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That Greece Might Still Be Free

William St Clair

10 The Triumph of the Captains

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1While Mavrocordato, the Regiment, and the Philhellene Battalion were on their disastrous expedition to Epirus in the summer of 1822, the main Turkish invasion from the north-east was under way at the other side of Greece. Almost all outbreaks of revolution north of Thessaly had by now been ruthlessly stamped out, culminating in the killing of many thousands of Greek prisoners at Salonika in May. At the end of June an army of over 20,000 men assembled at Larissa ready to march south to reconquer the revolted provinces. It was ordered to co-operate with the army in Epirus for a two-pronged invasion of Greece down both sides of the mountains.

2The Greek Government at Corinth saw the threat developing with alarm but was largely impotent to do anything about it. Having virtually no forces at its own disposal – apart from the Regiment Tarella and the Philhellenes which had gone to Epirus – the Government could only function by securing the co-operation of the great captains and the other local leaders. If the Turkish invasion was to be resisted before it reached the Peloponnese, it was essential that the Greeks of eastern Greece should co-operate. The most powerful man in that region was Odysseus, a man as self-seeking, unscrupulous, and effective as Colocotrones. Since the outbreak of the Revolution Odysseus had established himself as a virtually independent potentate in most of the region between Thermopylae and the Isthmus of Corinth. Like Gogos and the other captains in Epirus, Odysseus, when confronted with a superior Turkish power, tried to hedge his bets. If he could not survive as an independent potentate in a free Greece, then he preferred to do so under Turkish suzerainty. Odysseus therefore, like his colleagues in Western Greece, began to have conversations with the Turks.

3The Greek Government at Corinth, foreseeing treachery, tried to bring him under their control, but they were powerless. In desperation they tried to remove him from his command, ignoring the unpleasant fact that the loyalty of most of the Greeks was a personal one to the leader of the moment who could pay them, and not to any larger concept of a Hellenic nation state. In June two emissaries from the Government who visited Odysseus at his headquarters were summarily put to death by his express orders. He afterwards claimed that, if he had not killed them, they would have killed him, and this was probably a correct appreciation of the situation.

4When the Turkish army began to move south from Larissa in July 1822 it seemed that the divisions among the Greeks would make their task an easy one. The Turks reached Thebes without opposition and as they approached the Isthmus the local Greeks of that region abandoned the strategic passes and allowed them through. The great fortress of the Acrocorinth, which had surrendered to the Greeks with much bloodshed a few months before, was hastily abandoned and the Turks found themselves established in the Peloponnese, in the very heartland of the Revolution, with their huge army still intact.

5They had not been in time, however, to save Athens. At the end of June the Turks who had been besieged in the Acropolis of Athens were at the last stages of hunger and thirst. There were about 1,200 of them, mainly refugees and including less than 200 men able to bear arms. On 21 June they agreed to surrender. Knowing what to expect from Greek promises, they succeeded in involving the Austrian, Dutch, and French consuls in the terms of capitulation, stipulating that the consuls were to arrange for European ships to take the Turks to Asia Minor after they had surrendered their wealth and their arms. The consuls, equally sceptical of Greek promises, immediately made arrangements for European warships to be sent to supervise the surrender and they made all the Greek priests and captains of armed bands of the besieging force swear the most solemn oaths to respect the terms. The surrender, however, took place before the warships could arrive and, although at first the terms were respected (except for the settlement of a few old personal scores), the hatred of the Greeks could not be contained. When a rumour reached Athens that the Turkish army had reached Thebes, the usual general massacre began. Within a few hours about 400 of the defenceless Turks had been killed in the streets, the Greek leaders making no attempt to interfere. The rest crowded into the compounds of the European consuls who were making frantic efforts to stop the massacres. Soon two French warships arrived at the Piraeus and the surviving Turks were escorted from the consulates to the sea through the murderous crowds by armed French marines. They were eventually sent to Asia Minor. A few other Turks were taken to Salamis by the Athenians when they abandoned the town, and were killed off at leisure.

6The Turkish army meanwhile, having arrived at Corinth with hardly an attempt at resistance, were understandably confident that the Peloponnese would soon be reconquered. Their plan was to relieve the fortress of Nauplia, which was still in Turkish hands, and then march to Tripolitsa. The Turkish fleet, which could have given direct assistance to Nauplia, sailed instead round the Morea to send relief supplies into Coron and Modon, the other fortresses in the peninsula which were still in Turkish hands.

7The Turks in Nauplia who had been under siege for over a year were in the last stages of starvation. At the end of June, before the Turkish invasion force had left Thessaly, they had offered to surrender, saying that it was better to be quickly massacred than to die slowly of hunger. An agreement was made whereby they were to be conveyed in neutral vessels to Asia Minor on condition that they gave up their arms and two-thirds of their property. The Greeks might have obtained possession of Nauplia at once but, as usual, when the prospect of booty was imminent, the divisions among the different interests made themselves felt. A few Greeks were allowed into the fortress to draw up lists of the property and they began to make bargains with individual Turks to spare their lives in exchange for their money. Other Greeks began to sell provisions to the Turks. And so the Turks were enabled to hang on a little longer.

8When the news arrived in Nauplia that a relieving army was on its way, the Turks inside naturally determined to prolong their resistance even longer although it was obvious that they were by now very near breaking-point. The commanders of the invading army felt bound to make the attempt to relieve the fortress, and therefore imprudently marched out of Corinth across the mountain passes into the plain of Argos.

9It is difficult to decide whether the Turks suffered more from overconfidence or from mismanagement. Their army had, since it left Thessaly, marched through several mountainous passes which it had neglected to secure. The Greeks had reoccupied them as soon as the army had gone through. If the Turkish fleet had co-ordinated its activities with the army, this would not have mattered much, but instead it had sailed off to reinforce Coron and Modon. The army was isolated on the plain of Argos. Few of the Greeks understood the full implications of the situation. The Government which had been established at Argos decamped in panic to the coast, ready to leave by ship when the Turks appeared. Thousands of Greek refugees from all over the plain of Argos followed and the Mainotes, preparing to return to their barren mountains in the Southern Peloponnese, plundered their countrymen mercilessly before leaving. It was left to Demetrius Hypsilantes, who had apparently lost all his authority, to show what could be achieved. With a few hundred Greeks he occupied the old castle of Argos and prepared to defend it vigorously. The Turks could not advance to Nauplia while Argos was still held.

10As the weeks passed it became clear that this was more than a temporary setback. The Turkish army running short of supplies, decided to retire to Corinth, but it was too late. Colocotrones and his men had occupied the passes. When the Turks reached the narrow defiles they came under fire from the Greeks above. They had foolishly put themselves in the situation where local Greek military methods were at their most effective. The Greeks securely protected behind the high rocks, were able to kill off the Turks with hardly an attempt at resistance. It was a massacre more than a battle, and the Dervenaki became yet another spot where travellers years later could see the heaps of Turkish bones. If the Greeks had not been concerned to strip the dead, the whole Turkish army would have perished there and then. As it was, the Turks who fought their way through and reached Corinth were little better off. They still had no supplies and other equally dangerous passes lay to their rear. Colocotrones occupied all these passes and the beaten Turkish army was isolated at Corinth. Starvation and disease did the rest. The commander himself died in November and only a tiny remnant of the army was eventually taken off by the Turkish fleet.

11The failure of the invasion decided the fate of Nauplia. At the beginning of December starved children were frequently found dead in the streets and emaciated women were seen wandering about searching for the most disgusting nourishment. Finally everyone was so weak from hunger that the remaining food could not be carried up to the soldiers on the walls at the top of the fortress. When they came down they were too weak to go up again. A vast crowd of armed Greeks assembled by the gates ready to plunder the fortress.

12It was at Nauplia that the Regiment stood to arms for the last time as an organized unit. At Peta it had lost about a third of its strength, but its new commander Gubernatis had somehow held the remnant together. When the people of Missolonghi refused the offer of help in the defence of the town, the Regiment had marched to Amphissa and then to Athens. At the end of October it took its place along with the thousands of armed Greeks outside Nauplia. Since Peta it had steadily been losing men through disease and desertion, but as had occurred throughout its short history there were still displaced Greeks to whom membership of the Regiment offered the only hope of keeping alive. And there were still Philhellenes arriving in Greece who made their way to the Regiment in the belief that they were joining an army.

13When the Regiment reached the plain outside Nauplia in October it consisted of only 135 men. Gubernatis and the other European officers were half naked and half starved, but somehow by ruthless foraging expeditions they found enough food and plunder in the villages to keep together. The old hands were long since inured to Greek methods but, as always, the newcomers’ philhellenism quickly turned to disgust. Kotsch, a German officer who was present at the last stages of the siege describes how a Greek priest, suspected of corresponding with the Turks had his fingers broken and his nails burned out. Boiling water was then poured over him, he was walled up to his neck and honey smeared on his face to attract the flies. He did not die until the sixth day. A Jew who tried to leave the town was stripped naked, and had his genitals cut off, after which he was driven round the town and hanged. At last, on 12 December, the Turks sent heralds to ask for a capitulation.

14The Regiment, amazingly, still enjoyed the vestiges of the prestige with which European military methods had been regarded in Greece since the outbreak of the Revolution. It was decided that the Regiment should be given the task of taking over the fortress. All enthusiasm for the Greek cause had long since gone. Some of the European officers had recently died of disease or starvation, others were near death. But the Greeks, still afraid themselves to approach the walls, promised that if the Regiment would take the lead in entering the fortress that they would share in the booty.

15Gubernatis therefore led 105 men of the Regiment up the rocks to the walls of the highest part of the fortress, retracing the steps which he himself had taken just a year earlier during Dania’s unsuccessful attempt to seize Nauplia by storm. They went at night and were admitted over the wall by the starving Turks.

16But as everyone half expected, the result was the same as at Monemvasia, Navarino, the Acrocorinth, and Athens. Once the Greeks were admitted to the fortress the killing began, and a pyramid of heads was erected. As it happened, however, there were few Turks remaining in the upper fortress. The majority were packed in the lower part of the fortress whose defences were still intact. Fortunately for them a British frigate, H.M.S. Cambrian arrived in time to supervise its surrender. The captain threatened to bombard the town if the Greeks approached the gates of the lower fortress and he landed troops to escort the prisoners out. Five hundred diseased and starving Turks of all ages – men, women, and children – were crammed on board the ship and although sixty-seven died on the voyage and typhus broke out even among the crew, the rest were landed alive at Smyrna. The captain of the Cambrian also ensured that several hundred others were embarked on neutral vessels before the Greeks could get at them.

17As on all the earlier occasions the plunder of the fortress of Nauplia fell entirely to the hands of armed Greeks. The European officers of the Regiment were given two or three Turkish girls each as their share of the booty. They took them to Athens where the consuls were authorized to buy them and send them to Asia Minor along with the survivors of the massacres at Athens.

18Shortly afterwards the Regiment was disbanded. Its first two commanders, Baleste and Tarella, had both been killed. Gubernatis, the third and last commander, had been with it almost from the beginning. He had seen his men abandoned on the battlefield by the Greeks at Nauplia in 1821, and at Peta in 1822. He had seen the massacres at the Acrocorinth and at Nauplia and innumerable atrocities elsewhere. He himself had been wounded at Nauplia in 1821 and only escaped at Peta by hiding for two days in a thorn bush. He had been sent to Chios before the massacre to help to put the defences in order but his offer had been turned down by the Sciotes. Gubernatis was only technically a Philhellene. He was more a professional soldier of fortune. He had fought for Ali Pasha, he knew the Greeks, Turks, and the Albanians, and the manners and languages of the empire. He had a professional’s instinct for survival. Italy and much of the rest of Europe were closed to him. As with so many of his countrymen, soldiering was his only means of livelihood. He took passage to Egypt, was given a commission by Mehemet Ali, and devoted himself to training Moslem troops who were preparing to reconquer Greece for the Sultan.

19Meanwhile, on the other side of Greece, the first siege of Missolonghi by the Turks was about to reach its climax. When in the winter of 1822-3 the Turks were at last ready to make their attack on the hastily constructed ditches, they found the constant rain a severe impediment. They still had hopes of making some arrangement with the inhabitants as they had with the captains, and interminable confused negotiations were carried on, with a good deal of bluff by the leaders on both sides of the walls.

20The Turks were particularly concerned, after their experience at Peta, to discover how many Europeans there were in Missolonghi. Marco Botsaris, the Suliote leader, in one of the negotiating sessions tried to persuade the Turks that there were eight hundred Franks and twenty-four pieces of artillery in the town. The Turks, offering to set Botsaris up as a local commander under Turkish suzerainty, proposed to pay every Frank 15,000 piastres and to provide vessels to take them back to Europe. There were in fact only about six Philhellenes left, but Mavrocordato tried to give the impression that he still had a sizeable regular force. In the magazines there were found the boxes of bayonets that he had brought with him on his first arrival in Greece in 1821. All the other arms had long since gone but the Greeks had seen no use for bayonets. These were polished, fastened to poles, and set at intervals round the walls to give the impression that regular soldiers were on guard. False artillery bastions were built and two old drums were constantly beaten to give the impression that troops were exercising.

21The Turks tried several assaults on Missolonghi during the winter but they were repulsed with little difficulty. Through mismanagement an army of over 10,000 men, after winning a decisive battle at Peta in July, proved unable by the next new year to capture a town defended by an earth wall five feet high. Like the other Turkish army at Corinth, once they had been halted, their power vanished. Disease broke out, food became short, and the captains in the area north of Missolonghi who had agreed to rejoin the Turks after Peta started to change sides yet again as the fortunes of the Greeks improved. When the Turks decided to retreat, it was too late. The Greeks made sorties from Missolonghi and came down from the mountains to attack them. They killed numerous stragglers and captured much of the baggage train. As in Eastern Greece, the Turkish fleet, whether through fear of the Greek ships or mismanagement, gave no support to the army.

22One Turkish ship which went aground off Missolonghi was found to contain about a hundred and fifty Albanian soldiers being repatriated to Albania at the end of their service, having amassed a considerable fortune. The Albanians surrendered on the strength of promises by Mavrocordato, but he was unable to prevent one of the Greek captains from killing them all and taking their money.

23When the Turks tried to retreat, they found the river Acheloos too swollen with rain to be forded. They were eventually compelled to attempt a crossing and hundreds of Albanians were swept away, having tied to their backs large metal pots which they had used to carry their plunder from the Greek villages. Hundreds more were killed or drowned when the Greeks attacked, catching them in a classic situation in which their tactics of ambush from defended positions could cause greatest damage. Only a remnant of the Turkish army escaped across the mountains to Epirus. The Turkish commander anticipated by suicide an order from Constantinople for his execution.

24The three great events of the campaign of 1822, the destruction of Chios, the expedition to Epirus, and the Turkish invasion of the Peloponnese, had all occurred largely independently of one another. By an incredible mixture of good luck on the part of the Greeks and incompetence on the part of the Turks, the Revolution had survived the first attempt of the Ottoman Government to reinforce its authority. By the winter of 1822-3 the Peloponnese remained firmly in the hands of the Greeks with the exception of the fortresses of Patras (and its subsidiaries the castles of Roumeli and of the Morea) and of Coron and Modon. In the west, Aetolia was also in the hands of the Greeks, and in the east most of the territory south of Thermopylae. At sea, in the waters near the Greek mainland, the Turkish fleet had proved unable to influence the situation. It was hardly the reestablishment of the Byzantine Empire which some had dreamed of, but nevertheless an astonishing result.

25The captains had made it possible. It was Colocotrones who had destroyed a Turkish army by employing traditional methods of hit and run and ambush. Odysseus had survived as an independent potentate by skilful double-dealing. The captains of the west had destroyed the army attacking Missolonghi. The much vaunted European military methods, which had appeared so much superior had (however unluckily) led only to a disastrous defeat. Now there was not even the cadre of a regular disciplined force.

26An immense booty had been seized from two Turkish armies and from Athens and Nauplia but it had gone entirely to the captains. The Europeanized Greeks of the Government had failed in almost everything they had set out to do. The military reputation of the Franks had been exploded. Colocotrones and Odysseus and innumerable lesser men had established themselves as they had wanted from the beginning: they had expelled the Turks and taken their lands; they were now ready to enjoy their status of rich successful warlords, ruling their regions as they pleased, answerable to no one but themselves. The ideal of establishing a regenerated nation state with a regular army, central administration, uniform laws and taxation, and all the other characteristics of a liberal Western European country seemed to have been destroyed for ever on the hills of Peta.


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