Today in European history: the Greco-Turkish War is declared (1897)

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After mainland Greece won its independence from the Ottomans in the 1832 Treaty of Constantinople, attention shifted to the status of the island of Crete. 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 centuries. But once their fellow Greeks on the mainland won independence, the Cretan people 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 mainland Greeks but also caught the attention of the European powers (a group to which, it should be noted, the Ottoman Empire of 1897 no longer belonged).

Map - Balkans 1878-1912

The late 19th century in the eastern Mediterranean

In the agreement that ended the third Cretan revolt, the Ottomans agreed to grant considerable autonomy to Crete 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 (or Christian and Muslim, since the religious distinction was clearer than the ethnic one) inhabitants. When one such outburst, in January 1897, looked like it might snowball into another revolt, Greek Prime Minister Theodoros Deligiannis (under political pressure at home) sent a Greek military force to the island to aid the rebels. They encountered and defeated a small Ottoman army 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, given the expanse of sea around and between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, the conflict didn’t even feature any significant naval engagements. This was good news for the Ottomans, whose naval capabilities had deteriorated quite significantly.

(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. It’s because that’s officially when the war 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 that the story ended with Crete as a 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 have your victory. 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 issue over which the whole war had started, the Ottomans were forced to recognize Crete as an autonomous state under limited Ottoman control. If ever there’d been a case of a state winning a war on the battlefield and losing it at the negotiating table, this was it.

You didn’t have to possess any deep foresight to see that Cretan “autonomy” was just code for transitioning from Ottoman to Greek control. The terms of the Treaty of Constantinople technically held for about 15 years, but Greek authority over the island—which was what most Cretans wanted—increased the entire time. The Cretan Assembly declared union with Greece in 1908, but the Greek government demurred. It took the Ottoman defeat in the First Balkan War, in 1913, to finally give Athens cover to annex the island. Oddly enough the Great Powers didn’t step in to prevent it.