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After mainland Greece won its independence from the Ottomans in the 1832 Treaty of Constantinople, the status of the island of Crete became a big issue. Crete, as anybody who knows anything about ancient Greece will tell you, historically lies well within the Greek world. But our friends of the Fourth Crusade sold the island–which came into their possession when they took over the Byzantine Empire–to Venice, and so it became a Venetian colony in 1212. Venice held Crete, then known as the Kingdom of Candia, until the Cretan War ended in 1669 with the island under Ottoman control. Autonomous Egypt briefly controlled Crete in the early 19th century before it again reverted to the Ottomans.
So Crete was passed around a few times over the years. But once their fellow Greeks on the mainland won their independence, the Cretans began to agitate for theirs, and between 1841 and 1897 they revolted against Ottoman rule on no fewer than five separate occasions. The third of these, which ran from 1866-1869, only ended after the Ottomans massacred almost 900 Greeks in the Arkadi Monastery on the northwestern part of the island, which not only aroused the mainland Greeks but also caught the attention of the great European powers (a group to which, it should be noted, the Ottoman Empire in 1897 clearly no longer belonged).
The late 19th century in the eastern Mediterranean
The Ottomans signed an agreement to end that third Cretan revolt that stipulated that Crete would be given considerable autonomy moving forward. They never upheld that agreement, and any sign of movement in that direction invariably led to fighting between Crete’s Greek and Turkish (Christian and Muslim, if you prefer) inhabitants. When one such outburst, in January 1897, looked like it might snowball into another revolt, and Greek Prime Minister Theodoros Deligiannis, under political pressure at home, sent a Greek force to the island to aid the rebels. They encountered and defeated a small Ottoman force on the island in early February and that meant war. Although Crete was the strategic focal point, all the major fighting took place on the Greek-Ottoman mainland frontier, starting on March 24 with a small Greek incursion into Ottoman Macedonia. Interestingly, the conflict didn’t even feature any significant naval engagements (this was good news for the Ottomans, whose navy at this point was kind of a mess).
You may be wondering at this point why, if fighting on Crete started in February and fighting on the mainland started in late March, we’re picking April 18 to commemorate the start of the war. Well, officially that’s when the war actually began–April 18 was the day the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, cut diplomatic ties with Greece and declared war. So that’s why.
All told the Greeks had about 55,000 men compared to the Ottomans’ ~125,000, and to make matters more lopsided the Ottomans were packing repeating rifles while the Greeks were still using single-shot firearms. You may be expecting to read some story about the plucky, outnumbered, outgunned Greeks fighting the Ottomans to a standstill and forcing them to hand Crete over. After all, we all know today that Crete is part of Greece. But that’s not what happened. The Greeks opted to try to engage the larger and better armed Ottomans in open field battles, which was basically suicide by army. The fighting was over by mid-May and the Ottomans had won a decisive victory, rolling over and capturing substantial Greek territory.
Unfortunately for the Ottomans, if you weren’t a Great Power then victory on the battlefield was only part of the process of winning a war in late 19th century Europe. You then had to convince the Great Powers to let you win. And once the focus moved to peace talks, and those powers got involved, things took a bit of a turn. The 1897 Treaty of Constantinople had the Great Power Seal of Approval all over it. The Ottomans were given some small border concessions by Greece, but virtually all the Greek territory they’d conquered was returned to Athens. Greece was on the hook for reparations, so I guess that’s something. But on the question of Crete, the Ottomans were forced–after winning the war, mind you–to recognize Crete as an autonomous state under limited Ottoman control.
Cretan autonomy lasted for about 15 years, and Greek control over the island–which was what most Cretans wanted–increased the entire time. The Cretan Assembly declared union with Greece in 1908, but the union wasn’t formally accepted by Greece, and then grudgingly acknowledged by the Ottomans, until the First Balkan War ended with an Ottoman defeat in 1913.