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Friday, 14 September 2012

PARADISE LOST: SMYRNA 1922

By Giles Milton


 

Paradise Lost tells the forgotten story of the sack of Smyrna, once the most opulent and cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire.
In September, 1922, the Turkish cavalry swept into Smyrna - the crowning triumph to their three year war with Greece. 
The city’s Christian inhabitants feared that the newly-victorious Turkish army would now unleash a terrible fury. 
Yet most were confident that the 21 Allied ships in the bay - British, American and French - would protect them.
Within ten days of the Turkish army’s arrival, Smyrna had ceased to exist. ‘Smyrna Wiped Out’ was the headline in the New York Times. It was not hyperbole: it was a bold statement of fact.
Paradise Lost is a tale of greed, brutality and cynical realpolitik. It is also a story of extraordinary heroism. 
One man - an American named Asa Jennings - was to save the lives of 250,000 desperate refugees. 
It was the greatest humanitarian rescue mission of the early 20th century.



   
George Ward Price, Daily Mail journalist, on the fire of Smyrna.
'What I see is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flame are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues to a height of a hundred feet...
‘The refugees are huddled on the narrow quay, between the advancing fiery death behind and the deep water in front, and there comes continuously such frantic screaming of sheer terror as can be heard miles away . . .'
          

The Opening Page

THE TURKISH cavalry presented a magnificent spectacle as it cantered along the waterfront. The horsemen sat high in their saddles, their scimitars unsheathed and glinting in the sun. On their heads they wore black Circassian fezzes adorned with the crescent and star. As they rode, they cried out, 'Korkma! Korkma! ‘Fear not! Fear not!’
Their entry into the city of Smyrna on 9 September 1922 was watched by thousands of anxious inhabitants. On the terrace of the famous Sporting Club, a group of British businessmen rose to their feet in order to catch a better view of the historic scene. From the nearby Greek warehouses, the packers and stevedores spilled out onto the quayside. 'Long Live Kemal,' they cried nervously, praising the man who would soon acquire the sobriquet Ataturk.
News of the troops' arrival quickly spread to the American colony of Paradise, where Dr Alexander MacLachlan, director of the American International College, was keeping a watchful eye for signs of trouble. He ran up the Stars and Stripes over the college building as a precaution and jotted down some contingency plans. Yet he remained sanguine in the face of the day's events. When the British consul, Sir Harry Lamb, had offered to help with the evacuation of American citizens, MacLachlan politely declined. 'I felt we were not taking any risk by remaining at our post,’ he later wrote. (Refugees attempt to escape, above) 

How I Researched the Book.
 
The sack of Smyrna is a controversial subject. Greeks, Turks, Armenians - all have conflicting ideas as to who was to blame for the conflagration that destroyed the city.
The official Turkish viewpoint is that the Greeks torched the city in revenge for their catastrophic military defeat. The Greeks and Armenians have long blamed the Turks.
How does one such tell a controversial story with impartiality?
I decided to focus on the Levantine community - the fantastically wealthy British and French dynasties who’d lived in Smyrna for two centuries. They didn’t care who ruled Smyrna, just as long as they could continued amass vast fortunes.
They were huge families. The formidable Magdalen Whittall, had 91 grand-children and 256 great grandchildren. 
I quickly hit a brick wall: there is no archive of Levantine records. I realised I’d have to track down descendents of these once-great families in order to see if they had any surviving letters and diaries.
(Pictured, above, the outbreak of fire, 1922. Pictured, left, the Greek army land in 1919) 
It took two years but my Levantine archive slowly grew. One door unlocked another. Before long, I had contacted many of the great Smyrna families - in Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia and even in Turkey itself. And sure enough, almost everyone had family records of the dark days of 1922.
My greatest discovery was the manuscript diary of Hortense Woods, a formidable spinster who lived in the leafy outskirts of Smyrna. Hortense remained in her mansion when everyone else had fled. She described the arrival of the Turkish army and the sacking of the Levantine palaces.
   And then - halfway through her diary - I stumbled on gold-dust. Mustafa Kemal - Ataturk - had commandeered Hortense’s house as his military headquarters. In her diary, she described every detail of those extraordinary days. As Kemal played chess with her nephew, he told Hortense of his plans to build a new, modern Turkish state.
The diary was truly a remarkable find - and there were more archives to follow. Slowly, painstakingly, I was able to piece together the terrible story of what happened inside Smyrna in September, 1922.

(A wonderful photograph, left, of amateur theatricals in the Levantine suburb of Bournabat, near Smyrna.)

 Your Response
Letter One: The Victim
Paradise Lost produced the most moving letter I’ve ever received from a reader. It came from an English man whose grandfather had been one of the victims of the violence in 1922.
‘I have just read your book Paradise Lost’, he wrote. ‘One might say that it is the book I have been waiting for all my life.’
It transpired that he had always been desperate to know about the strange and terrible circumstances that surrounded his grandfather’s death. ‘When I was a child,’ he informed me, ‘the grown-ups spoke Greek when they were discussing something not suitable for young ears.’
The adults wanted the youngsters to spared the grim stories from the sack of Smyrna.
All my correspondent knew was that his grandfather - after whom he was named - had been shot by a Turkish soldier.
The truth was far more painful: Dr Murphy and his family suffered terrible abuse at the hands of Turkish irregulars: the incident is recounted in full on pp272-3.
My correspondent was able to fill in much missing information in the months that followed the 1922 catastrophe. The surviving members of the family - deeply traumatised by what had happened - fled Smyrna, never to return. They settled first in Malta and then in Nice. Friends gave them £150 to help them rebuild their shattered lives. But as with so many of the Smyrna refugees, life would never be the same again.
Letter Two: The Bishop and the Butler
Another fascinating letter came from the Bishop of Gibraltar who had first visited Smyrna in the early 1960s, when a handful of old Levantine spinsters still clung to a glittering lifestyle that had all but disappeared in 1922. (Pictured, right, the Smyrna quayside)
‘There was still a good deal of politesse,’ he writes, ‘and I remember being taken to the Charnaud house for drinks. [There were] sharp comments about the Charnauds’ butler who either had or had not worn gloves when serving dinner.’
The bishop had also met a very elderly lady who remembered her father being appalled by the behaviour of the Greek troops when they landed in 1919. He had been particularly disgusted by the behaviour of the Greeks towards the Turkish women. “Have you come here to insult women?” he’d shout at them. “This is disgraceful.” It was a feeling shared by so many of the   Levantines, who did not welcome the arrival of the Greek army. Sadly, their warnings of impending disaster went unheeded by the peacemakers in Paris.
Letter Three: The Dynasty that Survived 
A member of the Giraud dynasty contacted me soon after the book was published. The Girauds were one of the few families who escaped almost unscathed from the events of 1922. ‘It was Paradise Regained for the Girauds’, wrote J. P. Giraud in his letter. They bought the dilapidated Big House from the Whittall family and set about restoring it. ‘It was completely renovated and I spent my entire early childhood in it.’
The house was not destined to remain in Giraud hands for long: it was expropriated in the mid-1950s and made over to Ege University: it remains a part of the university to this day.
The expropiation angered the family: ‘my father was very dissatisfied with the price set by the Turkish authorities, so he went to court,’ wrote Mr Giraud. ‘Surprisingly, he won the case and obtained additional compensation.’
One branch of the Giraud family still live in modern Izmir, one of the few old Levantine families to have thrived under the modern Turkish republic. (Picture, left, the young Mustafa Kemal: Ataturk)
Letter Four: The Vicar
A most intriguing letter was sent to me by a lady whose grandfather was Charles Dobson, the heroic Anglican vicar of Smyrna.
I knew only of Rev. Dobson’s extraordinary attempts to catalogue the atrocities taking place before his eyes in the city. His granddaughter was able to tell me a little more about the man.
Rev. Dobson was very popular in Smyrna, partly because of his constant good humour. ‘A kind man,’ recalled his granddaughter, ‘quick witted and with the ability to make people laugh during his sermons.’
It was this natural chirpiness, perhaps, that enabled him to withstand the enormous strain of witnessing unspeakable atrocities: his account of what took place in September 1922 remains an invaluable record of inhumanity and barbarism.
Rev. Dobson’s life was destined to be short and tragic. Having survived the horrors of both Gallipoli and Smyrna, he died of typhoid fever in Lisbon in 1930.
Just a few weeks after receiving this letter, I was sent a short but moving account written by the Reverend Dobson's daughter, Rosemary, now in her late eighties. 
'I was only three months old when we left on board the Bavarian to sail to Malta as refugees, so my memory of what happened is, so to speak second hand. Nevertheless. I do know that to say it was ghastly is an understatement and no words, except yours, could adequately describe it.' 
She continues: 'To me, my father [Rev Dobson] was a hero and you have confirmed this: also my mother, who suffered so much for his safety.' 
She sent me the inscription on his tomb which reads as follows: 'In loving memory of Charles J. H. Dobson . . . he served in Gallipoli, Egypt and the French front, was in 13 battles, 3 times wounded, mentioned in dispatches and received the thanks of King George V for the part he took in rescuing the refugees after the Turkish attack on Smyrna.' 
(Pictured below, right, Greece's prime minister, Venizelos.)
Letter Five: The Man who Stayed Behind
Soon after the book was published I received a letter from a member of the great Charnaud family. The correspondent - one of the few Levantines to return to Bournabat after the events of 1922 - enclosed a letter written by her father, Harold. 
He had chosen to remain in Smyrna as the Turkish army advanced on the city. But he had sent his wife and family to Egypt and he wrote to them on 7 September, as Mustafa Kemal's forces neared Smyrna.
'These few lines to inform you that everything is quiet and going well,' he wrote. 'Crowd after crowd of refugees and thousands of disbanded soldiers are pouring into Smyrna and the villages round about the town, and I anticipate very great hunger and misery in a very short time.' 
Harold spoke of the very real dangers of an epidemic 'which will carry away the majority of these unfortunate creatures . . . who have left their homes to wander into the unknown.'
He said that the Levantine community was remaining level-headed in spite of the dangers that lay ahead. 
'Bournabat people are very much calmer [than the Greeks] though most of them are taking the precaution of sending their womenfolk and children to the sea coast . . . I have put in hand a couple of bags of flour, some rice and I intend buying half a bag of lopia (beans) which will help to keep all at home alive.' 
Harold took the decision to leave the city when the situation took a turn for the worse: he only returned - together with his family - once the ruined city was in Turkish control.
His daughter, now in her eighties, recalls growing up in Bournabat. It was much changed from how it had been before the events of 1922 but still retained some of the old charm. 
'I grew up hearing about many of the incidents you mention,' she writes. 'We had a lovely childhood in that very special polyglot environment where everybody was relate or connected. 
'My mother, who stayed in Bournabat until her death at the age of 100 (1987) was known by all the community as Aunt or Granny Phyllis.'
Other letters: I’ve also received countless letters from descendents of the great families mentioned in my book. Just recently I was received one from a lady who had been born in Grace Williamson’s clinic in 1917. ‘My first memories,’ she wrote, ‘are when, with my mother, brother and sister, we were evacuated on a small ferry boat.’
Others have written with poignant stories that they were told by parents and grandparents who had lost everything in the events of 1922. ‘From all the stories related by my mother,’ writes one man, ‘life in Smyrna was every bit as idyllic as your book describes. Halcyon days indeed!'
(Pictured, left, Smyrna's Greek Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostom)

Reviews

Jeremy Seal’s review in The Daily Telegraph called the book: ‘A compelling story… Milton's considerable achievement is to deliver with characteristic clarity and colour this complex epic narrative, Milton brings a commendable impartiality to his thoroughly researched book.’
William Dalymple, writing in the Sunday Times, said: ‘It is the lives of the [Levantine] dynasties, recorded in their diaries and letters, that form the focus for Giles Milton’s brilliant re-creation of the last days of Smyrna…. Milton has written a grimly memorable book about one of the most important events in this process. It is well paced, even-handed and cleverly focused: through the prism of the Anglo-Levantines, he reconstructs both the pre-war Edwardian glory of Smyrna and its tragic end. He also clears up, once and for all, who burnt Smyrna, producing irrefutable evidence that the Turkish army brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. 
Nicholas Bagnall, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said: ‘The informed and scholarly author spares few details and brings it all alarmingly alive. I warmly recommend this book.’
Alev Adil, writing in the Independent, said of the book: ‘Giles Milton's engrossing account of the events leading up to the destruction of the city in 1922 is based largely on the previously unpublished letters and diaries of these Levantine dynasties. Milton's book celebrates the heroism of individuals who put lives before ideologies.
Writing in the Spectator Philip Mansel called the book ‘an indictment of nationalism … Milton has gone where biographers of Ataturk and historians of Turkey, who often want Turkish official support, have feared to tread. He has reproduced accounts by individual Armenian, Greek and foreign eye-witnesses, as well as British sailors’ and consuls’ accounts. It is a much needed corrective to official history.
Adam Le Bor, writing in the Literary Review, praised the book for its use of original sources. ‘Milton brings the past alive in this vivid, detailed and poignant book by drawing on family letters and archives, and first-hand interviews with those elderly survivors who remember Smyrna’s glory days.’

1 comment:

  1. In December 1919 an international commission chaired by USA Admiral mark Bristol condemned
    Greek attrocities at Smyrna, emphasizing that they Trojan Horsed Protectorate into annexation.
    Greeks went to Smyrna and Alexandria because they fled the bankruptcy of 1893, but they
    went as bad guests, trying to "Hellenize" everything just as they do in America. They should not
    be surprised if they are now expelled from America as well.

    ReplyDelete