A Greek Armatolos of the War of Independence. A Klepht looks exactly the same.
In honor of the US commitment to assist the Greeks in their Civil War, which took place 67 years ago this week, we’ll be presenting a study of UW in this nation, the birthplace of Western Civilization.
This is the first of four parts, which will run daily:
- The Guerrillas of Greece’s Dawn — today, 4 Mar 14
- The Guerrillas of Greece in the Second World War — tomorrow, 5 Mar 14
- The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949 – Thursday, 6 Mar 14
- Cyprus and other Aftershocks of the Greek Civil War, Friday, 7 Mar 14.
We’ll cover the geopolitics, tactics, causes and consequences of each of these phases, and where they fit in the history of the Hellenes and the world. There will be facts, analysis, and pure opinion in here, and we hope to stir a discussion on each of these wars and on each aspect of our writing.
The Guerrillas of Greece’s Political Dawn
Greece has a longer history than any other civilization in Europe. But for most of that history, it’s a story of squabbling villages and city-states; very small policies that are unable to get along together. Like modern Afghanistan, Greece only united when it was absolutely necessary to fight a foreign invader, and sometimes not even then. For millennia then, the war the Greeks knew was tribal war: raids, ambushes, small patrols. Short and sharp engagements that did not involve the taking and holding of significant ground. Even the biggest battles of the city-state wars were not the total war of the 20th Century: the losers would pay tribute to the winners, not be annihilated by them. For one famous example, Theban general Epaminondas beat the Spartans soundly at Leuctra (371 BC), and Sparta lost its position of preeminence among Greek cities, but it did not cease to exist, or even lose its independence, as a consequence.
While the massed hoplite formations of Leuctra and other large battles is an ancestor of today’s armies’ marching ranks, the more common, shadow sort of war, is the natural forerunner of modern unconventional warfare or guerrilla war. And when Greek tribesmen took to the field in the 1820s to overthrow the centuries-long overlordship of the Ottoman Empire, their methods were those of irregulars or guerillas.
Small bands of Greek irregulars coalesced from the mountains to the devastation of remote Ottoman outposts, patrols, or convoys, and then retreated and dispersed. The sparse Ottoman forces were overmatched by the tough Greek terrain and the mountain men who could appear and, seemingly, disappear at will. This is, as Hugh Gardner noted, a classically Greek form of war:
Just as the Western World is indebted to the Greeks for many classic examples of art and literature, so it is in their debt for classic examples of unconventional warfare. Frequently attacked and continually threatened by powerful neighbors, Greece has often found it expedient to resort to unconventional methods of warfare to defend or liberate its soil.
Pistols of the Greek War of Independence. The flintlock still ruled the arms world in 1821.
These 19th-Century Greeks were armed not with the weapons of war, at least, not until they captured muskets and swords from the Ottoman troops. They were armed with farmers’ implements, shotguns for the field and tools for cultivation. It didn’t matter. They were armed with local knowledge their Turkish satraps couldn’t match. The Turks had cultivated neither an interested knowledge of their remote province, nor a Quisling class that could put such knowledge to work on their behalf. They were blind, and being attacked by an enemy that would not face them in battle, but was content to deliver a thousand cuts — one or two at a time. A ready Gulliver can beat any small group of Lilliputians handily, but they don’t come at him when he’s ready, nor do they come in small groups.
The terrain of Greece is favorable to the small unit and the guerilla. While it has been largely deforested, it is universally mountainous: the Pindus range, an extension of the Balkans, runs north and south and branches off to cover the entire nation with stony peaks and deep ravines. The coastline is jagged, broken, and studded with peninsulas and numberless mountainous islands.
Earlier Greek cultures were conquered, but then themselves invested the cultures of, distinct Macedonian and Roman empires; and during periods where there was no Panhellenic government, the entire area of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor was hellenic in culture, language, religion and arts. But with the rise of the barbarians of Europe and the Mohammedans of Asia, hellenic culture was compressed more and more tightly until it only existed, as an independent thing, inside the walls of Byzantium.
From 1453 to 1821, “Greece” was not; but something that was “Greek” still survived and with it burned the fire of Greek nationalism. One thing that kept the Greek spirit alive was the Greek Orthodox Church. And of course, the hard life of the smallholding farmer or herdsman inculcates values of considerable martial value — as much in the 19th-Century Greek as the modern Pashtun. Boot (p. 103) quotes a pair of run-on sentences from Samuel Gridley Howe, an American doctor who volunteered in the war, on their merits:
A Greek soldier is intelligent, active, hardy, and frugal; he will march, or rather skip, all day among the rocks, expecting no other food than a biscuit and a few olives, or a raw onion; ended night, watch the content on the ground, with a flat stone for pillow, with only his cup oats, wish you carries within winter and summer, for covering; baggage wagon and tent he knows nothing of. But he will not work, for he thinks it disgraceful; he will submit to no discipline, for he thinks it makes a slave of him; he will obey no order which does not seem to him a good one, for he holds that in these matters has a right to be consulted.
That is the guerrilla in a nutshell. Howe (and Boot) go on to describe the unconventional, hit-and-run tactics of the guerrillas, which were quite unusual to Europeans and Americans at the time.
Politically, there were two elements in the 1821 rebellion against the Ottomans: a class of fed-up Greeks at home, who provided the manpower, and a class of émigré, internationalized, intellectual Greeks, who provided the ideology of a nation-state, and the leadership to sell it internationally. And it sold very well: western intellectuals, especially Britons, flocked to the Greek standard, where they provided a great deal of publicity, and may have produced a great deal of overseas resources, without really helping the Greeks much on the ground. (The dean of these dilettante war tourists was Lord Byron, who would die of disease without helping much himself, albeit in a very romantic and inspirational style).
It was actually a secret society among Greek exiles that kicked the revolt off in 1821, but the local fighting fell to the klephts, which were traditional gangs of highwaymen or bandits that flared up from time to time; by 1821, Phillips records, they had grown
…into social and political importance as a permanent class. Where the government shows no respect for justice, lawless men are often supported by the lower orders as a means for securing revenge, or for redressing intolerable social evils…. The bolder and more reckless spirits among the peasantry, weary of a galling subservience, hurried to the mountains, and turned brigand. To be a Klepht was in the popular view, a glory rather than a disgrace; and for whole decades before the war of Independence the Klephts were, in the eyes of their countrymen, the defenders of faith and fatherland against the Turk; though, to tell the truth, they plundered Christian and Mussulman with a commendable impartiality.
The Ottomans had a sensible policy of paying some of the klephts to fight on their behalf against the others, and these quisling klephts were known as the armatoli.
A captured klepht would be tortured, less for information than for the sheer joy of it; and it was their pleasure to give the Turks killing them no cry of pain. Tough guys, indeed. Needless to say, they were not very big on taking Turkish captives, especially as the Ottoman war strategy became one of scorched earth to deny guerrillas any sanctuary.
The Hanging of Gregory V
Atrocities were not one-sided: as soon as the war initiated in the “Greek Spring” of 1821, Mohammedan inhabitants of Greek territory — men, women, and children — were frequently exterminated. Before detailed news of that could even reach Constantinople, the Greeks of Constantinople were put to the sword as well, beginning with the Patriarch, Gregory V. Just as the Greeks’ butchery of innocent Moslems infuriated the Ottomans, the massacre of Constantinople, and the desecration of Gregory’s body, fired up Greek resistance. But the war was, in psychological terms, an ugly illustration of how not to do insurgency and counterinsurgency.
The Chiots, put to the sword. By the French master Delacroix — a Philhellene.
The Ottomans systematized war crimes, and were surprised that they still lost ground in the war. If an Ottoman unit was hit near a Greek village, the village would be razed, its crops burnt, and its inhabitants massacred or enslaved. To the befuddlement of the Ottomans, returning to a hometown like this did not take the fight out of the Greeks. (Sometimes, then as now, brutal repressions had a short-term benefit to the occupier — but they always rebounded to his disadvantage in due course). At the option of any random Ottoman general or admiral, entire cities would be exterminated: this was the fate of the island of Chios in 1822, where a Turkish fleet drove off Greek rebels (who were not native Chiots, but from the adjacent island, Samos) besieging the Ottoman garrison, and then set upon the civilian inhabitants with barbarous fury. Of the 100,000 Chiots, 43,000 were transported into slavery, 27,000 massacred, and the fate of another 28,000 appears to have been to escape by coastal boats, with the cost of passage being all their portable property. A mere 2,000 survivors survived by flight or concealment and emerged into the burnt rubble after the Turks departed with their plunder. (These numbers are from Phillips; Wikipedia has higher numbers).
Kanaris and the fired flagship.
The Ottoman forces attempted to make use of their superiorities, such as the much more powerful Navy. But the Turkish ships of the line were vulnerable to all kinds of mischief close inshore the rocky Greek peninsulas and islands. The Greeks quickly became adept at asymmetrical naval tactics. The most prominent of these was the use of fire-ships, and the “victor” of Chios, Kara Ali, and some 3,000 of his sailors, marines and galley-slaves went up on 18 June 1822, making the Greek fire-ship skipper, Konstantine Kanaris, a national hero. Another Ottoman warship went up with the loss of hundreds of its crew on 5 July. Kanaris would strike again, and he was far from the only Greek fire-ship exponent: in all, 59 attacks were made, 39 successful. (These losses were the fault of the Turks’ lack of a suitable watch in enemy waters, as must as of Greek heroism). After this, the Turkish fleet didn’t swagger any more; it was deployed with a caution bordering on timidity, and as a result, Turkish garrisons fell for want of resupply, or fled into carefully laid ambushes. Here, the Greeks’ klepht roots sometimes interfered with military precision, as at the pass at Devernaki on 6 August 1822:
The vanguard, consisting of some thousand Albanian mountaineers, succeeded in evading the Greeks by following difficult and circuitous paths ; but the main body of the Ottomans attempted to force their way through the narrow defile ; and here they were overwhelmed by a murderous fire, which soon choked the road with the bodies of men and horses, and made it impossible for them to advance. It was a massacre rather than a battle ; and nothing but the plundering instincts of the Greeks saved the Ottoman army from absolute annihilation. A few of the better mounted delhis succeeded in spurring over the heaps of dead and dying, and cutting their way through to Corinth; but the rest of the army, with the loss of some four thousand men, and of all its baggage, was forced to return into the plain of Argolis, with less chance than ever of being able to force its way out.
Konstantinos Kanaris, later a Greek Prime Minister.
A second Turkish break-out succeeded when the Greeks laid in ambush, armatoli who had changed sides (as both armatoli and klephts often did) zeroed in on the Turks’ rich luggage rather than their skins; a mere thousand troops were lost in the second attempt, which did break through the siege. Of course, the Greeks got all their stuff but by this point to escape with one’s life was well enough. That was the end of a mighty army that had once spread such terror before it that the Greek forces, as befits a klepht, melted away… only to return when it was to their advantage.
A period of “phony war” followed the Ottoman defeat, until Ottoman leaders secured an invasion force from their Egyptian allies, and reinvaded in 1824-25. During the intervening years, the Greeks had squabbled and fought among themselves. (One ever-recurring story in Greece is guerrilla disunity and fragmentation).
Refugees flee the massacre at Psara.
The invasion began with more score-settling and the destruction of the islands of Karos and Psara. Psara was a Pyrrhic victory: as the Ottoman-Egyptian forces poured into the breached citadel, a Greek officer fired the magazine, blowing himself, his surviving men, and at least 2,000 of the invaders sky-high.
The invading force fought a series of campaigns of siege and massacre, and continued on despite losing close support from the fleet, which fled under fire-ship attack, or at least, fear of fire-ship attack, again. Unlike the Ottoman army of 1821-22, the Egyptians of 1825-26 were a Western style army. Their reaction to guerrilla attacks was to form square and fix bayonets, and unlike the Ottoman Navy, they posted pickets and sentries. By doing the basic blocking and tackling of infantry soldiering, they were a much harder nut for the guerrillas to crack.
They besieged the fortress city of Missolonghi for over a year. A Greek special operation to lead 6,000 women and children out of the siege was betrayed, and while some of the warriors escaped, most of the noncombatants wound up enslaved. In the end, the Egyptians took Missolonghi, and killed or enslaved any living being. This was their last great victory, and it bore the seeds of their defeat.
They were last opposed by the city of Mani. A surrender demand begat a response worthy of Leonidas himself:
From the few Greeks of Mani and the rest of Greeks who live there to Ibrahim Pasha. We received your letter in which you try to frighten us saying that if we don’t surrender, you’ll kill the Maniots and plunder Mani. That’s why we are waiting for you and your army. We, the inhabitants of Mani, sign and wait for you.
The Egyptians never did take Mani, and at one time, a clever flanking move was defeated by a local garrison that Ibrahim had expected to be away. (Indeed it was. At Diros he was beaten by the left-behind women). But events outside Greece decided the nation’s fate. Europeans aroused by their own Philhellenes and the story of the butchery of Missolonghi persuaded their nations to intervene, and British and French fleets sailed. (As we have recounted, the bestial behavior was not just on the Ottoman and allied side, but the Greeks were capable of equal barbaries. But those stories did not make it to the salons of London and Paris, where the Philhellenes’ tales stirred the influential).
Meanwhile, Russia was already at war with the Ottoman Empire (not for the first or the last time). A European fleet set upon the Ottoman ships at Navarino, whence they had retired to escape their fear of Greek fire-ships. The Ottoman Navy was permanently neutralized, with respect to influencing events in Greece. These events in 1827 wrote finis to the Ottoman 400-year adventure in Greece, and freed some other Balkan states while loosening the Turk’s grip on others. The Egyptian-Ottoman army tried to escape to avoid having to accept humiliating surrender terms — but the Greeks cut it off.
It took the diplomats over half as long to negotiate the treaty as it took the two sides to fight the war. But Greece was now free for the first time in millennia, and a state for the first time, ever.
And the politicians broke up into factions and splinters, while the klephts went back to the hills and preyed upon the unwary traveler. It was life as usual in Greece.
References (to the entire series; we’ll probably add some to this list in future entries)
About these references: Asprey & Boot are overall histories of GW. Asprey’s is better, but suffers from its age. Of the World War II works, Gardner’s is an overview, Sklavos’s is the work of a Marxist whose nose remains out of joint from his side’s defeat.
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: The Guerilla in History. New York: Doubleday, 1975, 2 vols.
Boot, Max. Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: Liveright, 2012.
Gardner, Hugh G. Guerilla and Counterguerrilla Warfare in Greece, 1941 – 1945. Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, US Army, 1962.
Phillips, W. Alison. The War of Greek Independence: 1821 to 1833. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897.
Sklavos, L. The Greek Civil War (Greece In Crisis). Kindle edition, 2011.