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The Battle of Athens, Dec. 1916

Updated on January 21, 2017
Greek forces wait for the French.
Greek forces wait for the French.

Was Greece on the Allied or German side during WW1? That was, indeed, the question the Allied powers (America, Britain, France, and Italy) were asking themselves privately. Up to 1916, Greece had been neutral and friendly to both the Allies and Central Powers (Germany, Hungary, Austria, Turkey). Greece, in fact, was playing both sides to their benefit. The Royalists were under King Constantine, who had been clever in this balancing act. The Venizelists was a fast growing opposition party and increasingly disrupted who supported Venizelos, a man whose vision was to expand Greece to former greatness by claiming Turkey was part of Greece.

The Allied forces, themselves, were split in their support. France and America fully supported Venizelos. Britain quietly remained silent but favored him. Italy hated him and fully supported the King and then seized Northern Epirus in October 1916 to maintain control of the Adriatic Sea. Adding to the chaos was that the Allied Macedonian campaign was made much more complicated by Greece's neutrality. Despite the numerous attempts by the French and British to keep the opposing Greek factions from fighting one another with legal agreements, by Nov. 4th, a decision was forced intervene to keep them apart and prevent a civil war. This was forced upon the Allies after the two factions actually did battle one another in a firefight and rioting had occurred in late October.

The Allies had also tried to bribe Greece to side with them with numerous offers of financial aid and loans to the King amounting to millions of dollars. But, the King was a wily man, and never fully committed to all the conditions tied to them. This frustrated France and Britain. It would be safe to say that the King was leaning in Allied direction, but tried to make the Allies pay for them being on their side.

On Nov. 17th, the French ordered Admiral Dartage du Fournet to demand from the King 24 artillery batteries and 140 machine guns needed for the Macedonian front. Also, to expel all enemy (German, Austrian) delegations from Athens. The King responded and by the 19th, the enemy delegations had left. On the 22nd, Greece refused to turn over the military equipment saying it was a ploy to weaken Greek forces. Meanwhile, German U-boats retaliated by sinking two Greek ships full of civilians. To appease the Allies to some degree, Greece declared war on Bulgaria on the 24th.

The opposing Greek factions were close to civil war. Venizelos wanted to overthrow the King and so did thousands of his followers. The French and Greek meetings gave the French the wrong impression that the King was in agreement to a proposed landing of French troops to prevent civil war and that the demand for military equipment would be fulfilled. This proved to be a grave mistake, for on the 30th, 200 French and some British troops landed to reinforce the existing garrison at Zappeion in Athens. These troops ignited a national indignation that galvanized both Greek factions to oppose them. The Allies also occupied Salamis Straits, which further enraged the Greeks.

If there was one impact was that any Greek civil war was postponed now. Greek units from the 1st and 7th Regiments of the 2nd Division quickly deployed on the Hill of Philopappos, Phyx and blocking positions along major roads to Athens. Another 4000 men held a line between Athens and Piraeus. In Athens, another 4000 were waiting. The 13th and 11th Divisions moved from Chalais to positions from Levadra to Thebes.

Of course, the French were not aware of the hornets nest. To support the 200 French soldiers, three naval destroyers waited in the bay. These soldiers were not expecting any battle to be fought and marched in column along the main roads leading to Athens. At 1000, the Greeks fired on them, which totally shocked them. As the battle closed in at the Hill of Philopappos, by 1130, it was a real bloodbath. War. Both sides sustaining many losses and lasted all day. It grew worse at 1600 when Greek heavy artillery joined with devastating impact from the Zappeion area. The French responded at 1645 with five French destroyers bombarded the Greek positions on the hill. The battle continued and was isolated to the hill area and only the units around the hill of both sides were in it. The 8000 Greeks in Athens remained idle.

In the background, the French and British tried to communicate with the King, but all failed. At 1900, the French were getting frustrated and in anger started to bombard the areas close to the King's palace. This last act finally had got the King a message, for on the Dec. 2, the King told his forces to stop and met with the French admiral. The meeting produced an agreement and the King agreed to send the 140 artillery guns requested weeks ago.

The Battle for Athens between allied forces resulted in French losses of 120 men, 200 wounded. British losses were 8 killed and 43 wounded. The Greeks losses came to 50 and 150 wounded.

Greece would be a real ally in 1917 and 1918 but in exchange for their military forces joining, the French and British promised to sponsor and fully support the Greeks invasion of Turkey to reclaim greater Greece in 1919.

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