December 1, French sailors and British marines disembarked and advanced into the Capital. This was intended to be the show of force Constantine needed, but whether under the King's control or not, Royalist forces resisted and from 11:00 AM and into the afternoon this Anglo-French force was fighting in the Greek capital suffering 212 casualties during the day. The Allied force retreated to their ships. On December 2, with the French driven from the capital, supporters of the King hunted down Venizelists who were massacred, tortured, and imprisoned as their homes and newspapers supporting Venizelos were ransacked. Fighting and attacks on Venizelists continued for several days. French civilians fled the capital. Even Allies sympathetic to Constantine and the crown were left to wonder if Constantine had helped set up and spring a trap.


As January 1917 began, the Greeks faced the blockade, censorship, disarmament, and food shortages. Despite the Allied pressure and punishment, the defeats of Serbia and Romania were cautionary lessons and evidence that Constantine's insistence on neutrality may have been wise.

On January 8 the Allies presented Constantine with an ultimatum. On January 25, Greece responded by apologizing to France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia for the 'incidents of 1st of December, 1916'. On the 29th the government demonstrated its submission as Greek troops paraded and saluted Allied flags. The reservist societies were dissolved, but Greeks continued to not turn over arms, and reservists exiled from the capital returned to Athens.

Although the French and British had considered removing Constantine from power, the King was protected by Tsar Nicholas of Russia who opposed any removal of a crowned head of state. When Nicholas was forced to abdicate in the February Revolution, Constantine lost a protector and his position became more precarious.

Constantine and his supporters, and opponents of the Allied occupation, became bolder. The League of Reservists was reconstituted in May. Arrests were made, including those of the manager of a Venizelist newspaper and Admiral Coundouriotis, who was charged with high treason. On the night of May 30–31, there was an attempt to assassinate two British officers.

Royalist provocations and the removal of the Imperial hand that had stayed them led the Allies to act. On June 6, Charles Jonnart, acting as High Commisioner of the Protecting Powers, arrived at the Allied fleet anchored off Athens. From Athens he sailed to Salonika, and on June 10 to Salamis.

French pilot and officers in front of a Farman pusher biplane at an airfield in Salonica, Greece. Note the windscreen. Other planes and grounds crew can be seen in the background. The message on the reverse is dated February 28, 1917.

On June 11 the 'Protecting Powers', France, England, and Russia, requested Constantine's abdication and the King's designation of his successor (to be approved by the powers) within 24 hours. This political demand, backed up with an Allied show of force in Athens, the Greek capital, forced Constantine to concede. Without having abdicated, the King, his wife, and the Crown Prince left the port of Oropos on June 14. The royal couple left their second son who took the coronation oath on August 4 as King Alexander.

Venizelos reassembled the Chamber that had been elected on June 13, 1915. The Allies raised their blockade. Under Prime Minister Venizelos, Greece declared war on the Central Powers on June 30, 1917.

By early 1917, Sarrail had 600,000 men on the Salonica Front. He planned an offensive to begin the night of April 24–25 with a British diversionary attack in their sector to the east. Sarrail delayed the offensive, but failed to tell the British, who suffered needless casualties. He attacked on May 23. His offensive failed.

The Allies were not entirely in agreement on the wisdom of keeping over half a million soldiers in Greece. The British were inclined to pull their troops for service in France and Belgium. The French argued for remaining and building a force that could launch a successful offensive. Although the British troops remained under the command of George Milne, overall Allied command was French. In a move that had as much to do with French politics (Sarrail was a staunch Republican.) as with his failures in the field, Sarrail was replaced by General Guillaumat on December 10, 1917.


General Guillaumat, having replaced Maurice Sarrail as commander of Allied troops on the Salonica Front on December 10, 1917, began methodically planning for an offensive. In November, 1917, French Prime Minister Clemenceau had offered Franchet d'Esperey command of the Allied forces on the Salonica Front, but the general refused. d'Esperey commanded the Army Group of the North when Germany launched its 1918 spring offensives, and his forces were overwhelmed by numerically and materially superior German forces. As German shells again fell on Paris, the Chamber of Deputies called for heads to roll. On June 6, Clemenceau sent Franchet d'Esperey to take command of the the Allied Armies of the Orient on the Salonica Front. In Salonika, Franchet d'Esperey built upon the work of his predecessor.

Under King Alexander and the Venizelos government, Greek troops began to join the Allied line on the Salonica Front. With the German offensives in the spring of 1918, the Allies shifted troops to the Western and Italian Fronts. It was not until the Allies siezed the initiative in July that they could support an offensive in the Balkans.

On September 15, Franchet d'Esperey attacked with two French and one Serbian division, forcing a breach that was exploited by Serbian armies supported by French and Greek troops. On September 18, British-Greek divisions captured Doiran. On September 21, Italian, Greek, and French troops at Monastir advanced and on the 26th were marching on Kicovo.


Events contemporaneous with Greece in the Great War

Start Date End Date View
1915-03-23 Russian Conquest of Przemyśl
1914-06-28 1914-06-28 Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
1914-07-28 1914-07-28 Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia
1914-08-01 1914-08-01 Germany declares war on Russia
1914-08-02 1914-11-11 Turkey Enters the War
1914-08-03 1914-08-03 Germany invades Luxemburg
1914-08-03 1914-08-03 Germany declares war on France
1914-08-03 1914-08-04 German forces enter neutral Belgium
1914-08-04 1914-08-04 Great Britain declares war on Germany
1914-08-04 1914-11-24 Germany Conquers Belgium